Costa Rica Flora and Fauna

The richest wildlife imaginable – Costa Rica, making up 0.01 percent of the planets landmass, and being at the cross-roads of two continents and caressed by two warm oceans, is said to have an amazing five to six percent of the earth’s biodiversity.

Flora

Costa Rica has an extraordinary abundance of flora, with more than 9,000 species of ‘higher’ plants, and more being discovered every day. There are 800 species of ferns alone, 1,400 species of gorgeous orchids, and thirty species of heliconias (birds of paradise). There is a fast turnover of nutrients within the soils, and root systems therefore tend to be very shallow. With a magnifying glass, you can identify several plant species barely a millimeter high, and therefore it is impossible to identify and catalog all the species in even one acre, let alone thousands of square kilometers. In Costa Rica there are tropical rainforests, tropical dry forests largely turned into cattle country, cloud forests, and mangrove estuaries along the shorelines, each with its own cornucopia of plant species.

There are many endemic plant and animal species that are only found in very small, specific places. As rainforests disappear to make way for banana plantations, and housing developments, the world is losing things to study. As they say, ‘Extinct is forever.’

For example, I live east of San Jose up in the mountains in the rainforest. Each night I leave a water bowl out for my dogs and in the morning I find several little five mm. long bugs, all of the same species, that hop around at night on the ground, and accidentally jump into the water bowl. They obviously breathe air but go completely submerged in the water. Yet about half are still alive and wiggling their legs in the morning after being underwater for several hours. How do they do it? Perhaps if we could find the answer to that, we could cure emphysema! Anyway, that’s just one example of millions of possibilities.

Insects

There are about 1,200 species of butterflies and at least eight thousand types of moths. Invertebrates make up nearly all of Costa Rica’s fauna. With some 505,000 species, 98% are invertebrates (including crabs and spiders). There are tens of thousands of microscopic invertebrates and insects in every land elevation and type. Most are unidentified and undiscovered. Some notable insects in Costa Rica are stingless bees (they love to circle the jam at the outdoor morning buffet), army ants, ants such as leaf-cutter ants, many katydids, and the Hercules beetle.

Amphibians and reptiles

Costa Rica is home to around 175 amphibians, which include 74 frog species. Notable among them are the Red-Eyed Tree Frog, a few species of Poison Dart Frog, the semitransparent Glass Frogs, and the large Smokey Jungle Frog. Some notable toad species in Costa Rica include the ten species of Bufo toads, and the Giant toad known for its wide voracious appetite. It has been documented eating almost anything, including vegetables, ants, spiders, any toad smaller than itself, mice, and other small mammals.

There are over 200 species of reptiles, 138 of them snakes, eighteen of these are venomous, nine very. Snakes are very hard to find. In all likelihood, boas are the most easily sited, though not venomous, they can inflict a painful bite if cornered. Surprisingly, seldom will you see a snake as road kill, but the farmers and woods people always wear rubber boots.

80% of all animal-caused deaths are due to the protective and aggressive pit viper, fer-de-lance, that can grow up to three meters, and prefers to hold its ground, striking out basically unprovoked.

At my new house being built in the jungle of San Ramon Tres Rios, workers found several coral snakes. All four species in Costa Rica are highly venomous, yikes! I hate snakes! Fortunately they decided to slither away not long after the dogs and I moved in, I guess the dogs constant rustling through the undergrowth wasn’t to their liking. Coral snakes apparently have a defensive display of flattening their bodies, snapping back and forth, and swinging their heads from side to side, coiling and waving their tails.

Other reptiles include crocodiles (seen easily from the Rio Tarcoles bridge near Jaco) and caimans, iguanas in the drier low elevations, and even Jesus Christ lizards who run on water.

Costa Rica has six of the world’s eight species of marine turtles, green turtles lay their eggs in Tortuguero on the northern Caribbean, the Olive Ridley come ashore in waves of up to 200,000 (called arribadas) in the Ostional area of the Nicoya, and giant Leatherback turtles weighing up to a ton nest at Playa Grande near Tamarindo October to April.

Birds

Although Costa Rica is a small country, it is in the bird-rich neo-tropical region, and has a huge number of species for its area. 894 bird species have been recorded in the country (including Cocos Island), one tenth of the planet’s total, with seven endemics. Nineteen species are globally threatened. There are two hundred North American species found in Costa Rica, some stay year-round, other migrate during the winter. Tropical birds include six types of toucans, sixteen parrots and parakeets, more than fifty hummingbirds, and even ant birds. Bring binoculars, hire a sharp-eyed guide, get up at the crack of dawn and feast your eyes on Costa Rica’s fine feathered friends.

Mammals

It may surprise you that with the rich flora and fauna of Costa Rica, there are only about two hundred mammalian species, half are bats. Habitat destruction and hunting are to be blamed. However, large mammal populations are beginning to recover because of the new national parks.

Costa Rican waters are home to many dolphin species and seven different types of whales, but you won’t fins any seals, just too warm for them. And the only endemic species of any significance is the endangered manatee found today in the backwater regions of Tortuguero.

Before they were hunted to extinction, Costa Rica had many more mammals. Most of the larger mammals, like cats and tapirs are quite shy of people, and if you see one, get a picture! Expect to see or at least hear a couple of types of monkeys, maybe a sloth sighting, and anteater crossing the road, non-insectivorous bats, and shrews and mice. Invaluable young guides tend to know where to look, and have keen eyes to do so.

You will actually see the most wildlife, monkeys in trees, iguanas, etc. along the Pacific and northwest (towards Nicaragua) around watering holes in the early mornings or at dusk, where the vegetation is more sparse and open, and cattle ranches have prospered. As you go south and east in Costa Rica towards Panama, the more lush and tropical the rainforests become. It is comforting to know here that the dense flora and diverse fauna are vigorously growing without necessarily having to be seen. Even though only about 10% of sunlight reaches the forest floor, and vegetation is more sparse than in the canopy, but forget the Tarzan stunts, you still need a machete to walk more than a few feet, let alone swing on long vines through wide open spaces. Some public parks have trails cut, and guides are often recommended for their knowledge, protection and ability to find their way out.

If you want to take this a step further, consider a natural-history tour or take a guided day-tour through one of the many tour companies specializing in wildlife programs out of the central valley.

Reasons to not feed monkeys

  • Monkeys are susceptible to diseases straight from human hands, and without a natural resistance, could die.
  • Attracted to human-populated areas risks dog attacks and road fatalities.
  • If feeding is irregular, aggressive behavior could ensue.
  • Bananas are not the best food for monkeys, and may cause malnutrition, intoxication from pesticides, and teeth problems, possibly death. Pregnant females will often miscarry on a steady diet of bananas.
  • Feeding by humans creates a dependency, diminishing their will and ability to survive on their own. Healthy monkeys travel about ten miles per day in search of fruits, insects, seeds and small animals. A stationary existence is unhealthy.
  • Human contact encourages poaching and illegal animal trade.

Please let others know you are doing monkeys a disservice by feeding them.

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