Costa Rica is a wildlife lover’s dream. An astonishing 4 – 5% of all life on Earth can be found in a country no larger than West Virginia.
Most of the life in Costa Rica comprises invertebrates, such as insects and arachnids. However, close to 250 species of mammals can be found across a range of habitats, both terrestrial and marine.
So what types of terrestrial mammals are native to Costa Rica?
Bats make up the majority of all mammals in Costa Rica, from the unusual fishing bat, to the infamous vampire bat. However, the Costa Rican forests are home to a wealth of other mammalian life like sloths, monkeys, raccoons, the Kinkajou, Agouti, Tamandua, Tapir, Mexican hairy dwarf porcupines, and a number of wildcats like Jaguars.
Grab your binoculars, and your night-vision goggles, and explore some of the mammals that call Costa Rica home with us.
Let’s be honest, it’s the sloths that draw the biggest crowds to Costa Rica.
There are six species of sloth in the world, two of which can be found in Costa Rica. Both species can be found in humid rainforests across the country, however, you will not find any sloths in the North West of Costa Rica, Guanacaste – far too dry there.
Notable places to see sloths are Arenal, Tortuguero, Corcovado, Manuel Antonio, and Cahuita National Parks.
All species of sloth have three claws on their hind feet. However, sloths are named after the number of sharp, prominent claws on their front foot.
Hoffman’s Two-Toed Sloth
The bigger of the two species, the Hoffman’s two-toed sloth can weigh as much as 9kg.
Whoever thought sloths were cute and cuddly, think again. Contrary to belief, their large size means they can put up quite a fight. Their surprisingly powerful arms can take quite the swing and, if caught by their sharp claws, can cause some serious damage.
If their claws miss, they will try and bite with their large peg-like teeth. Talking from experience, it hurts. A lot.
I have worked with both adult and baby two-toed sloths.
The biggest contributor to sloth casualties comes from electrocutions from overhead power lines, as well as domestic dog attacks. Unfortunately, some of the injuries I witnessed were too severe for us to save the animals. That’s why we must put pressure on governments to tackle issues from the route cause! Insulate power lines. Install wildlife crossings. Simple solutions can save many lives.
Two-toed sloths are thought to be one of the slowest animals, succeeded only by their three-toed cousins. They’re so slow, an entire ecosystem of algae and fungus grows on their back. Over 20 species have been recorded on the back of the two-toed sloths. But these organisms aren’t parasites, they are fully functioning communities, found nowhere else on Earth. In fact, they even help the sloth avoid predation, by helping it blend into the surrounding vegetation.
Many people think two-toed sloths are vegetarian. They’re not. The two-toed sloth will eat just about anything they can find – providing it doesn’t outrun the sloth. They have been known to eat leaves, fruits, leaves, bird eggs, and small vertebrates.
Brown-Throated Three-Toed Sloth
The smaller, and much friendlier, cousin of the two-toed sloth, the three-toed sloth has an everlasting smile.
No, they’re not happy to see you. Instead, they have an upturned mouth, giving the impression of a cute smile. Because of this, they are exploited as pets. We have rescued various three-toed sloths from bars and cruise ships, which were using three-toed sloths as photo props.
Unlike two-toed sloths, the three-toed sloth is a strict folivore. This means it only survives on a diet of leaves. Whilst they can eat upwards of 50 different species of leaves, most will choose just a select few favourites, such as the leaves of the cecropia tree.
Due to their nutrient-poor diet, three-toed sloths are slow and sluggish. They will often remain motionless for days at a time – come rain or shine. They will only ever venture to the forest floor once a week to defecate.
The eyesight of the three-toed sloth is pretty poor, especially in sunlight, where they are near blind. Really hit the evolutionary jackpot… Instead, they prefer to move at night, where it is easier to avoid predators.
If the sloths don’t bring you to Costa Rica, the monkeys will. There are 4 species of monkeys found in Costa Rica, across most habitat types; from mangroves to rainforests.
Capuchin monkeys are the most numerous monkeys found in Costa Rica. They can be found in all provinces and have exploited a range of habitats.
They are easily distinguishable by their distinctive black and white fur. They are also one of the few monkey species that can be found foraging on the floor.
Capuchin monkeys are thought to be the most intelligent of all the New World monkeys. They have been recorded using tools, such as rocks and sticks, to help gain access to food items.
Working with a range of capuchin monkeys, I have seen firsthand their intelligence and decision-making skills. They are capable of formulating plans and carrying out tasks with accuracy. They can also learn and develop new skills through a process of trial and error.
