Red-backed squirrel monkey (Saimiri oerstedii)

Red-backed squirrel monkey sitting on branch
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Red-backed squirrel monkey fact file

Red-backed squirrel monkey description

GenusSaimiri (1)

A small monkey, the red-backed squirrel monkey (Saimiri oerstedii) has a slender body and a tail that is longer than the body itself. The tail is not prehensile, but it does aid in balance as this monkey leaps between branches in a squirrel-like fashion. The limbs are fairly long and slender, and the thighs are shorter in relation to the lower leg than in species that clamber, such as howler monkeys. This adaptation allows squirrel monkeys to exert more force when jumping so they can propel themselves further (4).

The red-backed squirrel monkey's fur is short, thick and yellow brown in colour, with the underside being a paler yellow. As its common name suggests, this primate has red-coloured fur on its back (5). It also bears a distinctive crown on its head; in the black-crowned subspecies (Saimiri oerstedii oerstedii) this crown is, as the name suggests, black, whereas in the grey-crowned Central American squirrel monkey (Saimiri oerstedii citrinellus) it is agouti in the male and blackish-grey in the female (2) (4). Male and female red-backed squirrel monkeys are similar in appearance, although males are slightly larger in size. During the breeding season males also become ‘fatted’, with a noticeable increase in size around the neck and shoulders (4).

Also known as
Central American squirrel monkey.
Saïmiri À Dos Roux, Singe-écureuil À Dos Rouge, Singe-écureuil À Dos Roux.
Barizo Dorsirrojo, Mono Ardilla, Mono Tití, Titi.
Head-body length: 28 - 33 cm (2)
Tail length: 33 - 43 cm (2)
Male weight: 700 - 1,100 g (2)
Female weight: 500 - 750 g (2)

Red-backed squirrel monkey biology

Little is known about the biology of this species. Like other squirrel monkeys, the red-backed squirrel monkey is active during the day and is arboreal (6). This small primate is omnivorous and spends most of the morning and afternoon foraging in the trees for fruits, leaves, buds, gums, insects and small vertebrates (7). It has been reported that this species recognises the 'leaf-tents' constructed by some fruit-eating bats and attacks these structures to extract the bats roosting within (8).

Red-backed squirrel monkeys are social primates. They live in large multi-male / multi-female groups of about 24 individuals on average, and travel between 2.5 and 4.2 kilometres a day, with home ranges of 0.175 square kilometres (2) (6) (9). Reproduction is seasonal, with mating occurring in January and February (2), and single births occurring at the period of greatest food availability. This ensures there will be adequate food available for the females and their young, and requires less time spent foraging (10).


Red-backed squirrel monkey range

The black-crowned subspecies of the red-backed squirrel monkey has a restricted range along the Pacific coast of the Puntarenas province in south-western Costa Rica, and in Chiriqui and Veraguas provinces, northwestern Panama (2).

The grey-crowned subspecies is found in south-western Costa Rica where it has an even more restricted range, of only 210 square kilometres, in the Pacific coastal forests of Quepos (1).


Red-backed squirrel monkey habitat

This species mainly lives in lowland scrub forest (2), although the red-backed squirrel monkey also inhabits humid tropical forest, mature upland forest, river edge and mangrove forest (1).


Red-backed squirrel monkey status

The red-backed squirrel monkey is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix I of CITES (3). This species has two subspecies: the black-crowned Central American squirrel monkey, Saimiri oerstedii oerstedii, is classified as Endangered (EN) and the grey-crowned Central American squirrel monkey, Saimiri oerstedii citrinellus, is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable


Red-backed squirrel monkey threats

The grey-crowned subspecies of the red-backed squirrel monkey (Saimiri oerstedii citrinellus) is critically endangered and has lost 89 percent of its original habitat in Costa Rica, with the remaining range being severely fragmented (1). This is due to widespread logging and clearing for cattle ranches which started during the 1950s. Large areas were also planted with African oil palms and rice. In Panama, the black-crowned subspecies Saimiri oerstedii oerstedii has also suffered habitat losses of 76 percent, and now occurs in fragmented forest areas throughout its range (1,166 square kilometres) (1).


Red-backed squirrel monkey conservation

As in so many species the survival of the red-backed squirrel monkey is inextricably entwined with the future of the forests. Where there are protected reserves, there is hope for South America’s wildlife (1). The largest single population of the subspecies Saimiri oerstedii citrinellus occurs in the Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica. However, this park is only 683 hectares in size (1).

A survey in 2003 did, however, indicate that the total population size for the red-backed squirrel monkey is significantly larger than had been previously estimated, numbering between 1300 and 1780 individuals (6). It will be extremely important to monitor and protect the remaining populations in the future, and find ways of securing their survival (8).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

Find out more

Find out more about primate conservation:



Authenticated (05/06/2006) by Matt Richardson, independent primatologist and writer.



The alternation of light and dark bands of color in the fur of various animals, producing a grizzled appearance.
Living in trees.
Home range
The area occupied by an animal during routine activities, which is not actively defended.
Organisms that feed on both plants and animals.
Capable of grasping.
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
Animals with a backbone, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish.


  1. IUCN Redlist (March, 2011)
  2. Richardson, M. (2006) Pers. comm.
  3. CITES (February, 2004)
  4. Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. Animal Diversity Web (February, 2004)
  6. Sierra, C., Jiménez, I., Altrichter, M., Fernández, M., Gómaz, G., González, J., Hernández, H., Herrera, H., Jiménez, B., López-Arévalo, H., Millán, J., Mora, G. and Tabilo, E. (2003) New data on the distribution and abundance of Saimiri oerstedii citrinellus. Primate Conservation, 19: 5 - 9.
  7. Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
  8. Reid, F. (1997) A Field Guide to the Mammals of Central America and Southeast Mexico. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  9. Baldwin, J. (1972) The ecology and behavior of squirrel monkeys (Saimiri oerstedii) in a Natural Forest in Western Panama. Folia Primatologica, 18: 161 - 184.
  10. The Squirrel Monkey Breeding and Research Resource (SMBRR) (February, 2004)

Image credit

Red-backed squirrel monkey sitting on branch  
Red-backed squirrel monkey sitting on branch

© Tom Ulrich /

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