Introduction to Costa Rica
Destination content © Christopher P. Baker, used from Moon Handbooks Costa Rica, 5th edition.
| Given the rich diversity of Costa Rica's ecosystems, it may come as a surprise that only 200 mammal species--half of which are bats--live here. Several species of dolphins and seven species of whales are common in Costa Rican waters, but there are no seals. And the only endemic marine mammal species of any significance is the endangered manatee.
Before man hunted them to extinction, there were many more mammal species. Even today all large- and many small-mammal populations are subject to extreme pressure from hunting or habitat destruction, and it is only recently that large-mammal populations in the national parks are beginning to recover.
Early morning and late afternoon are the best times for wildlife viewing, particularly around water holes (the dry regions of Guanacaste offer prime locations).
The most commonly seen of Costa Rica's three anteater species is the tree-dwelling lesser anteater (or tamandua locally), a beautiful creature with a prehensile tail and the gold-and-black coloration of a panda bear. It can grow to 1.5 meters and weigh up to eight kilograms. One of my fondest memories is seeing a tamandua climbing down a tree in Santa Rosa National Park. When it saw me, it climbed back up again!
The giant anteater, with its huge, bushy tail and astonishingly long proboscis, is now restricted to the less sparsely forested areas of the Osa Peninsula. It can grow to two meters long and when threatened rears itself on its hind legs and slashes wildly with its claws. It also raises its tail over its head. Even machetes cannot cut through the tough bristles; thus the fearsome critter is revered among campesinos for its magical abilities.
At night you may with luck see the strictly arboreal, cat-sized silky anteater, which can hang from its strong prehensile tail.
Many bat species--like the giant Jamaican fruit bat (murciélago frútero), with a wingspan of more than 50 cm--are frugivores (fruit eaters) or insectivores, and quite harmless. The Jamaican bat favors figs, taken on the wing.
The vampire bats (Ticos call them vampiros)--which belong to the Neotropics, not Transylvania--are a different matter: they inflict an estimated $100 million of damage on domestic farm animals throughout Central and South America by transmitting rabies and other diseases. The vampire bat's modus operandi is almost as frightening as the stuff of Bram Stoker's Dracula. It lands on or close to a sleeping mammal, such as a cow. Using its two razor-sharp incisors, it then punctures the unsuspecting beast and, with the aid of an anticoagulant saliva, merrily squats beside the wound and laps up the blood while it flows. They're pretty much harmless to humans.
The most interesting of bats, however, and one easily seen in Tortuguero, is the fishing bulldog bat (murciélago pescador), with its huge wingspan (up to 60 cm across) and great gaff-shaped claws with which it hooks fish. It fishes by sonar. Skimming the water surface it is able to detect slight ripples ahead. The bat then drops its hooked feet at just the right moment and--presto!--supper.
One of the rarest cats is the jaguarundi (called león breñero locally), a dark-brown or tawny critter about the size of a large house cat. It has a long, slender body, short stocky legs, and a venal face with yellow eyes suggesting a nasty temperament. Pumas (león) also inhabit a variety of terrains, though they are rarely seen. This large cat--also called the "mountain lion"--is generally dun-colored, though coloration varies markedly among individuals and from region to region.
The spotted cats include the cute-looking, house-cat-sized margay (caucel), which has a special joint that permits it to rotate its foot backwards, and its smaller cousin, the oncilla. Both wear an ocher coat spotted with black and brown spots, like tiny leopards. Their chests are white. The most commonly seen cat is the exquisitely spotted ocelot (manigordo), their larger cousin, which is well-distributed throughout the country and among various habitats; it grows to the size of a large dog.
Worshiped as a god in pre-Columbian civilizations, the jaguar is the symbol of the Central American jungle. Panthera onca (or tigre to locals) was once abundant in the dense forests, coastal mangroves, and lowland savannas of Central America. Today this magnificent and noble beast is an endangered species, rare except in parts of the larger reserves: Santa Rosa, Tortuguero, and Corcovado National Parks, the Río Macho Forest Reserve, and lower levels of the Cordillera Talamanca. In recent years, fortunately, jaguar sightings have been more common, suggesting that better preservation of their habitat is paying dividends.
While a few of the famous black "panther" variety exist, most Central American jaguars are a rich yellow, spotted with large black rosettes. Jaguars are the largest and most powerful of the American members of the cat family--a mature jaguar measures over two meters, stands 60 cm at the shoulders, and weighs up to 90 kg. The animal's head and shoulders are massive, the legs relatively short and thick. An adept climber and swimmer, the beast is a versatile hunter, at home in trees, on ground, and even in water. Not surprisingly, it feeds on a wide range of arboreal, terrestrial, and aquatic animals and is powerful enough to kill a full-grown cow.
