Document Type


Date of Degree Completion

Winter 2017

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Primate Behavior

Committee Chair

Jessica A. Mayhew

Second Committee Member

John B. Mulcahy

Third Committee Member

Lixing Sun


The welfare of captive primates in laboratories, sanctuaries, and zoos is affected by various aspects of their environments. Although space restrictions increase aggression and stress-related behaviors in most captive animals, primates show diverse mechanisms for displacing stress and mitigating conflict. Many primates, including wild spider monkeys (genus Ateles), use these mechanisms flexibly to cope with social and environmental stressors. I investigated whether or not captive black-handed spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) use behavioral strategies to cope with potential stressors in captivity. In particular, I tested whether an affiliative or avoidant strategy was used in response to changes in available space and enclosure choice and the expected provisioning of food. A trained volunteer assistant and I observed socially-housed black-handed spider monkeys (N = 17) at Wildtracks, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Belize. At this site, certain groups have access to a second enclosure on a rotating basis. From June-September, 2016, we collected 337 hr of focal-animal samples, which I aggregated by individual, housing condition, and time relative to expected meals. I found that individual rates of intragroup aggression, stereotypic behavior, and self-directed behavior were significantly lower when space was increased. When I isolated the effect of enclosure choice, the differences in high-severity intragroup aggression and self-directed behavior remained significant. These trends extended to a pair of solitary-housed adult females who were integrated during the study. Expected meals did not have widespread effects, but there was a significant increase in low-severity intragroup aggression right before meals. Although intragroup aggression varied between conditions, rates of agonism and affiliation were generally low and individuals avoided conflict. Curiously, we did not observe any embraces between individuals despite evidence that these are vital tension-reducing interactions in this taxon. The changes in self-directed and stereotypic behavior suggest that coping strategies exhibited by captive primates, especially those requiring inhibition, may incur individual costs. Overall, increased space and the choice to associate freely appear to positively impact spider monkey welfare; managers of spider monkeys should consider these factors when designing enclosures and planning management strategies.