Wildlife In Costa Rica (Zoologist Explains)

Wildlife In Costa Rica

Found in Central America, between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica is a small country, no larger than the state of West Virginia.

However, for what Costa Rica lacks in size, it makes up for in biodiversity.

Scientists predict that there are more than 500,000 species found in Costa Rica, which is approximately 4-5% of all life on Earth.

Of these 500,000 animals, over 400,000 are thought to be invertebrates. This includes insects, spiders, and molluscs, as well as many, many more. Costa Rica is also home to 1,000 species of bird, 250 species of mammals, 225 species of reptiles, and 175 species of amphibians.

Of course, we have barely scratched the surface of life on Earth. There could be many millions of animals waiting to be discovered in Costa Rica – from the ocean floor to the rainforest canopy.

Why Is Costa Rica So Diverse?

Before we dive straight in and take a look at what animals can be found in Costa Rica, we need to first understand why so many animals can be found in a country that only makes up 0.03% of the world’s landmass.

1. Geographical Location

Costa Rica can be found on a stretch of land known as the Isthmus of Panama. Or, put simply, the slim slither of land that connects North and South America.

But this strip of land wasn’t always present.

Approximately 20 million years ago, North and South America were separated by the Central American Seaway, which, as you may assume, is a stretch of sea.

However, the tectonic plates under this seaway were on the move. Heavy oceanic plates moved under thick continental plates, and voila, volcanoes were created.

Over time (we’re talking millions of years), sediment build-up around these volcanic islands until eventually, a land bridge, or isthmus, was created.

This newly created land bridge allowed for the mixing of species from both North and South America – something that had never been possible before. Today, species from both North and South America can be found in Costa Rica.

2. Oceans And Weather

With the newly formed isthmus, the Atlantic (to the East) and the Pacific (to the West) oceans became isolated from one another. This meant unique populations of wildlife continued to evolve independently on either side of Costa Rica.

These two independent oceans influenced the weather of Costa Rica. On the Atlantic coast, high rainfall and humid conditions have allowed diverse lowland rainforests to thrive. On the Pacific coast, distinct dry and wet seasons shape the wildlife here.

3. Ecosystems

Running down the spine of Costa Rica, the Talamanca mountain range can be found. An ode to its volcanic past, this mountain range rises over 12,000 feet (3,600 meters), effectively slicing the country in half and altering the climatic conditions on either side of the country.

Many endemic species, both flora and fauna, can be found at different elevations along this mountain range and distinct ecosystems are formed.

Towards the top of mountains, you may find the Paramo. This is a unique ecosystem of Costa Rica, categorised by high elevation volcanic rock, where specialised plants and animals colonise.

Further down the mountains, a range of ecosystems can be found. Cloud forests, highland mountain rainforests and semi-deciduous mid-elevation forests are categorised by the amount of rainfall they receive and a high diversity of plant life, such as bromeliads and mosses.

Towards the coast, mangrove and wetland habitats dominate. Vegetation here has adapted to the high salinity levels. These areas are highly productive and support a wealth of life.

In the North of Costa Rica, in the Guanacaste province, the tropical dry forest can be found. Living up to its name, this region may experience months without a single drop of rain. However, what remains is a remanent of its former glory, with just 1% of this habitat left.

Mammals Of Costa Rica

Time to check out the mammals of Costa Rica!

Ocelot

No matter whether you’re a cat lover or a dog lover, you’ll fall in love with the ocelot.

A medium-sized cat, the ocelot can be found in lowland areas across Central and South America. Their mottled, velvet-like coat is adorned with beige markings, helping them blend into the surrounding vegetation.

Ocelots are excellent climbers, and under the cover of darkness, they silently stalk prey through the canopy. Like all felines, ocelots are obligate carnivores, and prey on a range of animals, such as rodents, primates, birds and reptiles.

Essentially, they are just big pussy cats.

Where to see them: despite heavy persecution and illegal hunting for their fur, ocelots are perhaps the most spotted cat in Costa Rica. National Parks, such as Monteverde, La Selva and Santa Rosa, are some of the best regions to spot ocelots in the wild.

