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Capuchins are erotic artists

I had always considered myself free from prejudices. But when I saw a capuchin female courting two males - both rather reluctant - in turn I could not believe my eyes. She filtered, she insisted, and after much frustration, she harassed one and then the other. The amazing variety of facial expressions, vocalizations, and charming gesture that she directed at him had little apparent effect; he just ignored her or turned away”. Elisabetta Visalberghi from “The Complete Capuchin. The Biology of the Genus Cebus” (Cambridge University Press, 2004).


courtship premating

Figure: Courtship behaviour and ventro-ventral mating. Drawings from videos by Andy de Paoli


Even if males are often as enthusiastic as females about mating, the vignette reflects what researchers studying Cebus apella often witnessed: an astonishing richness of sexual behaviour, especially in females. In fact, in tufted capuchin females the ovarian cycle is not signalled by external morphological changes or scent marking behavior. Instead, the females courts the males with an extremely rich repertoire of proceptive behaviours.



Figure: The female (left) and the male (right) are courting each other's by performing eye-brow raising and grin. Drawings from videos by Andy de Paoli


We carried out a parallel study between females' behaviour and their ovarian hormones, discovering that several behaviours had a cyclicity (21.3 days) marking that of urinary progesterone (21.9 days). Moreover, there was a set of behaviours that showed a dramatic increase during the periovulatory phase. These findings demonstrated that female behavior is a good indicator of the periovulatory phase, and that it enhances female attractivity. Each female made a different use of the behavioural repertoire by performing some behaviours significantly more than others. This variability during courtship calls for further research regarding how much do these kind of behaviours affect mating success. Males seemed to be sensitive to the behavioural/hormonal state of the female. Although they mounted females both during the periovulatory and the non-periovulatory phase, there was a significant periovulatory phase effect for mounts not associated with play, and ejaculations always occurred within proceptive periods.

 Video "Wild capuchin monkeys (Sapajus libidinosus) courtship. Female's solicitation"

The video was filmed at Fazenda Boa Vista, in the North-East of Brazil. Piassava, a wild Sapajus libidinosusfemale, shows sexual interest toward Jatobà, the alfa male. The male  but he does not reciprocate behaviorally (see also pictures in the gallery). This phase of courtship is characterized by the female visually monitoring the male, vocalizing, seeking his proximity and displaying persistent eyebrow raising in his direction. Some females  trigger the male's attention by using stones and/or branches. Visalberghi and colleagues studied. Visalberghi and colleagues (2017) investigated how FBV females use objects to solicit males and showed that affiliative behaviors are occur immediately before or after this use the objects. Thus throwing or pounding stones and pushing or dropping branches by females performed in the sexual context have a clear affiliative meaning. It would be important to determine whether the use of objects is present in capuchin populations that do not use tools.

Filmed and edited by Noemi Spagnoletti/Ethocebus project
Fazenda Boa Vista, Piauí, Brazil 2010

Researcher involved

Elisabetta Visalberghi


ico Bullet Scientific publications


Video "Sexual behaviour in the South American primate, Cebus apella"

A cura di Elisabetta Visalberghi & Monica Carosi, Unità di Primatologia Cognitiva, Istituto di Scienze e Tecnologie della Cognizione, CNR, Roma.

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Unit of Cognitive Primatology: all images are copyrighted