There are many different reasons that travelers choose to visit Costa Rica.
People visit Costa Rica for the beaches, the climate, the hot springs, the mountains, the laid-back culture, and the friendly people. Depending on who you talk to, you might find that some of the above aspects appeal to some but not others.
However, almost every visitor or potential visitor will mention the nation’s wildlife, its diversity, and the high likelihood of seeing interesting animals as the nation’s primary draws. Almost everyone loves animals!
In Costa Rica, animals are a huge draw for tourists and it’s rare that anyone with the goal of seeing animals leaves disappointed.
Animals of all kinds are everywhere in Costa Rica; it’s not uncommon to see sloths, iguanas, monkeys, macaws, and tree frogs all in one day without even putting much effort into looking for them.
Costa Rica is Magical!
The abundant and vibrant wildlife is the magic of this part of the world.
Costa Rica is rich with habitats that can support diverse wildlife – in fact, it is one of the top twenty countries on earth when it comes to biodiversity.
It is home to over 500,000 species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects, which scientists believe is close to 5% of the total estimated species worldwide.
You’re not going to be able to see all 500,000 species in one trip to Costa Rica, but you can try to see as many as possible during your visit.
If you’d like to learn more about Costa Rican animals, read on. This guide will give you a great overview of some of the creatures you can expect to see in this Central American country.
Why Are There So Many Animals in Costa Rica?
There are several important and interesting reasons why Costa Rica is so fortunate when it comes to animals and why it is so biodiverse.
Location & Climate
First, its location is perfect for supporting life. Located between North and South America at a latitude between eight and twelve degrees, Costa Rica is warm and tropical all year.
It’s a relatively narrow country – it’s only 173 miles wide at its widest point – that has almost equal amounts of shoreline on its Atlantic and Pacific Coasts; clouds pass over this nation and in most places, rain is quite plentiful.
As a result, water is everywhere, plants grow easily, and there is plenty of food and ample hiding places for every type of creature.
Second, although Costa Rica is small at only about 20,000 square miles in size – only about the size of West Virginia – there are twelve different kinds of ecosystems within its borders.
When one thinks of Costa Rica, we tend to think of hot and humid rainforests and the Pacific coastline, but there’s so much more, too.
Costa Rica doesn’t only have one type of forest – it has six. Lowland tropical rainforests are coastal forests just steps away from the beaches; the completely different mangrove forest ecosystem often thrives in brackish water where rivers meet the ocean.
If you head inland from the beaches of the northwest part of the country, you’ll find that tropical dry forests cover much of the inland portion of the Nicoya Peninsula.
Where hills begin to become mountains, you’ll find semi-deciduous mid-elevation forests. Cloud forests full of mosses and ferns cover some high-elevation areas of this country, and highland-mountain rainforests at similar elevations are full of ancient trees.
There are also five different marine ecosystems in Costa Rica as well. The two coastlines of this nation are similar but different; you’ll find different wildlife in the Caribbean coastline ecosystem than you will on the Pacific side.
Shallow seas on both sides of the country are other habitats that support a wide variety of whales, sharks, dolphins, fish, and turtles, and nearby wetland habitats offer hiding places for birthing and raising young birds, mammals reptiles, and amphibians.
There are also lively, vibrant, coral reefs on both sides of Costa Rica; this ecosystem is out of sight for land-based humans, but is a shelter and feeding ground for countless animals in Costa Rica.
The twelfth ecosystem in Costa Rica is different from all the rest. The paramo ecosystem is only found on the south side of the Talamanca Mountains near Panama.
It is dry and desert-like with only short grasses and scrub bushes. Lizards and small rodents love this environment, but if you saw a photo of it, you’d never guess the photo was of Costa Rica.
Conservation in Costa Rica
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the amount of biodiversity in Costa Rica today is no accident.
Costa Ricans care deeply about the natural environment around them and, as a result, over 25% of the land and waterways of this country are protected in national parks, wildlife refuges, and reserves.
Conservation efforts are always ongoing and the protection of flora and fauna is more important to the people in Costa Rica than it is to most other groups anywhere in the world.
Birds of Costa Rica
The first animals that you will see upon your arrival in Costa Rica are birds. They’re everywhere, even some in the cities, and even if you can’t see them at any given time, you’ll certainly be able to hear them.
Nearly 900 species of birds have been recorded in Costa Rica – 894 so far to be exact. More than 600 of them live in Costa Rica; the others are just passing through or spend their winters there at least.
There are dozens if not hundreds of beautiful birds in Costa Rica but many of the most popular are also the most colorful. Their bright colors are not only beautiful, but they also make the birds easy to spot.
