Costa Rica is home to an astonishing array of life. Some 500,000 species have already been described by science. However, there are a handful of species that steal the heart of any traveler that ventures to Costa Rica.
One such group is the monkeys!
So, what are some fo the types of Monkeys that live in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is home to four different species of monkey: Capuchin, Howler, Squirrel, and Spider monkeys. The capuchin monkey is perhaps the most common species of monkey in Costa Rica, found in both natural and disturbed regions. The squirrel monkey is the rarest species, found in just a few National Parks.
All Costa Rican primates are threatened with habitat loss, electrocutions, and capture for the illegal exotic pet trade.
I have worked with captive monkeys, as well as observed wild species in the wild. They are such inquisitive animals, not so dissimilar from ourselves. Learn more about them here!
What (Exactly) Is A Monkey?
I’m sure most of us have seen a monkey before – whether it be in person or on the television.
If you picture a monkey, what comes to mind? Fur? A long tail? Four limbs? All are (mostly) correct.
But what really are monkeys?
A monkey is a generic term used to describe nearly 200 species of primate. Although closely related, they are not the same as apes.
Most monkeys are arboreal and can be found in tropical forests – Costa Rican species are no exception. Besides a few species of night monkeys, most species are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day. They use their four limbs, as well as their tails, to move around the trees in search of food, such as leaves, fruits, nuts, eggs, and invertebrates.
Many species of monkeys have long, prehensile tails. They use these tails to help support their weight whilst swinging through the canopy, as well as for balance.
Like humans, monkeys are highly dexterous. Both their hands and feet are used for grasping and manipulating objects, such as food items or branches.
Again, similar to humans, monkeys have large brains and are remarkably intelligent. Many species, most notably capuchins, have been known to use tools to aid in complex cognitive tasks – something I have witnessed first-hand.
Costa Rican Monkey Species
So, now that we’ve briefly explored what makes a monkey a monkey, let’s discover the monkey species found in Costa Rica.
1. White-Faced Capuchin Monkey
There are 5 species of capuchin monkeys distributed throughout Central and South America.
However, in Costa Rica, only one species can be found: the white-faced capuchin.
Weighing around 4 kg, this medium-sized monkey can be found across much of Costa Rica. Their distinctive black fur is broken up by white fur on the front part of their body and a pinkish, hairless face.
The white-faced capuchin can be found across much of Costa Rica, in areas of both pristine natural forests, as well as human-disturbed regions. They are an adaptable species, found in a variety of habitat types. Capuchins occupy coastal habitats, dry forests, primary and secondary rainforests, and volcanic foothills, such as Arenal Volcano.
Capuchins, unlike most monkey species, can be found on the ground. Whilst they are mostly arboreal, they will venture away from trees to forage on the ground in groups of up to 20 individuals.
However, most of the time, capuchins are observed in the trees. Their long, prehensile tail helps them balance and grip onto branches whilst foraging.
Unlike other animals in Costa Rica, many of which have a very specific diet, capuchin monkeys have an incredibly varied diet. They are opportunistic omnivores, feeding on a variety of plant and animal protein.
Capuchins are curious primates, willing to experiment and try novel food items. Through a process of trial and error, capuchins can learn what food they like and dislike – much like a human.
For a capuchin, anything is on the menu. Whilst the majority of their diet comprises fruits and nuts, at least 20% of their diet is derived from animal protein. This includes eggs and insects, to small vertebrates such as birds, squirrels, and lizards.
White-faced capuchins are highly social and playful animals. They live in mixed groups, with females remaining in the same group their entire lives, whilst males leave to find mating opportunities.
I have a great deal of love and respect for capuchin monkeys. I am always amazed at how clever and intuitive they are. Every week, we would create and offer various enrichment puzzles for our resident capuchins to play with. They are a joy to watch.
2. Howler Monkey
Unlike capuchin monkeys, which are highly active and energetic, howler monkeys are a lot more reserved and slow moving – despite being one of the largest primate species in Costa Rica.
However, what they lack in energy, they certainly make up for in vocalisations.
Male howler monkeys are loud. Really loud. In fact, they are often considered one of the loudest animals on planet Earth – they aren’t called howler monkeys for no reason.
But what makes howler monkeys so loud?
Well, it’s all to do with the hyoid bone.
Found just above the larynx in the neck, most mammal species have a hyoid bone. Typically, the shape of the bone resembles a small horseshoe and aids with tongue movement and swallowing.
In howler monkeys, however, the bone has developed a rounded, shell-like bone which can amplify sound – much like how a conch can emit sound when blown into.
The roar of a male howler monkey can be heard up to 5km away. That’s nearly 50 football fields stretched out. All the whilst being surrounded in thick, sound-proofing jungles. Pretty impressive.
