I have just returned from two weeks in Costa Rica, one of the world’s greatest hotspots of biodiversity. The purpose of my trip was religious, not scientific; I was chaperoning a group of 23 Unitarian Universalist teenagers on a mission of volunteer service. You can read about the social justice aspects of our adventure at the official ¡UURica! website. Here, I’d like to describe some of the amazing creatures I observed.
Costa Rica is teeming with animals; even though we weren’t there primarily to watch wildlife, I was constantly finding new species. A partial list includes: (mammals) spider monkeys, black howler monkeys, a neotropical river otter, a manatee, three-toed sloths, two-toed sloths; (reptiles) american crocodiles, spectacled caimans, basilisks, geckos, anoles, ameivas, green sea turtles; (amphibians) strawberry poison dart frogs, Stejneger’s rain frog and other leptodactylid frogs, southern roundgland toads, cane toads; (birds) roseate spoonbills, three species of toucans, anis, parrots, oropendulas, kiskidees, woodpeckers, kingfishers, a bat falcon, black vultures, jacanas, a frigatebird, egrets, herons, wood rails, anhingas, and many others; (invertebrates) heliconia butterflies, blue morpho butterflies, land crabs, tarantulas, and many many others… etc… To illustrate the intimate nature of some of these encounters, here are three examples:
Cane toad (Bufo marinus). Cane toads are probably best known as ruthless invaders that are taking over Australia and other Pacific islands. They eat anything they can fit in their mouths, they secrete a toxic fluid from the huge parotoid glands behind their eyes, and they are very difficult to kill. However, in Costa Rica they are native and they help to control the populations of insects and other vermin. Nevertheless, they are still a common, weedy, species that I imagine can be a bit of a pest sometimes. I ran into many cane toads; the first and largest was wedged in a crack at the base of a tree trunk. I handled the beast with my hat, to avoid contacting any oozing venom, and I made everyone stand clear, since these toads can actually squirt their toxin a short distance. These amphibians are everywhere… some members of our group stayed in a house through which a toad hops every evening on its nightly rounds.
Hoffman’s two-toed sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni). I have loved sloths since I was a child, as evidenced by my sloth-themed sixth birthday party. Despite extensive travels in Latin America, though, I had never seen one in the wild before. We observed several on this trip, including one happily munching a vine while hanging on a barbed-wire fence next to the road. The best show was a pair of two-toed sloths hanging at eye-level on a fence one night at our hotel. We could have reached out and touched them, but nobody wanted to disturb them and risk getting scratched by their enormous claws or contracting any diseases they might carry. The sloths didn’t seem to mind at all that some humans were staring at them and shining lights on them. Slowly, gracefully, they manipulated their shaggy bodies around and through the fence, orienting their limbs in all of the many positions of edentate yoga, sampling the vegetation in an apparent state of pure inner peace. Their hair ran from belly to back, the natural direction for these usually upside-down beings. I don’t think either one even realized that there was another sloth on the fence until they had both moved about a foot apart from each other, because they reacted to the encounter with a start of surprise. They pointed their snouts quite close to each other and opened and closed their mouths a few times, possibly smelling or threatening each other. After deciding that they posed no danger to each other, they resumed their solitary feeding.
Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). Tortugeuro National Park on the Caribbean coast was founded to protect the nesting grounds of the green sea turtle. They take turtle conservation very seriously there. You can’t just walk down the beach at night when the turtles are laying their eggs. Instead, you have to have a guide. Certified turtle watchers patrol the beach, and when a female comes ashore, they let her dig a hole and start laying her eggs in peace. Only when the first eggs have fallen do they radio the guides, who bring in the curious tourists. No flashlights, cameras, or cell phones are allowed, and tourists must walk in pairs and speak in hushed voices. The only light comes from a small flashlight covered in red paper, to minimize disturbance to the busy mother. We saw three turtles: one laying her eggs, one burying her eggs with sand, and one returning to the ocean. Sea turtles are truly massive animals, and it’s humbling to watch one deliberately engaged in this essential act of reproduction. The eggs are the size and color of extra-large gobstoppers, at least under the meager red light. A substantial pile of eggs eventually fills the hole, and if the mother is lucky, one of them might survive to return to the nesting grounds.