Animal Cognition

, Volume 10, Issue 3, pp 317–329 | Cite as

Route-based travel and shared routes in sympatric spider and woolly monkeys: cognitive and evolutionary implications

Original Paper


Many wild primates occupy large home ranges and travel long distances each day. Navigating these ranges to find sufficient food presents a substantial cognitive challenge, but we are still far from understanding either how primates represent spatial information mentally or how they use this information to navigate under natural conditions. In the course of a long-term socioecological study, we investigated and compared the travel paths of sympatric spider monkeys (Ateles belzebuth) and woolly monkeys (Lagothrix poeppigii) in Amazonian Ecuador. During several field seasons spanning an 8-year period, we followed focal individuals or groups of both species continuously for periods of multiple days and mapped their travel paths in detail. We found that both primates typically traveled through their home ranges following repeatedly used paths, or “routes”. Many of these routes were common to both species and were stable across study years. Several important routes appeared to be associated with distinct topographic features (e.g., ridgetops), which may constitute easily recognized landmarks useful for spatial navigation. The majority of all location records for both species fell along or near identified routes, as did most of the trees used for fruit feeding. Our results provide strong support for the idea that both woolly and spider monkey use route-based mental maps similar to those proposed by Poucet (Psychol Rev 100:163–182, 1993). We suggest that rather than remembering the specific locations of thousands of individual feeding trees and their phenological schedules, spider and woolly monkeys could nonetheless forage efficiently by committing to memory a series of route segments that, when followed, bring them into contact with many potential feeding sources for monitoring or visitation. Furthermore, because swallowed and defecated seeds are deposited in greater frequency along routes, the repeated use of particular travel paths over generations could profoundly influence the structure and composition of tropical forests, raising the intriguing possibility that these and other primate frugivores are active participants in constructing their own ecological niches. Building upon the insights of Byrne (Q J Exp Psychol 31:147–154, 1979, Normality and pathology in cognitive functions. Academic, London, pp 239–264, 1982) and Milton (The foraging strategy of howler monkeys: a study in primate economics. Columbia University Press, New York, 1980, On the move: how and why animals travel in groups. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 375–417, 2000), our results highlight the likely general importance of route-based travel in the memory and foraging strategies of nonhuman primates.


Route-based travel Cognitive maps Travel networks Landmarks Niche construction Primates 



We are very grateful to the Ministerio del Ambiente of the government of Ecuador for their continued interest in long-term research on the primate community of Yasuní National Park. Logistical support for this study was provided by the Estación Científica Yasuní of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador. We are also grateful to Maxus Ecuador, Inc. and Repsol-YPF for additional assistance. Numerous field assistants and companions helped with the collection of primate ranging data and with trail mapping, including Wampi Ahua, Larry Dew, Nathaniel Gerhardt, Carrie Linder, Christine Lucas, Juan Nenquimo, Boyo Orengo, Kristin Phillips, Wilmer Pozo, Stephanie Spehar, Matt Swarner, Julia Willner, Denis Youlatos, and, especially, Andres Link who collected much of the 2002–2003 data. Financial support was provided by the NSF, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation, Primate Conservation, Inc., the University of California at Davis, New York University, Stony Brook University, and the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology. Finally, we thank Elena Cunningham and Charlie Janson for inviting us to participate in the “Socioecological Cognition” symposium held at the XXth Congress of the International Primatological Society in Torino, Italy, and we are grateful to Sue Boinski and three anonymous reviewers whose comments contributed to the improvement of this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for the Study of Human Origins, Department of AnthropologyNew York UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology (NYCEP)New YorkUSA
  3. 3.Department of AnthropologyMiami University of OhioOxfordUSA

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