The size of a small dog and sporting a thick coat of armor, this peculiar creature gets its name from the nine bands (or external “joints”) that circle the midsection and give the little tank some flexibility. The armadillo’s keen sense of smell can detect insects and grubs—its primary food source—up to 15 centimeters (6 inches) underground, and its sharp claws make digging for them a cinch. An armadillo also digs underground burrows, into which it may carry a full bushel of grass to make its nest, where it will sleep through the hot day and emerge at night. Unlike armadillos that roll up into a tight ball when threatened, this species will race to its burrow, arch its back, and wedge in so that it cannot be pulled out.
South American tapirs are found from the southern part of Mexico to southern Brazil. A stout-bodied animal, it has short legs and a tail, small eyes, and rounded ears. The nose and upper lip extend into a short but very mobile proboscis. Tapirs usually live near streams or rivers, which they use for daily bathing and as an escape from predators, especially jaguars and humans. Shy and placid, these nocturnal animals have a definite home range, wearing a path between the jungle and their feeding area. If attacked, the tapir lowers its head and blindly crashes off through the forest; they’ve been known to collide with trees and knock themselves out in their chaotic attempt to flee.
Two species of peccaries—hoofed mammals that look like midsize pigs with bristles—are found in Chiapas : the collared peccary and the white-lipped peccary. The feisty collared peccary stands 50 centimeters (20 inches) at the shoulder and can be one meter (3.3 feet) long, weighing as much as 30 kilograms (66 pounds). It is black and white with a narrow semicircular collar of white hair on the shoulders. This is the more common of the two, and is found in woodlands, rainforests, and agricultural areas; it typically travels in groups of 5–15. The white-lipped peccary is reddish brown to black and has an area of white around its mouth. Larger than the collared peccary, it can grow to 105 centimeters (41 inches) long and is found deep in tropical rainforests living in herds of 100 or more.
Two types of monkeys live in the jungles of Chiapas : spider monkeys and howler monkeys. Both are threatened species, mostly as a result of the destruction of their habitats and poaching for trade and meat. In an effort to protect these creatures, the Mexican government has prohibited their capture or trade.
Spider monkey are agile creatures who swing, climb, and hang from the upper reaches of trees, often using their tails as a fifth limb. They tend to be members of troops that number up to 25 (usually one dominant male plus several females and their offspring); during the day, however, they break off into smaller groups to forage for food, mostly fruit and leaves. Spiders need large tracts of land to survive—typically an area that measure from 2.5 to 4 square kilometers (1 to 2 square miles)—which means they can be seen in nature reserves or areas that are uninhabited by humans.
Howler monkeys are slow-moving primates who tend to stay at the top of trees, where they gather most of their food (leaves, fruit, and flowers). They are mostly black, with a fringe of brown or blonde hair on their sides, and are large, weighing 4–7 kilograms (9–16 lbs). Howlers are known for the males’ distinctive call (though females also occasionally vocalize)—it’s piercing and eerie, and they can be heard at dawn or dusk up to five kilometers (3 miles) away. Their calls are thought to be a way to communicate with other howler troops, in order to defend their feeding sites, which change regularly. Good places to hear howlers are Yaxchilán Archaeological Zone , Las Guacamayas , and Laguna Miramar .
Seven species of cats are found in North America, four in the tropics. One of them—the jaguar—is heavy-chested with sturdy, muscled forelegs. It has small, rounded ears and its tail is relatively short. Its color varies from tan and white to pure black. The male can weigh 65–115 kilograms (143–254 lbs), females 45–85 kilograms (99–187 lbs). The largest of the cats in Chiapas , the jaguar is about the same size as a leopard. Other cats found here are the ocelot and puma. In tropical forests of the past, the large cats were the only predators capable of controlling the populations of hoofed game such as deer, peccaries, and tapirs. If hunting is poor and times are tough, the jaguar will go into rivers and scoop up fish with its large paws. The river also is one of the jaguar’s favorite spots for hunting tapirs, where the latter comes to drink.