Don't be surprised if you come across a jaguar's footprints alongside a mangrove islet or streambed in the gallery forest. Don't get your hopes up, however. You're not likely to see one prowling its territory or lying lazily by the riverbank (a favorite pastime), one paw dangling in the water, as it waits to flip out a passing fish or turtle.
Like all wild cats, jaguars are extremely shy, not particularly dangerous, and attack humans very rarely. When roads penetrate the primeval forest, the jaguar is among the first large mammals to disappear.
These splendid beasts are easily seen at the Las Pumas Zoo outside Cañas, where injured and orphaned cats are nursed back to health and/or prepared for a second life in the wild. Similarly, the Profelis Wildcat Center, near Dominical, welcomes tourists.
They are not easy to spot, for they lie submerged with only nostrils showing. Watch for rising bubbles in the water: manatees suffer from flatulence, a result of eating up to 45 kg of water hyacinths and other aquatic flora daily. The animals, sometimes called sea cows, can be huge, growing to four meters long and weighing as much as a ton. Good fortune may even provide an encounter with groups of manatees engaged in courtship ritual. Interestingly, the manatee is one of few species in which males engage in homosexual activity. Affectionate animals, they kiss each other, sometimes swim with linked flippers, and always make solicitous parents.
Though the North American monkeys gradually died out, their southern cousins flourished and evolved along lines that differ markedly from those of their ancestors in the Old World. While African and Asian monkeys have narrow noses with nostrils that point down (much like human noses), New World monkeys evolved broad, widely spaced nostrils. New World females, too, evolved a singular ability to bear twins. And, perhaps most important, some New World species--notably the cebus, howler, and spider monkeys--developed long prehensile tails for added purchase and balance in the high treetops.
They inhabit a wide range of habitats, from the rainforest canopy to the scrubby undergrowth of the dry forests, though each species occupies its own niche and the species seldom meet. Together, they are the liveliest and most vocal jungle tenants. Beyond the reach of most predators, they have little inhibition in announcing their presence with their roughhousing and howls, chatterings, and screeches. The sudden explosive roar of the howler monkey--a sound guaranteed to make your hair stand on end--is said to be the loudest sound in the animal kingdom.
The distinctive-looking capuchin, or white-faced monkey (mono cara blanca), is the smartest and most inquisitive of Central American simians. It derives its name from its black body and monklike white cowl. You've probably seen them dancing at the end of a tether at street fairs in Europe or South America--they're the little guys favored by organ grinders worldwide. Capuchins range widely throughout the wet lowland forests of the Caribbean coast and the deciduous dry forests of the Pacific Northwest below 1,500 meters. Two excellent places to see them are Santa Rosa and Manuel Antonio National Parks, where family troops are constantly on the prowl, foraging widely through the treetops and over the forest floor.
These opportunistic feeders are fun to watch as they search under logs and leaves or tear off bark as they seek out insects and small lizards soon after dawn and again in late afternoon. Capuchins also steal birds' eggs and nestlings. Some crafty coastal residents, not content with grubs and insect larvae, have developed a taste for oysters and other mollusks, which they break open on rocks. The frugal capuchin sometimes hoards his food for "rainy days." While their taste is eclectic, they are fussy eaters: they'll meticulously pick out grubs from fruit, which they test for ripeness by smelling and squeezing. And capuchins are not averse to crop raiding, especially corn, as the farmers of Guanacaste will attest.
The howler (mono congo) is the most abundant as well as the largest of Central American monkeys (it can weigh up to five kg). It inhabits both lowland and montane forests throughout Costa Rica. Fortunately, it is less sensitive to habitat destruction than the spider monkey and can be found clinging precariously to existence in many relic patches of forest.
While howlers are not particularly aggressive, they sure sound it! The stentorian males greet each new day with reveille calls that seem more like the explosive roars of lions than those of small arboreal leaf-eaters. The hair-raising vocalizations can carry for almost a mile in even the densest of jungle. The males sing in chorus again at dusk (or whenever trespassers get too close) as a spacing mechanism to keep rivals at a safe distance. Their Pavarotti-like vocal abilities are due to unusually large larynxes and throats that inflate into resonating balloons. Females generally content themselves with loud wails and groans--usually to signal distress or call a straying infant. This noisy yet sedentary canopy browser feeds on leaves (64 percent of its diet) and fruit. Although capable of eating anything that grows, howlers are extremely selective feeders.
