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Costa Rica has about 240 species of mammals (about 6% of the world’s mammals). Interestingly, most of which are bats (109 species). Mammals are not as easy to watch as birds or reptiles, because most of them are nocturnal, cryptic and easily detect the presence of people. Therefore, they are always hiding or running away. Nonetheless, there is a good chance to see coatis, deer, sloths, opossums, monkeys, agoutis, raccoons, peccaries, and bats.

The best place to see mammals is the dry forest, and generally during the dry season, because the canopy and understory are less dense when the leaves fall which allows the animals to be more visable. Also, during the dry season the mammals concentrate around the few water holes. Some marine mammals (whales and dolphins) are also easily seen on the coast during certain seasons.

Endemic Species

Shrew (Cryptotis jacksoni), spiny pocket mouse (Heteromys oresterus), deer mouse (Reithrodontomys rodriguezi), four pocket gophers (Orthogeomys spp.) and the woolly olingo (Bassaricyon lasius).

Terrestrial Mammals easily seen in the Costa Rican forest:


Costa Rica has four species of monkeys, all of which are arboreal and live in groups. The largest ones are the howler monkeys (Mono Congo or aullador, Alouatta palliatta) that become evident when the males howl. Despite the amazing sound produced by the males, these monkeys are quiet, eat almost only foliage, flowers and fruits, and sleep a lot. Following in size, the spider monkeys (Mono colorado o araña, Ateles geoffroyi) are shyer, and balance their bodies elegantly among the branches of the trees when moving. These monkeys are more active than the howler monkeys, and eat more fruits than anything else. Consequently, they are very important seed dispersers. The third species of monkey found in Costa Rica is the white-throated capuchin monkey, which is omnivorous and eats a lot of fruits and insects, and occasionally other vertebrates. The last species of monkey are also the smaller ones: the squirrel monkey (mono tití, Saimiri oerstedii) is found only in the South Pacific lowlands. They live in very large troops (20-70 monkeys). The squirrel monkeys are omnivorous, eating insects, fruits and foliage in a regular basis. These monkeys are also the most threatened in the country, and the reduction of their populations is due to deforestation and the illegal pet trade.



These mammals are very common in most of the protected areas and are very easy to watch because they get used to people rapidly. They are diurnal animals that travel in groups, however, adult males are solitary. Coatis are omnivorous and forage intensively for insects and fruits, and are important predators of turtle eggs. Pregnant females leave the group before giving birth and construct leaf nest in hollow trees or canopy branches.  Young coatis are born between April or May, and after some weeks the cubs and the mother join to the group again. Capuchin monkeys prey on coati nests, and coatis are also prey of raptors and boas.


These charismatic animals are nocturnal, and solitary. In Costa Rica there are two species of raccoons: the crab-eating raccoon (Mapache cangrejero, Procyon cancrivorous) and the northern raccoon (Mapache, Procyon lotor). The crab-eating raccoon occurs only in the central and south Pacific, while the northern raccoon is widespread in the country. It is hard to distinguish among species, but the crab eating raccoon is larger and more orangey in the under parts than the northern raccoon.  This is easily remembered because of the bright orange coloring on many of the crabs in the country. Their feeding behavior is not helpful to distinguish them because the northern raccoon also eats crabs and likes water-related habitats. Raccoons are very clever, and they manage to open doors, garbage cans and get through any obstacle between them and  food.


The white-lipped peccary (Saíno or Chancho de monte, Tayassu pecari) and the collared peccary (Saíno, Tayassu tajacu) are the two species found in Costa Rica. The first is restricted to large protected areas in Peninsula de Osa, Caribbean Talamanca slopes and lowlands and Barra del Colorado. The collared peccary is common in forest or open areas. In the forests, you will be able to detect a group of peccaries because of their odor, probably before they are seen. They are mainly herbivorous and eat fruits, roots and vines. In some places they have become more numerous with years, probably due to the lack of their main predators: the wildcats. They are important seed predators and seed dispersers, and they can also have a negative effect on seedling survival because they smash the seedlings while walking. Hunting pressure reduced the white-lipped peccary populations.  Because they are restricted to pristine habitats this is an endangered species. Collared peccaries are also hunted, but they travel in smaller groups that are harder to detect by hunters and can survive in altered habitats.


These are the most populous group of mammals in Costa Rica and represent about a 12% of the bat species of the world. Bats may feed on nectar, fruits, insects, small vertebrates or blood. Therefore, these animals are important plant pollinators, seed dispersers and control insect crop pests and disease transmitting insects. Only three of the 109 species of bats in Costa Rica feed on blood and these are the authentic vampire bats. One of these species (Diphylla eucaudata) looks specifically for bird blood; a second one (Diaemus youngi) prefers birds over mammal blood, leaving us with just one species that looks for mammals blood (Desmodus rotundus). Regardless of their bad reputation (thanks Dracula!), the vampires do not feed on human blood on a regular basis; tough they can affect cattle, especially if cattle are kept close to water streams. Bats also have several roosting habits. Some of them like trunks, hollow trees or caves, while others build their own refuge underneath leaves, instead of looking for a empty place. By biting on specific parts they cause the leaf to collapse in a pattern, so they build “tents” with the foliage.

The bats belong to the Chiroptera order a word derived from the greek, which means “winged hand”. Indeed the wings of the bats are made up from prolongations of the skin among the fingers and the arm’s bones. Sometimes they also have a membrane between their leg’s bones (the uropatagium) that may or may not include the bones of the tail.