1. Scarlet Macaws
Scarlet macaws are bright and beautiful birds that also make a lot of noise when flying so there’s a good chance you’ll see a pair during your stay.
These birds live up to fifty years in the wild and they mate for life so they are usually seen with their mate. They are quite large and eat fruit, nuts, seeds, flowers, and insects. Scarlet macaws are the national bird of Honduras.
2. Resplendent Quetzal
You’ll be very lucky and also happy if you see a quetzal in Costa Rica; they love to hide and live their lives mostly far above our heads.
These small birds with very long, beautiful tails live in the canopy in cloud forests. They are the national bird of Guatemala (and Guatemalan currency is named after them) and are major players in the mythology of Central and South America.
It’s not uncommon to see toucans in Costa Rica – unfortunately, it is uncommon to see them without pints of Guinness.
There are six different species of varying sizes that live in this country: the keel-billed toucan, the yellow-eared toucan, the black-mandibled toucan, the fiery-billed aracari, the collared aracari, and the emerald toucanet.
Depending on which ecosystem you visit, you’ll see different types of toucans.
At least fifty species of hummingbirds live in Costa Rica during some or all of the year so you will likely see several near your hotel and during your adventures, no matter where you go.
Common species include the scintillant hummingbird, the volcano hummingbird, the purple throated mountain gem, the fiery throated hummingbird, and the mangrove hummingbird, to name a few.
5. Clay-colored Thrush
With all the bright-colored birds to choose from in Costa Rica, it’s rather surprising that the national bird of this country is a plain-looking, robin-like, brown bird like the clay-colored thrush.
These birds are very common throughout Central America so you’ll probably hear one, but you may not actually spot him or her since they blend into the forest better than many of their brighter counterparts.
Costa Ricans chose this bird as their national bird because of its strong and beautiful song and due to its willingness to spend time near humans.
Mammals of Costa Rica
Birds are wonderful but many people get even more excited about seeing mammals. There are almost 250 species of mammals in Costa Rica.
Many are quite elusive; almost half of the mammals in Costa Rica are bats, which only fly at night, and many others are very good at keeping themselves hidden.
Still, there’s a high likelihood that you will see a number of mammals in Costa Rica like monkeys, sloths, and small rodents at the very least.
Most visitors to Costa Rica get really excited about seeing monkeys. There are four monkey species living in Costa Rica and some seem almost as common as squirrels or rabbits are in the United States.
Howler monkeys live up to their name – their calls are extremely loud and are a little unsettling; they are black and are rarely on the ground. Spider monkeys are very agile and live in medium-sized groups; they are black or brown, eat a variety of things, and are also quite playful.
The smallest monkey in Costa Rica is the squirrel monkey – they are very communal and are usually with a larger group.
White-faced Capuchin monkeys are the most common monkey that you’ll see in Costa Rica; they’re everywhere, but keep an eye on your stuff, if you’re not watching, they may try to steal it.
Monkeys are fun to watch and their antics never get old. It would be difficult for someone to visit Costa Rica and never see a single monkey; just keep your eyes peeled.
People also get very excited about sloths. These creatures are very unique and rather adorable. There are two types of sloth in Costa Rica, the brown-throated three-toed sloth and Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth.
The two-toed sloth is nocturnal and but the three-toed sloth is diurnal; in either case, sloths are easiest to spot by looking for big clumps clinging to the trees.
Now and then, sloths do descend to ground level, but they spend the vast majority of their time moving slowly through the trees or napping up there.
8. Wild Cats
There are six kinds of wild cats in Costa Rica but it’s unlikely that you will see any of them. They are mostly nocturnal and spend most of their time, day or night, in hiding.
The six species of wild cats in Costa Rica are jaguars, ocelots, pumas, jaguarundi, margays, and oncillas.
The only true big cat in Costa Rica is the jaguar, which can grow to up to 250 pounds, and pumas are almost as large as they are.
Oncillas, also known as little spotted cats, are much smaller and are similar in size to a common housecat. All of these cats are in the top tier of talent when it comes to predatorial skills; they are all at the top of the food chain in Costa Rica.
9. Other Mammals
There are so many other interesting and beautiful species of wild mammals in Costa Rica in addition to those listed above.
There are a wide variety of rodents including agouti, pacas, squirrels, porcupines, gophers, rats, and mice. Three species of anteater – the lesser, the giant, and the silky – that live in Costa Rica, too.
There’s a chance you’ll see deer, although they are not nearly as common as they are in North America and the species of deer in Costa Rica are much smaller than what you may be used to.
