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Costa Rica

An A-Z of wildlife

Costa Rica has a strong focus on conservation — its 29 national parks, wilderness and wild landscapes are home to over 500,000 plant and animal species. This thriving wildlife paradise incorporates a range of habitats, including cloud forests, mangroves, coastlines and coral reefs. From the smallest invertebrates to the leviathans of the ocean, this A-Z highlights just some of the species that call Costa Rica home.

INSECTS

Leafcutter ant

Atta cephalotes

Catch sight of a haul of leaves moving along a forest path and you’ll find an army of leafcutter ants scurrying underneath, carrying torn foliage on their backs. They may not look tenacious, but these tough little beasts can lug leaves up to 20 times their body weight, ferrying them back to their nest where they decay to a fungus that the ants feed on in their underground chambers.

Elsewhere, swarms of army ants (Eciton burchellii) in Corcovado National Park and Cahuita National Park can easily take on scorpions and small mammals, as well as devour up to 100,000 minibeasts in a single day.

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Ants

INSECTS

Blue morpho butterfly

Morpho peleides

The blue morpho is the most famous of this country’s butterflies, a name given to many species of the same Morpho genus in Costa Rica. As it turns out, they’re not blue at all — the vivid colour is an optical illusion conjured by microscopic scales reflecting light away from the wings. During flight, the blue morphos switch from blue to brownish hues to confuse predators.

On the other end of the scale are the almost transparent glasswing butterflies (Greta oto). As such, they’re hard to spot as they dart in the shadows of the undergrowth along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

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Butterflies

REPTILES

American crocodile

Crocodylus acutus

The American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) has one of the strongest bites in the animal kingdom. While these beasts have occasionally been spotted skirting the coasts of Costa Rica, your best bet for heart-rattling close encounters — at a safe distance — is the Rio Tarcoles; a murky waterway, flowing from the Nicoya Peninsula towards the Pacific.

Kayaking around the damp lowlands and the little creeks of Costa Rica? It’s possible you’ll spot spectacled caimans (Caiman crocodilus) floating in the shallows. Look to Cahuita National Park, where slipping in and around the mangrove swamps is a thriving population of this smaller reptile.

When booking your trip, look for a reputable operator that doesn’t participate in ‘baiting’ — a practice that leads to a dangerous association between people and food.

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Crocodiles

MAMMALS

Bottlenose dolphin

Tursiops truncatus

Dolphins gather in the rolling waves of the Pacific all year round in Costa Rica, drawing travellers with their playful and energetic antics.

It’s along the Caribbean side you’ll find frolicking bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), a highly intelligent and inquisitive species. Base yourself in Cahuita — a beachside Afro-Caribbean village, where reggae strums from colourful wooden bars and divers roam the reefs of the Cahuita National Park. From here catch a boat trip for your chance to see these mammals as it’s illegal to swim with wild dolphins in Costa Rica.

Thought to be highly intelligent, these remarkable animals ‘see’ with sonar and can decipher metal, plastic or wood from up to 30 metres away.

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Dolphins

REPTILES

Eyelash viper

Bothriechis schlegelii

No one quite knows why eyelash vipers (Bothriechis schlegelii) have their eyelash-like scales, but we do know that they’re savvy hunters, preying on lizards and small birds by night, biting with lightning speed to unleash their deadly venom. The vipers favour waterside living and have been spotted in Tortuguero National Park, the southern Caribbean, Arenal and La Fortuna.

Another highly venomous serpent in Costa Rica is the coral snake (Micrurus fulvius), identifiable by its distinctive bands of red, black, yellow or white. Then there’s the boa constrictor — in Carara, Tortuguero and Guanacaste National Park — which notoriously strangles and devours its prey whole.

Spot the eyelash viper and make a sharp getaway. The serpent, emblazoned in bright yellow, brown, green or red is highly venomous, and one of its bites can kill a large mammal or even an adult human.

