Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he’s been given. But up to now he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wild life’s become extinct, the climate’s ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day.
The muriqui, the largest of all New World primates, has recently been divided into two separate species. Both species are considered at risk of extinction. The northern muriqui (Brachyteles hypoxanthus) is listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered and the southern muriqui (Brachyteles arachnoides) as Endangered.
And, all because the Atlantic forests of Brazil have been, and continue to be, relentlessly and indiscriminately hacked down to make room for crops such as coffee, sugarcane, palm (hearts) and tobacco. Mining for rock, like bauxite and granite for instance, has reeked havoc, too. And, as if that is not enough, vast swathes of land have been cleared and given over to grazing cattle. Needless to say, all the human requirements that go with this rampant destruction have greedily devoured enormous slices of the precious and essential forests as well.
Slash-and-burn agriculture was, in fact, banned in Brazil over forty years ago, but the effects of this horrendous vandalism are still in evidence. Charred plant material is seeping from the soil into the rivers and thus into the ocean, potentially harming marine life.
But loss of habitat, although major, is not the only threat to the muriquis.
There is also the ubiquitous and questionable propensity for hunting. Muriquis have been heavily hunted for food and sport since the 16th century, when the Europeans first settled in São Paulo State. Something which continues to some extent today. The docile muriqui are active during the day and gather in large groups, and they are large of body, making them easy to spot in the trees. Each individual is big enough to provide the average family with more than one good meal. So, you can see their appeal to the less scrupulous. But with their current status, killing even one animal could be devastating to the smaller populations. Where once they were plentiful, there are now less than one thousand left in the wild, and some of those inhabit extremely isolated and fragmented forest areas. Their chances of long-term survival, at best, are not favourable.
Hunting of muriquis, whether for food or sport, is illegal, but still persists. To add to the crisis, many locals have also captured infant muriquis and kept them as pets.
Northern muriquis have long limbs and long, fully prehensile tails. The combination allows for optimum agility when moving through the trees. Males and females are almost identical in appearance with coats of brownish-grey and marked faces. Babies are born with black faces which then become mottled with age, developing typical pink blotches. Males and females are also roughly identical in size. Adult males weigh in at an average twenty-seven pounds and can extend to almost five feet from the head to the end of the tail.
Biologically, the most significant difference between the southern and northern muriqui is the presence of a small opposable thumb in the latter. This thumb is vestigial, possibly due to the development of its prehensile tail which may have gradually rendered the thumb superfluous to requirements.
Both arboreal and diurnal, muriquis live in mixed troops of up to eighty individuals. Unusually for primates, they are not territorial and little aggression is ever displayed between members of the troop. Indeed, they are rather affectionate toward each other. Although they don’t seem to indulge in a lot of social grooming, a great deal of hugging does take place.
The also travel in line, one after the other, when moving through the forest. All very organised and orderly. A bit like following in the footsteps of someone else through a minefield. Those behind will always be in less danger. In this case from falls, the branches have already been tested by those in front, and from predators; alarm calls will soon be raised by those ahead who see them first.
This species is promiscuous, and mating is at a high from September to March, ensuring births occur in May to September during the dry season. Twins are rare, and most mothers give birth to only one infant. The infant will be born altricial and its care will only ever fall to its mother. Fathers do not tend to get involved, possibly due to paternity issues.
Infants will only be weaned between the ages of eighteen and thirty months, and it will be between six and eleven years before they are mature enough to reproduce. Until weaning is complete, mother and child enjoy a close relationship, which then ends abruptly with the mother chasing her offspring away. Again, unusually for primates, it is the males which remain within the natal birth troop, with females leaving to join other troops.
It is not known how long muriquis live in the wild, but this long attachment to the mother, such late maturity and an average inter-birth interval of three years, can surely only hamper any rapid increase in the populations.
To its great credit, the muriqui has become a symbol of the Atlantic Forest and its vastly rich biodiversity. It now appears on postage stamps, t-shirts and posters. Its peaceful and tolerant reputation has also earned it a place on the short list of mascots for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Humid coastal forests.
Brazil’s Atlantic Forest.
What they eat
Young leaves, fruit and flowers. When needs must, they will also eat birds’ eggs and some insects.
Habitat destruction (the species now survives in extremely reduced and isolated populations). Locals hunt the muriqui for food, and they are sometimes hunted for sport. Natural predators include such as raptors and jaguars, but these are not seen as a huge threat as there is little else to attract them to the fragmented forests the muriqui inhabits.
Status: Critically Endangered
The Northern muriqui (Brachyteles hypoxanthus) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered. It is also listed on Appendix I of CITES.
Scientists have applied a species prioritization scheme, the ‘National Action Plan for the conservation of Central Atlantic Forest Mammals’, to include the northern muriqui. Plans include habitat conservation and restoration, and establishment of green corridors. More of this can be found at ICMBio.
The green corridors will be created to link the few remaining fragments of forest. There are thought to be less than one thousand individuals left in these isolated parts. This species has shockingly suffered a decline in numbers of over eighty per cent over the last three generations.
Captive breeding programmes are in place.