The Monkeys of Costa Rica


New World Monkeys
No environmental issue is more important to the survival of Costa Rica’s monkeys than retaining its forests. The monkey species are all tree dwellers, inhabiting protected and unprotected areas of Costa Rica’s forests. The spider and the howler are the largest of Costa Rica’s monkeys. The smallest and least likely to be spotted during travel to Costa Rica is the Central American squirrel monkey. The squirrel monkey does not resemble a squirrel but the diminutive tamarin does, darting through secondary forests of the south in large numbers and small groups, unfortunately usually too quickly for the camera to capture.

A prehensile tail allows these monkey species to steady themselves on branches or swing as the spider monkey does, freeing up their limbs to forage for fruit, leaves or insects. Lucky for visitors on Costa Rica tours, the Central American monkey species are all diurnal, though this doesn’t necessarily mean the species are easy to see. The diet and habits of the monkeys benefit the forests by the dropping or excreting of seeds along the way during their travels.

Troop size varies by species, but those found in Central America spend some time in subgroups or on their own. Monkey subspecies tend not to overlap one another geographically, so the subspecies visitors observe during their travel to Costa Rica will be different from those found on the Amazon tours or further south. Some monkey habitat is not the easiest terrain for humans to traverse such as the seldom-visited Hitoy-Cerere Biological Reserve on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. Other locations including Manuel Antonio National Park and Santa Rosa National Park on the Pacific coast offer terrain and trails that lend themselves more readily to monkey-viewing.

Howler Monkeys
Of the nine howler monkey species that inhabit the world, only the most common subspecies is found in Costa Rica, the mantled howler. It is the largest monkey species visitors on Costa Rica tours will see and one of the most prevalent. Though abundant, the number of howlers in Costa Rica has dropped precipitously in recent years due to shrinking habitat, a condition this species is better able to survive than other monkeys. These dark-colored monkeys subsist on a diet of mostly leaves that keeps them higher in the more mature trees of the forest, making it more likely that visitors will hear howler monkeys during their Costa Rica tours than see them.
If travelers are lucky enough to catch a glimpse the species, it will be likely while doing some Costa Rica hiking through the cloud forests and rainforests where they travel in small groups or groups as large as thirty-five. At eleven pounds, the adult male howler is slightly heavier than the female and about twenty inches tall. Telling the males from the females is easy. Look for the white testicles. Howlers are diurnal but don’t get very active for much of the day either. Howlers are not monogamous. Females give birth about every two years but not during a particular season of the year and are devoted mothers.

Howler monkeys are found in numerous locations of Costa Rica, including several national parks. In the north, howlers inhabit Junquillal Bay National Wildlife Refuge in the Santa Elena Gulf near the northwestern tip of Costa Rica, nearby Santa Rosa National Park and in adjacent Guanacaste National Park as well as Rincon de la Vieja National Park and the Lomas de Barbudal Biological Reserve. On the Nicoya Peninsula, howlers are found in the forests of Barra Honda National Park, in the mangroves of Tamarindo National Wildlife Refuge adjacent to Las Boulas Marine National Park which is reached by boat, and in the Cabo Blanca Natural Reserve at southern tip of the peninsula. Another location on the Pacific that is inhabited by howlers is San Lucas Island in the Nicoya Gulf. This island was formerly used as a prison but today is uninhabited only by wildlife.

Travelers who visit the interior, a popular region for Costa Rica hiking vacations, may see or hear howlers in popular Arenal Volcano National Park and the nearby Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, in the Cano Negro National Wildlife Refuge near the Nicaragua border, Carara National Park and in mammoth La Amistad International Park shared with its neighbor to the south, Panama.

People visiting the central and southern Pacific coast will find howler monkeys in some of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations including Manuel Antonio National Park, Corcovado National Park and nearby Piedras Blancas National Park. On the Caribbean side, the species is found in Tortuguero National Park and in Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Reserve north of the park where sightseeing is by boat.

