In his forward to The Mammals of Costa Rica, (Mark Wainwright, Cornell University Press), Oscar Arias - former president of Costa Rica - said "Costa Ricans are tremendously proud of the national parks and private reserves ... It should be remembered that (Costa Rica) people do not destroy the rainforest or poach the animals for fun ... It is now common knowledge among our people that the pacas that scurry about on the forest floor are worth more to the local community alive than dead ... This book will surely be found in my knapsack on my next visit to one of our environmental treasures."
But, tell this to the poor danta (tapir - protected species) that was butchered adjacent to our Reserve and La Amistad Park just a week before writing this. The danta barely survives and is on the edge of extinction here, and this is not the first to be killed. The 'pacas that scurry about on the forest floor', as Oscar Arias eloquently puts it, are burned out of their dens and regularly hunted with dogs. Another 'sports' hunter cut down an area of primary forest adjacent to La Amistad Park to put out food to 'bait' animals out of the forest into the open where he (and friends) await, rifles in hand. A nearby landowner boasted that he killed three pizotes (photo above) in a single day.
You may well ask why MINAE (Ministry of the Environment) does nothing to prevent this. One thing we have learned is that these so-called forest protectors, in general, do not like walking - driving around in trucks is just fine - but trucks do not go where they are needed and to hike back into the rugged forest here is not to their liking, so they do not go there and do not protect it. They say that they have the situation under control - it sure looks like it - and on one day around Buenos Aires I counted 17 separate fires (some in primary forest) all within a short distance of the local MINAE office.
Oscar Arias' words may sound great to the uninformed tourist, but reality speaks very differently, and words come cheap. Next time he wants to put 'Mammals of Costa Rica' in his knapsack and visit one of his 'environmental treasures' he is welcome to come and see how many mammals he can see in a chopped down and burned forest. A book could easily be filled with horror stories of environmental vandalism in Costa Rica, and we have met very, very, few Costa Ricans who give a rat's arse about the environment - and that is the only way we can put it.
The fauna of Costa Rica includes more that 200 mammals of which at least half are bats. These bats are not just insect eaters as in northern environs but also feed on nectar, fruits, fish and blood, and are essential to the survival of tropical plants because they pollinate flowers and disperse seeds.
Many of the mammals are adapted to living and travelling through the treetops to seek food, dens and safety and the rainforest canopy provides numerous habitat niches. These species include bats, opossums, monkeys, squirrels, sloths, small wild cats and tayras.
Mammals can be difficult to see. Most are either crepuscular (active at dusk or dawn) or nocturnal and difficult to spot in the forest undergrowth.
The best chances of seeing wildlife are early or late in the day, and it is important to walk silently, stand or sit quietly, and refrain from talking or making noise. Patience will often be rewarded!
Following is a brief description of mammals that can be found at Highland Heritage and the surrounding area. It is not intended to be a complete list.
Bats: It won't take you long to discover that the most numerous animals by far are the bats. In true Dracula fashion, most bats are lunarphobic; they avoid the bright light. On nights one week before and after the full moon, they suspend foraging completely and stay in their roosts while the moon is at its peak.
Many bat species look more grotesque than any painted demon in a medieval manuscript. Most of these - like the giant Jamaican fruit bat, with a wingspan of more than 20 inches - are frugivores or insectivores, and quite harmless. The vampire bats are a different matter: they inflict an estimated $100 million in damage on domestic farm animals throughout Central and South America.
The most interesting bat here is the 'false' vampire bat - the largest of the new-world bats with a wingspan of up to 80-cm (nearly 3-feet) - large enough to snatch birds such as parakeets, doves, trogons, etc. It emits a loud screech when foraging.
Common Opossum: Generally found in lower elevations the common opossum is the size of a large house cat and reportedly immune to the bites of venomous snakes. It feeds on fruits, seeds, insects, crayfish, snails, mice, snakes, lizards, eggs, small birds and even fish. Newborn opossums are so small that they are referred to as larvae, weighing only .2 of a gram (1/300 oz), and raised in a pouch for about 2-months.
