Monkey Forest Tales: Primates as herbivorous and the coexisting forces that shape this relationship


Coming back to our series of posts talking about the different roles that monkeys have in the forest. Another important role of primates in the habitats in which they live is their roles as herbivorous, specifically by consuming leaves, fruits and flowers, without having in mind their complementary role as seed dispersers, which we already discussed here.
There is a strong and sometimes narrow relationship between monkeys and the plants they feed on. In the case of plants used by monkeys for their fruits, there is an important balance in terms of the nutrients those fruits give to the monkeys and at the same time how much energy and resources those plants put to produce fruits that are attractive to the monkeys they want to consume them and help them to disperse.
In the case of plants which leaves are consumed by monkeys, their relationship is based on two opposite sides. One for the plant, which needs to find a way to protect its leaves from being consumed, especially the young ones, because plants need them to function. Therefore some plants invest a lot of energy and resources to make those young leaves less attractive by adding some chemicals that make them taste bad or being toxic. In the case of mature leaves, the plant strategy varies to make it’s structure more difficult to process and at the same time make them less tasty. This is the reason why monkeys feeding on a diet with a high proportion of leaves had different behavioral and physiological adaptations to survive on this type of diet.
One of those behavioral strategies is to spend time on the top of big trees taking sun baths that help them to process the heaviness of a diet full of leaves. This is one of the reasons also, for example for red howler monkeys to spend so much time sleeping and taking sun baths, they need time and energy to digest the leaves they consumed. They are not lazy as you could think from the many hours they spend sleeping during the day.
Other monkeys had developed a more specialized stomach that help them to process the toxins and high fiber contents of leaves, such as the monkeys from the colobus family in Africa and Asia, which had specialized stomach, in some cases similar to the cow’s stomach.
There is an additional strategy used by red howler monkeys, the most folivorous of the monkeys in the study area. This strategy consist on consuming soil from salt licks or from termite’s nests. It seems some minerals in these soils help them to eliminate toxins from the leaves they consume.
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