Most of Southern Explorations’ Costa Rica tours travel to one or more of four national parks, Arenal, Manuel Antonio, Corcovado and Tortuguero, as well as other protected areas inhabited by howlers.

Spider Monkeys
The spider monkey requires more space to roam than the smaller species that inhabit Costa Rica. Living on mostly fruit augmented by leaves, spider monkeys travel great distances to forage, inhabiting a territory of over 2,000 acres. If you are fortunate enough to see spider monkeys during your Costa Rica travel, you will most likely see them high in the canopy. Spider monkeys travel in troops of twenty to thirty, but seek food alone or with a few companions. Females give birth every two to four years.

Hunting and the conversion of forest land to agricultural use have made the spider monkey a rarity in some parts of Costa Rica where it once roamed. One of the species’ remaining strongholds is in the country’s northwestern region. The furthest north that visitors will find spider monkeys during their Costa Rica travel is in the dry tropical forest of Junquillal Bay National Wildlife Refuge in the Santa Elena Gulf near the western border with Nicaragua. Two of the region’s national parks, the inland Rincon de la Vieja National Park and the coastal Santa Rosa National Park also provide protected habitat for the spider monkey. The species is being re-introduced in the privately-owned Curu National Wildlife Refuge on the southeast edge of the Nicoya Peninsula.

Spider monkeys also make their home in areas closer to the capital, in the central highlands. Three of these locations are private cloud forest reserves, popular Monteverde and the smaller, less-visited, Santa Elena, as well as Cano Negro National Wildlife Refuge straight north almost to the Nicaraguan border. Further east, between the town of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, and Braulio Carrillo National Park, the Organization for Tropical Studies monitors the species at La Selva Biological Station.

Spider monkeys are also found on Costa Rica’s central and southern Pacific coast including Manuel Antonio National Park and Corcovado National Park. On the Caribbean coast, the species inhabits some areas of Tortuguero National Park and further north in the Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Reserve where access is by boat only.

Visitors who travel to Costa Rica with Southern Explorations will have a wide choice of trips that visit spider monkey habitat including Manuel Antonio National Park, Corcovado National Park, Tortuguero National Park, Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest Reserve and La Selva Biological Station.

Squirrel Monkeys
Squirrel monkeys subsist on mostly insects though when available will dine on an eclectic diet, ranging from fruit to small birds. Fortunately for visitors on Costa Rica tours wishing to catch a glimpse of the species, the Central American squirrel monkey is active during the day, though it stays in the trees. Foraging comprises much of its waking hours during the dry season when food is scarcer. The species may travel in groups of up to seventy-five but usually smaller, especially when foraging, and not always composed of the same individuals.

Slightly smaller in stature than the capuchin, the squirrel monkey weighs just one to three pounds. It grows to about a foot tall with a tail as long as or longer than its body that it uses to balance itself. Living in the bio-diverse habitat of rainforest canopy, squirrel monkeys must evade a variety of predators, including big cats such as the jaguars, birds of prey and snakes. Though it may be tricky to capture this active species in photographs, the antics of the petite squirrel monkey are very entertaining to watch for those visitors lucky enough to see them on rainforest excursions during travel to Costa Rica.

Deforestation and hunting as pet or pest have drastically decreased the populations of Costa Rica’s squirrel monkeys. Scientists believe that only a few thousand of the species remain here. Conservation efforts have resulted in the species moving from a status of critically endangered to endangered. This improvement is the result of the government’s conservation measures and efforts by entities such as E.A.R.T.H. University, working to increase the use of sustainable rainforest farming practices that will aid the preservation of the species.

The two areas where visitors who travel to Costa Rica will be most likely to observe the species are on the Pacific coast in Manuel Antonio National Park and further south, on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica’s largest national park, Corcovado. Six of Southern Explorations’ eight Costa Rica tours visit one or both of these parks.