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Eyelash vipers

AMPHIBIANS

Red-eyed tree frog

Agalychnis callidryas

Bulging red eyes and orange feet with blue-flecks: red-eyed tree frogs (Agalychnis callidryas) are the brightly-coloured, nocturnal amphibians that cling to leaves and trees using tiny suction cups on their feet. Sitting motionless for much of the day with eyes shut, the frogs flash their eyes and feet when they sense a predator is close, startling the hunter and giving themselves time to make a quick getaway. Spot them in the lowland rainforests of Tortuguero National Park and in the cooler regions of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

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Frogs

DID YOU KNOW

In the forests that surround Puerto Viejo, strawberry poison dart frogs (Oophaga pumilio) hop about in the undergrowth and hunt for ants and mites. Their venom is highly toxic — so much so that ancient indigenous hunters smeared their arrows with the frogs’ toxins to kill prey.

MAMMALS

Giant anteater

Myrmecophaga tridactyla

The chance of spotting the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) may be rare but sightings have been reported in the biodiverse Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula; humans are the greatest threat — deforestation is wiping out their habitat.

The tree-dwelling lesser anteater (Tamandua tetradactyla), on the other hand, is the most common, which uses its keen sense of smell to devour up to 10,000 ants in a single day using its long, sticky tongue that grows up to 40cm. Search for these solitary creatures close to water or nearby trees in Barra Honda National Park, Santa Rosa National Park , Palo Verde National Park and Braulio Carillo National Park.

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Giant anteaters

BIRDS

Green-crowned brilliant

Heliodoxa jacula

You can catch sight of some of Costa Rica’s 50-or-so hummingbird species in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, fluttering between orchids and ferns towards the cool, mist-swirled canopy.

The green-crowned brilliant (Heliodoxa jacula) grows to around 13cm in length and can be found fluttering around the Caribbean slopes at altitudes of 3,000 to 6,500ft. Found only in Costa Rica and Panama, the tiny scintillant hummingbird (Selasphorus scintilla, one of the world’s smallest birds measuring around 6.5cm in length) is a solitary bird that drinks nectar and reaches speeds of 34mph.

Did you know: hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backwards?

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Hummingbirds

REPTILES

Green iguana

Iguana iguana

The sprawling stretch of land in northern Guanacaste is where you’ll find some of the country’s purest pleasures: rolling white-sand beaches and tropical dry forests. It’s here endangered green iguanas (Iguana iguana) scoot from the shallows to the forest floor and climbing the canopies. They’re excellent swimmers and will dive into water to elude predators.

Black iguanas (Ctenosaura similis) spend hours lazing in the sun and can be found in thriving populations in Barra Honda National Park in western Costa Rica, among its ancient tropical dry forest. Don’t get too close — you may be on the receiving end of their vicious bites and lashing tails.

If you’re lucky enough to stumble across an iguana wrestling match you’ll witness a lot of hissing and thrashing tails, usually in October on the cusp of mating season.

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Iguanas

MAMMALS

Jaguar

Panthera onca

Once upon a time, jaguars (Panthera onca, the largest big cat after lions and tigers) roamed in their thousands across the Americas, but their numbers have dwindled from 400,000 to just 14,000 over the past century, with poaching and deforestation the biggest threats.

Today jaguars are a protected species, and though sightings are rare, they can be spotted stalking the rainforests and swamplands of Costa Rica. To up your chances, sign up to a voluntary conservation project in Tortuguero National Park, surveying the region for sightings and setting up hidden cameras.

You’ll also find pumas (Puma concolor) in Corcovado National Park and Santa Rosa National Park. And though sightings are extremely rare, you might be able to spot black panthers (Panthera pardus); their colour, the result of a melanistic gene.

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Jaguars

BIRDS

Keel-billed toucan

Ramphastos sulfuratus

There’s no mistaking this toucan’s distinctive bill — the oversized, colourful beak of Ramphastos sulfuratus isn’t for attracting mates, as Charles Darwin theorised, but for thrusting into foliage and gaps in tree trunks in search of food. Scientists also believe the beak may keep the bird cool, a bit like an elephant’s flappy ears, it keeps the core body temperature stable.

Keel-billed toucans can be found throughout Carara National Park, Tortuguero and sections of the Central Valley, where they live in small flocks, huddling together in cramped tree holes made by woodpeckers and feasting on fleshy fruits, insects and small reptiles.