Coati

Picture a cat. And a raccoon. And a monkey. And a bear.

Mix them all together, and what do you get? And no, it’s not a science experiment gone wrong.

Coatis have a long, and slender body. Their monkey-like, semi-prehensile tail allows them to balance as they walk across canopy branches.

Related to raccoons, they have high dexterity – movement in their hands – allowing them to grip tree trunks and handle a range of prey species. And, when it comes to prey, coatis are not fussy eaters. They are omnivorous and will eat a variety of food, from food and seeds to insects, crustaceans, and birds.

Coatis use their long snouts to sniff out prey in rotting trees or the leafy undergrowth and, using their sharp bear-like claws, make light work of accessing the tasty morsels within.

Where to see them: Coatis are gregarious mammals, often found in large groups consisting of females and their young. They can be found in nearly all environments throughout Costa Rica, including forests, coastlines, and urban environments.

Two-toed Sloth

The slowest animal. The dirtiest animal. The sleepiest animal. Most arboreal animal.

Judge all you want, there are some particularly good evolutionary reasons as to why the two-toed sloth takes the crown for these categories.

In the wild, sloths are slow. There’s no doubt about it. A low calorie diet, mixed with poor eyesight and low metabolic rate sees the two-toed sloth moving just 30 meters or so a day. But, if a tree has suitable leaves, a sloth can remain sedentary for days at a time.

However, being slow, this makes them vulnerable to predation. But nah uh, the two-toed sloth has a trick up its sleeve. They can become incredibly aggressive! If threatened, a sloth will wave its sharp claws in the air and attempt to bite with large, peg-like teeth. And yes, I’ve been on the receiving end of both the claws and teeth – but that’s a story for another time.

But are sloths dirty? Yes and no.

Coupling the incredibly slow speeds at which a sloth will travel, with the humid jungles of Costa Rica, a sloth will develop an entire ecosystem on its back. Moss, algae, fungi, insects. You name it. Many of these species can only be found on the back of a sloth.

And while this sounds dirty, the green algae and moss work as camouflage and helps the sloth blend into the surrounding vegetation.

Sloths spend most of their time in the canopy. The only time you will see a sloth on the ground is when they come down to pee or poop. They do this to not only mark their territory, but to avoid attracting predators to the smell up in the canopy.

Where to find them: Two-toed sloths can be found in humid forests of Costa Rica. Some of the best places to see two-toed sloths are Cauhita and Arenal National Park. They are absent from the North of the country, due to conditions being too hot and dry.

Pantropical Spotted Dolphin

We’ll have to take a trip to the coastline to spot (pun intended) the pantropical spotted dolphin.

Despite the small size, measuring no more than 1.8 meters from head to tail, you shouldn’t have any trouble spotting this cetacean. Not only are the spotted dolphins found on both the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, but they can also be found in social groups, some 1,000 individuals strong!

The pantropical spotted dolphin is not born with spots. Instead, the spots develop with age. And, with an average lifespan of around 45 years, these dolphins can develop a lot of spots!

Despite their large group sizes, populations of the pantropical spotted dolphin have been greatly reduced in Costa Rica, mostly due entanglement in discarded fishing gear and tuna nets.

Where to spot them: Taking a boat trip from the Northern province, Guanacaste, you may spot huge pods of dolphins. You can also see pods of the spotted dolphin from Manuel Antonio, Cahuita and Puerto Viejo.

Honduran White Bat

If you’re hiking the humid rainforests of Eastern Costa Rica, and you stumble across a large folded, tent-like leaf, carefully look underneath.

The Honduran white bat uses its sharp teeth to slice along the central veins of Heliconia leaves, ultimately collapsing the leaf and creating a V-shaped tent. Within this tent structure, as many as 12 bats can be found huddling together.

No more than 4 cm, this white bat is simply adorable. Along with their fuzzy white covering, they have a peculiar leaf-like nose. The exaggerated shape of the nose is thought to aid in echolocation – the main method in which bats detect a food source. In the case of the Honduran white bat, their diet consists of fruit and nectar.

