Researchers Find Monkey Not Seen in 80 Years

The Vanzolini bald-faced saki monkey is hunted as a source of food. Nat Geo WILD/YouTube

With its legs of fluffy golden fur and its Beatles-style bowl cut, you'd probably remember seeing the Vanzolini bald-faced saki monkey. Not many people have seen it alive since its official description back in the 1930s, so you could be forgiven for not knowing what the Amazon creature looks like. Until now.

During an expedition launched in February, it took only four days to find, photograph and film this elusive monkey climbing trees along the Eiru River near Brazil's Peruvian border. The findings of the expedition will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Oryx.

Led by Laura Marsh, director of the Global Conservation Institute and saki monkey expert, the expedition was an opportunity to solidify her claim that the Vanzolini bald-faced saki monkey was its own species (Pithecia vanzolinii) as opposed to a sub-species of saki monkeys.

"It was fantastic," she told National Geographic. "I was trembling and so excited I could barely take a picture."

What's old is new again

The Vanzolini bald-faced saki walking through the trees
The long-limbed Vanzolini bald-faced saki moves through the jungle more like a cat than a monkey. Nat Geo WILD/YouTube

The long-limbed Vanzolini bald-faced saki moves through the jungle more like a cat than a monkey. (Screenshot: Nat Geo WILD/YouTube)

The Vanzolini bald-faced saki monkey was first cataloged in 1936 by naturalist Alfonso Ollala. His report described a monkey with a long fluffy tail and golden fur on its limbs. A few more specimens were found, once in 1956 and then again in 2017, but both of these instances involved dead specimens. Marsh's team managed to observe the species at multiple points along the river over the course of three months.

That fluffy tail isn't much good for swinging through the treetops, however. Unlike some New World monkey species, the Vanzolini saki monkey lacks a prehensile tail. Instead, Marsh likened the monkey's movements to that of a cat navigating branches, deftly walking on all four limbs and jumping.

What behavior Marsh and her team were able to observe highlighted the species' general lack of contact with humans. In areas less likely to have humans present, the monkeys would approach, appearing to be curious about these folks floating along the river. In areas where they might be hunted — as was the case with the specimen found earlier in 2017 — the monkeys were more shy, peeking out from under their retro hairdos.

When faced with predators, the males would run away from the females and young, apparently in the hopes that the predators would give chase and leave the others alone.

A threatened and threatening habitat

After so quickly rediscovering the monkey, Marsh and her expedition turned their attention to the monkey's ecosystem.

The monkeys live in a challenging habitat. Locals often hunt them for bush meat, while deforestation, ranching and road development threaten their treetop homes.

As described in a report by a journalist embedded with Marsh's team and published by Mongabay, the human impact on the lives of the Vanzolini saki is more "patchwork" than anything else, with pockets of the population living in areas completely untouched by humans. These areas, however, are simply more difficult to access than others.

"If it just stayed at this level of impact right now," Marsh explained in the report, "it's not ideal for the conservation of Vanzolini populations, but at the end of the day, it's not killing the entire species because humans simply can't get at them all."

Of course, the arc of habitat destruction being what it is, Marsh and the other scientists, aren't optimistic about the species' chances. Marsh will make a recommendation to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) regarding the Vanzolini's status, and she will likely recommend that it be classified as threatened.

Hopefully conservation efforts will begin to protect this monkey so it isn't another 80 years before we see it again.