The Fascinating Fauna of Guatemala

By Bethany Ivie

February 21, 2020

As one of the most ecologically diverse countries on the planet, Guatemala is home to some amazing animals. Some you’ve probably heard of. Others? Maybe not. Let’s take a minute to meet a few of the many spectacular creatures living in the Central American country’s rainforests.

This crushingly adorable predator is the Margay. Image by Tambako the Jaguar via Creative Commons


Often mistaken for their cousin the ocelot, margays are smaller with longer legs and tail. Unlike other cats that typically hunt and live on the ground, margays are wizards of the treetops and are uniquely designed for an arboreal life. 

  • Margays have large, soft feet with mobile toes that not only help them grip branches firmly but also act as powerful springboards for their mighty vertical and horizontal leaps.
  • Clocking in at about 12 pounds, Margays are exceptionally strong and have been seen hanging by one paw from a branch.
  • In 2005, primate scientists observed a margay imitating the call of a baby tamarin monkey in order to attract concerned adults within striking distance. Reports say that, though the imitation was a poor one, several monkeys showed interest.


Looking like an otter/house cat hybrid, the Jaguarundi has been described as the “strangest looking of all wild cats.” Image by Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr


The typical adult jaguarundi is petite and can weigh anywhere between 6 and 20 pounds. Its unusual appearance is due to a long, slender body, a  small, flat head, and a broad otter-like tail. 

  • Jaguarundi are very vocal – scientists have recorded up to 13 distinct calls ranging from chirps to purrs and beyond.
  • Historians speculate that indigenous central American peoples domesticated the jaguarundi and used them as mousers. 
  • Though native to central and South America (and the very tip of Texas), Florida is home to a rumored feral jaguarundi population where the cats were introduced as ill-fated pets.
  • Jaguarundis are the only feline whose ears don’t have a contrasting color to their coat.
  • In Mexico, they are called “otter cats” due to their long, flat tails.


Let me clear one thing up before we get started: a peccary is not a pig. I know. I’m just as surprised as you are. Image via Creative Commons

White Lipped Peccary

Though they are often confused with their porcine lookalikes, peccaries and pigs are from different families and share different characteristics.

  • Unlike the feral hogs that inhabit central America, peccaries are native species, meaning that they were not introduced by humans.
  • If you see a tail and big, upright ears? It’s a pig. Peccaries have tails that are not visible and small ears. 
  • White-lipped peccaries live in huge groups that can range from 50-300 individuals. The biggest recorded herd topped out at 2,000.
  • There are several types of peccary, but the white-lipped has garnered a reputation as the most dangerous. Though the tallest typically don’t even reach two feet high, they are extremely aggressive and will defend their territory fiercely with their tusks, if they cannot retreat from a threat. They’ve even been known to kill unwitting jaguars that wander into their neck of the woods looking for a snack.
  • Fortunately for would-be hikers in the Guatemalan rainforest, peccary herds can usually be smelled before they are seen as they give off a natural, skunk-like musk.
A Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey lounges in the trees, waiting for the moment it will sound its ear-splitting call.

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey

Some say that the call of a Guatemalan Howler Monkey resembles that of a strong wind through a tunnel. I say that it sounds like the world’s most terrifying monster. Regardless, it is this distinct call that gives these primates their names.

  • Guatemalan Black Howler Monkeys make their signature call to mark their territory. These calls can be heard from up to 3 miles away.
  • Males carry the breed’s titular black color while females are a more muted brown. 
  • Despite their ferocious call, these monkeys are strict herbivores and survive on a diet of plants, flowers and fruits.
  • Guatemalan Black Howler monkeys are the largest howler monkeys. 
  • Fun fact, monkeys are split into two groups: Old World and New World Monkeys (Howlers fall into this latter group). Check out the details that make them distinct. 
The Resplendent Quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala. Image via Creative Commons.

Resplendent Quetzal

Also known as the Guatemalan Quetzal, this gorgeous bird is famed as one of the most beautiful in the Western Hemisphere.

  • The quetzal has been a part of Guatemalan culture since the Maya people ruled the country. Today, the quetzal is still the national bird and lends its name to the country's currency, the quetzal. 
  • During mating season, male quetzals grow a splendid set of twin tail feathers that can reach up to 16 inches long.
  • The quetzal was important to the ancient Maya, who used its vibrant, green feathers to decorate their priests’ ceremonial garb.


The only cats that best the mighty jaguar in size are the lion and the tiger. Image via Creative Commons


Of all the cats living in the Americas, the jaguar is the biggest. And they are huge: from head to flank, the average jaguar can range from four to six feet long (not including their tails, which can be up to two feet long on their own). 

  • The jaguar is often confused with another big cat, the leopard. Though the two are difficult to tell apart, you can use this easy method: if it’s in Central or South America? It’s a jaguar.
  • A jaguar’s spots are called “rosettes” due to their resemblance to blooming roses. A jaguar’s rosettes have spots inside them while a leopard’s do not.
  • A jaguar’s bite can pierce a skull and crack the shell of a sea turtle.
  • Some jaguars have unusually high levels of melanin resulting in fur that is completely black. What we call "black panthers" are actually these melanistic jaguars
  • Jaguars are the rainforest’s top predators and very few animals are off the menu. This is evident in this epic showdown between a jaguar (named Scarface) and a caiman innocently enjoying its time in the river.


All Of These Creatures Have Something In Common

They are all endangered. Heifer is working with the Guatemalan conservation group Defensores De La Naturaleza to improve the health of the forests where these animals live and to help farmers living within forest borders. If you're interested in seeing more of the animals that we all must work to save from extinction, check out National Geographic's Photo Ark series.