It is a country well-known for its amazing and varied birdlife and the mammals in Peru are just as exciting and diverse. Despite what you might think, it’s possible to get good sightings of many of them on a wildlife tour in Peru if you pick the right place and have an expert guide.
From large carnivores such as the Jaguar to smaller herbivores such as the Agouti, Peruvian mammals are highly adapted to their particular habitats. So knowing when and where to look is key to finding the species you most want to see in the wild. The knowledge that local wildlife guides can provide will ensure your mammal-finding trip of a lifetime ends with memories of a lifetime.
Here are just a few of the fascinating animals you will have a good chance of seeing in Peru and what makes them so special.
This giant rodent is native to South America and one of the most widespread of Peruvian mammals so probably the easiest wild creature to see on a wildlife tour in Peru. It is a close, but considerably larger, cousin of the Guinea Pig, which is also indigenous to Peru. Although for centuries that species has been a domesticated rather than a wild animal, raised for meat in the highlands of the Andes.
Capybaras are semi-aquatic mammals with flat heads, blunt snouts and coarse reddish hair. They have slightly webbed feet and the ability to hold their breath for a full five minutes to graze on underwater plants or hide from predators. They can even sleep in the water, submerging almost their entire body apart from the top of their head where, like a hippo or an alligator, the nostrils, eyes and ears are all conveniently positioned.
Photo credit: Rainforest Expeditions, Tambopata, Peru
Capybaras are commonly found in medium to large groups, which makes it easier for them to see in the grasslands or along riverbanks. They gather together in numbers for protection from predators, especially in the dry season when prey and predators congregate in areas where there is still a reasonable amount of water.
Manu National Park is a good place to find Capybara. They graze in the late afternoon and evening and doze in shallow water or wallow in mud during the heat of the day.
Red Howler Monkeys
If you are unlucky enough not to see a Red Howler Monkey in Peru, which would be unusual if you are in the right location, you will most assuredly hear them. At dawn and dusk, male howlers proclaim their rights to territory by shouting the message over more than a mile. They have specialised baggy throats with enlarged hyoid bones that assist them in making a deep growling, burping sound. The sound varies in intensity and when joined with the calls of other howlers, tells rival troops of monkeys in no uncertain terms to stay away.
This vocalising saves the primates from having to fight for their territories. Their diet of hard-to-digest leaves doesn’t provide much energy, so fending off opposition with a loud warning is the best strategy.
Photo credit: Explorer’s Inn, Madre de Dios, Peru
Red Howler Monkeys are the biggest of the 15 species of howler monkey found in Central and South America. In the Amazon jungle, they live high up in the trees, using their prehensile tails as a fifth limb to hold on to branches. If necessary, they can carry their entire body weight on their tails, which are hairless on the underside of the last third of their length to aid grip.
Red Howler Monkeys are obliging animals for the wildlife watcher because they live in groups of 10 or 15 and tend to sit still on a comfortable branch, munching leaves and returning the tourists’ stares. To find howlers you have to scan the tree canopy in national parks such as Tambopata for round red bundles amongst the leaves.
One of the Peruvian animals high on anyone’s wish list is the Giant Otter. They are another species of semi-aquatic mammals, like the Capybaras, that can be found in Manu National Park as well as Tambopata National Reserve. There is a conservation effort focussed on the Madre de Dios region of south-central Peru where mining and forestry outside of the preserved areas have been having a detrimental effect on Giant Otter populations.
They are rare animals to find in Peru but, as they make their homes in rivers and oxbow lakes that are accessible by boat, their rarity doesn’t make them as difficult to see as you might imagine. They are also active during the day, which helps. On a boat trip or wildlife watching tour, listen out for the buzzing squeaks and slightly strangled barks they make to keep in touch with each other. Also keep an eye out for fish scales on flat rocks by the riverside. Like other otter species, they leave traces of their meals, especially as they have family ‘picnic grounds’ where they gather to eat.
Photo credit: Rainforest Expeditions, Tambopata, Peru
Giant Otters can reach a length of 1.5 metres (nearly five feet) from nose to tail so the sight of them cannot fail to impress. They live in family groups of up to about 20 animals, called bevies or rafts, which also increases the chances of coming across them. Although they eat mostly fish, it’s not unknown for them to take birds, snakes and small mammals at the riverside.
Like some other species of mustelids, individual Giant Otters can be identified by unique patterning on their coats – in the case of these otters, creamy white markings on their throats and chests. A good local guide will be able to recognise the otters in his patch of jungle.
These forest rodents are widespread in Peru’s Amazon region where they are seen as keystone species. They are naturally shy but where there are frequent human visitors to their territory they have become used to them and more willing to make themselves visible.
They live in the Amazon jungle understorey, scurrying around on the tips of their toes, feeding on fallen fruit and roots. They only have three toes on their feet with hoof-like claws rather than pads. Their front feet are dexterous and, like squirrels, are used to hold seedpods as they gnaw them open for the nut.
