Do tufted capuchin monkeys play the odds? Flexible risk preferences in Sapajus spp.


As humans, several non-human animal species avoid risk, defined as “variability in rate of gain”. However, non-human primate studies revealed a more complicated picture, with different species ranging from risk aversion to risk proneness. Within an ecological rationality framework, a species’ feeding ecology should influence its risk preferences, as it has been shown in bonobos and chimpanzees. Although the feeding ecology hypothesis is promising, it has not been yet verified in species other than apes. Here, we aimed to assess whether this hypothesis holds true in tufted capuchin monkeys (Sapajus spp.). Ten capuchins were presented with choices between a “safe” option and a “risky” option in three conditions differing for the probability of receiving the larger reward when selecting the risky option. Similarly to chimpanzees, capuchins were risk prone. However, capuchins’ behaviour was not the result of a bias towards the choice of the risky option, since—when facing options with different probabilities of obtaining the larger outcome—they were able to flexibly modify their preferences. Capuchins’ decision-making under risk mirrors their risk-prone behaviour in the wild, where they often rely on unpredictable and/or hazardous food sources, thus satisfying the feeding ecology hypothesis.

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    Recent molecular analysis has revealed that capuchin monkeys, formerly identified as the single genus Cebus, are two genera, with the robust forms now recognized as the genus Sapajus and the gracile forms retained as the genus Cebus (Lynch Alfaro et al. 2012). The nomenclature for Sapajus is registered with ZooBank ( Animals identified as Cebus apella in laboratory colonies outside of South America may be any combination of the several species recognized as separate species from 2001 (Fragaszy et al. 2004), but previously considered C. apella.


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We thank Maria Bobbio and Luca Marino for help with data collection. We especially thank Fabio Paglieri, Gabriele Schino, and Elisabetta Visalberghi for constructive discussions and valuable comments and Dan Ariely for his fundamental support. We also thank Roma Capitale-Museo Civico di Zoologia and the Fondazione Bioparco for hosting the ISTC-CNR Unit of Cognitive Primatology and Primate Centre, and Massimiliano Bianchi and Simone Catarinacci for assistance with capuchins. This study was funded by the PNR-CNR Aging Program 2012–2014.

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Correspondence to Elsa Addessi.

Additional information

Francesca De Petrillo and Marialba Ventricelli have contributed equally to this study.

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Supplementary material Movie 1. Experiment 1, Neutral condition. Robin hood, a male capuchin, is presented with the choice between a “safe” option (four food items covered by the white bowl, on the experimenter’s left) and a “risky” option (in this case, one food item covered by the red bowl, on the experimenter’s right). He chooses the “safe” option by inserting his finger in the hole of the corresponding transparent box and the experimenter provides him with the food. (MPG 56796 kb)

Supplementary material Movie 1. Experiment 1, Neutral condition. Robin hood, a male capuchin, is presented with the choice between a “safe” option (four food items covered by the white bowl, on the experimenter’s left) and a “risky” option (in this case, one food item covered by the red bowl, on the experimenter’s right). He chooses the “safe” option by inserting his finger in the hole of the corresponding transparent box and the experimenter provides him with the food. (MPG 56796 kb)

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De Petrillo, F., Ventricelli, M., Ponsi, G. et al. Do tufted capuchin monkeys play the odds? Flexible risk preferences in Sapajus spp.. Anim Cogn 18, 119–130 (2015) doi:10.1007/s10071-014-0783-7

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  • Decision-making
  • Risk
  • Capuchin monkeys
  • Non-human primates