Zoologists group these animals together in the edentate order. Edentate means ‘toothless, ’ and while that’s not strictly true of sloths, these creatures feed chiefly on plants and insects.
The giant anteater can grow well over 2m long. It tears open ant and termite nests with its sharp claws and laps up as many as 35, 000 a day with its probing sticky tongue. You’re most likely to see the giant anteater in cerrado (savanna) habitat. Its meat is prized in some areas of Brazil, and it’s a threatened species. The collared or lesser anteater, up to 1.4m long, is yellow and black, mainly nocturnal and often climbs trees.
Sloths, true to their name, move very slowly. And they’re not, by the look of it, too bright. They hang upside down from branches by their strong arms and legs, feeding on leaves, sleeping up to 18 hours a day and descending to the ground to excrete just once a week. Surprisingly, they’re good swimmers. You have a good chance of seeing some if you get a bit off the beaten track in Amazonia: from a moderate distance they look like clumps of vegetation high in trees. The species you’re most likely to see is the brown-throated three-toed sloth.
Brazil’s several species of armadilloare mainly nocturnal and rarely seen. Two of them are threatened.
Brazil has several species of caiman, close relatives of the alligator. They eat fish, amphibians, crustaceans and some birds. In the Pantanal, where caimanssurvived a devastating bout of poaching for their skins in the 1980s, the most common type is the yacare caiman or Paraguayan caiman. Amazonia has four species. The biggest is the black caiman, which reaches up to 6m long and is still hunted for its skin and meat. The most common Amazonian caiman – the one you may get to handle on nighttime expeditions – is the spectacledcaiman, which can grow up to 2.3m long. Caimans lay eggs in nests of leaves and stalks, and these are vulnerable to predators such as coatis and lizards; the hatched young are prey for herons and storks.
The widespread coati is one of the carnivorous animals that you’re most likely to come across – possibly as a pet, for it’s easily tamed. It’s furry and cute, the size of a small or medium-sized dog, with a long brown-and-yellow-ringed tail, and a long flexible snout that noses around for food on the ground or up in trees. Scientifically the coati is a procyonid – one of the raccoon family. Its distant relative, the crab-eating raccoon, with a ringed tail and black eye mask like the North American raccoon, is found in Amazonia, the Pantanal and in between, always near water, where it seeks out its diet of crabs, fish, mollusks and small amphibians.
These animals are all ungulates (hoofed quadrupeds), though this term is no longer used in formal classification.
In the Pantanal, most people see at least a few deer. The biggest, which is active by day, is the marsh deer, whose antlers can grow to 60cm long. Other species – some found as far north as Amazonia – include the pampas deer, which lives more out in the open than most other deer, and the small (60cm to 70cm long) gray brocket deer and red brocket deer.
Peccaries – looking like small wild boars – are fairly widely distributed in forests. They live in groups, are active by day and feed on fruit, roots, carrion and small animals. The collared peccary, around 1m long and weighing 20kg, is named for the light-colored semicircle below its neck and is found in groups of 10 to 50. The slightly bigger white-lipped peccary travels in groups of 50 or more, chewing and trampling everything in its path.
The Brazilian tapir can be found in most forested parts of the country but is shy and nocturnal. Related to the horse and about the size of a stocky pony (it can weigh 300kg), the tapir has a long snout that helps it forage for leaves, fruit and roots. It rarely strays far from mud, which it uses to keep cool and control parasites.
The maned wolf inhabits cerrado and the Pantanal. It is russet-colored, fox-faced and long-legged, grows to about 1m long (plus tail) and has a mane of darker hair on the back of the neck. It’s commonly hunted and is a threatened species. Other Brazilian members of the dog family include the crab-eating fox and the bush dog, both present in cerrado and the Pantanal. They are pretty rare and in fact you’ll be lucky if you see any of these three.
Everyone dreams of sighting a wild jaguar, but few have the luck to achieve that dream. This elusive and splendid big cat – the largest American feline – is widely but thinly distributed in Brazil, occurring in Amazonia, the Pantanal, the cerrado and such easterly national parks as Caparaó, Ilha Grande, Monte Pascoal, Chapada Diamantina and Chapada dos Veadeiros. Yellow with black spots, jaguars can grow to 2.5m long, including tail, and males can weigh 120kg (females weigh up to 90kg). Jaguars hunt at night, covering large distances. They prey on a wide variety of animals, in trees, water and on the ground, including sloths, monkeys, fish, deer, tapirs, capybaras and agoutis – but rarely people. They’re generally solitary and, unusually among cats, good swimmers.
The puma, almost as big as the jaguar and similarly elusive, is the same beast as North America’s cougar or mountain lion. As well as preying on deer, it sometimes attacks herds of domestic animals such as sheep or goats.
Brazil’s four smaller wild cats are also widely but sparsely distributed and rarely seen. Three have markings similar to the jaguar. The largest of the three (up to 1.4m long with tail and weighing 15kg) is the ocelot; next biggest is the margay; and then the oncilla. The jaguarundi is probably more often seen than any other Brazilian feline, because it’s active by day. A good swimmer, it’s also known as the otter-cat, and is similar in size to the margay, with a uniformly colored coat, which may be black, brown or gray.
