Black spider monkey

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Suborder: Haplorrhini
Infraorder: Simiiformes
Family: Atelidae
Subfamily: Atelinae
Genus: Ateles
Species: A. paniscus

Other names: red-faced spider monkey or red-faced black spider monkey; kwatta (Dutch); atèle noir (French); macaco aranha, mono arena, or mono araña negro (Spanish); rödansiktad spindelapa (Swedish).

Including black spider monkeys, there are currently seven species of spider monkeys recognized: A. belzebuth, A. chamek, A. hybridus, A. marginatus, A. fusciceps, and A. geoffroyi (Groves 2001). All are found in Central or South America, and at one time, they were all classified as subspecies of A. paniscus (van Roosmalen & Klein 1988). Some taxonomists recognize only four species of spider monkeys, including A. geoffroyi, A. hybridus, A. belzebuth, and A. paniscus, leaving A. fusciceps as a subspecies of A. geoffroyi and A. marginatus and A. chamek as subspecies of A. belzebuth (Collins & Dubach 2000). Recent genetic studies have distinguished black spider monkeys from the other species of spider monkeys based on the number of chromosomes and reproductive isolation from geographically nearby species (de Boer & de Bruijn 1990; Collins & Dubach 2000; Groves 2001).


Black spider monkeys have long, glossy black hair covering their entire bodies except for their faces. Their long hair immediately distinguishes them from other species of spider monkeys, but there are other defining characteristics (Newland 1994). Adults have red or pink-skinned faces which are bare except for a very few short white hairs on their muzzles (Konstant et al. 1985; Groves 2001). Infants do not have pinkish faces like adults but rather dark skin on their faces which lightens as they age (Rowe 1996). Spider monkeys are among the largest of the New World monkeys and are long-limbed and somewhat gangly in their appearance especially in contrast to their characteristic pot bellies; the spidery appearance of their long arms, legs, and tails is indicated by the common name (Groves 1989; Sussman 2000).

Black spider monkey
A. paniscus (Photo: Luiz Claudio Marigo)

Of all the species of spider monkeys, black spider monkeys are the largest (van Roosmalen & Klein 1988). In general, spider monkeys are not characterized by a high degree of sexual dimorphism; the average weight for wild black spider monkey males is 10.8 kg (23.8 lb) while females weigh 9.66 kg (21.3 lb) on average (Youlatos 1994; Di Fiore & Campbell 2007). The height of male spider monkey averages 557 mm (1.83 ft) while females average 552 mm (1.81 ft) (Youlatos 1994).

The body structure and several other morphological characteristics of black spider monkeys are adaptations to their completely arboreal lifestyle. First, their elongated arms allow them to move in a specialized manner through the trees using a hand-over-hand motion. This type of locomotion, called brachiation, is also seen in the lesser apes (Schmitt et al. 2005). In addition to their elongated arms, black spider monkeys have especially hook-like hands with elongated fingers which allow them to swing over branches with ease. Unlike most other primates, spider monkeys lack an external thumb, but this is not because they are less evolved than other primates (Erikson 1963; Fleagle 1988). The abbreviated thumb is really a specialized adaptation; their ancestor had an opposable thumb, but over time, it has shrunk in size relative to other bones of the hand due to lack of use in their arboreal environment (Groves 1989; Tague 1997). Another morphological adaptation seen in black spider monkeys is the presence of a long, specialized tail. An adaptive trait seen only in some New World monkeys is the presence of a prehensile tail, which allows arboreal animals to move through the canopy with additional ease, security, and efficiency. Black spider monkeys have a ‘third hand’ to grasp branches while moving through the canopy, preventing side-to-side swinging motion that could lead to inefficiency and increased effort in locomotion (Schmitt et al. 2005). On the underside of the very tip of the tail there is a patch of skin with distinct pattern of lines like a fingerprint. This patch of skin, or friction pad, at the tip is functionally important because it helps the tail grip onto surfaces, much like fingers on a hand (Groves 1989; Newland 1994; Lemelin 1995). Additionally, the presence of a prehensile tail is important in suspensory feeding: the tail supports the entire weight of the monkey while both hands are free to forage (Mittermeier 1978). The prehensile tail seen in black spider monkeys is relatively longer than the nonprehensile tail of other primates and has more vertebrae which are smaller relative to overall tail length than non-specialized tails seen in other primates. This anatomical feature is significant because the presence of additional, but smaller vertebrae allows for increased flexibility and extension in the prehensile tail compared to nonprehensile tails (Schmitt et al. 2005). In addition to brachiation, black spider monkeys move through the environment through quadrupedal walking and running and through clambering movement which utilizes numerous supports in no particular order or pattern (Mittermeier 1978; Youlatos 2002).