Where to find them: The Honduran white bat can be found in lowland rainforests of Eastern Costa Rica. The best places to see these bats in the wild are Tortuguero and Cahuita National Parks.

Birds Of Costa Rica

Let’s see if you can recognize the birds of Costa Rica!

Resplendent Quetzal

As the name suggests, the resplendent quetzal is a bird to behold.

The largest of the trogon family, the resplendent quetzal can reach lengths of up to 16 inches. Both sexes have incredibly vibrant plumage of metallic blue, greens and reds. However, during the mating season, males develop impressive twin tail feathers that can reach up to a meter in length – that’s more than twice the length of its body.

Males use these extravagant tails to win mating rights to females. With the long tail feathers dangling down, the male resplendent quetzal flies in a spiral motion above the female. Only those males with the longest tail feathers will get any attention from a female (wink wink).

Afterall, the length of a male’s tail indicates the overall health and success of a male, and how suitable he would be to father her offspring.

Where to see them: As the resplendent quetzal can be found in lush vegetation at higher elevations (often higher than 900 meters), there are just a few places in Costa Rica to see them. The best places to catch a glimpse of this elusive bird would be Monteverde Cloud Forest, San Gerado de Dota and Los Quetzales National Park.

Three-Wattled Bell Bird

From the beautiful to the outright peculiar, Costa Rica has it all.

The three-wattled bell bird is no exception. Looking like something out of the “Predator” franchise, this species of bell bird certainly has a unique appearance.

Around the base of its bill, extending from the sides and top, three fleshy appendages dangle down. Referred to as wattles (turkeys and roosters also have wattles), these flaccid extensions can reach lengths of up to 10 centimetres.

Like the long tail feathers of the quetzal, longer wattles are thought to be a sign of good health and high levels of testosterone, which may influence female choice.

Evidence suggests that the three-wattled bell birds migrate to high elevation cloud forests in Costa Rica to mate. Here, distinct, and incredibly loud, shrill vocalisations can be heard.

Where to find them: Monteverde Cloud Forest is an extensive region of protected land that serves as an important breeding ground for the bell bird. Between March and July, in correspondence to the rainy season and fruiting trees, the three-wattled bell bird is most numerous.

Toucans

There are two species of toucan in Costa Rica (as well as two species of toucanets and two species of aracari). These are the chestnut mandible and the keel billed toucan.

Both species have black plumage with a vibrant yellow breast. However, their bills differ in colour quite remarkably.

The chestnut mandibled toucan has a large yellow and brown bill. The keel-billed toucan on the other hand, has a bill adorned with vibrant colorations – from green to blue to red. These colourations are unique to each bird, and may aid in conspecific identification.

However, don’t let their good looks fool you. Both species of toucans are formidable predators.

Whilst both species predominantly feed upon fruits, they will also hunt insects, reptiles, amphibians and other smaller birds. When hunting live prey, toucans grasp their prey with their bill, quickly fling it up in the air, catching it within its mouth.

Where to find them: Toucans are most active around dawn and dusk in tropical and sub-tropical forests throughout Costa Rica. Chestnut mandibled toucans are most likely to be spotted on the Caribbean coastline, in areas such as Tortuguero or Puerto Viejo. Keel-billed toucans can be found in the Central Valley, in rainforests such as Arenal and Monteverde.

Scarlet Macaw

The population of scarlet macaws in Costa Rica is a bit of a rollercoaster.

Once widespread, these vibrant parrots (which also happen to be one of the largest parrot species in the world) could be found in about 85% of all of Costa Rica.

However, in the 1900’s, their numbers plummeted. With a single scarlet macaw chick fetching as much as $400 in the exotic pet trade, poachers raided nests and sold eggs to customers across the globe.

Oh, and deforestation. Of course.

Since 2012, Costa Rica has banned the capture of any wild animal to be sold into the exotic pet trade. This has seen a rise in the numbers of scarlet macaws across the country.

I’ve worked and rescued macaws in Costa Rica and they truly are special birds. However, don’t get too close! Their large, hooked beak is strong and powerful, capable of crushing the tough exterior of nuts (even coconuts). A human finger is easy work in comparison

Where to find them: Although scarlet macaws are still considered relatively rare in Costa Rica, there are still some remaining hotspots. The Central Pacific coastline, including places such as Manuel Antonio and Jaco, boast large groups of scarlet macaws.

