When my love stands next to your love it’s not love which is my tail which is on fire.
Now I’ve needlessly referenced popular culture, let me tell you a story.
It’s the usual story: you’re wandering through the Amazon and you see a monkey with its tail on fire. The poor thing! You must extinguish it post haste! The flames have spread to its sideburns, there may be no hope! So you get out your tiny pocket-sized monkey extinguisher and are about to heroically wipe out the flames when you notice something strange: the monkey is not distressed, the fire is not spreading, and all his little primate pals seem to have combusted in the same pattern – very mysterious.
Now I know the standard response would be to assume it is witchcraft and look up spontaneous monkey combustion, but back in 2011 animal discoverer extraordinaire and professional clever-person Julio Dalponte put his extinguisher away and looked a little closer. Julio and a team of experts managed to establish that they had discovered, not a mass case of monkey arson after all, but a new and exciting species. It was named Milton’s titi monkey after Milton Thiago de Mello, a well known primate enthusiast.
Red titi monkey (Photographer: Nicki; Flickr)
It turns out that this species was missed out of previous species-cataloguing expeditions to the Amazon. Perhaps because they only inhabit a small area between the Aripuana and Roosevelt rivers. You’d think that their firey tails would make them easy to spot but somehow they’ve been unnoticed until recent years. We have been aware of titi monkeys as a whole since around 1912, but the diversity of species has only been noticed recently. Four new species of titi monkey have been discovered in the Amazon basin since the year 2000, including our fire-tailed friends. Now that they’re in the spotlight though, I can see this animal becoming a fast favourite, as they have several adorable habits as well as fantastic faces. Titi monkeys are among the few animals that mate for life. It is often the case that two monkeys will adapt to more closely mirror their partner’s habits and routine. They have even been known to hold hands and entwine their tails with their mate! When two titi monkeys get together, they form a family unit, staying together in a pack with their offspring until the offspring eventually leave to find a mate and make a monkey-team of their own.
Adorable though the tail twining is, my absolute favourite thing about them is their communication. Whilst they don’t have quite as extensive a vocabulary as humans, they have a great range of ways to express themselves. From ‘whistles’ to ‘chirps’, ‘bellows’ to ‘pants’, every sound right up to rhythmic tooth ‘gnashing’ seems to be represented in the communicative tactics of the titi monkey. Perhaps that is why they have such an amusingly alliterative name. The purpose of this exciting range of vocal talents can be as romantic as their tail twining. Sometimes a titi monkey will duet with a mate whilst at other times the vocal brilliance is simply to stake out territorial boundaries. Infant titi monkeys have been known to ‘purr’ in discomfort when being carried by a monkey that isn’t a parent.
With new varieties being discovered all the time, who knows what the future holds for the titi monkey – there could be hundreds of subspecies! Since they span a large part of South America (Columbia, Brazil, Peru, Paraguay) there are plenty of places for them to be spotted, and old fireburns himself, Milton’s titi, can be found in Brazil in the south of the Amazon, the home of two firey tails entwined.
Please note that the sound descriptions are all in quotation marks because they have been shamelessly pilfered from one of the following sources:
Moynihan M. 1966. Communication in the titi monkey, Callicebus. J Zool 150:77-127.
Robinson JG. 1979b. An analysis of the organization of vocal communication in the titi monkey Callicebus moloch. Z Tierpsychol 49:381-405.
Robinson JG. 1977. Vocal regulation of spacing in the titi monkey (Callicebus moloch). PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. 187p.
Robinson JG. 1979a. Vocal regulation of use of space by groups of titi monkeys Callicebus moloch. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 5:1-15.
I hope one day to encounter the call of the titi first hand so as to use various noise descriptors without worrying about plagiarism.