Toucans love an audience. It’s possible you’ll catch them performing comedic battles by hurling foliage at one another, and playfully duelling with their beaks.

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Keel-billed toucans

REPTILES

Leatherback sea turtle

Dermochelys coriacea

Costa Rica’s shores are renowned hatching grounds for four different species, including leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea), the giants of the turtle world. Growing up to 2.2 metres in length and tipping the scales at 1,200lb, these creatures can live for up to 80 years, migrating across the seas, and returning to Costa Rica’s shorelines without fail between October to March to lay their eggs.

But it isn’t just any shoreline they’ll use; turtles return to their birth beach using the Earth’s magnetic field to guide them home. It’s on these beaches you can head out on after-dusk tours to witness hatching turtles making a break for it across the sands, from the protected beaches of Las Baulas Marine Park and Playa Caletas in the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge, to the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge on the Caribbean coast.

Look to Tortuguero National Park from July to October, when green turtles (Chelonia mydas) arrive en masse (around 22,500 females every season) to lay their eggs.

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Leatherback sea turtles

DID YOU KNOW

Biologists believe that white-faced capuchins (Cebus imitator) are the most intelligent of the New World monkeys.

BIRDS

Turquoise-browed motmot

Eumomota superciliosa

There are thriving populations of motmots across Costa Rica, but it’s the blue-crowned motmot (Momotus momota) you’re most likely to see whilst exploring the central valley on the Pacific, or hiking through the shady forests, mangroves and tangles of jungle in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Carara National Park, Corcovado National Park and Santa Rosa National Park.

They may look pretty — with their colourful plumage and bold, blue tail that swings from side to side — but blue-crowned motmots are fierce, too, and can ingest poison dart frogs without so much as a hiccup. They’re also known to beat prey (frogs, small reptiles and bats) against trees before swallowing it whole.

Blue-crowned motmots are secretive creatures, hiding their nests in the chambers of other animals’ burrows, the whereabouts of which are notoriously difficult for ornithologists to uncover.

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Motmots

MAMMALS

Mantled howler monkey

Alouatta palliata

Sightings of the various New World monkey species swinging through the trees is almost guaranteed in Costa Rica. There are the nimble spider monkeys (of the Ateles genus), who effortlessly swing their way around with their lanky limbs and extraordinarily long tails. Find them in the treetops in Santa Rosa National Park, Corcovado National Park, Tortuguero National Park and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

You’ll also find several species of howler monkey (Alouatta palliata), whose yelps and grunts can be heard from three miles away. Look skywards in any national park (especially Santa Rosa National Park, Arenal Volcano National Park and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve) and you might just catch sight of them hanging from their tails in the canopy.

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New World monkeys

MAMMALS

Ocelot

Leopardus pardalis

Incredibly elusive, the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) is distinguished by its unique coat pattern and large feet. So large, the Spanish name ‘mano gordo’ literally translates as ‘fat hand’. Why the large feet? It’s thought they’ve evolved for climbing trees. Spotting one is rare, but if you’re optimistic, there are regions you can prowl: in the forests, swamps and savanna of Peñas Blancas National Park, Santa Rosa National Park and Arenal Volcano National Park.

Hiding out in Corcovado National Park, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and Santa Rosa National Park is the small margay (Leopardus wiedii). Once close to extinction after years of relentless slaughter for its coat, populations have since dramatically recovered.

Never one to favour the mainstream, the artist Salvador Dali kept a Colombian ocelot named Babou as a pet.

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Ocelots

BIRDS

Scarlet macaw

Ara macao

Arrive early at Carara National Park — a habitat where the dry forests of the north west merge with the southern steaming rainforests — and a flash of the endangered scarlet macaw (Ara macao) may catch your eye. If you listen carefully, you’ll make out their characteristic squawk amid the cacophonic rainforest sounds.

You can also spot the great green macaw (Ara ambiguus), whose numbers have drastically diminished with increasing deforestation across their habitats in the green and serene Northern Zone. In a concerted effort to bolster the parrot population the Maquenque Wildlife Refuge was created in 2005, specifically to protect the almond tree habitats of the great green macaws.