Coatis look a little like raccoons, move fast, and live in Costa Rican forests; they are omnivores and are active during both daytime and nighttime. Tayras are related to weasels, look like fishers, live in hollow trees or burrows, and are also omnivorous.
There are dozens of other types of wild animals that you may see during your visit to Costa Rica. The animal sightings never get old!
Marine Animals of Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s waters are warm and full of nutrients and therefore are home to abundant marine life. 6,700 species of sea creatures live in Costa Rica’s waters.
Although Costa Rica isn’t especially known for snorkeling or scuba diving, you can experience either or both during your visit, and you will likely be amazed at the underwater world that you see.
Some of the most exciting marine animals in Costa Rica are sea turtles, whales, dolphins, and manatees.
10. Sea Turtles
There are only seven species of sea turtle (or just turtle for you non-Americans) in the world and five of them visit Costa Rica. If you’re lucky, you may be able to spot one on land or in the water.
All five species – the Pacific ridley, the leatherback, the hawksbill, the green, and the loggerhead – come ashore to lay and bury their eggs before going back into the ocean.
Conservation organizations and volunteers work hard to keep these egg caches safe from humans and other predators.
If you time it right, you may be able to watch from a safe distance when the eggs hatch and the baby sea turtles make their way back to the water.
11. Humpback Whales
Costa Rica is in a unique position geographically that creates a situation in which you can potentially spot humpback whales for nine months of the year.
Humpback whales migrate to warmer waters when it’s cold where they live. This means Costa Rica is a vacation destination not only for humans but for whales, too!
You can enjoy whale watching on the Pacific side of Costa Rica from July to April. Humpbacks from the southern hemisphere appear off the coast starting in July, when it’s winter there, and stay until early November.
The northern hemisphere humpback whales come in December and stay until April.
Dolphins are lively and friendly and seem to enjoy visiting and interacting with humans. There are dolphins in Costa Rica all year round and you can often view them from the shore or from a small boat as they spend a lot of their time in fairly shallow waters.
Some of the species you can expect to see in Costa Rica include the spotted dolphin, the bottlenose dolphin, the spinner dolphin, the rough-toothed dolphin, and the common dolphin.
Manatees are gentle, docile, slow-moving creatures that are in great danger of disappearing off this earth in our lifetime.
The species of manatee that you may see in Costa Rica is the West Indian manatee, and scientists believe that there are only about 13,000 of them left on our planet today.
Fortunately, many people are working hard to bring them back from the brink of extinction and they are having some success; in the 1970s, there were only several hundred remaining.
The increase to 13,000 is great news, but there’s still a long way to go before the manatee is truly saved.
Manatees like calm, shallow waters with lots of grass and other plants to eat and hide in. They can be viewed in several areas on the nation’s Atlantic coast, but Tortuguero National Park in the north is home to Costa Rica’s largest group.
Reptiles of Costa Rica
There are about 225 types of reptiles that are found in Costa Rica.
This should be of no surprise to anyone; reptiles are descendants of dinosaurs, and the tropical rainforest climate of this Central American nation often seems like a movie set in which there could be a dinosaur hiding around any corner.
Fortunately, the reptiles in Costa Rica today are much smaller than their ancient cousins, but some are venomous or are dangerous in other ways, so it’s still wise to observe them from a safe distance.
There are two species of iguana that live in Costa Rica – the green iguana and the spiny-taled iguana. Green iguanas are everywhere and they can grow to be up to six feet in length; the spiny-taled iguana is not only much smaller but far less common, too.
Both types of iguanas like to spend their days eating leaves and sunning themselves on rocks or roofs.
Don’t worry too much if you hear one fall from a great height – they’ve been known to survive falls of over one hundred feet without any injuries! They also are great swimmers and can hold their breath for up to thirty minutes if they have to.
This common lizard is also known as the “Jesus Christ lizard” because it can run so fast that it appears to walk on water – and seeing one do this for the first time often elicits such a response;
“Jesus Christ! Look at that lizard walk on water!”
Their speed helps them achieve this feat but their light, aerodynamic bodies with a fin along their back are contributing factors, too.
These creatures are found in tropical rainforests throughout Central America and in parts of northern South America.
They usually live at rather low elevations, but the basilisk in Costa Rica have adapted to elevations of up to 3,900 feet. They live near water because they eat insects, fish, snakes, and sometimes aquatic birds and their eggs, too.
The fer-de-lance is the most dangerous snake in Costa Rica, although it would much prefer to stay away from humans altogether if possible. Like many snakes, the fer-de-lance is quite shy and anxious of predators.
It can grow up to eight feet in length and the largest of the species can weigh up to thirteen pounds.