Jabiru

With a name sounding as if it has come straight out of a Lewis Carroll story, the imagination starts to run wild.

And the real thing doesn’t disappoint.

A member of the stork family, the jabiru is the largest bird in all of Costa Rica, coming in just shy of 1.5 meters tall.

Their long, reptilian-like legs enable the bird to wade through wetland habitats. Their large, slightly upturned beak, can reach lengths of up to 12 inches and catch a variety of prey species, including reptiles and amphibians. Jabirus will also scavenge carrion, preventing the spread of nasty diseases.

Their nests can be over a meter wide and close to two meters in depth and composed entirely from twigs. Jabiru nests are relatively easy to distinguish, not just from the enormous size, but also because they like to nest in tall, isolated trees.

Where to find them: Jabirus can be found in partially flooded savannahs across the province of Guanacaste. Although they are commonly sighted in the Palo Verde National Park, you can also see them in flat, riparian marshlands across much of Guanacaste.

Reptiles Of Costa Rica

Let’s check the reptiles living in Costa Rica!

Spectacled Caiman

The spectacled caiman is one of the most common crocodilians found in Costa Rica. It is also one of the smallest, at around 2 meters in length.

Of course, 2 meters is more than enough, and I wouldn’t encourage you to play with one.

Their name stems from the bony ridge that can be found between their eyes, giving the impression of a pair of spectacles. However, a bit of imagination needed.

This olive-green reptile easily conceals itself in lakes and rivers of Costa Rica, with just their nostrils exposed. They remain motionless, waiting for prey such as fish to swim past, before striking.

Although they are common, their numbers are decreasing (surprise surprise). With laws and regulations surrounding crocodile harvesting becoming tighter, people turned to caimans, catching them for their skin to be used in the fashion industry.

Where to find them: Caimans can colonise most freshwater and brackish water sources across Costa Rica. One of the best places to see them is the canals of Tortuguero, where they can be found basking on the sandy river banks.

Green Iguana

Possibly the closest thing to a dinosaur (or dragon) you’ll find in Costa Rica.

These ancient looking lizards are adorned in spines and spikes across its body – from their back ridge, to the underside of their head.

These comb-like spines could serve a variety of functions. The prevailing theory is that they help defend themselves against attacking predators, such as birds of prey or pythons. However, other theories suggest that the spines help the green iguana regulate its body temperature or aid in camouflage.

The green iguana is mostly arboreal, and can be found basking on top of vegetation and branches. Their strong claws enable them to grip and climb vertical structures.

Across Costa Rica, green iguanas can be a range of colours – from orange to grey. However, all green iguanas start life as an emerald green colour, perhaps to help them camouflage when they are young and vulnerable.

Where to find them: Due to hunting and poaching, green iguanas are not as common as they once were. They are mostly spotted in National Parks across both the Pacific and Caribbean slopes of Costa Rica. The province of Guanacaste, as well as Corcovado National Park, are home to strongholds of green iguanas.

Fer-De-Lance (Terciopelo)

A silent assassin. Proceed with caution.

The fer-de-lance is one of the few animals that strikes fear in many a Costa Rican. Members of the viper family, fer-de-lances are incredibly toxic serpents. Their venom is a potent hemotoxin, targeting red-blood cells in warm-blooded mammals (including us humans).

The fer-de-lance is a relatively small, yet stocky, snake that can be found across premontane, or semi-deciduous, forests of Costa Rica. Its cryptic colouration of brown to black striped patterning allows it to camouflage within the leaf litter on the forest floor. However, they can also be found close to human settlements, where prey species are in high abundance.

Fer-de-lances are ambush hunters, waiting for prey to come within striking distance. They are rodent specialists, hunting small mammals such as rats, opossums and mice under the cover of darkness.

Deadly venom, cryptic colouration, and nocturnal hunting make for one master of death in the Costa Rican landscape.