At Highland Heritage there is also the woolly opossum, the common gray four-eyed opossum, and the smaller Mexican mouse opossum.
Prehensile-tailed porcupine: This tropical porcupine is an agile and intelligent mammal with a long prehensile tail, bare at the tip enabling it to hang from tree branches when reaching for fruits, blossoms, young leaves, seeds and nuts. When eating it holds fruits and seeds in its paw like a squirrel, sleeping during the day in hollow trees.
Spider Monkey: The Large loose-limbed spider monkey - 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 amongst the first primates to decline with disturbance - now endangered through habitat loss, killing of adults so that the young can be captured for the pet trade, and hunting - their flesh is said, unfortunately, to be very tasty.
If you come across them you'll soon know it - they often rattle the branches and bark and screech loudly to demonstrate their fearlessness.
These copper-coloured acrobats can attain a length of a meter and a half and are about the same weight as a howler monkey, but the stocky build of howler monkeys make them appear heavier. Spider monkeys are active throughout the day moving gracefully through treetops in search of ripe fruit, seeds, flowers, leaves, buds, and some small animals. They have evolved extreme specialization for a highly mobile arboreal lifestyle with long slender limbs allowing them 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 fingerprint for added grip at the end of treetop leaps. You may even see individuals hanging like ripe fruit by their tails.
Although a troop may consist of more than twenty monkeys, they separate into several foraging groups during the day, gathering at dusk to sleep. Females give birth to one young at age 5-7 years, thereafter at 17-45 month intervals, the infants staying with their mother for over a year. They may live for up to 27-years.
White-throated Capuchin Monkey: The distinctive Capuchin is the smartest and most inquisitive of all Central American simians, characterized by black bodies with a white or yellowish throat and shoulder regions, pink face, and with a prehensile tail. They are smaller than the spider monkey. They are commonly called white-face monkeys despite a very pink face - the surrounding area only is white.
These opportunist 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 late in the afternoon. Some crafty coastal residents, not content with grubs and insects, have developed a taste for oysters and other molluscs which they break open on rocks. The frugal capuchin sometimes hoards his food for 'rainy days'. While their taste is eclectic - feeding on fruits, nuts, shoots, buds, flowers, caterpillars, cicadas, beetles and ants, benefiting the forests by pollinating flowers and dispersing seeds - they are also fussy eaters, meticulously picking out grubs from fruit, which they test for ripeness by smelling and squeezing.
In contrast to spider monkeys, which feed primarily in treetops, this monkey forages from ground level to the upper canopy, living in groups of five to thirty-six animals. Females give birth to a single young after about 3-years of age, thereafter at intervals of approximately 19-months. They can live for more than forty years.
At Highland Heritage there are often confrontations between spider and white-throated monkeys resulting in very audible 'screams' and 'shouts' - they do not get along well together. Monkeys can often be observed from the bird observatory, or viewed in the forest. On one occasion, and from one spot, we were able to observe capuchin monkeys on one tree with spider monkeys on the next - in conflict - and on another smaller tree in-between, and band of 11 white-nose coatis.
Tamandua (Collared Anteater): The size of a raccoon, the tamandua is the most common of three anteaters in Costa Rica. When approached by a predator, the tamandua stands on its hind legs, balancing with its long prehensile tail and holding its muscular forelegs in a 'boxer-like' pose. If an animal approaches too closely, the tamandua will slash downward with its long, sharp claws.
The head and body are tan to light brown, with black over the back and a black stripe extending forward over each shoulder. The forelegs have well-developed claws that are used to tear-open nests of ants and termites, the slender snout and long, sticky tongue probing for ants, termites, and occasionally bees that constitute its diet. Tamanduas are solitary creatures that may forage by day or night, mostly staying in the trees where they often sleep during the day in forked branches high above the rainforest floor. One young is born each year staying with its mother until it is about half grown. When moving from one location to another, the young rides on the back of its mother.
Two and three-toed Sloth: The sloth has long yellowish-brown to grey fur, a pig-like snout, and two or three very long, curved claws on each forearm that help grasp branches as it climbs. Since sloths are often curled asleep in the treetops, they are not usually seen except in sparsely branched trees such as cecropia.