Agouti move around in daylight and gather in groups if a good source of food is found, both of which make them easier to see. At Tambopata National Reserve they can regularly be found foraging around some of the accommodation lodges. They can move very quickly if alarmed, however, and are capable of jumping up to two metres (six and a half feet), vertically from a standing start.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
Agouti are particularly valuable in seed dispersal, hence their keystone species designation. In another characteristic similar to squirrels, Agouti hoard food by burying it and the seeds they don’t return to dig up eventually germinate. This is especially the case with Brazil nut trees. Their seedpods are very hard, as anyone who enjoys a Brazil nut will know, but the strong jaws and sharp teeth of the Agouti make short work of cracking the shells. So they are a favourite foodstuff and the trees benefit from the rodents’ storage habits.
As their name suggests, Squirrel Monkeys are another of Peru’s mammal species that spend their lives in the tropical tree canopy. They are small, very agile primates with long limbs, brownish-grey fur on their heads and orange fur on their bodies. Their large ears and bare eye masks are pink.
Squirrel Monkeys are widespread and easy to find animals in Peru’s Amazon forests. They can form into impressively large groups, sometimes more than 100-strong, and they are very vocal, with about 26 different calls having been identified. Experienced wildlife guides can locate Squirrel Monkeys from their calls, separating them from the rest of the rainforest wall of sound.
They have a diet consisting mainly of fruit and insects but they will also take flowers, leaves, nectar and even small lizards. They search for food among the trees but also on the forest floor where they travel on all fours. Being on the ground helps to hide them from eagles that see these small monkeys as a tasty meal they can pluck from the upper branches of trees. In evading ground predators they rely on their speed and agility.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
If you find a troop of Squirrel Monkeys you may also be rewarded with a sighting of Brown Capuchin Monkeys as well, as the two species often forage together, particularly when food is plentiful in the months between May and October.
Rising early in the morning will give you the best chance of seeing these acrobatic primates. They are very curious and if you stay still will often approach to give you a closer look.
Pink River Dolphins
Of all the creatures in Peru, you might think Pink River Dolphins would be almost impossible to see in the wild. However, with the help of an expert guide in the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve in northern Peru you have a good chance of finding them.
It does take a while to get to the right location, with a two-hour flight from the capital Lima to Iquitos and then another two-hour journey into the jungle, but the reward will not only be Pink River Dolphins but also a breathtaking array of other Amazonian flora and fauna you can only experience if you venture into this remote ecosystem.
These special freshwater dolphins with their delicate coloration and long snouts can be up to 2.7 metres (nine feet) long. Their diet consists of fish, particularly catfish, and crabs they forage for on the riverbed. They are not born pink; the calves are grey at birth and turn pink as they grow older.
Photo credit: Michel Livet
The reason for their pink colour has not been definitively established, but some scientists believe it is a camouflage strategy to help them blend into the red mud at the bottom of the river. Others maintain it is the result of environmental factors – wear and tear and exposure to sunlight. It is certainly generated by blood vessels close to the surface of the skin as they become pinker when they are excited, just like human blushing.
They are very intelligent animals, having the largest brain of any of the freshwater dolphin species. And they are very agile, thanks to their neck bones not being fused in place as they are in other types of dolphins. They are also curious and sociable so they will often come to boats to inspect the occupants.
Probably top of everyone’s list of what to see in Peru is that most beautifully patterned of the big cats, the Jaguar. It is the biggest cat living in the Western Hemisphere and apex predator in the Amazon jungle. Your expectation of seeing such an iconic species in the wild is probably low, but it can be easier than you might think with expert guidance.
One reason Peru is such a top place in South America to see Jaguars is because of the number of national parks and nature reserves that have been established deep in the Amazon rainforest. A visit to one of these makes catching a glimpse of these elusive cats quite achievable with a good guide.
Also, Peru has the second-highest population of Jaguars on the continent, the first being its neighbour, Brazil. Where Peru has a slight advantage, though, is in the distances you have to travel in order to find Amazon wildlife in its remote habitats.
Photo credit: Manu Birding Lodge, Cajamarca, Peru
Pacaya Samiria National Reserve in the north of Peru, Manu National Park just below the centre of the country and Tambopata National Reserve in the south are just some of the places where you have a chance of seeing Jaguars. These protected areas are relatively easy to get to and well away from extensive human settlements, so larger animals are less disturbed and therefore less wary.
Aim for the dry season between May and September because streams and small lakes will have dried up and cats and other wildlife are more likely to congregate near the bigger water sources.
Unlike some of the more secretive animals in Peru, Jaguars are active during the daylight hours. In the heat of midday, they might be spotted lounging on a riverbank or cooling off in the water. They love water and are excellent swimmers.
In this situation, they are much easier to see, as under the trees and in thick undergrowth they are well camouflaged. This is one reason a boat tour is probably your best bet for a good sighting. It gets you deeper into the jungle than you can reach on foot and further away from human activity. However, even on the water, you have to be very quiet and still, as Jaguars have excellent hearing and keen eyesight.
- The Wildlife of Peru’s Natural Wonders
- Birding in Peru: Where to Go and the Best Times to Visit
- A Guide to Amazon Rainforest Tours in Peru
- Why Peru is the ultimate birding destination
Are you interested see Peruvian Mammals in the wild?
For more information, contact one of the local wildlife specialists based in Peru to book directly your next wildlife holiday in Peru.
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Originally Published: 8 Dec 2020