Where to find them: fer-de-lances are widespread across Costa Rica. They prefer lower elevations, where temperatures are warmer. You may also find them basking in sunny patches near rivers and streams. Always look where you’re stepping. Oh, and check your boots. Even juveniles can be fatal!

Leatherback Turtle

Leatherback turtles are so called due to their tough, leathery carapace (shell) – a characteristic shared by no other sea turtle species.

Weighing upwards of 2,000lbs (900kg), the leatherback is the largest species of marine turtle. They also have one of the longest recorded migrations, at around 10,000 miles. To top it off, they are the deepest-diving sea turtle species, regularly diving to depths of 4,000ft (1,200m)

Unfortunately, the global conservation status of leatherbacks is vulnerable. Not great.

In Costa Rica, however, populations of this prehistoric giant are critically endangered. But why?

Simply, humanity.

In the 1980’s poaching of turtle eggs decimated local populations. Thought to be an aphrodisiac, turtle eggs could be found in nearly every bar in Costa Rica. And, with each egg selling for $1 each (80 – 100 eggs can be found per nest), many wanted in on the ludicrous turtle egg industry.

Whilst it is now illegal to poach turtle eggs in most beaches (Playa Ostional is an exception), many other threats persist. Coastal developments, light pollution, plastic pollution, climate change, and fisheries bycatch all threaten the survival of leatherbacks.

Where to see them: I have had the privilege of working alongside leatherback turtles, and the scientists studying them, in various locations across Costa Rica. Some of the best places to witness leatherbacks are in Las Baulas (near Tamarindo), Tortuguero and Santa Rosa National Parks. Smaller, lesser-known beaches, such as Playa Cabuyal, also bear witness to leatherback nesting events.

Tropical Milk Snake

The nocturnal tropical milk snake is a harmless, non-venomous species of kingsnake. Being masters of disguise, they don’t need to invest in costly venom.

They are Batesian mimics. In other words, the tropical kingsnake looks the same as the toxic coral snake, by copying the coral snakes warning colourations and behaviour.

Similar to the toxic coral snake, the tropical milk snake has banded patterning of yellow, black and red. So, how can you tell the two apart?

As a general rule of thumb, the famous saying “red on yellow, kill a fellow. Red on black, venom lacks” holds true. In other words, the positioning of the colouration in the milk snake is ever so slightly different.

But, as there are many different colour morphs of milk snakes, it’s best not to take any chances.

Where to see them: milk snakes have a relatively widespread distribution across Costa Rica. They can be found in the dry forests of Guanacaste to the cloud forests of Monteverde.

Amphibians Of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is home to a number of amphibians, let’s check them out!

Red-eyed Tree Frog

One of the most iconic Costa Rican species, the red-eyed tree frog is hard to miss (at night time, at least).

Living up to its name, the red-eyed tree frog has bulbous red eyes. The body is bright green and they have striped blue flanks.

You would think, being conspicuous and non-venomous, the red-eyed tree frog would be highly susceptible to predation.

And it would be, if it wasn’t for a nifty evolutionary trick.

During the day, the medium sized amphibian stays motionless on the undersides of leaves. Limbs are tucked in close to its body and its eyes are closed. This effectively makes the frog invisible.

However, at the slightest sign of danger, the frog opens up its body, exposing the vivid blue, red, and orange colouration. The sudden exposure of bright colours is enough to startle potential predators for a split second, allowing the frog to jump to safety. This kind of defence is referred to as startle colouration.

Where to see them: Monteverde and Arenal are, arguably, the best places to find red-eyed tree frogs in the wild. They can be found around water sources in moist rain and cloud forests.

Blue Jeans Poison Dart Frog

The blue jeans dart frog is miniscule, measuring no more than 2cm. They are another iconic Costa Rican species, with a bright red body and striking blue legs, resembling a pair of jeans.

However, don’t let size put you off, for this tiny amphibian certainly packs a punch. The skin of the blue jeans frog is laced with the alkaloid toxin, pumiliotoxin 251D. A complicated name, all you need to know is that, if ingested, can cause convulsions and death!

The toxicity of this little frog is actually derived from its diet of mites and ants. The poison dart frog can synthesize the toxic proteins from its prey and use them as a bioweapon. Genius.

