I’m going to take Wildly Mistaken abroad for a bit to talk about probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done – a trip to Costa Rica for my honeymoon in 2012. This was about two weeks of eco-tourism through tropical rainforests, beaches, and cloud forest as newlyweds, and the 103 degree fever I was running the night before wasn’t nearly enough to ruin it. It was so jam-packed with wildlife sightings that I’m going to have to break this up into several posts.
Today I will focus on the mammal species we came across. These were the most disproportionately exciting compared to the wildlife found in eastern North America. These creatures were so different from anything I’d seen in the wild before that the forest felt almost like an alien world.
I have to start with the monkeys. Costa Rica is home to four native species, of which we saw three (sorry, Central American spider monkeys, some other time). All three were a wonder to behold. White-faced capuchins (Cebus capucinus) seemed to be everywhere and were particularly mesmerizing. They visited our hotel, met us on a mangrove boat tour, crossed our paths in the forest more than once, and hung out with us on the beach. Our guide on the mangrove tour was more circumspect than some, nothing the ethical concerns of feeding the monkeys to ensure a higher rate of sightings for tour groups. Some other guides nearby were doing so, and I took advantage by snapping a few photos… but the practice did make my conservationist spidey-sense tingle. Eco-tourism can be a tricky balance between disturbance and education, and for me feeding wild animals for this reason is way over the line. I have to admit, though, that watching a wild monkey high-five some guy was pretty cool.
My other capuchin stories involve their thievery. I don’t know if I’ve ever really seen an animal gloat before or sense, but these guys were clearly having fun at the expense of their human neighbors. One troop was stealing eggs from our hotel’s chef. She had an eggs-to-order station set up for breakfast, and each time she would deliver finished eggs to a table the monkeys would break for the bowl of raw eggs. Another troop stole food from some beach-goers. In both instances the successful thief moved just out of reach and ate his plunder while staring down the victims.
No great stories come to mind about the red-backed squirrel monkeys (Saimiri oerstedii) or mantled howler monkeys (Allouata palliata) but they too were awesome creatures. The sense of wonder that came over me each time I saw a fellow primate in the wild cannot be overstated. One can’t help but anthropomorphize and believe that they are experiencing the same feeling of warped kinship. When you’re talking about baby monkeys, well, just give up all hope of not melting into a puddle of delight.
Another famous group of rainforest mammals are the sloths. Costa Rica is home to both the two-toed (Choloepus hoffmanni) and three-toed (Bradypus variegatus) varieties, and we were blessed with glimpses of both. A word about the toes: both varieties of sloth have three claws on their hind limbs; they differ in the number of claws on their forelimbs. Sloths are as much as ten times more abundant than monkeys but are harder to spot due to their camouflage, signature lack of activity, and tendency to stay in the canopy. I viewed these animals with a very different kind of wonder. They’re so alien, and frankly kind of ugly, but somehow cute in their way and very fascinating. It didn’t hurt my opinion of sloths any that one morning at breakfast we were able to watch from the deck of our hotel as a couple of two-toed sloths (mother and baby, I think) fed one another. I later learned that this food sharing behavior is actually common even among adult sloths.
Then there were the real oddballs. Quite regularly an agouti (Dasyprocta punctata) would scurry off into the forest as we passed. These guys resembled giant hamsters, or maybe rabbits with their ears lopped off. We also got one good look at a kinkajou (Potos flavus) – a strong contender for “weirdest mammal I have ever seen.” His face looked like claymation or, for fellow nerds, Nien Nunb from Return of the Jedi.
I think my favorite, despite the monkeys, were the coatimundi. The white-nosed coati (Nasua narica) is such an adorable, inquisitive little beast. Whenever I saw one I couldn’t help thinking of my dog back in the States, and indeed they were described by some locals as “raccoon dogs.” They were somewhat wary of humans, but not enough to run and hide at the first sign of us. If anything they seemed to regard us as potential – if potentially dangerous – sources of food or other interest. They had this capacity to look apologetic for whatever they might have done; something we witnessed a couple of times as one emerged from a building into which it had not been invited.
We missed out on spotting any of the forest’s big cats, peccaries, and anteaters. No complaints: these are all fairly rare sightings even for professionals. Word was that there was a sighting of the elusive jaguar near us the evening before we arrived in Monteverde, but it faded back into the mists of obscurity. Out of the 200-plus mammal species calling Costa Rica home I couldn’t have asked for a much better sampling on a single trip.