Monkey Species of Costa Rica

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Spider Monkey

The jungle canopy is alive before your eyes as you step into the sweltering Costa Rican rainforest. As you are gazing up in wonder at the thick green tunnels of forest you see something swinging through the trees. It’s one of the four species of monkey that call Costa Rica home. They are the squirrel monkey, the mantled howler, Geoffrey’s spider monkey and the white headed capuchin. Although monkeys are widespread throughout Costa Rica – the Osa Peninsula is the only place you can see all four of them in one region.

The squirrel monkey is the smallest of the four species weighing around 1.8 pounds for the male’s and 1.5 pounds for the females and has the most restrictive living range. Their range is from the central and south coast of the Pacific Ocean in Costa Rica in the secondary forests and partially logged primary forests and the Pacific coast of Panama near the border with Costa Rica. They are currently considered a vulnerable species since 1982 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature they were upgraded recently from endangered.

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Squirel Monkey

The other species have a wider range than the squirrel monkey and can be found in the forests all over the country. The second smallest monkey that weighs on average 8.2 pounds for the adult male and 2.7 pounds for adult females is the white headed capuchin that has a range of Honduras to Ecuador. The third species is the mantled howler who weighs 16 pounds for the male and 12 pounds for the female. Howler monkeys range from Mexico to Ecuador and as the name implies are very vocal especially at dawn and dusk where their booming voice can be heard for several kilometers. With a range from Mexico to Panama the Geoffrey’s spider monkey is the largest of the four species with males weighing on average 18 pounds and females 17 pounds on average.

According to the IUCN the white headed capuchin and mantled howler are considered in the lowest risk category of least concern while the spider monkey is considered endangered. Although with more humans expanding into the monkey’s traditional ranges they are all at risk of lost range and lower numbers due to the expansion of urbanization, farming and tourism similar to the losses that Sloths face in my previous article. In regards to conservation we can all do our part by insisting farming is done in certain areas, urban development curtailed and that the tourism industry is eco-friendly so as to minimize the impact we have on the environment.

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White-Faced Capuchin

Tourism if done correctly can bring money into these economies and help them protect the native species so that more species are not put on the endangered species list. In the case of the squirrel monkey efforts to protect its natural habitat has helped gotten it off the endangered species list but it is still considered a vulnerable species while the Geoffrey’s spider monkey is still on the endangered species list.

Photographing monkeys in the jungles of Costa Rica is one of the trickiest and most challenging photographic situations I have encountered. It is dark under the forest canopy – to add to that monkeys are also dark and they move really quickly. Similar to shooting flying birds in the sky it is challenging to use a tripod to track their movements and although you would want to use a tripod given the lighting circumstances it is almost impossible.

So your goal is to shoot monkeys hand-held under a dark canopy? What does that mean? It means an-imperfect situation. It means pushing your ISO to levels you don’t really want because of added noise. It means the need for a fairly fast shutter speed under extremely low-light conditions. It means shooting with your fastest and widest aperture to maximize light. Now aside from these challenges you have to first find and then track these fast swinging creatures as they move sporadically through the canopy. Spot metering is usually effective for proper exposures but you will probably also need a flash and maybe even a flash extender to capture the action in the dark environment. Often monkeys are spotted behind branches way up in the trees and it can be really tricky to get a clear shot. It takes time and patient to get great wild monkey shots but the efforts are well worth it.

Interested in learning how to spot and photograph wild monkeys? Join me in Costa Rica this year for my Wildlife of Costa Rica Photography Tour & Workshop. We spend five full days at a solar-powered eco-lodge way out on the Osa Peninsula and we are literally surrounded by all four species of monkey as well as Toucans, Coatis and Macaws. It’s pretty incredible if you ask me…click for details.

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