Despite their menacing façade, the blue jeans dart frog is an exceptional parent.

Once fertilised, an egg will develop into a tadpole after about a week of incubation. Here, the mother will transport her offspring, one by one, into water pools found within bromeliad plants. Each tadpole will have its own bromeliad.

In the following days, the mother will visit each of her developing tadpoles, and deliver them an unfertilised egg, in which they feed exclusively from.

This behaviour, where young feed primarily on eggs of the same species, is referred to as obligatory oophagy.

Where to see them: The Caribbean slopes of Costa Rica offer the best opportunity to see the blue jeans dart frog. Look on the forest floor in the damp jungles of Tortuguero (the best way to do this is by kayak) and Puerto Viejo. You may also be able to find dart frogs in Arenal and the Central Valley.

Caecilian

You would be forgiven if you’d typed this one into Google.

leading a fossorial lifestyle, not much is known about caecilians. They represent a lesser-known family of amphibians – Gymnophiona.

However, scientists speculate that there are approximately 3 different species of caecilians living within the forest floors of Costa Rica, with at least one species endemic to the Central Valley of Costa Rica.

These earthworm-like, legless amphibians have adapted to a subterranean lifestyle. They have a hard, pointed skull and strong muscles which helps them burrow through mud.

Whilst caecilians do have eyes, they are incredibly small and rudimentary. In some cases, the eyes are completely covered by skin, to protect them whilst burrowing. The eyes are thought to be able to detect between light and dark.

With almost useless eyes, caecilians possess a pair of tiny tentacles on their face. These chemically-sensitive appendages are able to detect food, such as earthworms and other small invertebrates.

Where to see them: Caecilians live most of their lives underground. As such, they are rarely spotted. However, like all amphibians, they need moist environments to survive. The best place to spot caecilians would be on a rainy night in national parks such as Braulio Carrillo or Tilaran.

Cane Toad

Large, warty, and poisonous. A triple threat with a ferocious appetite.

In the last century, the cane toad has risen to infamy. Introduced to Australia in the 1930s, the cane toad was the cause of huge ecological collapses and influenced the extinction of many native species – either via feeding directly upon species, or killing predators (most notably dogs) with a toxic substance.

However, in its native range of Central and South America, populations are kept in check by predators such as snakes, caimans, fish, and some bird species. And considering females can lay up to 60,000 eggs a year, that is a lot of toads to eat!

Where to see them: In Costa Rica, cane toads can be found in nearly all regions; from coastal settlements to cooler cloud forests – in both urban and rural settlements alike. Unfortunately, I actually lost a pet dog whilst living in Costa Rica to a cane toad that entered the house.

Glass Frog

Glass frogs are small, translucent amphibians.

From above, glass frogs look relatively ordinary. They are normally lime green, with some species having small yellow dots across their backs.

The underside of a glass frog, however, is see-through! So much so, you can see the internal organs and even its beating heart.

Scientists are unsure as to why the glass frog is translucent, however, some theories speculate that it is a form of camouflage. The semi-transparent skin of the glass frog allows the small amphibian to blend into any surrounding, using a process referred to as edge diffusion.

Like the poison dart frogs, glass frogs make good parents. After a female has laid a clutch of eggs on a leaf, the male will fertilise and guard them. When predators, such as wasps, attempt to eat the developing eggs, the male will simply kick at the wasp to prevent it from landing.

If all else fails, the tadpoles can forcibly eject themselves from their eggs and drop into the water below. However, this is dependent on the stage of development.

Where to see them: So far, there are 14 recorded species of glass frogs in Costa Rica. They can be found all across the country, from the mountains of Talamanca to the rainforests of Corcovado National Park.

Fish Of Costa Rica

Of course we can’t skip the fish of Costa Rica!

Whitetip Reef Shark

Sharks have been feared for centuries – a fear that has been made ever more prevalent since the blockbuster release “Jaws“.

But, how much do we really have to fear from sharks? Well, the answer is not much.

Whitetip reef sharks are medium-sized sharks, growing to an average length of approximately 1.6 meters. Like most shark species, their diet consists mostly of fish, octopuses, and crustaceans – not humans!