These vibrant birds are a monogamous bunch, pairing with lifelong partners with whom they share food and preen plumage, often passing away within months of each other.

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Parrots

BIRDS

Resplendent quetzal

Pharomachrus mocinno

The resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) has dazzling emerald plumage that’s actually not green at all, but an illusion of light bouncing from pigment stripes to your eye.

Today the quetzal population is threatened, so sadly they’re difficult to spot. Keep a lookout in the Arenal and Poas Volcano National Parks during the dry season (December to June) when rivers recede and foliage thins, and you might just get lucky.

Add a visit to the Quetzal National Park, a legendary refuge for the birds, sitting along the high-altitude Talamanca mountain range.

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Quetzals

MAMMALS

Common raccoon

Procyon lotor

Several species of raccoon can be found in Costa Rica, including the common raccoon. But it’s the white-nosed coati or pizote (Nasua narica) that you’re most likely to spot, scurrying around the tangle of mangroves in Cahuita National Park and darting up trees in Arenal Volcano National Park.

Inquisitive creatures, they have sharp claws for digging and clambering up trees, and long, flexible snouts for sniffing out small rodents, lizards and fruit from deep within crevices. Unlike other members of the raccoon family, this captivating bunch are day creatures, spending sunlight hours grooming one another, and snoozing in the treetop branches by night.

Don’t feed these highly intelligent mammals. A creature with a natural curiosity for humans, this touristic practice conditions the animal to associate people with eating.

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Raccoons

DID YOU KNOW

Historically, quetzals have been revered by indigenous communities. They were the ancient inspiration for the Aztec and Maya snake god, Quetzalcoatl, whose feathers were thought to represent the green growth of spring.

MAMMALS

Three-toed sloth

Bradypus variegatus

There’s something endearing about gazing at sloths hanging drowsily from a branch. And the thing about sloths is they’re not in a hurry: spot one of these treetop-living creatures and you can stare at it for some time — these sluggish beasts sleep for up to 20 hours a day.

For sightings of both two- and three-toed sloths (Choloepus hoffmanni and Bradypus variegatus respectively), head to the wildlife-rich rainforests of the Osa Peninsular on the Pacific coast, where naturalist guides are trained to track these mammals, camouflaged with their thick, raggedy hair.

Their sleepy nature has evolved to help conserve energy; with incredibly slow digestive systems, sloths take up to two weeks to fully digest a meal.

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Sloths

MAMMALS

Baird’s tapir

Tapirus bairdii

If you were to cross a horse, an elephant and a rhino, the peculiar-looking offspring might resemble a tapir, one of the largest land mammals in Central America, with a trunk-like nose, long lashes and leathery skin.

Spot one of these largely nocturnal creatures in the wild and you’d be incredibly lucky. After years of deforestation, road kills and poaching, the Baird’s tapir of Costa Rica (Tapirus bairdii) is close to extinction: estimates suggest there are just 5,500 left — and around 1,000 of those are in Costa Rica, in the swamps, mangroves, and the rainforests of Corcovado National Park.

Tapir extinction could have serious environmental repercussions: this is a species with an active ecological role in combatting climate change, clearing the forest floor and scattering seeds.

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Tapirs

ECHINOIDS

Sea urchin

Echinoidea

Floating in Costa Rica’s clear waters or reefs should be on your must-do list, with kaleidoscopic marine life to spot at every turn. Dunk your head below the surface and it’s very likely you’ll spot warm-water-loving sea urchins (Echinoidea) sprouting in the nooks of reefs or clinging to the rocky seabed with their suckered-feet.

It’s the prickly purple urchin that you’re most likely to find in Costa Rica. Look to Cahuita National Park — an enchanting sprawl of reef and rainforest on Costa Rica’s Caribbean side, which has a reputation for otherworldly snorkelling and diving trips.

Watch your step. Treading on one of these spiky critters can puncture your foot with dozens of pricks in a single step. Some species even release venom from their spikes.