Although it is the snake that is responsible for around 46% of snake bites in Costa Rica and 30% of hospitalizations, the mortality rate is near 0% due to modern medical care.
These snakes are found primarily at elevations of 2,000 feet or lower and they prefer inland ecosystems that have both wet and dry seasons.
There are two species from the Alligatoridae family in Costa Rica – the American crocodile and the spectacled caiman.
The spectacled caiman looks like miniature alligators or crocodiles although the largest of this species can grow up to eight feet in length; more commonly they are about three or four feet only.
They eat crabs, fish, small mammals, and snails and hunt mostly at night. During the day, they relax in muddy waters or in the warm sunshine.
The American crocodile has similar habits but is much larger; they can grow to lengths as long as twenty feet and can weigh close to a thousand pounds.
They like brackish water the best. They can be quite dangerous so stay away. One of the best places to observe American crocodiles in Costa Rica is from “Crocodile Bridge” in Puntarenas province.
Amphibians of Costa Rica
There are also close to 175 species of amphibians in Costa Rica.
This also is not surprising due to the wet and forested climate; it seems perfect for creatures who need to keep their skin wet all of the time. 85% of the amphibians in Costa Rice are frogs; the rest are mostly salamanders.
Many of both types of these types of animals are brightly colored which makes them easy to spot, but they are also quite small, which can make them difficult to find without a guide.
18. Red-Eyed Tree Frog
These cute little critters are likely what you picture when you think of a tropical frog. They are bright in color, but they are not venomous.
They are endemic to Central America and eat only insects; they enjoy crickets, moths, grasshoppers, flies, and other insects at every meal.
Red-eyed tree frogs are happiest in a climate that is humid and do not like temperatures below 66 or above 84 degrees Fahrenheit so Costa Rica is a perfect home for them. Look for them on trees and leaves in rainforest areas.
19. Poison Dart Frogs
Poison Dart Frogs (or Poison Arrow Frogs) are also tiny and colorful and despite their name, they offer no risk to humans unless you decide to try to eat one, and many aren’t even that poisonous to have a severely negative effect on you in that case.
(That said, if you’re reaching into tree branches to stuff your face with every tree frog you clap your eyes on, it’s fair to say additional negative effects are a drop in the ocean of bigger issues!)
There are over 170 species of frogs that are in this category; only seven live in Costa Rica.
They are active during the day, eat insects (although termites are their favorite), and live in tropical rainforest environments, especially in the southwestern region of the country.
Insects of Costa Rica
There are literally hundreds of thousands of species of insects living in Costa Rica and you’ll surely encounter some of them during your visit. Many have never even been found and identified yet but others are very common and well-known.
20. Butterflies and Moths
Butterflies and moths are everywhere in this Central American nation. Scientists believe that there are at least 8,000 species of moths in Costa Rica and over 1,200 types of butterflies.
The blue morpho butterfly, known for its iridescent blue wings and large size, is exciting to see but you’ll likely see dozens of different types of other butterflies during your stay as well.
21. Rhinocerous Beetles
Rhinocerous beetles look fierce with their sharp horns on the heads of the males, but they are herbivorous and they can’t bite or sting you.
They are also very strong and can lift up to 850 times their own body weight. They are fun to observe as they scurry about.
22. Leafcutter Ants
If you see a very long, organized line of ants walking from one place to another with many of them carrying leaves as they go, you’ve been lucky enough to spot a colony of leaf cutter ants.
These ants are working together to bring food to their young that live far underground, and the completion of this task continues twenty-four hours a day.
These tiny creatures are amazing to watch, but don’t try to interrupt their activities – they will bite if disturbed.
Where to See Costa Rica Animals
If you want to see Costa Rica animals during your visit to Costa Rica, just step outside your door! Wildlife is so abundant in this Central American country that you’ll see animals everywhere you go.
However, if you’re looking to see large numbers of specific animals, you should visit some of Costa Rica’s national parks.
This country cares a lot about conservation. As a result, the Costa Rican government has established thirty national parks within the nation’s borders.
Costa Rica is only 19,791 square miles in total, but nearly 5,000 square miles of it are national park land.
All of Costa Rica’s national parks are worth visiting, but some of the most popular include Manuel Antonio National Park on the Central Pacific coast, Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula, and Carrara National Park near Jaco.
All of these national parks are just teeming with wildlife. You won’t leave disappointed. A local nature guide and tour can greatly enhance your experience and is highly recommended for tourists who want to see as many animals as possible.
Costa Rica is an incredible, special place. If you want to see wildlife in its natural habitat, there is truly no place that is better in the world.
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