Food or threat? Wild capuchin monkeys (Sapajus libidinosus) as both predators and prey of snakes
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Snakes present a hazard to primates, both as active predators and by defensive envenomation. This risk might have been a selective pressure on the evolution of primate visual and cognitive systems, leading to several behavioral traits present in human and non-human primates, such as the ability to quickly learn to fear snakes. Primates seldom prey on snakes, and humans are one of the few primate species that do. We report here another case, the wild capuchin monkey (Sapajus libidinosus), which preys on snakes. We hypothesized that capuchin monkeys, due to their behavioral plasticity, and cognitive and visual skills, would be capable of discriminating dangerous and non-dangerous snakes and behave accordingly. We recorded the behavioral patterns exhibited toward snakes in two populations of S. libidinosus living 320 km apart in Piauí, Brazil. As expected, capuchins have a fear reaction to dangerous snakes (usually venomous or constricting snakes), presenting mobbing behavior toward them. In contrast, they hunt and consume non-dangerous snakes without presenting the fear response. Our findings support the tested hypothesis that S. libidinosus are capable of differentiating snakes by level of danger: on the one hand they protect themselves from dangerous snakes, on the other hand they take opportunities to prey on non-dangerous snakes. Since capuchins and humans are both predators and prey of snakes, further studies of this complex relationship may shed light on the evolution of these traits in the human lineage.
KeywordsPredation Evolution Primates Snake detection Mobbing Tool use
T.F. and E.B.O. thank FUMDHAM and Niede Guidon for their support during the research in SCNP, and the field assistants Francisco “Chico” Reinaldo and George Reinaldo. M.V., N.S., O.M.F., P.I. and E.V. thank the family Gomes de Oliveira for permission to work at FBV, and their field assistants Arisomar, Josemar, Renato, Marcos and Marino Junior. We thank Luciano Candisani for permission to use one picture, and Harry Greene for the assistance with the identification of the snakes. We are grateful to the review feedback by L.A. Isbell and W.C. McGrew, which enriched the manuscript. The following grants supported this study: 2006/07187-5 (T.F.), 2006/07190-6 (E.B.O.), 2006/51578-9 (M. P. V.), 2008/52293-3 (O.M.F.) and 2008/55684-3 (P.I.), São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP); Università La Sapienza di Roma (N.S.); EU FP6 NEST Programme ANALOGY (No. 029088) (N.S.); Istituto di Scienze e Tecnologie della Cognizione del CNR di Roma (N.S.); CNPq (E.B.O.); Capes (E.B.O., M.P.V., O.M.F.). The research was only observational and complied with protocols approved by the Animal Research Ethical Committee of the Institute of Psychology, University of Sao Paulo, and fully adhered to Brazilian law under authorizations IBAMA/ICMBio—037/2007 and 14825-1 (T. F.), 21406 (P.I., O.M.F.), 28689 (P.I., M.P.V., N.S., E.V.).
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