For their size, howler monkeys are thought to be one of the loudest animals on the planet.
With a modified shell-like hyoid bone, males can be heard from over 5km away. Their roar is a show of dominance, warning other males to stay clear.
Compared to other monkey species in Costa Rica, howler monkeys are slow and sluggish. They can often be found foraging for leaves throughout the forest canopies. Some of the best places to see wild howler monkeys are in Guanacaste, such as Samara and Santa Rosa.
Spider monkeys get their name from their long, spider-like limbs – the perfect adaptations for life in the canopy. Their long limbs allow them to travel large distances throughout their home ranges.
Their equally large tail, which can be as long as 30 – 35 inches, can be used as another limb. Whilst foraging, climbing, or swinging, spider monkeys use their long tails to fully support their body weight. The tip of their tail is hairless, to aid with grip.
Spider monkeys are one of the rarest species of monkeys found in Costa Rica. Due to habitat loss and fragmentation, much of their former range has been destroyed. Santa Rosa National Park, where a stronghold of spider monkeys can be found, represents just 1% of its historical range of tropical dry forest.
Weighing no more than 900g, the Central American squirrel monkey is the smallest primate species found in Costa Rica.
It is also the most endangered.
Unlike other species of monkeys found in Costa Rica, which have a large range and can survive in a variety of different habitats, squirrel monkeys are restricted to just a few pockets along the Central Pacific coastline.
In Manuel Antonio or Corcovado National Park, groups of up to 100 squirrel monkeys can be seen energetically leaping from branch to branch. Their high energy demands mean they must eat constantly. They feed on a variety of fruits, buds, seeds, eggs, seeds, and small vertebrates.
The kinkajou is the Frankenstein of the animal world.
With monkey-like features, a cat-like body, and a bear-like appetite, the kinkajou really is quite the oddity. However, they are neither cats nor monkeys. They are related to raccoons and coatis.
Kinkajous can be found throughout the rainforests of Costa Rica, where they have adapted to life in the trees. Like most monkeys, kinkajous have a prehensile tail, capable of supporting their body weight as they forage for ripe fruits in the tree canopy.
Unlike monkeys, however, kinkajous can rotate their feet allowing them to run in either direction, as well as up and down tree trunks.
As well as a diet of ripe fruit, a kinkajou will gorge on honey and insects. They have incredibly long and sharp claws, which can not only be used as self-defence, but also to open bee nests to access honey inside. They use their long tongue to lap up the sweet reward.
Kinkajous are nocturnal and can be quite difficult to spot in the wild. I have spotted them in the wild in places such as Corcovado, Monteverde, and Guanacaste. I have also had the privilege of working with them in captivity, where they were rescued from the pet trade.
Despite their cute, cuddly faces, kinkajous do not make good pets. If threatened, they will not hesitate to scratch and bite. The latter of which can become a serious issue, as an incredibly high diversity of nasty bacteria can be found in the mouth of a kinkajou.
Ah, raccoons. The cheeky bandits of The Americas. Love them or hate them, one thing is for certain; raccoons are highly intelligent and are capable of solving complex puzzles.
In Costa Rica, two species of raccoons can be found: the Northern raccoon and the crab-eating raccoon.
Often considered “trash pandas”, raccoons have acquired quite a reputation for themselves. Aided by their black and white facial markings, resembling that of a burglar’s mask, raccoons are notorious food thieves. So much so, they are one of the few animals that have actually benefited from the expansion of the human population!
Raccoons are omnivorous, feeding off both plant and animal matter. And yes, this does also include raiding the trash cans. But, as the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s (or raccoon’s) treasure”. Their adaptability has allowed them to thrive in places few other animals would be able to.
However, the table manners of a raccoon are questionable. If near a water source, a raccoon will “wash” its food by rolling the food around in its paws underwater.
But, hygienic though this behaviour may be, scientists are skeptical. Instead, it is thought that the raccoon is gathering sensory information on whether the food item is edible or not – an important feat when you’re rummaging through human trash.
By touch alone, it is thought that raccoons can understand 2/3 of all sensory information. Water just seems to enhance their sensitivity, allowing them to gather more information.
The lesser-known of the two species is the crab-eating raccoon.
In appearance, both the northern and crab-eating raccoons aren’t too dissimilar. The biggest physical difference is a smaller tail, coarser fur, and sharper claws.
As the name suggests, this species is a crab specialist. In Costa Rica, the crab-eating raccoon can be found in National Parks along the Eastern coast of Costa Rica, such as Cauhita.