Its shaggy fur harbors algae and mold that make the sloth greenly inconspicuous - wonderful camouflage from prowling jaguars and keen-eyed eagles, its chief predator. Hordes of mites, beetles and caterpillars graze on its moldy hair and as many as 900 insects may live on a single sloth! Lulled by its relative treetop security, the sloth has sunken into an existence just short of complete torpor - spending up to 18-hours daily sleeping curled up with its feet drawn close together and the head tucked between the forelimbs.
Each sloth eats leaves from a unique combination of trees, the combination being different for each sloth so that they can live in higher densities than if they all depended on the same plants. Fruit is also included in their diet. They are nocturnal.
Nine-banded Armadillo: The armoured appearance, pointed snout and long, bare tail of the armadillo leave little doubt its identity. This mammal evolved in South America and has steadily spread northward. Armadillos are in an order of mammals called edentata - meaning mammals without teeth, but nine-banded armadillos have tiny peg-like teeth that help in eating ants, termites, caterpillars, beetles, slugs, earthworms, centipedes, fruit and small invertebrates. During the day they sleep in underground burrows.
The bony plates on the body provide protection from most predators except jaguars, cougars and coyotes, and the nine 'bands' around the central portion of the body provide flexibility. The shell of the armadillo suggests that it is slow moving like a turtle, but it is as agile as a rabbit and can escape rapidly from a predator by running away or quickly digging a hole with its well-developed claws. Females give birth to identical quadruplets and have an average life span of about four years.
Variegated Squirrel: The largest squirrel in Costa Rica, about the size of a large cat, the color patterns on the variegated squirrel range from coal black and grizzled black to rufous and light grey - the belly is white to cinnamon. Active during the day it feeds on acorns, nuts, fruit, buds, green plant parts, insects, bird eggs and small reptiles. A litter is usually of 4-8 young that are raised in tree cavities or leaf nests.
Red-tailed Squirrel: This squirrel is smaller, darker and more uniform in color than the variegated squirrel and more common in mid-elevation forests, such as Highland Heritage, where it is active throughout the day. Large fruits, legumes, mushrooms, young leaves, flowers and tree bark make up much of its diet. The red-tailed squirrel has two or three litters per year, each litter averaging two young.
Paca (Tepescuintle): The cocker spaniel sized paca is the largest rodent in Costa Rica. The rows of whitish spots along its sides provide camouflage and suggest the pattern of a white-tailed deer fawn. Enlarged, hollow cheek areas of the skull serve as resonating chambers to amplify the loud and ominous roar it makes when fighting or defending itself. If pursued it has two escape strategies; it will either run a short distance and stand motionless for up to 45-minutes, or it will leap into a marsh or stream and submerge for many minutes with only the eyes and nostrils exposed. Pacas are nocturnal and solitary animals, hunted extensively for their meat, spending their daylight hours in a shallow burrow under tree roots, or it a hollow log - often near water. At night they search for fallen fruits, seeds, leaves, stems and roots. Females have one young.
The paca is the number one target of most hunters in Costa Rica. Due to this and habitat loss they have become rare over much of the country.
Tayra: The tayra is a fox-sized mammal typically glimpsed as it runs up and down tree trunks and long branches in search of prey. The tail is long and bushy and the head may be black, dark brown, or light greyish in contrast to a dark brown body. It is active throughout the day relentlessly hunting on the ground and in the trees. Prey includes just about anything smaller than a white-tailed deer - figs, fruits, sloths, squirrels, agoutis, pacas, mice, rats, lizards, birds and eggs. While Tayras are usually solitary animals they are also encountered as pairs and may even hunt in groups of up to twenty animals. They make dens in hollow trees, hollow logs, or sheltered burrows, and females have one to three young.
Agouti: The agouti is a medium-sized mammal that looks like a short-eared, chestnut-brown rabbit with a tiny hairless tail. It gives the appearance of walking on its tiptoes and sits upright to eat seeds in its paws like a squirrel. If approached, an agouti will erect the long hairs on its rump and thump its hind feet on the ground. If that is not successful in deterring a predator, it will race through the underbrush while making high-pitched barks. Hollow logs or burrows are used as dens. The agouti is an important disperser of forest seeds which are collected and buried in time of seed abundance and retrieved in times of food scarcity; seeds not eaten may eventually germinate and grow. After the young are born - a litter is usually one or two - the female places them in tiny burrows that are too small for her to enter, calling them out to nurse.
