Humans converse at around 50 decibels, but the eardrum can rupture at 200. A howler boasts a whopping call of 140 decibels. Compare that to a male African lion at 114 decibels. Howlers’ diet of leaves, seeds and blossoms means a more sedentary existence, a more limited territory than other types of monkeys, and more siestas. A male howler calls to alert the troop to strange noises or predators, turns it up a notch when females are attracted to his call, and yells his loudest when competing with other males for territory or females. The main reason for the howler’s call is believed to be for turf – alerting other monkeys to steer clear of his troop’s eating and sleeping territory.
Females, on the other hand, “howl” to communicate or to sound distress calls. Baby howlers make funny cooing sounds and squeals when playing and exploring. Today I easily recognize the pre-dawn “monkey alarm,” still as strange and exciting as ever, resonating across beaches and through treetops.
It is common to spot “viveros,” or howler monkey nurseries of mothers and small silver-gray babies in a group, moms lazing and children riding their backs or playing in nearby branches. A troop’s territory ranges from 3 to 25 acres. In a healthy habitat, a troop can circle slowly around the “neighborhood” feeding on new leaves, then the same tree’s flowers, and finally its seed pods or fruits after the leaves fall. The deciduous nature of Guanacaste’s dry forest means many trees shed leaves during the driest months to put their energy into flower and fruit production. It’s easy to spot slow-moving howlers as they alternately munch on flowers or mangos, then nap on exposed branches between courses.
When trees are cut down, howlers face threats traveling between disconnected clusters of trees and across roads to reach food. Natural predators, including felines and boa constrictors, and ground-dwelling hazards like dogs and vehicles, become bigger threats when howlers drop to the ground to amble to another tree. On the Pacific Coast, development adds to habitat loss and danger, and howlers often use electrical lines to reach other trees, resulting in electrocution and serious injury or death. Some newer developments use underground infrastructure to eliminate this risk, and the region’s electric provider has a system in place to identify danger spots and to install monkey “bridges” to enable safe passage.
The downsides of captivity
Hormonal teen Freddy the monkey was much less “cute” as a pet than younger playpen-pal Freddy. My aunt had long since dumped her boyfriend and kept the monkey, but Freddy was a frustrated teen, jealous of males in the household like my dad and grandfather. He shrieked and hurled poo at visitors and flung himself onto the heads of men who dared enter the house, violently pulling their hair!
Monkeys becoming aggressive at sexual maturity explains why many are given up or abandoned after a few years in captivity, or are locked in restrictive cages. For male howlers, puberty means moving out of the familial troop at 3 years and starting anew with females who come into reproductive age at 3-1/2. It’s not uncommon to spot solitary males at this age, as they separate from the larger group and its alpha male.