Despite the name, crabs aren’t the only item on the menu. Like other raccoon species, the crab-eating raccoon will eat a range of plant and animal matter, including fish, eggs, insects, and amphibians.
Although both species of Costa Rican raccoon are considered sympatric, existing in the same geographical ranges, the crab-eating raccoon is less likely to be found in urban areas. Instead, they are restricted to inland lakes and waterways.
The crab-eating raccoon is extremely dexterous. They are capable of manipulating and interpreting objects to a high cognitive ability using their paws alone. This is a useful asset when dealing with prey that is likely to put up a fight.
It just goes to show, not all raccoons are trash pandas.
5. Wild Cats
Rare, elusive, magical. Wild cats are some of the top predators of Costa Rica. They differ in size, depending on the species, from the size of a house cat to bigger than a fully grown adult person.
There are 6 species of wild cat in Costa Rica, all of which are threatened with extinction.
The jaguar is the third largest cat in the world (after tiger and lion) and the largest cat in all the Americas.
Weighing up to 120kg, the jaguar is an apex predator of the Costa Rican forests. They have one of the strongest bites known in the animal kingdom, allowing them to take down big prey such as tapir and caimans. However, they are opportunistic hunters, and will take on just about any prey they find.
To help them take on a huge range of prey, jaguars have incredibly powerful jaws and teeth. They are ambush hunters, stalking their prey until the right moment. Then, they strike. With a single leap and a bite to the back of the skull, the jaguar can kill their prey almost instantly.
One of the best places to witness a wild jaguar in Costa Rica is in Tortuguero. To maximise chances, you should book a kayak tour through the many tributaries that wind through the National Park.
In recent years, jaguar sightings have been on the rise in Tortuguero. However, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Locals have noticed a higher predation on stray cats and dogs around Tortuguero, and it is thought Jaguars are responsible. With a reduction in their natural prey, most notably sea turtles, jaguars are coming closer into contact with humans. This puts them at greater risk of human-wildlife conflicts.
After the jaguar, the puma (sometimes referred to as a cougar or mountain lion) is the second largest cat in Costa Rica. It is probably one of the most widely distributed and observed of all the wild cat species and can be seen in a range of National Parks, such as Corcovado, Santa Rosa, and Monteverde.
Pumas are an incredibly adaptable species, and can be found in an array of Costa Rican habitats – from lowland rainforest to high altitude scrubland and cloud forests. As such, they have diversified their prey species. Pumas are opportunistic ambush hunters, preying on a range of mammals (many of which are on this list) including agoutis, raccoons, porcupines, opossums, deer, and more.
Unlike many other species of wild cat in Costa Rica, pumas lack spots. Instead, their coat is a reddish-brown colour, allowing them to blend in with the forest floor.
Slightly larger than a house cat, the ocelot is one of the most majestic mammals in Costa Rica.
Ocelots have a distinctive mottled golden coat, consisting of patterns of rosettes, stripes, and spots. The stripes of an ocelot are often black, whilst spots consist of a black outline with a brown center.
Their striking coat helps them blend into the surrounding vegetation, allowing the ocelot to silently ambush their prey – either from the forest floor, or from within the canopy. They hunt rodents, as well as other small mammals and birds. Like house cats, they have a rough tongue that allows them to scrape meat off the bone.
However, their coat also aids with predator defence. Despite being a predator themselves, ocelots are hunted by the jaguar, puma, caiman, and, of course, humans.
The population of ocelots crashed in Costa Rica due to the targeted hunting of their fur to make pelts. They are now a protected species.
They can be found in an array of tropical habitats, including mangrove swamps, montane, and pre-montane forests. Essentially, ocelots can be found from sea level to mountainous regions. They have an extensive range throughout Central and South America. In Costa Rica, they can be spotted (pun intended) in similar environments to the puma and jaguar, in places such as Corcovado, Monteverde, Santa Rosa, and Arenal.
At the rescue center, I worked in, we had a resident ocelot. He was rescued from the pet trade, where he was found severely malnourished. An inadequate diet caused him to develop brittle bones, altering the way he behaved in captivity.
Margays are similar to ocelots, but smaller. At less than 4kg, they weigh considerably less than an average house cat. No wonder it is often referred to as the “little ocelot”.
But make no mistake, the margay is very much its own species of wild cat.
Being mostly arboreal, the tail of a margay is relatively long – as much as 70% of their entire body length. Reaching lengths of up to 20 inches, their tail helps the margay keep balanced as they climb through forest branches.
