Life in the treetops

Posted on March 27, 2018 at 5:55 PM

Among the 450 acres of primary rainforest and 30 acres of tropical gardens that make up our property, we are often visited by arboreal mammals that carry out their lives high in the trees. 

In the primary forest at Saladero Ecolodge, we often have great sightings of three of the four different species of monkeys that exist in Costa Rica: the Mantled Howler Monkey, the White-headed Capuchin (formally known as White-faced) and the Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey. 

Whether they’re near or far, we always know where the howlers are (“Congos” in Spanish) each morning as soon as they burst forth into their impressive, otherworldly bellows before the sun has properly risen. We like to call them our battery-free Costa Rican alarm clock.

Male howlers can be heard up to 3 miles away thanks to an enlarged hyoid bone in their throat which helps amplify the call, making them the second loudest mammal in the world. Only the monstrously huge blue whale is louder. The howlers will often call at sunrise or sunset as a means to communicate within the troop. The function of howling is thought to relate to intergroup spacing and territory protection, as well as possibly to mate-guarding

Howler monkeys are folivores, meaning they eat primarily leaves, but they will also forage upon fruits and flowers on occasion, depending on the season. When the fig trees are fruiting, these monkeys can be seen eating both the leaves and fruits at the same time in a single fig tree. 

Over millennia, through the process of natural selection, plants have evolved the means to produce a vast and complicated array of chemical compounds in order to deter herbivores and insects. For this reason, monkeys cannot consume one tree’s leaves exclusively as it may be harmful to them.

Therefore, while foraging, you might observe them moving from tree to tree, stopping to munch for awhile before carrying on

to another tree species. The howler monkeys make a special effort to hone in on the younger, more supple and nutrient-rich leaves over the harder to digest mature leaves. Nonetheless, this primarily leaf-based diet results in the need to rest and digest a good part of the day in order for their metabolism to break down the tough leaf fibers. 

Another of our furry friends from above include the Capuchin monkeys, known as “Cariblancas” (white face) in Spanish. Capuchins are omnivores, meaning they live on a much more nutrient-rich diet of fruit, nuts, insects and crustaceans (we’ve even seen them on our kayak tour searching for crabs on the prop roots of the red mangroves!). They’ll also eat bird eggs and small mammals. If you come across a troop, you’ll notice how curious they are, as they stare down at you with furrowed brows reminiscent of an tiny, angry old man. They have even been known to throw seeds and even limbs at our guests.

Capuchins range quite high in intelligence among the New World monkeys, as demonstrated by their use of tools. They’ve been known to rub millipedes, which emit cyanide as a defense mechanism, onto their fur, perhaps using it as an insect repellent. They’ve been documented using hard surfaces to break open mollusks and sticks to explore cavities for food.

The Geoffroy’s Spider Monkeys that live in our forest were in decline likely due to poaching. We are thrilled to discover this species is becoming more plentiful. A local biologist who is doing her PhD on spider monkeys, Jenna Griffiths, has stated this species has been absent from this area of Piedras Blancas National Park in the past. She is very interested in and excited about these sightings. Some of our recent guests were even fortunate enough to see the mega-troop of some fifty individuals. These troops break up into smaller groups during the day to spread out and forage for food. 


Spider monkeys are aptly named for their elongated appendages. They actively swing through the high branches and forage mainly on fruit but will add young leaves and seeds to their diet to obtain sufficient protein. Watching these monkeys swing their way from one branch to another is always a delight, especially knowing you’re observing an endangered species who’s populations have suffered from deforestation and poaching. While we’re enamored with these charismatic creatures, they definitely have a flare for letting their own opinion of humans known. When one of us is staring up at it from below, these monkeys will not hesitate to grab a branch with every appendage (including that long tail) and shake everything in their reach with gusto, as if to let you know who’s boss. If I were an endangered animal looking down at the species most responsible, I would likely do the same! 

Everyone wants to see the beloved Three-toed Sloth. They make up about 80% of the mammal mass in the forest but finding them can be really hard. We sometimes see them in one of the big cecropia trees at the edge of our garden.

Sloths seem to have a preference for these trees, and since the leaves of the cecropia are a mild narcotic, that might explain not just their common presence in these trees in general, but likely adds to their very slothfulness! To learn more about the amazing natural ecosystem sloths harbor in their pelt, check out our previous blogpost on this fascinating, arboreal and simply adorable creature!

Some other interesting arboreal mammals harboring in the treetops of the forest include the margay, a small spotted wild cat that has a tail nearly as long as it’s body. This aids in balancing as it walks along the branches above. The margay prefers life in the trees, hunting birds and monkeys. It has the unique ability to twist its ankles to aid in its head-first descent to the forest floor as it moves to different hunting grounds. This forest cat is highly agile and is able to jump up to four meters horizontally and 2.5 meters vertically.

A very unusual creature of the treetops is the Kinkajou. This unique-looking creature is in fact related to raccoons. Similar to the margay, the kinkajou also has the ability to turn it’s feet widely in either direction to aid in its movement through the trees. The kinkajou’s tail is prehensile and used just as often as its other appendages as it travels from branch to branch. It will use it as a furry pillow to curl up with to sleep. These fascinating mammals also go by the moniker “honey bear” for their inclination to raid beehives for their honey. We have some honey bears here at Saladero that like to make their presence known by dropping seeds onto the roof of our Treehouse cabin. But with that adorable face and huge, liquid black eyes, who could chastise them?


Categories: None