The maximum recorded longevity for black spider monkeys is 33 years, but without long-term field research, it is difficult to draw conclusions from one measurement (Ross 1991).


Black spider monkeys are found in eastern South America in Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana, Surinam, and possibly in Venezuela (Konstant et al. 1985; Rylands et al. 1995). In Brazil, they are isolated to Para State, in the northeastern part of the country, north of the Amazon River and east of the Rio Branco. Their range extends north into French Guiana, Surinam, and eastern Guyana but they are restricted to the forests east of the Guianan Highlands in these countries (Collins & Dubach 2000; Groves 2001). If they are present in Venezuela, it is at the very eastern tip of the country. While their presence has not been confirmed, it is possible because there are neither habitat nor geographic barriers precluding black spider monkeys from living in forests on the Venezuelan-Guyanan border (Konstant et al. 1985).

One of the first long-term field studies of black spider monkeys was conducted by Marc van Roosmalen at Raleighvallen-Voltzberg Nature Reserve in central Surinam, and research has continued in the reserve since this pioneering study. Wild black spider monkeys have been studied in French Guiana by Dionisios Youlatos and in Guyana by Shawn Lehman. Most of the ecological and social data in published literature comes from studies conducted in Surinam black spider monkeys.


Black spider monkeys are found in moist tropical evergreen forests and prefer undisturbed primary rainforests (Kinzey 1997). Throughout their range, black spider monkeys are found in high densities in high rainforest- areas which are not affected by seasonal flooding of rivers- and in high mountain savanna forest, as well as occasionally in swamp or marsh forests along creeks, and occasionally in high mountain savanna forest (van Roosmalen & Klein 1988; Kinzey & Norconk 1990; Trolle 2003). These high mountain savanna forests are found on the interior of Surinam and are present because of large, granite rock formations which limit the growth of emergent rainforest trees but which allow for smaller, savanna-like species to grow (Mittermeier & van Roosmalen 1981).

In Guyana, the tropical climate translates into high average daily temperatures, large amounts of annual rainfall, and distinct wet and dry seasons. The average daily temperature is 25.7°C (78.3°F), but the warmest months of the year are September and October while the coldest months are December and January (Lehman 2000). The mean annual rainfall is between 2000 and 3400 mm (6.56 and 11.2 ft) and is distributed across two wet seasons. The summer rainy season lasts from May to August and another wet season spans November to January. There are two dry seasons as well, the longer lasting from mid-August to November or December and the shorter lasting from February to April (Lehman 2000). Black spider monkeys in Guyana are found primarily in lowland evergreen rainforests in the interior forest region of the country and are not found in swamp forests or woodlands (Lehman 2004a; 2004b). In neighboring Surinam, black spider monkeys are almost entirely restricted to the interior forests of the country, which begin about 60 miles from the coast. The climate of Surinam’s tropical forests is comparable to those of Guyana. The mean annual temperature is 26.1°C (78.9°F) and the monthly average temperature only varies by about two degrees during the year. The warmest months are September and October while the coolest months are January and February (van Roosmalen 1985). The annual rainfall in Surinam is between 2000 and 2400 mm (6.569 and 7.87 ft) and is concentrated during certain times of the year. The long rainy season lasts from mid-April to mid-July, with peak rainfall occurring in May and is followed by a long dry season lasting from August until mid-November. From December to April, the rainfall varies greatly, but there is usually a short rainy season followed by a short dry season within this time period (van Roosmalen 1985).

