Introduction to Costa Rica
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Destination content Christopher P. Baker, used from Moon Handbooks Costa Rica, 5th edition.
Anyone who has traveled in the tropics in search of wildlife can tell you that disappointment comes easy (and often at considerable expense). But Costa Rica is one place that lives up to its reputation. Costa Rica is nature's live theater--and the actors aren't shy.

Photo by Steven Hodel

My friend Lynn Ferrin wrote, "The birds are like jewels, the animals like creatures in a Rousseau painting." Noisy flocks of oropendolas, with long tails "the color of daffodils," sweep from tree to tree. The scarlet macaws are like rainbows, the toucans and hummingbirds like the green flash of sunset. The tiny poison-dart frogs are bright enough to scare away even the most dimwitted predator. And the electric-blue morphos, the neon narcissi of the butterfly world, make even the most unmoved of viewers gape in awe.

Then there are all the creatures that mimic other things and are harder to spot: insects that look like rotting leaves, moths that look like wasps, the giant Caligo memnon (cream owl) butterfly whose huge open wings resemble the wide-eyed face of an owl, and the mottled, bark-colored machaca (lantern fly), which is partly to blame for Costa Rica's soaring birthrate. According to local folklore, if a girl is stung by a machaca she must have sex within 24 hours or she will die.

Much of the wildlife is glimpsed only as shadows. (Some, like the dreaded fer-de-lance, for example, uncurling in the rotten leaves, you hope you don't meet.) Well-known animals that you are not likely to see are the cats--pumas, jaguars, margays, and ocelots--and tapirs and white-lipped peccaries. With patience, however, you can usually spot monkeys galore, as well as iguanas, quetzals, and three-fingered sloths that get most of their aerobic exercise by scratching their bellies and look, as someone has said, like "long-armed tree-dwelling Muppets."

Monarch Butterfly 
Photo by Steven Hodel

INBio (National Institute of Biodiversity), a private, nonprofit organization formed in 1989, has been charged with the formidable task of collecting, identifying, and labeling every plant and animal species in Costa Rica. "After 100 years of work by the National Museum we still only know 10-20 percent of what we have in the country," says Rodrigo Gómez, director of the NIBR. Over the course of the last 110 years, the National Museum has collected some 70,000 specimens. In their first 18 months, INBio's hundreds of "parataxonomists" (ordinary citizens trained to gather and preserve specimens) gathered almost two million.

Identifying the species is a prodigious task, which every day turns up something new. Insects, for example, make up about half of the estimated 500,000 to one million plant and animal species in Costa Rica. The country is home seasonally to more than 850 bird species--10 percent of all known bird species (the U.S. and Canada combined have less than half that number). One source reports there are 5,000 different species of grasshoppers, 160 known amphibians, 220 reptiles, and 10 percent of all known butterflies (Corcovado National Park alone has at least 220 different species).

INBio publishes the Biodiversity of Costa Rica newsletter. Look, too, for David Norman's excellent Educational Pamphlet Series, pocket booklets on individual species, Apdo. 387-3000 Heredia; $1.50 each.

Early Migrations
About three million years ago, the Central American isthmus began to rise from the sea to form the first tentative link between the two Americas. Going from island to island, birds, insects, reptiles, and the first mammals began to move back and forth between the continents. During this period, rodents of North America reached the southern continent, and so did the monkeys, which found the tropical climate to their liking.

In due course, South America connected with North America. Down this corridor came the placental mammals to dispute the possession of South America with the marsupial residents. Creatures poured across the bridge in both directions. The equids used it to enter South America, the opossums to invade North America. A ground sloth the size of an elephant headed north, too, reaching all the way to what is now Texas before it died out. Only a few South American mammals, notably armadillos, ground sloths, and porcupines, managed to establish themselves successfully in the north. The greatest migration was in the other direction.

A procession of North American mammals swarmed south, with disastrous effects on native populations. The mammals soon came to dominate the environment, diversifying into forms more appropriate to the tropics. In the course of this rivalry, many marsupial species disappeared, leaving only the tough, opportunistic opossums.

The isthmus has thus served as a "filter bridge" for the intermingling of species and the evolution of modern distinctive Costa Rican biota, a fairly recent amalgam as the isthmus has been in existence for only some three million years. Costa Rica's unique location and tropical setting, along with a great variety of local relief and microclimates, have meant that refuge areas for ancient species endangered by changes in environmental conditions have been widely available, and species that have died out elsewhere can still be found here. This, together with generous infusions of plants and animals from both continents, has resulted in a proliferation of species that in many important respects is vastly richer than the biota of either North or South America. Costa Rica's biota shares much with both.

Other Mammals
Anhingas and Cormorants
Aracaris and Toucans
Birds of Prey
Doves and Pigeons
Egrets, Herons, and Relatives
Seabirds and Shorebirds
Tanagers and Other Passerines
Other Notable Birds
Crocodiles and Caimans
Iguanas and Lizards
Frogs and Toads



The Land | Ecosystems | Fauna | History | Arts and Culture | National Parks

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