Kinkajou: The kinkajou is sometimes called the 'honey-bear' because of its habit of inserting its tongue into beehives to lick the honey. Although it is nocturnal and seldom seen, its appealing face, velvet-soft grey fur, and prehensile tail have made it a well-known tropical mammal. 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 off back to sleep.
Kinkajous are superb climbers and live in treetop environments - their den is typically a hollow tree - with a diet consisting of insects, grubs, small animals, birds, bird eggs, honey, bananas and wild fruits. When a tree is full of fruit, seven or eight kinkajous may gather at night to feed. They make their presence known with noisy barks, whistles and shrill screams that can be heard up to a mile away. Females usually have one young.
Kinkajous are captured for the pet trade or killed for their meat or pelts.
White-nose Coati: The coati, known locally as 'pizote', is the largest and most conspicuous member of the raccoon family in Costa Rica. A very social mammal, it is active throughout the day and usually seen in family groups of up to thirty individuals - females and young - but more commonly fifteen to twenty. Males live alone and are known as 'pizote solo'.
The coati is at home on the ground or in trees, its omnivorous diet including fruit, nuts, figs, insects, lizards, small mammals, birds, bird's eggs, snails, worms and insect larvae. At night a group of coatis sleep in the treetops. If a group is attacked the entire troop drops out of the treetops in a bewildering array of falling bodies that confuses the predator, so much so that all the coatis can then run off to safety! They can fight fiercely as a group so have few predators other than jaguars, cougars, tayras, and hawk eagles which will occasionally prey on a coati. Females give birth to two to four young in a leafy treetop platform where they stay for about five weeks.
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Photo Left - 5.30 am - Pizote solo arrives at our woodshop for his breakfast.
Ocelot: Although rarely seen, wild cats evoke a great sense of anticipation and excitement. Human demand for the spotted pelt of the ocelot has caused populations to decline - it is now a protected species, but this does not stop hunting.
The ocelot is a medium-sized cat, about twice as long as a housecat, and an amazing climber (and swimmer), spending most of its time high in the trees. When it comes time to hunt, though, the ocelot sticks to the ground in the dark of night. Often hunting in teams, they will mew calls to each other as they home-in on their prey which includes spiny rats, agoutis, birds, lizards, opossums, snails and amphibians.
Like all small cats, the ocelot's eyes close to a slit when there is too much light, unlike big cats that close to a small circle (as do yours!). Even though their body is covered with spots, the tail is ringed like a raccoon's. One or two young are born every other year to the age of thirteen and stay with the mother for up to a year.
Jaguarundi: One of the most unusual wild cats, the jaguarundi has a house-cat head, a long body, a long slender tail, short legs, and has been likened to a large weasel or otter - there is also a resemblance to the tayra but the tail is not as bushy. It is uniform in color, ranging from dark grey/brown to an almost chestnut brown. In common with other species of wild cat, the darker forms are usually associated with dense forest cover and the paler forms with more arid habitat. While relatively small they are some of the toughest predators in the rain forest.
Extremely agile and an excellent hunter, the jaguarundi is more active during the day than other cats and hunts primarily on the ground, but can pursue prey in trees. It feeds on quail, tinamos, small rodents, armadillos, lizards and insects, and is an expert catcher of fish, often found close to running water.
It is the most vocal of Costa Rica's wild cats and has many vocalizations, including birdlike chirps. Unlike her big cat cousins that tend to sleep with their arms sprawled in front and their tails stretched out, the jaguarundi sleeps with arms folded under and tail wrapped around them into a cat ball. One to four (usually two) young are born in a hollow tree or den and are spotted at birth but these are lost at around 3-4 months of age.
These creatures are so hard to find that it is hard to estimate how many are left in Costa Rica.