Where black spider monkeys occur in French Guiana, the average annual temperature is 26.1°C (78.9°F) and annual rainfall varies from 3000 to 3250 mm (9.84 to 10.7 ft) (Youlatos 2002). Similar to other range countries, French Guiana experiences seasonal variation in rainfall with the dry season lasting from mid-August to mid-November and a long rainy season for the rest of the year. The rainy season is punctuated by a short dry season lasting briefly during February and March (Zhang 1995).

In one field study conducted north of Manaus, Brazil, black spider monkeys were found in terra firma rainforests with seasonal precipitation. In the Adolfo Ducke Forest Reserve, annual precipitation ranges between 2170 and 2900 mm (7.11 and 9.51 ft). Rainfall is concentrated during the wet season which lasts from December to May and which is followed by a dry season lasting from June to October or November (Rylands & Keuroghlian 1988).


Black spider monkey
A. paniscus (Photo: Sean Flannery)

Black spider monkeys are habitat specialists and are almost always seen in undisturbed, primary rainforest and do not utilize edge habitats (Mittermeier & van Roosmalen 1981; Lehman 2004b). Like other species of spider monkeys, black spider monkeys occupy the upper layers of the rainforest and forage in the high canopy (from 25 to 30 m [82.0 to 98.4 ft]) consuming primarily fruits, but also occasionally consuming leaves, flowers, and insects (van Roosmalen & Klein 1988; Russo et al. 2005). As large-bodied frugivores, black spider monkeys are important seed dispersers within the rainforest ecosystem and play a crucial role in regenerating tropical forests (van Roosmalen 1985; Russo et al. 2005). Compared to other sympatric species of primates, black spider monkeys exhibit low diet diversity because of their high levels of fruit consumption (Guillotin et al. 1994). Despite their dependence on fruit as the mainstay of their diet, black spider monkeys supplement their fruit consumption during periods of scarcity with other food items including flowers, leaves, roots, bulbs, bark and decaying wood, and honey (van Roosmalen 1985). The amount of fruit and supplemental foods such as flowers and leaves vary seasonally, as fruit production is linked to rainfall. During the long dry season, for example, fewer fruits are available, therefore fewer fruits are consumed and black spider monkeys rely more heavily on other food sources (Mittermeier & van Roosmalen 1981; van Roosmalen 1985). Fruit supply is lowest from the end of the rainy season to the beginning of the dry season, from approximately June through September, and black spider monkeys exploit all available food resources, but still consume mainly fruit during this time (Guillotin et al. 1994; Simmen & Sabatier 1996). In contrast, during the months of February through June, ripe fruit is plentiful and black spider monkeys rely on this preferred resource over other food items, with more than 85% of their diet made up of ripe fruits (van Roosmalen 1985; Guillotin et al. 1994; Simmen & Sabatier 1996).

Because of their large body size, which has high caloric needs, and dependence on fruit, a geographically scattered resource found in small, widely dispersed patches, black spider monkeys require large home range sizes as well as long daily travel lengths (Collins & Dubach 2000). One study in Surinam estimated the home range size of one group to be 2.55 km² (.985 mi²), but this area was restricted by geographical boundaries that black spider monkeys are not likely to cross into such as granite formations and lowland forests (van Roosmalen 1985). Home range sizes in habitats where there are fewer restrictions might be larger. From the same study, the day range length was widely estimated between .5 and 5 km (.311 and 3.11 mi), depending on a number of factors such as season, weather, and group composition (van Roosmalen 1985). In French Guiana, home range size varies between 1.50 and 4.00 km² (.579 and 1.54 mi²) and daily distance traveled is between .5 and 5 km (.311 and 3.11 mi) (Simmen & Sabatier 1996). Their specialized prehensile tails may contribute to increased efficiency in travel, allowing them to cover larger distances using less energy. It also contributes to increased feeding efficiency after they have found a patch of fruit and are foraging (Youlatos 2002). The most common methods of locomotion seen in black spider monkeys are quadrupedal walking or running and suspensory locomotion, including brachiation (Mittermeier 1978). When they are feeding, black spider monkeys employ suspensory behavior using their specialized prehensile tails to access as much fruit as possible from one location. Black spider monkeys spend most of their time feeding in either a seated or hanging position, taking advantage of their tails to free both hands for collecting fruit and to help them reach fruit that is available both at the same vertical strata and on branches below them (Mittermeier 1978; Youlatos 2002).