The smallest Costa Rican primate, the squirrel monkey (mono titi), grows to 25-35 cm, plus a tail up to 45 cm. It is restricted to the rainforests of the southern Pacific lowlands. Always on the go, day and night, they scurry about in the jungle understory and forest floor on all fours, where they are safe from raptor predators. Squirrels are more gregarious than most other monkeys; bands of 40 individuals or more are not uncommon. Like the larger capuchins, the golden-orange titi (with its face of white and black) is the arboreal goat of the forest. It will eat almost anything: fruits, insects, small lizards. In times of abundance (May-October), the two species have been known to forage together. When food is scarce they become rivals; the heftier capuchin invariably is the victor. The titi is an endangered species well on its way to extinction.
The large, loose-limbed spider monkey (mono colorado)--the supreme acrobat of the forest--was once the most widespread of the Central American monkeys. Unfortunately, they are very sensitive to human intrusion and are among the first primate species to decline with disturbance. The last few decades have brought significant destruction of spider monkey habitats, and land clearance and hunting (their flesh is said to be tasty) have greatly reduced spider monkey populations throughout much of their former range. If you inadvertently come across them you'll soon know it: they often rattle the branches and bark and screech loudly to demonstrate their fearlessness.
These copper-colored acrobats can attain a length of a meter and a half. They have evolved extreme specialization for a highly mobile arboreal lifestyle. Long slender limbs allow spider monkeys to make spectacular leaps. But the spider's greatest secret is its extraordinary prehensile tail, which is longer than the combined length of its head and body. The underside is ridged like a human fingertip for added grip at the end of treetop leaps (it is even sensitive enough for probing and picking). You might even see individuals hanging like ripe fruit by their tails.
Gregarious by night (they often bed down in heaps), by day they are among the most solitary of primates. The males stay aloof from the females. While the latter tend to their young, which they carry on their backs, the males are busy marking their territory with secretions from their chest glands.
Another endearing and commonly seen mammal is the long-nosed coatimundi (called pizote locally), the most diurnal member of the raccoon family, found throughout the country. Coatis wear many coats, from yellow to deepest brown, though all are distinguished by faintly ringed tails, white-tipped black snouts, and panda-like eye-rings. The animal is at home both on the ground and in the treetops, where it can sometimes be spotted moving from tree to tree. (The name coatimundi refers specifically to lone coatis; the animals are usually gregarious critters and are often seen in packs.) The animal has a fascinating defense technique against predators. When attacked, it raises itself on its hind leg, thrusts its tail between its legs, and waves its tail in front of its face. The attacker goes for the tail, giving the coati a chance to rake the predator in the eyes with its sharp claws. Yow! I've had several coatimundis walk past me without blinking an eye on wilderness trails.
Another charming member of the raccoon family is the small and totally nocturnal kinkajou (known to Ticos as the martilla) with its large limpid eyes and velvet-soft coat of golden brown. It's a superb climber (it can hang by its prehensile tail) and spends most of its life feeding on fruit, honey, and insects in the treetops. By day it is very drowsy; if picked up, its first instinct is to cuddle against your chest, bury its head to avoid the light, and drop back off to sleep. It's smaller cousins are the much rarer, grayish, bug-eyed olingo, with its slightly ringed-tail; and the cacomistle (cacomistle or olingo), identified by its panda-like white spectacled eyes, and a bushy white tail ringed with black hoops. The two are easily confused, but the cacomistle has pointier ears.
Agoutis have long been favored for their meat and are voraciously hunted by humans. Their nocturnal cousin, the paca (called tepezcuintle by locals) also makes good eating--and can grow to a meter long and weigh 10 kg, three times larger than the agouti--and is favored by a wide variety of predators. It is brown with rows of white spots along its side. Both are easily captured because of the strong anal musks they use to scent their territories and because of their habit of running in circles but never leaving their home turf (pacas, at least, are intelligent enough to leap into water and stay submerged for a considerable time). If you disturb one in the forest, you may hear its high-pitched alarm bark before you see it.
Costa Rica also has five squirrel species, including the ubiquitous variegated squirrel (chiza or ardilla tricolor to locals), whose black, white, and red coloration varies in form. The brown and chestnut red-tailed squirrel (ardilla roja) is also common.
Costa Rica has about 40 species of rats, mice, and gophers.
The arboreal beast, which is actually related to the anteater and armadillo, pays plenty of attention to personal hygiene, despite the fact that its shaggy fur harbors an algae unique to the beast and which make the sloth greenly inconspicuous--wonderful camouflage from prowling jaguars and keen-eyed eagles, its chief predators (the sloth also eats the algae). The sloth even has communities of moths that live in the depths of its fur and also feed on the algae.
Lulled by its relative treetop security, the sloth, says naturalist David Attenborough, "has sunken into an existence just short of complete torpor." The creature spends up to 18 hours daily sleeping curled up with its feet drawn close together and its head tucked between the forelimbs.
