Endangered Mexican howler monkeys are consuming more leaves and less fruit as a result of habitat disturbance by humans, which is forcing them to invest much more time foraging for sustenance and leading to increased 'stress' levels, as detected through hormone analysis.
The research, published today in the International Journal of Primatology, took place in the tropical rainforests of the Mexican state of Veracruz, which are being deforested and fragmented by human activity - primarily the clearing of forest for cattle raising. It shows that increases in howler monkey 'travel time' the amount of time needed to find requisite nourishment are leading to increases in levels of stress hormones called glucocorticoids.
These hormones are not only indicators of stress, but are also known to relate to diminished reproductive success and lower survival rates. Researchers believe the study could serve as a model for behavioural change and resulting health implications more generally in primates living in habitats disturbed by human activities, such as deforestation.
"Howlers are arboreal primates, that is to say they spend their wholes lives in the trees", said Dr Jacob Dunn from Cambridge's Department of Biological Anthropology, who carried out the research.
"As forests are fragmented, the howlers become cut off, isolated on forest 'islands' that increasingly lack the fruit which provide an important component of their natural diet. This has led to the monkeys expending ever more time and effort foraging for food, often increasing leaf consumption when their search is, quite literally, fruitless."
Fruit occurs in natural cycles, and the monkeys will naturally revert to 'fallback' foods, including leaves, when fruit is scarce. But as habitats shrink, and fruit is harder to find, leaves from second-choice plants, such as lianas, have increased in the Mexican howlers' diet.
While leaves may sound like a plentiful resource in
|Contact: Fred Lewsey|
University of Cambridge