Nearly every visitor to Costa Rica’s tropical rainforest has heard of its legendary biodiversity making each visit unique and thrilling.
For many, the exuberance of tropical nature ranked highly among their reasons to visit or live in Costa Rica. Yet advertisements and the covers of popular guidebooks may mislead us into thinking we stand a good chance of glimpsing the awesome and terrifying might of a jaguar, or the thin, elegant limbs and the extraordinary stare of a red-eyed tree frog. These animals are in truth exceedingly difficult to observe. The scarlet macaw, a postcard megastar, is easily seen, but only within two relatively small geographic areas along the Pacific coast. Similarly, the resplendent quetzal is more commonly sighted when it descends from its montane redoubts from March through May to feed on the fruiting aguacatillo tree but is elusive throughout the long rainy season.
So who will you meet in the rainforest? The answer depends on many variables, such as the elevation, habitat, time of day, and what local populations exist. Equally as important, some animals are simply more reclusive than others. Nonetheless, every visit to the rainforest involves chance, and it’s impossible to predict what the patient and quiet observer will see. Bearing all this in mind, let’s look at some of the most commonly encountered rainforest animals of Costa Rica.
Agouti (Guatusa in Spanish)
This fairly large-sized rodent is one of the most common mammal sightings in Costa Rican forests. Its hind legs protrude much higher than the front of its body, giving it a somewhat lopsided appearance. The agouti forages through the rainforest undergrowth alone, stepping lightly over the leaf litter and often pausing with one foot raised in the air. Because many animals prey on the agouti, it is very skittish and quiet. If you catch sight of a small brown animal scurrying away along a rainforest trail, there’s a good chance it was an agouti.
White-faced Capuchin (Cariblanco)
The capuchin, with white fur on its face, shoulders, and chest, and black fur elsewhere, is easily seen, especially in the lowlands. It forages from the ground to the upper canopy of the rainforest in groups often five to ten individuals in size, although sometimes much larger. The capuchin is less shy than other monkeys and has some infamy for hurling things at passersby.
Howler Monkey (Mono Congo)
The howler is also often seen, but even more often heard. Its far-carrying blow, a defining characteristic of many Costa Rican rainforests, can be heard up to a mile away, even through dense vegetation. The howler monkey almost never descends from the canopy, but its black profile, with some copper coloring along its flanks, can be spotted from the hot lowlands and dry northwestern forest all the way up to the cloud forest.
White-nosed Coati (Pizote)
This large member of the raccoon family is another of the most commonly sighted creatures of the understory. They’re not shy and often approach people, even outside the rainforest. Coatis can be spotted in large groups of up to thirty individuals or as a single loner. The groups are comprised of females, juveniles, and young males. Once the males grow older, they strike out on their own. Their thick furry tails are often conspicuously raised upright as the animal forages on the ground.
Although nocturnal, the armadillo is commonly encountered in the forest or even gardens as it noisily forages through fallen leaves. Easily identified by its armored body, the armadillo can often be closely approached while carrying on its business of digging up a variety of insects and other food on the ground.
One common mammal, the squirrel, may at first seem like a disappointingly familiar sight to a rainforest visitor from northern climates. The squirrels of Costa Rica, however, are not the fox and gray squirrels of the United States and Canada. The most common species in Costa Rica is the variegated squirrel, with colorations that range from combinations of rufous and gray to sooty black. There are other squirrel species, especially in the cloud forest, but they are more difficult to see.
Anteater (Tamandua, Hormiguero)
Yet another iconic animal of the neotropical forest, the collared anteater can be a fairly regular sighting in forests across the country. They can be spotted both on the ground or high in the canopy as they forage for ants and termites. They’re most easily recognized by a tan-colored snout, head, and limbs against a black vest. Another tiny nocturnal species, the silky anteater, is almost never seen, while the giant anteater appears to have been extirpated from Costa Rica.
Perhaps one of the most endearing residents of the neotropical rainforest, two and three-toed sloths are frequently seen dozing high in the canopy, or less commonly stretching their dangling limbs from branch to branch. The three-toed, identifiable by the black streaks along the sides of its face, is more regularly seen, while the mostly nocturnal and more blonde-colored two-toed remains less conspicuous, although still abundant.
These are only a sampling of some of the more commonly seen animals of the Costa Rican rainforest, and the list, of course, does not include the many birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects that populate the forest with even greater density. Many birds are much more easily observed, although learning the differences between species is more rigorous. In my next column, we’ll explore some of the common bird families that can be found in Costa Rican forests.
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