Our Costa Rican Honeymoon Part 2: Reptiles

Part 1: Mammals

If mammals were the most disproportionately exciting animals in Costa Rica, then reptiles seemed the most disproportionately abundant. Lizards were freaking everywhere: underfoot, in the trees, in the water. We even shared a hotel room with several small geckos. At night they made soft chirping noises like muted crickets as they scurried across the walls. During our hikes I felt constantly on the verge of treading on Ameiva lizards and anoles. Yet lizards were just the beginning. En route to Manuel Antonio National Park our guide said “If it’s open, we’ll drop you off at beach #1 for about an hour. Yesterday it was closed.” He waited, obviously for us to ask why. We obliged. “Crocodiles in the water,” he said.

dsc02840The anoles (Norops sp.) were particularly abundant, but identifying them to species was a virtual impossibility. Apparently Costa Rica boasts some twenty-five species of anole, and the mere handful known in the US are already notoriously difficult to distinguish. After all, one of their key features is their noted ability to change color, and they are crazy fast. Picking out field marks is a fool’s errand.

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In contrast there are only four species of Ameiva, or “whiptail” lizards in Costa Rica, but they too were a little tough for me to tell apart. These guys were drawn to the sides of forest trails for the sunny spots, so we saw quite a few. The excitement at seeing them eventually gave way to disappointment that they weren’t something more unusual.

We were pleased to observe a few green iguanas (Iguana iguana) and black iguanas (Ctenosaurus negra) as well. It’s captivating to see the wild version of common pets; in that regard Costa Rica’s iguanas did not disappoint. I had no idea that some green iguanas have a striking red coloration, or that black iguanas are not really members of the Iguana genus.

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The spotter scope’s lens dulled the red a bit on this green iguana.
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The black iguana: a rather stately fellow

I’d pretty much always wanted to see basilisks, so my glee at their presence was unmitigated. I wasn’t quite fortunate enough to witness their Jesus-runs but did see and photograph (albeit poorly) both the common (Basiliscus basiliscus) and double-crested (B. plumifrons) varieties at rest.

Snakes were a rarer treat, but we did observe two of the classic rainforest species in the boa constrictor (Boa constrictor… I know, right?) and the eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii). The juvenile individual of the latter, second photo below, is among the deadliest animals I’ve had the privilege of viewing. Before adulthood venomous snakes can’t control the amount of venom they inject with their bite, so one always gets the full dose. I’m told these snakes are perfectly safe to observe… it’s the failure to observe that tends to cause problems. Several people per year die from the bite of an eyelash viper in Costa Rica, almost always because of a misplaced step or blind reach.

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An adult eyelash viper
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and a juvenile

Progressing upward in size brings me to the spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus). We only saw the one, but were able to observe it two days in a row. It had taken up residence in a stream between the two major beach areas of Manuel Antonio NP, and its contentment there was our gain. The header image for this post is its face.

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My favorite day of the trip was our travel day between Manuel Antonio and Monteverde. While we breakfasted at our hotel with the company of sloths in one nearby tree and parrots in another, the staff chatted with us about our plans for the rest of the trip. “Oh, you have to stop at the crocodile bridge,” they would invariably say. This, we were told, was a bridge over the Rio Grande de Tarcoles. We should park and walk out onto the bridge for a “good chance” to see “a crocodile.” After a brief pause at a pleasant, rocky beach we did just that. I’m not sure how best to put… let me collect my… if I could just have a mom- HOLY SHIT!

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As we began walking the span and looked down, I didn’t see much in the way of crocodiles, but I did note some huge boulders. As we drew closer to the river itself, of course, I became more and more certain that the boulders were, in fact, the crocodiles I wasn’t seeing. My god, they were huge! And there were so many of them – at least two dozen. And they just kind of looked… like they weren’t real, somehow? Clearly these were actual, living crocodiles but part of my brain kept insisting that they were not real things. Nothing alive could look like that. We knew we were stopping to look at crocodiles (if we were lucky) but were wholly unprepared for the reality of what we were seeing.

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Wait… rocks don’t have feet.
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Not a living, breathing, thing, right? How can it be? Oh, it IS?

Just across the bridge we stopped for lunch (and I’m not sure which of Costa Rican lunch or Costa Rican breakfast is best, but both kick the crap out of what we eat in the US). I was tracking the progress of an iguana across a playground when it occurred to me that this was a playground. Approximately a hundred yards from the river teeming with prehistoric killing machines. I didn’t want to consider the implications of the emptiness of said playground at midday.

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There’s gotta be a fence or something somewhere. I hope.

The rest of that day was also quite enjoyable, except for the 17 kilometers of death-defying mountain driving, but I can’t say that much could compete with the crocodile bridge. It neatly divided our trip into BC and AC (Before Crocodile and After Crocodile). During the AC portion we toured a “serpentarium” in Monteverde, where researches house a huge variety of native reptiles and amphibians. This was a great way to kill a couple hours and fill in the blanks of some of the creatures we’d missed out on.

