A trip to Jardim Botânico
in São Paulo City
She was brown and
beautiful, glistening in the afternoon sunny rain
shower! No, she was not the Girl from Ipanema.
She was very hairy and the size of a Beagle, and
she was hanging upside down eating the ripened
little coconut fruits from a Jerivá palm
If you did not
guess by now, she is a South American monkey and
a member of the group of mammals known as the
This monkey is
called by its common name in Portuguese –
the bugio. The bugio I was observing is a mom
too, and her baby was every which way –
upside down, right-side up and sideways –
but almost always clinging to his mom’s
fur. Luckily, momma had a “fifth hand”
at the end of her very muscular tail. This “hand,”
was not in fact a hand at all. It was a prehensile
tail that all bugios have. This tail, which at
its end has a naked patch of skin with fingerprints,
can wrap firmly around tree branches allowing
bugios to suspend upside down. In all the primates,
only a few of the many South American species
have a prehensile tail. At this moment, mom’s
tail was wrapped firmly around the thick stem
anchoring the bunch of little coconut fruits,
which allowed her to work over the fruit in her
impressive upside-down position.
I came to realize
that momma’s “baby” was actually
probably a pre-teen (in human terms). I realized
this when I saw the youngster leave mom and climb
up all alone to the top of the palm tree. There,
it clambered for a while among the crown, until
it got bored and came back down to clamber over
mom again. It was a little independence with the
need to check in frequently with mom. It was demonstrating
a little pre-teen clinginess, literally!
As I was watching
the acrobatic skills of momma and her pre-teen,
I had an irksome feeling that I might be suddenly
witness to a fall from an extreme height –
a fall that would almost certainly prove deadly.
One loose grip on the fur of his mom and this
youngster was plummeting to the forest floor.
One lapse of attention or coordination on the
part of mom, and she was careening towards the
forest floor, perhaps with youngster on board!
Think of everything momma bugio must somehow know.
For example, how strong is the stem that holds
this bunch of little coconut fruits? Will this
stem support me; after all, I am no light weight?
Once more, will this stem support me plus my clinging
pre-teen who is more than a little rambunctious?
Thankfully, I did
not witness a fall of mom or her youngster. This
is most certainly due to the fact that bugios
must know their capabilities when it comes to
climbing extremely well. This is likely due to
their experience from a young age clambering through
the branches of the forest. But they are lucky
too because their bodies and behavior have been
shaped by the process of evolution over millions
of years. Besides their muscular prehensile tails,
they have strongly gripping fingers and toes all
of which are tipped with fingernails and toenails,
very good eyesight allowing them to judge the
distance between branches and lastly their large
brains, which allows them to learn skills. For
example, this teenager bugio was almost certainly
learning a great deal about climbing and obtaining
food from watching his mamma.
You too can witness
the incredible feats of momma bugio and her teenager!
All you need to do is visit Jardim Botânico,
only 20 minutes by metro from the center of São
Paulo City. Then, walk the raised platform that
takes you deep into the remaining Mata Atlântica,
the Atlantic Coastal Forest. Believe me it is
better than the circus! There is one thing to
know, the habitat of the bugios, known as the
Mata Atlântica, has been severely damaged
in Brazil. It is so lucky that bugios can live
freely within the Jardim Botânico. While
we can enjoy watching these bugios, we must help
to save them and their homes from further destruction.
If not, then all bugios may eventually take one
final and devastating fall!
Eugene E. Harris, PhD
Professor of Biology and Anthropology
City University of New York