Female Capuchin Monkeys Flirt By Throwing Stones At Males

By Josh Lieberman on January 14, 2014 3:54 PM EST

capuchins throw rocks
Female capuchins throw rocks at males as a way of flirtation. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists in Brazil have discovered a strange way that female capuchin monkeys flirt: by throwing stones at potential mates. Along with stone throwing, female capuchins pout, whine and shake tree branches in order to tell males that they're ready to mate. The capuchin behavior was captured on tape in Caatinga, in northeastern Brazil, for the BBC documentary Wild Brazil, and was detailed in a PLoS One study. 

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So why do female capuchins display all this aggressive behavior to get the attention of males? Unlike other monkeys, capuchins don't have physical characteristics to show that they're ready to mate; female bonobos, for instance, display swollen genitals when they're ready to conceive. Lacking such physical characteristics, female capuchins resort to this seemingly aggressive behavior when they're most "proceptive." The culmination of this behavior is the throwing of stones, which female capuchins direct at the one male they fancy most.  

"Similar to the other primates where the male might wait until the swelling has reached its peak in size or redness, capuchin males will wait for the female to display full blown proceptive behavior in order to guarantee copulation at the most fertile stage," said Camila Galheigo Coelho, who studies capuchins' sex lives and worked with the BBC filmmakers.

Coelho told the BBC that the stone throwing is unique to the capuchins of Brazil's Serra da Capivara National Park, where the BBC crew filmed their documentary. While certain behaviors spread from one group of animals to another, Coelho thinks the stone throwing is unlikely to spread from this group of capuchins to others, as females don't travel to other groups. (Of course, it would be possible for capuchin monkeys elsewhere to have developed the stone-throwing method on their own.)

"It would be tricky for this behavior to transfer. In capuchins the females stay with their groups for the rest of their lives - it's the males that migrate to other groups," Coelho said. "Other cultures of using stones or sticks have a better chance of transmitting because males migrate into neighboring groups and end up spreading the behavior."

Capuchin monkeys are highly intelligent and are one of the only non-ape primates to use tools. Captive capuchins will insert sticks into tubes to extract sticky food, and in the wild, capuchins crack open nuts using stones. They're even crafty enough to take nuts and stone hammers to an anvil to smash nuts open.      

The capuchins' stone throwing may seem odd like an odd way of attracting a mate, but it pales in comparison to what male capuchins do. When they're interested in mating, male capuchins rub urine all over their body, like cologne. Interesting animal, the capuchin.

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