As well as their long tails, margays have broad feet and mobile toes. Acting in a similar way to prehensile tails in other arboreal mammals, these toes allow the margay to hang from a tree branch with relative ease. Like the kinkajou, the margay has rotatable feet, allowing it to climb up and down tree trunks with surprising speed.
Like the ocelot, margays tend to prey mostly on small rodents. They will also eat birds and lizards.
I have only ever seen one margay in the wild, and this was during a night expedition to Monteverde cloud forest. Their large, padded feet made not a single sound as it crossed an overhanging branch.
With a name like “jaguarundi”, you would expect this wild cat to have some jaguar-esque characteristics.
However, the jaguarundi is more like a small puma. A puma that looks like a weasel. A strange combination.
The jaguarundi is a medium-sized cat, measuring up to 50 inches in length. It has small ears and legs, but a long tail. Whilst two colour morphs can be found (reddish brown and grey) across their range in Central and South America, jaguarundis in Costa Rica are mostly grey.
Unlike other wild cats in Costa Rica, the jaguarundi is mostly active during the day. They can be found close to water sources, such as marshes and swamps. In this habitat, they are surprisingly efficient swimmers.
In Costa Rica, jaguarundis are commonly found in the Guanacaste province.
One of the rarest cats in Costa Rica, little is known about the oncilla.
Found in high elevation pockets, the oncilla is the smallest, and most elusive, wild cat in Costa Rica. They are typically observed in cloud forests, such as Monteverde. However, like the margay, they tend to stay clear of areas with a presence of ocelots, as the ocelot will outcompete their smaller cousins.
Smaller than the average house cat, the oncilla resembles that of a margay. With a rosette and spotted patterning across its fur, the oncilla is perfectly adapted to life in the undergrowth. They hunt mostly on the forest floor, but they are adept climbers.
6. Mexican Hairy Dwarf Porcupine
There are some flaws in the name of this one.
Firstly, the Mexican hairy dwarf porcupine isn’t just found in Mexico. It can be found all across the neotropics, including Costa Rica. They occupy a variety of forests, including cloud, rain, and coniferous forests. One of the best places to see them in the wild is the Osa peninsula – but, go at night, as this rodent is nocturnal.
Secondly, they are not entirely hairy. Like spider and howler monkeys, the Mexican hairless dwarf porcupine has a prehensile, hairless tail. This allows them to move around the forest canopy with ease.
Having said that, most of the body is covered in a layer of long, black hairs. Underneath this hair lies a dangerous weapon: sharp quills. If threatened, the porcupine can shed quills at any attacker – including humans.
This has happened to me, and it is not a nice experience. Whilst handling a newly rescued porcupine, I was helping our onsite vet collect some data metrics. The porcupine wasn’t used to being handled and released quills into my arm.
But, and this is why porcupines can be so dangerous, their quills are covered in microscopic barbs. This makes pulling the quills out of flesh near impossible, and they become lodged in the skin.
The quills themselves are just modified hairs, made of keratin.
Everyone knows what a Guinea pig looks like, right?
Now, picture a large guinea pig with long legs and coarse brown fur. Well, that’s the closest thing to an agouti you’ll find.
Agoutis are monogamous, meaning they have one mate for their whole life. In Costa Rica, it is common to see a pair of agoutis together on a forest path. They can be found across the Western slopes, including Manuel Antonio and Monteverde.
However, if you can’t see them, you’ll more than likely be able to smell them. Agoutis secrete a strong, musky smell from their anal glands when they are marking up their territories.
Agoutis are a keystone species. Not only are they the main prey of cats, such as ocelots, but they also act as seed dispersers. Much of their diet is composed of fruits and nuts. When the agouti defecates, seeds get transported around the forest.
Their teeth are coated in a thick layer of enamel, allowing them to break open even the toughest of nuts.
The tamandua is the smaller, more agile cousin of the giant anteater.
Like the giant anteater, tamanduas have a highly elongated snout, complete with a long, sticky tongue that can reach lengths of up to 15 inches.
Their long snout and sticky tongue are a direct adaptation of their diet. Referred to as myrmecophagous, tamanduas feed off both ants and termites, and can eat as many as 9,000 ants in a single day.
Using their keen sense of smell, the tamandua can detect an ant or termite nest – both on the ground and up in the canopy. To break open the hard nest, a tamandua has four claws on its front feet, one of which is exceptionally large, which it uses to get access to the insects within.