The population density estimate for black spider monkeys in Suriname is 7.1 individuals per square kilometer (4.41 individuals per mi²); this is compared to a density of 8.57 individuals per square kilometer (5.33 individuals per mi²) in another study site in French Guiana (van Roosmalen 1985; Kessler 1998). Groups of spider monkeys protect a territory or core area, but in other species of spider monkeys, there is some amount of range overlap between groups (van Roosmalen & Klein 1988).

Compared to other New World primates, spider monkeys are large-bodied and are less susceptible to predation, but there are a number of potential predators within their range (Di Fiore 2002). Some potential predators include multiple species of raptors, felids such as jaguars and pumas, as well as large snakes (Di Fiore 2002). Generally speaking, the observation of predation events is rare and most evidence of predation is circumstantial. In one instance, though, a crested eagle (Morphnus guianensis) was seen capturing and killing a juvenile black spider monkey in French Guiana (Julliot 1994). While these events are unlikely to be witnessed, the presence of large predators combined with observational evidence leads to the conclusion that predators can threaten black spider monkeys (Di Fiore 2002).


The social organization of black spider monkeys is closely related to their ecological niche as large-bodied frugivores. In addition to ranging over large areas to find the amount of fruit necessary to meet their feeding requirements, black spider monkeys exhibit another behavior that helps them cope with seasonally restricted fruit. Like chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), spider monkeys exhibit a fission-fusion social system; there is a large community of individuals that regularly associate with one another but individuals within the larger community spend much of their time traveling in smaller, temporary sub-groups led by dominant adult females (Mittermeier & van Roosmalen 1981; van Roosmalen 1985). Spider monkeys break up into small foraging groups that travel together and feed throughout the day within a core area of the larger group’s home range (Simmen & Sabatier 1996). The subgroups or parties that are formed by individuals within the troop are temporary and can change in composition frequently throughout the day, but average three individuals, most commonly an adult male, and adult female, and her dependent offspring (van Roosmalen 1985; Norconk & Kinzey 1994). The composition of the subgroup can remain stable for up to a few weeks and then changes as group members shift to other subgroups or out of the larger social group (van Roosmalen 1985). The larger social group is usually between 15 and 20 animals and is defined as a group of animals that interact peacefully or amicably (van Roosmalen 1985). When two different troops of spider monkeys come together, the males in each troop display agonistic and territorial behavior such as calling and barking. These interactions happen with much distance between the two groups and do not involve physical contact, indicating that groups respect distinct territory boundaries (van Roosmalen 1985). Members of a community might not ever be observed together at the same place, but their mutual tolerance of each other when they come into contact indicates they are part of the larger troop (van Roosmalen 1985).

Black spider monkey
A. paniscus (Photo: Richard Day)

One of the reasons this fission-fusion social system evolved could be as a coping mechanism for seasonal shortages in fruit availability and as a response to competition between group members (Norconk & Kinzey 1994). When a large group feeds in a fruit tree, there is likely to be less food per group member than if a small group feeds in a tree. During the months when food scarcity is at its peak, average subgroup size is the smallest and during months of highest fruit availability, subgroup size is the largest, indicating that competition for scarce resources necessitates breaking into smaller feeding groups (van Roosmalen 1985; van Roosmalen & Klein 1988). One reason spider monkeys break into smaller feeding groups but still remain part of a larger social unit is the advantage to individual group members in terms of increased mating opportunities and protection from predators.

Dominance relationships between black spider monkeys have not been intensely studied and there are few published reports of these interactions. In one study, males and females have separate linear dominance hierarchies, but some females are dominant and act as leaders within their subgroups. These dominant females are followed by members of their foraging party throughout the day and can displace other spider monkeys, both male and female, from feeding sites (van Roosmalen 1985). Relationships between adult black spider monkeys are friendly, with few instances of aggression. Most aggressive interactions revolve around access to limited resources and are brief, not resulting in serious injury (van Roosmalen & Klein 1988).