Costa Rica has two species of sloths: the three-fingered sloth (perezoso de tres dedos) and the nocturnal, relatively omnivoros Hoffman's two-fingered sloth (perezoso de dos dedos). You're more likely to see the three-fingered sloth, which is active by day. The animals are more commonly incorrectly called "three-toed" and "two-toed." In fact, both species have three toes.
At top speed a sloth can barely cover a mile in four hours. On the ground, it is even more awkward and crawls with great difficulty. In fact, there's a very good reason sloths move at a rate barely distinguishable from rigor mortis.
A sloth's digestion works as slowly as its other bodily functions. Its metabolic rate is half that of other animals of similar size, and food remains in its stomach for up to a week. Hence, it has evolved a large ruminant-like stomach and intestinal tract to process large quantities of relatively indigestible food. To compensate, it has sacrificed heavy muscle mass--and, hence, mobility--to maximize body size in proportion to weight. Thus, the sloth has evolved as a compromise between a creature large enough to store and process large quantities of food and one light enough to move about in trees without breaking the branches. Sloths need warm weather to synthesize food. During long spells of cold weather, the animals may literally starve to death.
When nature calls (about once a week), the animal descends to ground level, where it digs a small hole with its hind limbs. It then defecates into the depression, urinates, covers the broth with leaves, and returns much relieved to its arboreal life. During this 30-minute period, the female "sloth moths" have been busy laying their eggs on the sloth dung. When hatched, the larvae feed and pulpate on the feces. The newly emerged adults then fly off to seek a new sloth.
Sloths, which may live up to 20 years or longer, reach sexual maturity at three years, a relatively old age for mammals of their size. Females screech to draw males, which have a bare orange patch on their back with unique sexual markings. Females give birth once a year (the gestation period is about six months) and spend half their adult lives pregnant. Although female sloths are never separated by choice from their offspring, they are peculiarly unsentimental about their young: if a baby tumbles, its plaintive distress calls go unheeded. And when the juvenile reaches six months of age, the mother simply turns tail on her youngster, which inherits her "home range" of trees.
An easy way to find sloths is to look up into the green foliage of cecropia trees, which form one of the sloth's favorite food staples. More adventurous individuals might even be basking in the sunlight, feigning death halfway up a tree. The sloth's heavy fur coat provides excellent insulation against heat loss. Still, its body temperature drops almost to the temperature of its surroundings at night and, much like cold-blooded reptiles, the sloth needs to take in the sun's rays to bring its temperature to normal mammalian levels. The sight of a sloth languishing in open cecropia crowns is a heavenly vision to harpy eagles, which swoop in to snatch the torpid creature much like plucking ripe fruit.
To learn more, pay a visit to Aviarios del Caribe Sloth Refuge, near Cahuita.
Today, tapirs are found only in national parks and reserves where hunting is restricted, with the greatest density in Corcovado National Park, which has a population of fewer than 300. They have learned to be wary of man, and few travelers have the privilege of sighting them in the wild. Tapirs live in dense forests and swamps and rely on concealment for defense. They are generally found wallowing up to their knees in swampy waters. In fact, tapirs are rarely seen far from water, to which they rush precipitously at the first sign of danger. The animals make conspicuous trails in the forest, and because tapirs maintain territories marked with dung or scent, they are easily tracked by dogs.
Costa Rica is also home to a badger-like animal called the grison, another skunk-like member of the weasel family that can weigh three kg (seven pounds) and is often seen hunting alone or in groups in lowland rainforest during the day. The grison is gray, with a white stripe running across its forehead and ears, white eye patches, and a black nose, chest, and legs. It looks like a cross between a badger and an otter. Meter-long otters (perro de agua, or water-dog, to locals) are commonly seen in lowland rivers, especially in Tortuguero.
Its cousin, the sleek, long-haired, chocolate-brown tayra (locals call it tolumuco--a meter-long giant of the weasel family--resembles a mix of grison and otter. It is often seen in highland habitats throughout Costa Rica. Weighing up to five kg, the tayra habitually preys on rodents but can make quick work of small deer. Keep an eye off the ground, too, particularly in Santa Rosa National Park, where tayras can sometimes be seen stalking squirrels in the crowns of deciduous trees with a motion so fluid they seem to move like snakes.
The dog family is represented by the brown-gray coyote and nocturnal gray fox, both found mostly in the dry northwestern regions.
The marsupials--mammals whose embryonic offspring crawl from the birth canal and are reared in an external pouch--are represented by nine species of opossums, including the black-and-gray banded, long-legged, water opossum and the two-toned, short-legged common opossum (zorro pelón), a large rat-like critter with a dark brown body and tan underside, and a more lively disposition than normal--this opossum defends itself rather than feigning dead.
The blunt-nosed, short-spined, prehensile-tailed porcupine (puerco espín) is also present, though being nocturnal and arboreal is rarely seen. There are also two species of rabbits (conejos).
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