Puma (Cougar): The cougar resembles a very large, heavy-bodied version of the red-phase jaguarundi. It preys on white-tailed deer, pacas, agoutis, armadillos, monkeys, tamanduas, iguanas, raccoons, and occasionally cattle and horses. The puma is an excellent climber and can leap more than 5-mtrs (16-feet) off the ground.
Jaguar: Worshipped as a god in pre-Columbian civilizations, the jaguar is the symbol of the Central American jungle. The awesome but endangered jaguar is the largest carnivore in the Americas and a mature animal can measure more than seven feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds. Its massive and muscular body enables it to overwhelm its prey up to the size of a tapir and kills by puncturing the prey's skull with large canines. The main threat to the remaining jaguar population is deforestation: when roads penetrate the primeval forest, the jaguar is among the first large mammal to disappear. It was once fairly common in Costa Rica but is now rare except in parts of large unhunted reserves, such as the Cordillera Talamanca.
A jaguar's body is highlighted by black rosettes on a golden-brown background. It requires large tracts of forest for its survival - up to 5-10 miles as a home range - and hunts during the day and night by stalking its prey or by lying in ambush. It is an adept climber and swimmer, a versatile hunter, at home in trees, on ground, and even in water. Prey includes peccaries, deer, capuchin monkeys, tapirs, agoutis, sloths, birds, fish, iguanas, snakes, domestic livestock, and caimans.
There are usually one or two cubs in a litter, occasionally up to four, and the cubs accompany the mother for between eighteen months and two years. A jaguar may live for up to eleven years in the wild.
Collared Peccary: This smallish peccary is marked by a faint whitish collar over the shoulders. It is adapted to a range of habitats and is found at high elevations, up to 10,000-feet, roaming in herds of up to thirty animals, but more commonly from two to fifteen. It is not as aggressive as the white-lipped peccary but observers should still keep their distance. They feed mostly on fruits and seeds.
Collared peccaries travel in single file, leaving trails that are conspicuous to hunters - they are hunted for their meat and hides.
Red-Brocket Deer: It may seem surprising to encounter a deer in tropical Costa Rica. They originated in North America and dispersed through Central and South America. In Costa Rica they are smaller than those in colder northern climates to help dissipate heat, and live in disturbed areas where the successional changes of vegetation provide browse, fruits and nuts. Females give birth to one or two fawns each year.
The red brocket deer is hunted for its meat. Its habit of fleeing only a short distance before freezing makes it vulnerable to dog hunting and an easy gun target. It feeds on leaves, twigs, vines, shoots and flowers.
Baird's Tapir: This is the largest mammal in Costa Rica and the largest of three tapirs in the Americas. Although resembling a very large pig, the tapir's closest relatives are horses and rhinoceroses. They have well-developed incisor teeth, like a horse, and can bite viciously. Adults are brown to blackish, with white tips on their ears, and very adaptable, roaming high in the mountains. A creature of habit, tapirs repeatedly use the same trails, streams, stream crossings, mud wallows and feeding sites - this predictability making them very vulnerable to poaching.
Active in daytime and at night, the tapir is usually found near water and is an excellent swimmer. Diet consists of leaves, twigs, fruits, and seeds - the highly flexible snout aids in grasping and breaking off leaves and twigs while feeding. Females give birth to a single young once every 17-months, which stays with the mother for up to a year.
This now endangered animal has suffered severely at the hands of man. It was once common in Costa Rica and ranged far and wide in the lowlands swamps and forests, and even present in the bamboo thickets up to 3,000 metres elevation in the Talamanca Mountains. Hunters have brought it to the edge of extinction.
I got a little close for comfort when photographing the snake shown above (no telephoto) thinking it, at first, to be a harmless green parrot snake, but on further appraisal it turned out to be a striped palm pit viper. The photo at the right is a jumping pit viper, named such because they can strike out about half their body length.
The terciopelo (fer-de-lance) is the most deadly and feared snake in Central America with powerful venom that causes many deaths in Costa Rica. The large specimen below (2 metres) was coiled up by my porch and I came but ONE step from treading on him - not seeing him until he reared up. This was my lucky day!
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