A titillating surprise: new species of titi monkey is discovered in the Amazon

8/11/2010

Washington, DC – A scientific expedition to the Colombian Amazon has revealed a new species of titi monkey (Callicebus caquetensis), Conservation International announced today. However, the exciting news is tinged with concern as researchers from the National University of Colombia who discovered the new primate consider it to be critically endangered due to rapid loss of the forest where it lives and its small population.

The discovery, described in the journal Primate Conservation, was made by the professors Thomas Defler, Marta Bueno and student Javier García, after an expedition to the Department of Caquetá, close to the border with Ecuador and Peru, in 2008 – more than three decades after the renowned animal behavior expert Martin Moynihan visited the area and mentioned his observations of the species.

For many years, it was impossible to travel to Caquetá due to the presence of insurgent groups. When violence subsided about three years ago, García, a native of Caquetá, was able to travel to the upper Caquetá River, and using GPS, searching on foot and listening for calls, he found 13 groups of the new species. Titi monkeys (or zogui zogui as they are called in Spanish) have one of the most complex calls in the animal kingdom and use it every morning to mark their territory.

"This discovery is extremely exciting because we had heard about this animal, but for a long time we could not confirm if it was different from other titis. We now know that this is a unique species, and it shows the rich diversity of life that is still to be discovered in the Amazon," said Dr. Defler.

IN DEPTH: Hear more from Dr. Defler about his experiences in Colombia on our blog.

The Callicebus caquetensis is the size of a cat. It has grayish-brown hair, but does not have a white bar on its forehead as many other species of Callicebus most closely related to it. Its long tail is stippled with grey, and it has a bushy red beard around its cheeks. Unlike most primates, Caquetá titi monkeys (and probably all titi monkeys) are monogamous – they form life-long relationships, and pairs are often seen sitting on a branch with their tails entwined. They usually have one baby per year. As a new baby arrives, the parents force the oldest baby to leave to allow them to focus on the newborn (this is based on information collected from closely related species). The families of this species stick together in groups of about 4 individuals and can be seen in the trees close to some of the main rivers of Caquetá.

But this newly discovered species is struggling to survive. It is estimated that less than 250 Caquetá titi monkeys exist – a healthy population should be in the thousands. The main reason for this small number is the degradation of the forests in the area, which have been felled for agricultural land. It is very dangerous, and sometimes impossible, for these animals to move to other patches of forest as they have to cross grassy savannah or barbed wire fences to reach them.

Both the very small population size and the fragmented habitat should demand a classification of the Callicebus caquetensis as a Critically Endangered (CR) species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) criteria, which means that it faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.

"This discovery is particularly important because it reminds us that we should celebrate the diversity of earth but also we must take action now to preserve it," said José Vicente Rodríguez, head of science at Conservation International in Colombia and president of the Colombia Association of Zoology. "When world leaders meet later this year in Japan for the Convention on Biological Diversity, they must commit to the creation of many more protected areas if we want to ensure the survival of threatened creatures like this in the Amazon and around the world."

The research led by Dr. Defler was funded by Conservation International's Primate Action Fund and the Iniciativa de Especies Amenazadas of Conservation International Colombia established to honor the memory of the well-known Colombian biologist and conservationist Jorge Hernández Camacho and the Fondo para la Acción Ambiental y la Niñez and Fundación Omacha.

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Photos available here: http://bit.ly/9EduLE

Download: Caquetá titi's morning call (MP3 - 434 KB)

Notes to the Editors:

Conservation International (CI)
Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature for the well-being of humanity. With headquarters in Washington, DC, CI works in more than 40 countries on four continents. For more information, visit www.conservation.org

Professors Thomas Defler and Marta Bueno work in the Biology Department at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Javier Garcia is an undergraduate biology student in the same department.