During the day, aggregations of whitetips (recognized by their characteristic, you guessed it, white tips), can be found resting on sandy ocean floors or within shallow underwater caves and crevices.

Unlike many other shark species, whitetips do not need to continuously swim in order to gain a constant flow of water over their gills. Instead, they can use a process known as buccal pumping. Here, the whitetip actively takes in water and forces it over their gills.

At night, whitetip reef sharks patrol the rocky reefs around Costa Rica’s Pacific coastline. Their slim body allows them to maneuver the tight caves and crevices to catch a range of prey species.

Where to see them: Scuba diving around the Catalina Islands, off the coast of Tamarindo, is one of the best places to see whitetip reef sharks. However, due to hunting pressures and degraded habitat, numbers are drastically reducing.

Mahi-Mahi

Also referred to as the dolphin fish, mahi-mahi’s are large, surface-dwelling fish. They have a large range, but can commonly be found in both the Pacific and Caribbean waters off Costa Rica.

Sexually mature males differ from females, not by colour, but by the size and shape of their forehead. Instead of a rounded head, which is seen in females, the male mahi-mahi has a large, almost 90-degree forehead. The size of the forehead may be a factor in female choice when choosing a mate.

Mahi-mahi’s are fast, owing to their streamlined body. They hunt pelagic fish, such as the smaller flying fish, as well as cephalopods, such as squid.

Where to see them: Mahi-mahi is a popular catch in sports fishing, perhaps due to their large size and gold-blue body colouration. They can be found throughout the year, on both coastlines of Costa Rica. They are attracted to floating things, such as buoys and sargassum seaweed.

Mobula Ray

Mobula rays are an umbrella term for 9 species of rays belonging to the family Mobulidae. In Costa Rica, you may be able to find oceanic manta rays, and devil rays such as the bentfin and Munk’s devil rays.

Like sharks, rays belong to the class Chondrichthyes, or cartilaginous fishes. In other words, they do not have bones.

Mobula rays can be seen across Pacific and Caribbean waters. However, you are just as likely to see them from the land as you are from the water. But how so?

Often referred to as flying rays, mobulas have the amazing ability to leap out of the water – to heights of up to 2 meters! Their flat, diamond-shaped body, along with their plane-like wings, allows them to effortlessly glide both in and out of water.

Scientists remain baffled by this leaping behaviour. However, there are multiple theories. They may be ridding themselves of ectoparasites. It could be a hunting technique. Perhaps it’s a form of communication. Or maybe it is to escape predators.

Where to see them: Mobulas can be seen leaping from the shoreline around less developed regions of Guanacaste, such as Playa Cabuyal, and Corcovado – an experience I’ve witnessed with my very eyes. To see the majestic manta ray, the Catalina Islands would be the best option.

Hammerhead Shark

Hammerheads, with their iconic hammer-like cephalofoil, are one of the top predators of oceanic Costa Rica. Three species of hammerheads can be found in Costa Rica: the scalloped, the smooth, and the great hammerhead.

The great hammerhead is the largest hammerhead in the world, reaching lengths of over 6 meters. Whilst most other hammerhead species have rounded cephalofoils, the great hammerhead has a straight cephalofoil – perhaps an adaptation to locate stingray prey on the ocean floor.

The great hammerhead is an apex, solitary hunter. They feed off a wide range of prey including fish and cephalopods, as well as rays and even other sharks.

Unlike the solitary great hammerhead, both smooth and scalloped hammerheads tend to school in groups of many hundreds. It is thought they are social hunters, much like how certain species of dolphins hunt.

Unfortunately, all species of hammerheads are threatened with extinction in Costa Rica. They are targeted for their fins to make the Asian delicacy of shark-fin soup – a dish that serves limited nutritional benefit and is often flavoured with chicken or beef broth.

Where to see them: Hammerheads congregate in their thousands in the marine protected area of Cocos Island. However, taking just under 2 days via boat to get to from mainland Costa Rica, this is inaccessible to most. Golfo Dulce, a tropical fjord in Southern Costa Rica, serves as a sanctuary for juvenile hammerheads.