Peace, calmness, tranquility…all these words could be easily related to the sloths. These animals move so little that algae, beetles, mites and moths made the sloth hair their own home. Sloths are especially slow on the ground, but once they reach the trees they are able to move faster. They are also very good swimmers, making them a terrestrial mammal that moves faster on the water than on the ground. Sloths are strictly herbivorous and have been related to the Cecropia trees (read more), although they feed on other plant species as well.  There is a sloth rescue center operating at Costa Rica: the Sloth Sanctuary.

Whales and Dolphins

They are considered Mammals because they give birth to live young (calves) and feed them milk secreted by mammary glands. In addition they are endothermic, which means that their core body temperature stays the same and does not adapt to the temperatures of their environments. Ultimately they have lungs like us human mammals and thats why they have to come to the surface to breath air via their nostrills (aka blowholes). Despite them breathing air these mammals are the only ones in Costa Rica that spend their entire lives at sea. Costa Rica is used by many whales as breeding grounds, and there are many whale sightings every year right off of the beach when they give birth in search for protection from pretators while regaining strength.

Beautiful mammals! but hard-to-watch:


Jaguars are the largest (about 150 cm- 60 in. in length) of the six wild cats that inhabit in Costa Rica. These amazing animals are diurnal or nocturnal, and are likely to occur near water. They prey almost on every animal of decent size (weights 1kg to o 2.2 lbs), such as peccaries, iguanas, sea turtles, agoutis, etc. The jaguars are different from Old World cats in terms of how they kill the prey: jaguars jump on their prey’s backs and twist their necks which normally breaks when the prey falls to the ground. They have an incredible strong bite that allows them to prey on turtles and break their caparace, except the sea turtles which tend to be larger, so the jaguars bite off the head and eat the meat inside of the caparace by pulling it out with the paws. The jaguars eat a a good amount (about 1 kg of meat daily when in captivity), and consequently they need very large areas to look for prey (1000- and 3800 hectaresa). Females can have up to four cubs at a time. In the past, jaguars were widespread all over the country, but now they are restricted to the largest protected areas. Deforestation and hunting (of jaguars or jaguar’s preys) have greatly reduced the jaguar’s populations.  Even with the protected areas and hunting laws the experts are not very positive about the future of these animals. Scientist calculated that a 4000 km2 (a million acres) area of continuos forest would be necessary to hold a viable population of jaguars (to avoid inbreeding). Unfortunately, in Central America, there is no forested area that large.

All wildcats belong to the Cat family (Felidae) in the Carnivora order of Mammals. Other families in this order are the dog (Canidae), raccoon (Procyonidae) and weasel (Mustelidae) families which not neccesarilly are strictly carnivorous. The animals in this order share mandible charachteristics such as a strong bite and big canine teeth, as well as some other skeleton features.

Are you really interested in Jaguars?

Additional Scientific reading:

Phylogeography, population history and conservation genetics of jaguars (Panthera onca, Mammalia, Felidae).

Abstract:   The jaguar (Panthera onca), the largest felid in the American Continent, is currently threatened by habitat loss, fragmentation and human persecution. We have investigated the genetic diversity, population structure and demographic history of jaguars across their geographical range by analysing 715 base pairs of the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) control region and 29 microsatellite loci in 40 individuals sampled from Mexico to southern Brazil. Jaguars display low to moderate levels of mtDNA diversity and medium to high levels of microsatellite size variation, and show evidence of a recent demographic expansion. We estimate that extant jaguar mtDNA lineages arose 280 000–510 000 years ago (95% CI 137 000–830 000 years ago), a younger date than suggested by available fossil data. No strong geographical structure was observed, in contrast to previously proposed subspecific partitions. However, major geographical barriers such as the Amazon river and the Darien straits between northern South America and Central America appear to have restricted historical gene flow in this species, producing measurable genetic differentiation. Jaguars could be divided into four incompletely isolated phylogeographic groups, and further sampling may reveal a finer pattern of subdivision or isolation by distance on a regional level. Operational conservation units for this species can be defined on a biome or ecosystem scale, but should take into account the historical barriers to dispersal identified here.

Source: Eizirick et al. 2001. Molecular Ecology 10: 65–79.

Jaguar predation of green turtles (Chelonia mydas) at tortuguero, Costa Rica - current trends and Conservation implications

Abstract:   Although jaguars (Panthera onca) have been observed on the beach at Tortuguero since the 1950's, the incidence of green turtle predation remained negligible until relatively recently, with just two documented cases in the 1980's. In the late 1990's, however, a substantial increase in jaguar predation was noted, from four in 1997 to at least 22 in 1999. This presentation describes jaguar feeding behavior, presents data on jaguar predation of green turtles from 2000 - 2004 and reviews the impacts of jaguar predation on the Tortuguero green turtle population. A remote video camera-trap was used to record jaguars feeding on recently predated turtles. One hour of close-up footage was subsequently analyzed to elucidate aspects of jaguar feeding behavior. Data on the number of turtles killed by jaguars were collected opportunistically during track surveys of the 30 km of nesting beach. A minimum of 28-97 green turtles were killed annually, suggesting a continuing increase in jaguar predation from previous years. Incidental jaguar sightings on the beach were also recorded and the frequency of jaguar observations increased over the study period. Although the data indicate an increase in jaguar predation on green turtles in the last 5 years, if it remains at current levels it is unlikely to have a great impact on the green turtle population. However, this study highlights the need for a more comprehensive investigation of this intriguing interaction between two endangered species at Tortuguero.

Sources:  Harrison, E., Troeng, S., Fletcher, M. 2008. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS SEFSC [NOAA Tech. Mem. NMFS SEFSC]. no. 582, p. 90.;   Wainwright, M. 2007. The mammals of Costa Rica. Cornell University Press. p. 454

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