Prowling in the treetops of Costa Rica’s nighttime forests is a graceful and secretive catlike creature that’s actually a member of the raccoon family. The cacomistle is an adorable relative of the ringtail, or miner’s cat.
The ringtail is native to the southwestern United States and parts of Mexico. You can find our cacomistle (Bassariscus sumichrasti) in the forests of Central America all the way into Panama.
Another fascinating aspect of the cacomistle is, of course, its name. Cacomistle is derived from the Nahuatl language of the ancient Aztecs, who recognized this animal’s catlike grace. And in fact, the word means “half cat.”
The cacomistle isn’t Costa Rica’s only raccoon family member
But I can’t really write about the cacomistle without mentioning other members of the Procyonidae that are found here. And there’s a good chance you’re already familiar with the first one:
The North American raccoon (Procyon lotor)
The crab-eating raccoon (Procyon cancrivorus)
You’ll notice this raccoon is rather dog-like. It’s larger than it’s North American cousin and its fur is shorter. When we lived in Puerto Viejo, in the southern part of Costa Rica’s Caribbean, both the North American and the crab-eating raccoon visited the lodge we ran. The adorable little bandits stole our bread so we quickly learned to keep it under lock and key. And yes, crab-eating raccoons love crab, but so do their North American cousins.
The white-nosed coati (Nasua narica)
These little scamps are found throughout Costa Rica and most of Central America. Coatis (also called the pizote here) adapt quite well to human habitation and like their raccoon cousins, they are quite intelligent. These little clown-faced omnivores eat fruits, small vertebrates, insects, snakes, eggs, and carrion. And they are not above raiding garbage cans.
The kinkajou (Potos flavus)
These beautiful little creatures have thick fur that features a greyish undercoat and a golden or brownish-grey top coat, CostaRica.com notes. Unlike other raccoon relatives, kinkajous have a prehensile tail and flexible ankles that like the unrelated margay (a small cat), can rotate 180 degrees. This means they can hang effortlessly from trees or descend head-first in search of food. Like all other members of the Procyonidae, they have a fondness for bird eggs, but they also love flowers, fruit, young leaves, legumes, insects, and small vertebrates. However, they really have a sweet tooth, which has led them to also be known as the “honey bear.”
The olingo (Bassaricyon gabii)
The olingo looks like a smaller version of the kinkajou, but it has a paler underbelly and a much longer tail that isn’t prehensile, Anywhere.com reports. It’s also a little bit smaller and prefers to stay high in the canopy. While olingos are still relatively common in Costa Rica they don’t adapt as well to deforestation as the larger kinkajou. Largely nocturnal, olingos have a diet similar to the kinkajou’s but they especially love figs and are more carnivorous.
As you can see, the raccoon family is well-represented in Costa Rica, but since the cacomistle is the star of this story I’m going to add a few more facts about this enigmatic creature.
The cacomistle faces an uncertain future
The cacomistle ranges through the tropical forests of Central America. You can find five different subspecies of these little guys from central Mexico to Panama.
In Costa Rica, the cacomistle population is small and generally restricted to the highland forests where the Talamanca and Central mountain ranges meet, The Costa Rica Star notes. Their population in Costa Rica is holding steady because the forested habitat they depend on isn’t deeply fragmented. But the situation for the cacomistle is less rosy in other parts of its range.
Ranging in size from 15 to 18 inches, with a luxurious tail that adds another 20 or so inches, this small and agile omnivore has to keep a sharp eye out. You see the manigordo (ocelot), large snakes, large birds of prey (especially owls), and another fascinating Central American mammal, the tayra, which is a large member of the Viverridae (the weasel family) are all predators of this little animal.
Like this tayra, for instance
The cacomistle is largely solitary, TheWebsiteOfEverything reports. When it’s time to give birth, a female builds a nest in a tree and after a gestation period lasting about 60 days, only one offspring is born. After seven or so weeks, the young cacomistle is ready to eat solid food. And when it’s about three months old, the youngster is ready to go off on its own.
Costa Rica has a huge assortment of fascinating animals but the cacomistle is almost certainly one of the cutest, with its huge, round eyes and vaguely fox-like face. It will certainly be a thrilling day for me if I ever get to see one in the wild.