Ok, so we know how they make such a loud noise. But why are howler monkeys so loud?
There are thought to be three general theories as to why howler monkeys howl.
The first is dominance. A male needs to be louder than his rivals and competitors to be heard.
This leads to the second theory; mate attraction. A male with the loudest roar is thought to be more desirable by females, as a loud roar indicates good health.
Lastly, a male howler monkey marks his territory via his roar. The louder the roar, the more likely other males will stay clear of his territory.
If you have never heard the roar of a howler monkey, it can be really quite unnerving.
My first ever experience of a howler monkey roar was back in 2018. I was conducting research on sea turtles and had to cross a stretch of mangrove forest to reach the beach.
At just past 4 am, before the sun had risen, a deafening roar resonated around me. To say the use of profanities was used was an understatement. I thought a jaguar was out to get me.
Fortunately, I survived to tell the tale…
Unlike a cat roar, the roar of a howler monkey comes in bellowing waves in the sound of an “O”.
Howler monkeys spend nearly all of their time in the forest canopy. They are folivores, feeding primarily on leaves, which explains their sluggish behaviour.
To aid in foraging, howler monkeys have strong prehensile tails. The underside of the tip of their tail is hairless. This helps the monkey grip branches.
3. Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey
Alongside the howler monkey, spider monkeys are one of the largest primates to be found in the New World, weighing as much as 9 kg.
There are thought to be 7 species of spider monkeys, all of which are found in Central and South America. The Geoffroy’s spider monkey is the only species to be found in Costa Rica.
The name spider monkey refers to their long, gangly limbs, which are thought to resemble those of a spider. Personally, I don’t see it. For starters, a spider has 8 limbs, not 4…
Whatever the origin of their name, one thing is for certain; Geoffroy’s spider monkeys are adapted to life in the trees – perhaps more so than any other Costa Rican monkey.
Their long arms and legs aid in brachiation – the tree-to-tree locomotion observed in this species. By swinging through the branches, spider monkeys are able to cover large distances.
Not only do they use their arms to swing, but they also use their tail as an extra limb. This muscular appendage is incredibly long and powerful, fully able to support the entire body weight of a spider monkey. This comes in handy for when spider monkeys want to use their hands to forage.
Like the capuchin monkey, the diet of a Geoffrey’s spider monkey is omnivorous. They frequently eat fruit and leaves, however, protein is occasionally supplemented in the form of insects and eggs.
At the rescue center where I worked, we had a troop of spider monkeys. Distinguishing the sexes was one of the main challenges I faced, at least in the early days. Parents with children may wish to skip over this next section, as we’re delving into the fascinating world of monkey genitalia….
In spider monkeys, size does matter. At least, for females.
Females have an engorged clitoris that dangles down – much like the flaccid penis of a male, except, the female’s which is normally larger than the males.
Scientists that study primates, referred to as primatologists, suggest that large sex organs are key in mate selection. The larger, more engorged the clitoris is, the more sexually receptive a female is. After a potential mate is selected, males will start touching the clitoris.
However, this is not an act of sexual pleasure. Instead, the male can pick up on olfactory cues, ultimately gauging a female’s sexual receptiveness. He does this by sniffing his fingers after touching the clitoris.
Each to their own, I guess.
In Costa Rica, spider monkeys are considered endangered. According to the International Primate Society, they are thought to be one of the world’s 25 most endangered primates. This is because they need large areas of primary rainforest to forage. A habitat that is very much under threat from deforestation and habitat loss.
4. Central American Squirrel Monkey
Squirrel monkeys are the smallest primate species to be found in Costa Rica. They also happen to be the most endangered.
There are two subspecies of the Central American squirrel monkey found along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica – both of which are at risk of extinction.
Their appearances are mostly the same – yellowy-brown fur with white fur around its face. The only distinguishable difference, besides geographical location, is the shade of fur on their head. They are a similar size, weighing no more than 900g and measuring less than 12 inches in length.
For a small primate species, they have an incredibly long tail. At 15 inches, it is longer than their body length when fully grown. Unlike other primates in Costa Rica, the tail of the squirrel monkey is not prehensile and they cannot use it to hang from branches. However, the tail allows them to balance when running across vines and branches.
Highly energetic, squirrel monkeys spend at least 70% of the day foraging for food to keep up with their metabolic demand. Again, they are omnivorous. However, most of the diet consists of animal-based protein, in the form of insects and small vertebrates.
Squirrel monkeys live in large groups, ranging from 25 to 100 individuals. In rare cases, groups have been recorded at some 300 strong. To communicate in such large groups, squirrel monkeys have a variety of distinct vocalisations, postural displays, facial expressions, and olfactory cues.