Tropical Gar

To spy the tropical gar, we’re moving out of the marine world and into the freshwater realm.

This prehistoric fish species, which has fossil records dating back over 150 million years, has an elongated body, encased in an armor of thick scales.

The tropical gar has a long snout, filled with rows of needle-like sharp teeth, which they use to catch prey such as smaller fish and aquatic crustaceans. They are ambush hunters, staying motionless near the surface of the water, before striking with ferocious speed.

The tropical gar can be found in fresh and brackish waters across Mexico down into Costa Rica. They can be found in slow moving, or even stagnant, bodies of water where oxygen levels are low – an ecological niche that cannot be filled by other fish.

Tropical gars can thrive in low-oxygen conditions as, unlike most other fish species, they can breathe air. To do this, they swim to the surface and take a gulp of fresh air, which is delivered to the gas bladder – a primitive type of lung. Here, gas exchange can occur.

Where to see them: the wetlands of Cano Negro National Park, close to the border of Nicaragua, offer some of the best chances to see these fish.

What Animals Can Only Be Found In Costa Rica?

According to Flora and Fauna International, it is estimated that over 1,000 species of plants and animals endemic to Costa Rica – they can be found nowhere else on Earth!

Such species include:

  • Golfo Dulce Poison Frog
  • Blue-sided Leaf Frog
  • Golden Toad – This species is now considered extinct, due to habitat loss, climate change, and the deadly chytrid fungus.
  • Monteverde Moss Salamander
  • Talamancan Palm Pit viper
  • Cocos Pygmy Gecko
  • Costa Rican Ground Sparrow
  • Variable Pocket Gopher
  • Monteverde Small-eared Shrew
  • Creek Tetra

The above species represent a wide range of animals, across a variety of taxa’s, including reptiles, amphibians, mammals, birds, and fish.

What Is The Top (And Largest) Predator In Costa Rica?

There are three top predators of Costa Rica, separated into three distinct categories: terrestrial, freshwater, and marine.

On the land, the jaguar is the largest apex predator. Jaguars are the largest feline in the America’s, and the third biggest in the world (weighing up to 95kg), and can be found in National Parks across Costa Rica. The best places to see jaguars are Tortuguero, Corcovado, and Santa Rosa.

For freshwater, the top predator is the American crocodile. Measuring a whopping 6 meters from head to tail, they are formidable hunters, preying on a range of terrestrial and aquatic prey species such as fish, turtles, birds, and mammals. If you’re planning a trip from the capital to the Pacific coast (Manuel Antonio), take a moment to peer over the bride at Rio Tarcoles. I won’t ruin the surprise here…

And finally, we have the marine world. Here, the largest and top predator would be the bull shark. growing to lengths of up to 3 meters, they frequent shallow coastal waters, as well as freshwater rivers, putting them in close contact with people. So, watch your toes – they will eat just about anything they can get their mouth around.

Are There Anacondas In Costa Rica?

No, there are no anacondas found in Costa Rica. Anacondas are native to South America. They can be found in lakes and rivers, such as The Amazon and The Pantanal.

However, Costa Rica is home to the boa constrictor – a relative of the anaconda that can grow up to 4 meters. Boas can be found across Costa Rica, but the best places to see them would be in Guanacaste or Corcovado National Park.

Are There Skunks In Costa Rica

Yes, Costa Rica is home to three species of skunks: the spotted skunk (smallest and most elusive), the American hog-nosed skunk, and the hooded skunk.

Skunks are nocturnal and relatively elusive. Their iconic black and white patterning helps camouflage them in the vegetation.

Final Thoughts

Costa Rica is home to a lot of animals – more than all of Europe combined.

Due to the countless national parks and reserves found across the country, much of the wildlife in Costa Rica is protected. However, there are still many threats that are facing the wildlife in Costa Rica, such as the illegal pet trade, climate change, and habitat loss.

And remember, you don’t always need to visit a National Park to be able to spot wildlife. All you need is a good pair of binoculars! Get outside and get exploring, there will always be wildlife around in Costa Rica – no matter if you’re in an urban jungle or a real jungle.