While little data are available on dispersal patterns of young black spider monkeys, research on other members of the genus Ateles reveals that males remain in their natal groups while females transfer between groups in search of mating opportunities (A. chamek: McFarland Symington 1987; 1988; A. belzebuth: Nunes & Chapman 1997). In Suriname, van Roosmalen (1985) observed A. paniscus females breaking away from their subgroups and joining neighboring troops for time periods ranging from several hours to overnight, but did not conclude if these ventures led to female transfer.


The ovarian cycle in wild black spider monkeys lasts between 26 and 27 days, with the period of sexual receptivity lasting for eight to 10 days and the period between peaks of sexual receptivity lasting 15 to 17 days (van Roosmalen 1985). There is a peak period of births during the short wet season, from November to February, indicating that the estrus cycles of females within a group occur at the same time (van Roosmalen 1985). This pattern is also seen among captive A. geoffroyi (Hernández-López et al. 1998). Copulatory behavior among black spider monkeys first involves the female approaching a potential male and presenting her genitals. If he shows interest, the mating pair separate themselves from the group either briefly or up to several days (van Roosmalen 1985). If a female is ranging in a subgroup without males, she will react to the calls of males from neighboring groups by leading her group in the direction of the calls and will either choose to mate with one of the males of this new subgroup or will continue on, looking for other potential mates (van Roosmalen 1985).

Black spider monkey
A. paniscus (Photo: Irwin S. Bernstein)

Gestation lasts approximately 226 to 232 days (7.5 months) in captive black spider monkeys. After giving birth, female black spider monkeys experience lactational amenorrhea for about three years. They will begin to cycle again after the infant is weaned (van Roosmalen 1985). If a female successfully raises and weans an infant, there will be a four year gap between births. This interbirth interval is dependant on the infant’s survival; if a female loses an infant, she resumes cycling and will reproduce sooner than if she successfully raised the infant (van Roosmalen 1985). Among other species of spider monkeys (A. chamek), there is evidence that maternal rank affects the length of interbirth interval, with low-ranking females experiencing longer gaps between infants compared to high-ranking females. This pattern has not been reported in black spider monkeys (McFarland Symington 1987).


Spider monkey mothers are the primary caregivers for infants and in the wild, a young spider monkey will remain close to its mother until about four years of age (van Roosmalen & Klein 1988). For the first six months, an infant will cling to the ventrum of the mother, nursing frequently and depending on her entirely for nourishment. The infant will begin to ride dorsally at about six months of age and will continue to do so until it reaches one year, or longer (van Roosmalen & Klein 1988). During this time, the infant gradually becomes more independent, taking short jaunts away from its mother to locomote or play with other young spider monkeys in the group. It is during this time that an infant will also start eating solid foods, but still relies heavily on nursing (van Roosmalen & Klein 1988). As they continue to grow, the independence in travel increases and juvenile spider monkeys, those older than 15 months, will depend on their mothers for transport only when fatigued or when crossing large gaps between trees. Spider monkey mothers exhibit a behavior called ‘bridge-gapping’ in which they form a bridge with their bodies between two trees and allow their juvenile offspring to climb across them between trees. The females use their prehensile tails, adept grasping feet, and hands to form a stable bridge for the young spider monkeys to cross and aid them in crossing distances that are too large for the young animals to navigate on their own (van Roosmalen 1985). As they grow, juvenile spider monkeys depend less on their mothers for food and are weaned around three years. The young animals will remain with their mothers until they are between four and five years old, even if their mother has given birth to a new infant (van Roosmalen & Klein 1988; Milton 1993).


