Costa Rica’s Fabulous, Fearsome Fauna: A Retiree’s Dilemma

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    A few nights ago when friends were over for dinner, we were relaxing and talking over glasses of wine in our back patio “dining room” when one of us looked up toward the ceiling and spied a large black tarantula slowly cruising along the top edge of the wall. As we gazed at the unwelcome visitor, he (or she?) paused in its journey and hovered above us. Finally, with no further movement, we laughed unconcerned and continued our conversation. Later in the evening, we found the creature still in the same position but now with its hairy legs pulled in close in to its body, as if sleeping. We smiled and shook our heads in wonder, just another close encounter with some of the amazing wildlife here in Costa Rica.

    There is an extravagant amount, an absolute cornucopia, of Nature’s diversity here with creepy-crawlies large and small, mammalian, amphibian, reptilian, birds and yes, plenty of insects, some 35,000 species. According to Wikipedia, Costa Rica occupies less than 0.03% of the world’s landmass but contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity. From elegant Blue Morpho butterflies to enigmatic jaguars, quiet sloths and exuberant monkeys, the extreme range of wildlife is partly due to the numerous ecosystems, elevations and microclimates in this small country as well as to the nation’s early recognition of the vigilant stewardship needed to maintain this precious natural environment. Thus, beginning in 1955 with Poás Volcano National Park, Costa Rica has set aside approximately 27% of the country as protected terrain. There are now dozens of such areas, including wildlife refuges, mangrove and wetland zones, biological reserves, national parks and other conservation regions where Costa Rica’s zoological inhabitants thrive undisturbed by industry or development. Even tourism, so important to the Costa Rican economy, is carefully monitored in these protected areas to prevent unintended deterioration of the ecosystem.

    In our two years of retirement, my husband Layne and I have had opportunities to observe a small swatch of the abundant fauna here, from some welcome glimpses of exotic Toucans to other not-so-welcome encounters with biting insects. Our experience suggests that much of what you meet in the animal world depends on where and how you live. And how you respond to those encounters depends largely on your attitude toward bugs and other critters. If you are frightened of lizards or snakes, detest ants or are repulsed by beetles, then you might have a hard time in Costa Rica. But if instead you find seeing a fantastic array of living creatures enchanting, then you will probably find plenty to like in the land of Pura Vida.

    The kinds of animals you come across will change as you move from one elevation or microclimate to another. When visiting friends who live high in the mountains above Cartago, at about the 6500’ elevation, in the small village of La Estrella, we were

    amazed to see that they had no screens on their windows, nor window panes either. Only wooden shutters covered the open spaces and those were ajar most of the time. One evening we noticed a giant brown moth, as large as my hand, resting comfortably on the wall near a window. When we asked our friends what they might do about it, they answered, “Nothing.” They figured it would find its back outside eventually. Sure enough, after a day or two inside, the winged visitor disappeared.

    In our first home in Atenas, which was at a moderately high elevation, we were troubled by hordes of flying insects, so much so that when darkness fell we would head indoors, reduced to watching them cluster on the outside glass, drawn to the light inside. In our current location in Santa Eulalia, some 500 feet lower, we have had no such visitations. Walking through knee-high grasses here, however, can stir up a particularly annoying little pest that bites and leaves a small bloody spot on the leg, which itches madly for a few days. Layne is still bothered at night here by no-see-ums that bite on his exposed arms and hands and wake him with their itchy offerings. Along Costa Rica’s long shoreline, on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, mosquitoes carrying Dengue fever are sometimes a problem, with some years worse than others. The disease can be debilitating and in rare cases, fatal, so insect repellent is mandatory.

    Insect repellent won’t deter many ants, of which there are thousands of species represented in Costa Rica. One type that you may find indoors actually serves as a cleaning service. A few times we have observed a group of 15 or 20 tiny ants, working in unison, transporting a much larger dead moth or butterfly out the door and away to their nest. Another variety is leaf-cutter ants, amazing insects that harvest bits of leaves, many times their size, and carry the pieces back to their underground nests in lengthy military columns. As thousands upon thousands of the individual critters hike back and forth carrying their flake of leaf, they carve a path across the ground that looks like a small tractor cleared the trail. The original organic gardeners, leaf-cutters actually compost the bits of leaf underground and grow mushrooms to be consumed by the nest inhabitants.

    Of course, snakes also populate the jungles and farmlands of Costa Rica, including the deadly fer-de-lance or as Ticos call them, tercicopelo, which means “velvet,” to describe their smooth skin. This aggressive serpent accounts for 75% of all snakebites in the country and virtually all deaths resulting from snakebites, most of those among agricultural workers. Other treacherous rainforest residents include the Poison Dart Frog, which secretes a potent toxin from skin glands that is harmful to its adversaries. One large species of toad sometimes found around home gardens presents a hazard to dogs, which can die from biting the hefty amphibian.

    Still, for all the dangerous, deadly and disgusting creatures in Costa Rica, it is the beautiful ones that delight most of us expat residents. The iridescent green-blue of a Turquoise-browed Motmot flying across the yard, the dramatic flash of a flock of green parrots racing across the sky or the rainbow-hued grandeur of Scarlet Macaws are always a privilege and a pleasure to see. The thought of Jurassic ancestors when

    an Iguana crosses your path or when you view the crocodiles from the Tarcoles Bridge is exciting and humbling all at once. And the incredible treat of having a bold little white-faced Capuchin monkey snatch a banana from your hand is a memory to savor.

    Most Costa Rican retirees value the little geckos that eat household bugs, the bats that gobble up mosquitoes and the other small creatures that serve as scavengers, keeping Nature in balance in this land of spectacular biodiversity. It’s just another part of living with Pura Vida as your motto and your goal.

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    Retirement Column

    Copyright 2012, P. Kat Sunlove

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