Jungles

Breakfast With the Howlers


photo by Sally Retecki

Howler monkeys wake with the first light of the day and if they are outside my bedroom window, I do too. I’m not one to sleep late, but I still consider 4:30 to be nighttime. I knew it was going to be an early morning today, because last night, while I showered, I saw them through the open bathroom window swinging through the upper branches of the trees next to our house. It was late enough for me to know that they had decided to take up residence there for the night.

Sure enough, by 4:15 this morning there was a racket outside my bedroom window that practically shook the walls of our wooden house. Howlers are the loudest land animal on the planet and sound like a cross between a dog barking and a pig using a megaphone. A Dr. Doolittle kind of animal.

“ARGH ARGH ARGH,” from the big male outside my window, returned by calls from other dominant males across the jungle, “argh argh argh.”

They have a special hollow and elongated hyoid bone in their throats that allows air to pass in large quantities, and thus they are able to project their voices at such thunderous volumes. Their conversations resonated back and forth like this for about fifteen minutes until I got up to make breakfast and go sit on the porch to watch the day unfold.

The Mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata) or mono congo is the largest monkey in the Americas. Part of the Baboon family, they are big stocky beasts with dark brown to black fur and most adults have a long yellow or brown saddle, earning them the name Mantled howler. The face is naked, black and bearded like a Baboon. The males weigh in at fifteen pounds, the females a bit less. They live in troops, and a dominant male, who stakes out a territory where they live and feed, leads each troop. The male fends off unwanted intruders using his voice. Something I did not have to be told this morning.

While I sat drinking my morning tea, a great circus show unfolded across the clearing, or potrero as it is called in Spanish. On the other side of the potrero is a two hundred yard swath of jungle separating us from the Caribbean coastline. This stand of old trees is over one hundred feet high and quite dense. The howlers spend plenty of time back there foraging, and this year a big tree fell during a windstorm creating a hole in their usual jungle roadway.

A rustling in the trees made me aware that the troop was approaching the damaged area. Then one started across. It was the big male. He climbed to the very top of the tree above the abyss, crept out onto the upper limb as far as possible, and, as the branch began to bend under his weight, he let go free falling into the tree below––his arms flung out to catch anything available.

The landing was spectacular. Falling into a tree about 20-feet below him, he grabbed onto a branch. The extra burden carried him and the branch another 10-feet or so, the limb bending like a bow under his weight. Once reaching its maximum arc, the branch simply snapped back into its original position leaving the big guy sitting on his new perch.

The adrenaline rush must have been intense for the monkey. It was for me, watching! He sat there for a few minutes recovering his composure before ambling off to his breakfast table a few trees down. Then the rest of the family followed in exactly the same path: moms, babies, aunts and cousins. The little ones simply flung themselves at the abyss, practicing their monkey version of extreme sports.

I went in the house to make my own breakfast.

Maybe tonight they will find accomadations a bit further away, and I’ll be able to sleep a little later tomorrow.