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Urchins

MAMMALS

Vampire bat

Desmondus rotundus

Costa Rica is home to over 100 bat species, including all three species of vampire bat. Of these, you’re most likely to spot the common vampire bat, Desmondus rotundus. These nocturnal hunters drink the blood of sleeping cattle and horses, and although they don’t kill their prey, they do leave nasty bites. Find them suspended in caves in Corcovado National Park, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, Monteverde, San José and along the Cerro de la Muerte.

There’s also the Honduran white bat (Ectophylla alba) — distinct from other species with its white coat and yellow-tinged leaf-shaped nose and ears. Living in the steamy lowlands of Tortuguero National Park, they huddle in small groups and craft ‘tents’ made from leaves. Bats are excellent pollinators, and as predators of insects, they’re important pest-controllers.

The spectral bat (Vampyrum spectrum) is the largest in Costa Rica, with a wingspan of to a metre.

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Vampire bats

MAMMALS

Humpback whale

Megaptera novaeangliae

For some of the world’s best whale-watching, head to the Pacific Coast, or more specifically to the Osa Peninsula (for the longest humpback whale-watching season in the world at Drake Bay), or the protected waters of Marino Ballena National Park.

From December to April, humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae) glide from California down the Central American coastline — escaping the cool wintry waters of Canada and Alaska — in one of the world’s longest mammal migrations, at around 5,160 miles. From August to October, you’ll also find humpbacks breeding and birthing in the balmy waters close to the shore.

Though sightings are rare, it’s possible to see orcas (Orcinus orca) hunting off the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Corcovado National Park, Marino Ballena National Park and Cahuita National Park.

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Whales

PLANTS

Orchids

Xylobium

Plant-loving travellers will relish spotting orchids of all shapes and sizes in Costa Rica. There’s Xylobium elongatum, a rainforest-dwelling plant with spiked petals that bloom mostly November to December. Thought to have grown on the earth since the age of the dinosaurs, it belongs to the Xylobium genus of 29 plants; five species of which sprout in Costa Rica’s humid forests.

Then there’s La Guaria Morada (Guarianthe skinneri) — the country’s national flower — found along the Pacific Coast, it blooms from January to April. You’ll also find the delicate white-petalled Brassavola nodosa, or ‘lady of the night’ — whose citrus-like scent wafts around beaches as dusk approaches.

There are thought to be around 1,300 species of orchid shooting up around Costa Rica’s rainforests, some with heady scents, others with enormous petals.

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Xylobium orchids

DID YOU KNOW

Euphonias are known for their characterful and continuous singing, earning them the name ‘bing-bing’ among locals.

BIRDS

Yellow-crowned euphonia

Euphonia luteicapilla

With its bright yellow breast and blue upper plumage, the dinky yellow-crowned euphonia (Euphonia luteicapilla, measuring 8-9cm in length) is a Central American finch that flits around shrubby regions and savannahs, where it nibbles on mistletoe berries.

Look out for the black-eared warbler (Basileuterus melanotis) while stalking the cloud forests of Monteverde. Growing to around 14cm in length, with fluffy brown feathers, it’s known for its energetic twittering.

Finally, the bay-headed tanager (Tangara gyrola) — with its blazing blue, yellow, green and red plumage — flutters and glides in the rainforest canopy. Crane your neck if you want to see these beauties, huddling together in small flocks and singing a slow symphony.

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Yellow-crowned euphonias

ARACHNIDS

Zebra tarantulas

Aphonopelma seemanni

Catching sight of these stripy creatures in their homeland is a thrilling experience. Zebra tarantulas (Aphonopelma seemanni) live in large clusters, scurrying around scrublands in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Guanacaste National Park and Corcovado National Park.

The female zebra tarantula is bigger than the male and typically outlives it by around 15 years (males usually die after five years). The female will occasionally eat its mate after reaping the sperm from his pincers. The females then lay their eggs in a complex web — where there can be as many as 2,000 laid.

Costa Rica is also home to one of the world’s most dangerous spiders: the Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria), which prowls the forest floor after nightfall and unleashes a toxic venom when it bites its prey.

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Zebra tarantulas