Despite their large weaponry, the tamandua rarely does any permanent damage to a nest, mostly due to the ants’ effective defence mechanisms. Instead, the tamandua can raid up to 80 nests in a single foraging trip.
Being a rather small mammal, tamanduas are at risk of predation from a range of larger species, such as jaguars, ocelots, boas, and raptors. As a defence, the tamandua can release a smell from its anal glands rivaling the stink of a skunk.
The largest land mammal in Costa Rica, the tapir should be on anyone’s bucket list to see.
Despite their size, weighing as much as 300kg, they are elusive and relatively hard to spot in the wild. However, Corcovado National Park has one of the largest tapir populations in all of Costa Rica.
A cross between an elephant and a pig, the tapir is a strange animal. It has a long, tube-like nose that is used to strip leaves from plants. Like the tail of many mammals, we’ve come across so far, the truck of the tapir is referred to as prehensile. But that’s not all. The trunk aids with breathing underwater.
That’s right, these cumbersome mammals are actually rather graceful underwater. They submerge themselves to cool off, escape danger and forage aquatic plants. By holding their truck just above the surface, they can stay submerged for hours.
Although leading a vegetarian lifestyle, tapirs can be incredibly aggressive – especially if there are young around. If provoked, they will charge. Imagine a 300kg block of muscle running toward you…
Unfortunately, tapir populations are continuing to decline in Costa Rica. This has mostly been attributed to habitat loss, including fragmentation, as well as illegal hunting and collision with cars and other automobiles.
Fortunately, charities such as Nai Conservation, are conducting ongoing research to increase current populations of wild tapirs in Costa Rica.
Bats are, by far, the most numerous mammal found in Costa Rica. It is thought that at least 110 species of bats can be found across a range of habitats in Costa Rica.
Bats are lunarphobic, meaning they tend to avoid bright lights. One study suggests that bats avoid foraging during the full moon, potentially to avoid predation or detection from prey.
Bats are highly diverse mammals, having exploited many different ecological niches. Most species use a type of sonar system, referred to as echolocation, to detect and hunt prey. Bats emit bursts of high pitch sounds that bounce off surrounding objects, sending signals back to the bat.
Echolocation allows bats to gather a range of information about their environment. They can determine how far objects are away, how big an object is, and even what kind of texture it is.
Whilst most bats feed on insects, there are a range of species that have gone down a totally different path.
Take the bulldog fishing bat, for example. Fishing bats can be found around estuaries and mangrove forests across the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, such as Santa Rosa National Park. Using their sensitive echolocation, they can detect the slightest of water ripples. Claws extended, they skim their feet across the surface of the water, snapping up any surface-going fish.
Another species of bat that has decided that insects are off the menu are vampire bats.
These predatory bats land near livestock, most notably cattle. Using their sharp incisors, they make small incisions in their mammalian victims. Vampire bats have an anticoagulant in their saliva, preventing their prey’s blood from clotting, allowing them to slurp away.
Vampire bats have been known to bite humans. These small, flying mammals certainly give Count Dracula a run for his money.
Then, there are the bats that hunt frogs. The fringe-lipped bat is able to detect the mating call of the male tungara frog. Male tungara frogs try to outcompete each other by croaking louder than their rival – this all works in the fringed-lipped bat’s favour.
There are even bats that have adapted an entirely vegan lifestyle, lapping up nectar from night-blooming flowers.
Often associated with monsters and haunted stories, bats have developed quite a bad reputation for themselves. The reality, however, couldn’t be further from the stories.
Bats are keystone species in Costa Rica. They pollinate flowers, help regenerate forests by dispersing seeds, and can also rid areas of disease-carrying pests, such as mosquitos.
Despite their large size (in comparison to invertebrates), mammals are one of the hardest subjects to spot in Costa Rica.
Some, such as sloths, have evolved alongside their humid environments, creating a living ghillie suit of algae and fungi to help them blend into the surrounding vegetation.
Others, such as the kinkajou, are nocturnal and found high in the rainforest canopy – away from the prying eyes of us humans.
Many species are perfectly adapted to the many habitats of Costa Rica – whether it’s the spotted coat of wild cats, the rotatable feet of the kinkajou, or the prehensile tail of monkeys and porcupines.
Mammals are one of the biggest groups of animals at risk of extinction in Costa Rica. Habitat loss, capture for the illegal exotic pet trade, and hunting are all significant drivers of population declines.
Fortunately, with current conservation practices in Costa Rica, most mammal species are protected in National Parks.