Around 20 species of marmoset and tamarin, small – often very small – primates, are found in Brazil. Some are fairly common, but the four species of lion tamarin, inhabitants of the Atlantic rain forests with a resemblance to miniature lions, are all endangered. The golden lion tamarin exists only in the Reserva Biológica Poço das Antas in Rio de Janeiro state (within earshot of interstate Hwy BR-101). A campaign to save this species – a squirrel-sized creature with a brilliant orange-gold color – has, amazingly, brought it back from near-extinction. Its population, down to about 100 in the 1970s, is now above 1000, and the golden lion tamarin has left the critically endangered list. It’s a symbol to Brazilians of the whole struggle to save the remaining Atlantic rain forest and indeed of conservation in general.
About 80 of the world’s approximately 300 primate species (which also include marmosets and tamarins) are found in Brazil, many of them unique to the country. Some monkeys are hunted deep in the forest by settlers and indigenous people for their meat, and others live harmoniously in and around beach towns, much like squirrels in North American city parks. Some species are quite common and on an Amazon jungle trip you’re very likely to see groups of monkeys moving through trees.
The most common primate in Amazonia is the little squirrel monkey, with its pale face, dark nose area, big ears and long tail. It moves in small, noisy groups. The black spider monkey, up to 1.5m long with thin, lengthy limbs and a prehensile tail (accounting for 60% of its length), is fairly common in parts of Amazonia where it isn’t usually hunted. Southeast Brazil’s two species of wooly spider monkey, the southern muriqui and northern muriqui, with their thick brown fur, are the largest primates in the Americas and both are endangered, the northern species critically so and down to a population of under 300.
Howler monkeys are much easier heard than seen: their roar (not really a howl) carries over many kilometers. They’re stocky, up to 1.25m long (half tail), and live in groups of up to 20 – usually 10m to 20m high in trees – that are led by a single male. In Amazonia you’re most likely to encounter the red howler monkey. Further south, including in the Pantanal, the black howler monkey is the local species. The brown howler monkey inhabits the small remaining areas of the Mata Atlântica. The rumors are true – a howler monkey will try to pelt you with its excrement if it feels threatened, so you may want to listen to its roar from a judicious distance.
The lithe capuchin monkeys are named for the hair atop their heads, which resembles monks’ cowls. They’re dispersed over almost the whole country – even Rio de Janeiro’s Parque Nacional & Floresta da Tijuca – living in groups of up to 20 led by one male, and active by day in the lower forest stories, so relatively easily seen. The usual species is the brown capuchin monkey, measuring up to 1m (half tail).
The two types of uakari monkey, the black-headed and the bald, inhabit Amazonian flooded forest. The bald uakari has a red or pink bald head and thick, shaggy body fur ranging from chestnut-red to white (giving rise to the popular names red uakari and white uakari). Bald uakaris are threatened, but if you happen to visit the Mamirauá Reserve (Reserva de Desenvolvimento Sustentável Mamirauá; p659) you stand a good chance of seeing the very distinctive white uakari.
The endangered giant otter can measure 2m from nose to tail tip. It inhabits lakes and calm rivers in forests from Amazonia to the Pantanal, usually in family groups of six to eight. The Alta Floresta district and Reserva Xixuaú-Xipariná are two areas where visitors regularly see giant otters. The smaller southern river otter is also widely dispersed.
The widespread capybara is the world’s largest rodent, 1m long and up to 70kg in weight. It has a guinea pig–like face and a bulky hairy body, but no tail. It’s vegetarian and at home on land or in water. Herds of up to 40 may be seen in the Pantanal. Smaller rodents – but still up to 60cm or 70cm long – include the paca and various species of agouti. You can distinguish the paca by its rows of white spots. Porcupines are rodents too: Brazil has several tree-dwelling species.
The infamous anaconda coils around its victims to crush and suffocate them, then eats them whole. On extremely rare occasions, an anaconda kills a person. It’s not poisonous but can bite viciously. Generally an olive-brown color with black patterning, anacondas grow up to 10m long and can live in water or on land and are considered common in the Pantanal.
Other constrictor snakes – using the same cheerful coil-crush-suffocate technique – include the boa constrictor, which is 3m to 5m long, generally brown patterned and lives off small animals in varied and widespread habitats; and the handsome green-and-white emerald tree boa. A number of other snakes live in trees, but most are harmless.
Although it is rare to encounter a venomous snake in the wild, Brazil still has quite a few species of them, including rattlesnakes, vipers and coral snakes. The most dangerous in the Pantanal is Wied’s lancehead, a gray, black-and-white patterned viper up to 70cm long that sometimes hides in houses; its bite can be fatal if not treated quickly. Also to be steered clear of is the highly poisonous Brazilian coral snake, with its rings of red, black and white. It lurks under rocks or logs and only bites when it feels threatened. The various false coral snakes are, lucky for them, nearly impossible to distinguish from the real thing.