Our Costa Rican Honeymoon Part I: Mammals

I’m going to take Wildly Mistaken abroad for a bit to talk about probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done – a trip to Costa Rica for my honeymoon in 2012. This was about two weeks of eco-tourism through tropical rainforests, beaches, and cloud forest as newlyweds, and the 103 degree fever I was running the night before wasn’t nearly enough to ruin it. It was so jam-packed with wildlife sightings that I’m going to have to break this up into several posts.

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Today I will focus on the mammal species we came across. These were the most disproportionately exciting compared to the wildlife found in eastern North America. These creatures were so different from anything I’d seen in the wild before that the forest felt almost like an alien world.

dsc03007I have to start with the monkeys. Costa Rica is home to four native species, of which we saw three (sorry, Central American spider monkeys, some other time). All three were a wonder to behold. White-faced capuchins (Cebus capucinus) seemed to be everywhere and were particularly mesmerizing. They visited our hotel, met us on a mangrove boat tour, crossed our paths in the forest more than once, and hung out with us on the beach. Our guide on the mangrove tour was more circumspect than some, nothing the ethical concerns of feeding the monkeys to ensure a higher rate of sightings for tour groups. Some other guides nearby were doing so, and I took advantage by snapping a few photos… but the practice did make my conservationist spidey-sense tingle. Eco-tourism can be a tricky balance between disturbance and education, and for me feeding wild animals for this reason is way over the line. I have to admit, though, that watching a wild monkey high-five some guy was pretty cool.

My other capuchin stories involve their thievery. I don’t know if I’ve ever really seen an animal gloat before or sense, but these guys were clearly having fun at the expense of their human neighbors. One troop was stealing eggs from our hotel’s chef. She had an eggs-to-order station set up for breakfast, and each time she would deliver finished eggs to a table the monkeys would break for the bowl of raw eggs. Another troop stole food from some beach-goers. In both instances the successful thief moved just out of reach and ate his plunder while staring down the victims.

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One of the egg thieves enjoying his plunder.

No great stories come to mind about the red-backed squirrel monkeys (Saimiri oerstedii) or mantled howler monkeys (Allouata palliata) but they too were awesome creatures. The sense of wonder that came over me each time I saw a fellow primate in the wild cannot be overstated. One can’t help but anthropomorphize and believe that they are experiencing the same feeling of warped kinship. When you’re talking about baby monkeys, well, just give up all hope of not melting into a puddle of delight.

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A mantled howler monkey.
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A three-toed sloth reaching for some food.

Another famous group of rainforest mammals are the sloths. Costa Rica is home to both the two-toed (Choloepus hoffmanni) and three-toed (Bradypus variegatus) varieties, and we were blessed with glimpses of both. A word about the toes: both varieties of sloth have three claws on their hind limbs; they differ in the number of claws on their forelimbs. Sloths are as much as ten times more abundant than monkeys but are harder to spot due to their camouflage, signature lack of activity, and tendency to stay in the canopy. I viewed these animals with a very different kind of wonder. They’re so alien, and frankly kind of ugly, but somehow cute in their way and very fascinating. It didn’t hurt my opinion of sloths any that one morning at breakfast we were able to watch from the deck of our hotel as a couple of two-toed sloths (mother and baby, I think) fed one another. I later learned that this food sharing behavior is actually common even among adult sloths.

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Chillin’ like a sloth. Because it is one.

Then there were the real oddballs. Quite regularly an agouti (Dasyprocta punctata) would scurry off into the forest as we passed. These guys resembled giant hamsters, or maybe rabbits with their ears lopped off. We also got one good look at a kinkajou (Potos flavus) – a strong contender for “weirdest mammal I have ever seen.” His face looked like claymation or, for fellow nerds, Nien Nunb from Return of the Jedi.

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An agouti
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The same agouti, looking less than thrilled.

I think my favorite, despite the monkeys, were the coatimundi. The white-nosed coati (Nasua narica) is such an adorable, inquisitive little beast. Whenever I saw one I couldn’t help thinking of my dog back in the States, and indeed they were described by some locals as “raccoon dogs.” They were somewhat wary of humans, but not enough to run and hide at the first sign of us. If anything they seemed to regard us as potential – if potentially dangerous – sources of food or other interest. They had this capacity to look apologetic for whatever they might have done; something we witnessed a couple of times as one emerged from a building into which it had not been invited.

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Hello good sir! Might that leaf you’re waving be something I could eat?
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You see, what had happened was…

We missed out on spotting any of the forest’s big cats, peccaries, and anteaters. No complaints: these are all fairly rare sightings even for professionals. Word was that there was a sighting of the elusive jaguar near us the evening before we arrived in Monteverde, but it faded back into the mists of obscurity. Out of the 200-plus mammal species calling Costa Rica home I couldn’t have asked for a much better sampling on a single trip.