The majority of published information about spider monkey communication is based on captive research on A. fusciceps while wild studies have focused on the communication of A. geoffroyi. Most of the research on A. paniscus communication comes from van Roosmalen’s (1985) work in Surinam. One of the most common black spider monkey calls is given by adult males and serves as the main communication between neighboring subgroups and larger social groups. These long-calls or ‘whoops’ can be heard at distances of 800 to 1000 m (.497 to .621 mi) on the forest floor, but when given above the canopy, the sound can travel distances up to 2000 m (1.24 mi) (van Roosmalen & Klein 1988). Other common vocalizations heard include ‘whinnies,’ ‘sobs,’ and ‘tee-tee’ vocalizations during friendly interactions and while feeding. During times of social discomfort, ‘trills,’ ‘twitters,’ and ‘squeaks’ are heard and escalate into screams as a spider monkey becomes frightened or highly anxious (van Roosmalen & Klein 1988). Another communicative gesture seen in black spider monkeys is a greeting ritual between members of the same social group. After a period of separation in different foraging subgroups, male and female black spider monkeys greet each other. The subordinate animal approaches the dominant monkey and embraces him or her and then they each take turns sniffing the chest and genital areas of the other (van Roosmalen & Klein 1988). During contact with unfamiliar animals or at the boundaries of the territory, males may exhibit agonistic displays that include head shaking, arm and chest scratching, piloerection, and branch shaking, all accompanied by defecation (van Roosmalen 1985).


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Conservation information last updated in 2007 follows, for comparison:

In the wild, black spider monkeys are widespread and abundant and are not currently threatened with extinction. However, despite their apparent abundance in the wild, there are several factors that could result in a negative change in status in the future including habitat destruction, over-hunting, and decreased rate of population growth.


Threat: Human Induced Habitat Loss and Degradation

While they are not currently pressured by habitat loss, black spider monkeys are habitat specialists that require undisturbed, primary forest. They are not successful at living in areas that have been previously logged or disturbed and actively avoid edge habitats (Mittermeier & van Roosmalen 1981). Furthermore, they need large tracts of undisturbed forests because of their large body size and frugivorous diet (Lehman 2004b). It is clear that lack of appropriate habitat can seriously threaten black spider monkeys, and efforts protecting large areas of forest from human disturbance and degradation should continue (Rylands & Keuroghlian 1988).

Threat: Harvesting (hunting/gathering)

Because of their large body size, all species of spider monkeys are prized by hunters (Rylands & Keuroghlian 1988). While the rate of hunting is currently not threatening black spider monkeys in their range, the combination of habitat loss and growing human population seeking bushmeat could create a crisis for black spider monkeys as has been seen among other species such as A. hybridus, A. belzebuth, and A. marginatus ( In areas where hunting occurs, the population density of black spider monkeys is lower compared to areas where hunting does not occur (de Thoisy et al. 2005). There is a direct link between hunting and population decrease in black spider monkeys and because of a number of intrinsic factors, they cannot sustain high levels of hunting (Rylands & Keuroghlian 1988). Full protection under the law is afforded to black spider monkeys in French Guiana and hunting restrictions have prevented population declines (de Thoisy et al. 2005).

Threat: Intrinsic Factors

Several factors contribute to slow reproductive rates and slow population growth of black spider monkeys. Black spider monkeys have long periods of gestation, reach reproductive maturity at an older age, a longer period of infant dependence, and increased interbirth intervals compared to other primates of similar size. This results in a slow intrinsic rate of population growth. While they are currently not threatened, these factors indicate that if a population were to be reduced significantly, it would take a long time for it to recover and the possibility exists that if reduced to small enough numbers, the population could not rebound (McFarland Symington 1988; Rylands & Keuroghlian 1988).


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Youlatos D. 1994. Maitrise de l’espace et acces aux ressources chez le singe hurleur roux (Alouatta seniculus) en Guyane francaise. Etude morpho-fonctionnelle. PhD dissertation, Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France.

Youlatos D. 2002. Positional behavior of black spider monkeys (Ateles paniscus) in French Guiana. Int J Primatol 23(5): 1071-93.

Zhang SY. 1995. Activity and ranging patterns in relation to fruit utilization by brown capuchins (Cebus apella) in French Guiana. Int J Primatol 16(3): 489-507.


Ateles paniscus
Photo: Irwin S. Bernstein
Ateles paniscus
Photo: Luiz Claudio Marigo
Ateles paniscus
Photo: Primates in Art & Illustration Collection
Ateles paniscus
Photo: R. Day
Ateles paniscus
Photo: Sean Flannery

Cite this page as: Cawthon Lang, K. (2007). Primate Factsheet: Black spider monkey (Ateles paniscus). In: Primate Info Net, Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, University of Wisconsin – Madison. Available from: <>. Reviewed by Dionisios Youlatos. Last modified 26 June 2009.

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