Researchers studying Capuchin monkeys in South America were shocked to see a baby monkey killed and eaten by other members of its troop.
Capuchins mainly stick to a vegetarian diet, supplemented by insects and the occasional frog.
But observations by a team led by Mari Nishikawa from the University of Tokyo revealed that the little monkeys are willing to engage in cannibalism if the circumstances are right.
Professor Nishikawa explains how she saw the baby monkey fall from a tree, either dead or severely injured.
It appeared to have been attacked by an adult male because moments later they saw the infant’s mother and another female chase a monkey away.
The mother then tried to rescue her baby, but it was in a very bad way – paralysed either from the fall or because it had been bitten by the male.
Soon afterwards the baby died, and its mother abandoned it.
Within minutes a 2-year old male capuchin walked up to the dead baby monkey and began nibbling on the fingers.
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Katharine Jack, from Tulane University in Louisiana, said that was highly unusual in itself.
"We’ve never seen a capuchin consume something that’s dead," she told New Scientist.
"They don’t scavenge at all."
She added that when Capuchins to eat other animals they normally start with the head and face first, but Professor Nishikawa’s photos of the incident show that the little creature’s head and shoulders were all that was left behind.
Another monkey from the group joined in on the macabre meal, but not all of the troop got involved. Some seemed almost disgusted by what was happening.
"It seemed like it was something very novel to them, the way they behaved and reacted to the situation," she says.
Cannibalism does appear to be very rare among monkeys. Researchers have been studying the little animals since 1983 and this is so far the only example on record.
"Given that this is the only observation of cannibalism recorded in over 37 years of study on this population, we consider it to be a rare behaviour in this species," Professor Nishikawa wrote.
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