One of the most interesting forms of communicative behaviours is in the form of urine washing. This is not uncommon in the primate world, and can often be observed in capuchin monkeys. Monkeys will pee on themselves and spread the urine over their body. This allows other individuals from a group to pick up on olfactory information and may even regulate body temperatures.
Like spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys prefer areas of large, primary rainforest. Unfortunately, these requirements are hard to come by and, as a result, populations of squirrel monkeys are restricted to just a few national parks.
In the last 30 years, the population of Central American squirrel monkeys has plummeted. In fact, it is estimated that populations have declined by as much as 60%.
In Costa Rica, reasons for their declines can be attributed to habitat loss, retaliation killings by farmers, electrocutions from power cables, dog attacks and capture for the exotic pet trade.
However, Manuel Antonio and Corcovado National Park remain squirrel monkey hotspots. I have seen large troops in both areas.
Threats To Monkeys
1. Habitat Loss
Habitat loss is one of the biggest threats facing wildlife today. But what does it really mean? And how bad is it?
Today, Costa Rica prides itself on being one of the greenest countries in the world. And with over 30% of terrestrial land designated as National Parks and reserves, Costa Rica is leading the way in Conservation.
However, it wasn’t always like this.
In the early 1940s, over 70% of the country was forested. Fast forward to the 1980’s, and it is thought that just 30% of forests remained. And who’s to blame? Humans, of course.
A significant driver of this major deforestation in Costa Rica is agriculture. Mass stretches of forests were cut down or burnt to make way for cattle grazing.
Today, urban development is once again threatening forests. The recent COVID pandemic has seen a huge increase in non-Costa Ricans emigrating to Costa Rica. To keep up with demand, trees are being cleared to make way for housing developments and teakwood plantations.
Animals, especially monkeys, need large areas of jungles to go about their life histories. With sprawling cities and rivers of tarmac cutting off routes to historic feeding or mating grounds, many animals perish.
And then the secondary implications of habitat take effect. Higher risk of car collisions, increased rate of predation and hunting, novel diseases become prevalent and an increased fire risk all affect monkeys and other wild animals in Costa Rica.
No, not the electric chair. This is something way more scary.
Electrocutions go hand in hand with habitat loss. Down come trees, up to power lines.
Picture the scene:
You’re a monkey, foraging the trees for ripe fruit. Suddenly, the tree line abruptly comes to an end. In front, a busy strip of tarmac, adorned with whizzing metallic boxes, blocks your path.
On the other side of this strange sight, a tree bustling with juicy fruits shines like a beacon. The only way across is a long line of metallic vine.
Except, it’s not a vine. It’s a power line, carrying 380 kV of electricity. But too late, you’ve already reached out and grabbed the parallel wires, connecting the circuit.
A sudden surge of electricity races through your body. Either, you’re killed instantly or you’re flung to the ground, with life threatening burns and broken burns. Your young baby, attached to you at the chest, also suffers from life-changing burns.
I have seen first-hand the deadly effects of power lines on a range of animals. Dead howler monkeys swaying in the breeze, sloths with half a face burnt off. The sights are gruesome, but should be a wake up call to the Costa Rican government.
Although Costa Rica is far from perfect, attempts have been put in place to reduce the impacts of wildlife electrocutions – however, most of these efforts have been enforced by local charities, and not the government!
Mitigation schemes, such as cable insulation and wildlife bridges, have been implemented to reduce contact with exposed powerlines.
3. Exotic Pet Trade
In the United States alone, it is estimated that 15,000 monkeys are kept as pets.
But to set the record straight, MONKEYS ARE NOT PETS.
It’s not cute. It’s not fashionable. It’s not right.
Fuelled by social media videos of baby monkeys in diapers, many people have felt the need to get a bit of the action and purchase a monkey for themselves.
Whilst the intention may seem good, the reality is far from it.
To obtain a baby monkey, first, the mother has to be disposed of. The easiest way to do this, is to kill the mother whilst the baby is still attached to her. But, as monkeys are often found in groups, and can be protective of their own, many more may be killed in order to get the baby.
Then, the newly orphaned babies are transported all over the world in small holdings. Many do not survive the journey.
Those that do survive face a life of solitary confinement and health-related problems due to poor diet.
Monkeys are social primates, like us humans. They need a range of stimulation and engagement with peers. Like us, they learn behaviours from mentors. They learn to forage, learning what foods are safe to eat. This contributes to brain growth and development.
A monkey that is hand-fed bananas all day long will develop sugar-related diseases, such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. They also lack mental stimulation, as they’re not using their brain to work out how to obtain food.
But, monkeys aren’t kept just as pets. Historically, monkeys such as capuchins have been exploited by the film and tv industry. Can you think of any films and tv that use live capuchins? There are quite a few.
Fortunately, as of 2012, Costa Rica made it illegal for any animals to be captured and traded for the exotic pet trade. Already, we’re seeing the recovery of some species, but there is still a long way to go.
My Work With Monkeys
I have had the privilege of working with all four species of monkeys found in Costa Rica.
However, and as much as I shouldn’t, I do have favourites.
One of my fondest memories is working with a young capuchin monkey.
Working at a rescue center, my job was to rescue and rehabilitate a range of native wildlife in Costa Rica. One afternoon, we received a tip-off that a family had an illegal pet monkey living in their home.
Of course, we rushed to the scene – with the correct licenses and government backing – to confiscate the young primate. It was a capuchin monkey, no older than two months old.
After some conversations between the family and ourselves, we discovered that the mumma capuchin had been directly targeted and killed, just for poachers to take the young capuchin. As brutal as this sounds, this is unfortunately a common occurrence in a range of primate species.
The young capuchin, or JackJack as he was later referred to, was wearing diapers, fed cow milk, and placed in the bath with the family’s children. He had never had any experience of being out in nature. The poor monkey was traumatised and showed obvious signs of shock and withdrawal.
It goes without saying, we confiscated JackJack and took him back to the rescue center where he was under my care 24/7.
At first, he was skittish and unsure of his surroundings. He would refuse to leave his blanket. When he did, he would cling to my top like his life depended on it. Every night, I would be up at regular intervals to feed him.
Being young, he still had to be bottle-fed, using a goat milk formula. Goat milk is a better alternative to cow milk, as it has a unique protein structure that makes for easy digestion and a reduced likelihood of gas and diarrhea.
When he was old enough to eat solid food, I took JackJack to a small forest clearing in the rescue center and practiced life skills with him. This involved climbing trees and teaching him to peel back the bark of old tree branches to find insects hidden within.
I let JackJack experiment with what insects he wanted to try – after all, there are plenty of invertebrates in Costa Rica. He soon learned what he enjoyed, and actively sought out insects such as katydids.
Before I knew it, he was near fully independent. We continued to explore small patches of forests around the rescue center. Soon enough, he was running up and down the trees, leaping from branch to branch. However, he would rarely venture far enough for him to lose sight of me.
I spent a solid year with him. Every day, we would be outside in the trees, learning new skills. I was amazed at how quickly he developed skills, as well as gaining almost instinctive behaviours – such as peeing on his hands to improve grip and cool down.
Unlike other animals we rescue, JackJack can never be released.
Despite my best efforts, he will never learn the same skills he would in the wild. Although he is capable of foraging on his own, and aware of potential dangers, such as scorpions, he is still too reliant on human interactions.
He will remain at the rescue center, where he will be used to educate visitors about the negative impacts of the illegal exotic pet trade.
Nevertheless, he has made a miraculous recovery, from a traumatised infant to an energetic, full-of-life juvenile.
JackJack is far from the only monkey we have rescued.
At a similar time to JackJack’s rescue, we also rescued a howler monkey, Mia. She had also been taken from the wild as a baby. However, she was showing signs of independence and was capable of foraging on her own.
Mia spent 6 months at the rescue center, under observation. She was deemed suitable for release and joined a troop of other rescued howler monkeys that were part of a reintroduction program in Guanacaste.
But not all stories are as happy as JackJack and Mia’s.
Over the 4 years I was working at the rescue center, we have experienced a range of species and stories. One particular story has stuck with me over the years.
A spider monkey, named Gandhi, was rescued from a bar. He was kept under extremely stressful and cramped conditions. His cage, no larger than an owl cage, was covered in old feces. Customers of the bar were encouraged to give alcohol to Gandhi.
Gandhi became an alcoholic, reliant on alcohol. When we rescued him, he became incredibly aggressive – a side effect of withdrawal.
Another spider monkey, Lolo, was found chained up in another bar. A collar was so tight around his neck, the skin was furless and red-raw.
These two examples are extreme cases of monkey abuse found in Costa Rica. Fortunately, the times are changing and animal laws are becoming more strict. Both spider monkeys made full recoveries, however, like JackJack, they cannot be released.
Monkeys are some of our closest relatives. They share similar characteristics and are highly intelligent.
In Costa Rica, four species of monkeys can be found across the country. Some, such as the capuchin, are relatively common and can be found in a range of habitats.
Others, such as spider and squirrel monkeys are highly endangered, and face extinction without the correct conservation methods.
Habitat loss, electrocutions from power lines, and the capture of the illegal exotic pet trade have all contributed to the decline of monkeys in Costa Rica.
However, there are still some hotspots of primate life. Costa Rica remains a stronghold for areas of outstanding natural beauty, where seeing all four primate species is still very much possible. But for how long? Well, that’s up to humanity to decide.
If you want to learn more about the animals that live in Costa Rica then you may want to check our articles on the frogs of Costa Rica among many others!