Wildlife in Costa Rica
Introduction to Costa Rican Wildlife
Costa Rica is one of the 25 most biodiverse countries in the world. There are more than 500,000 total species in the country, approximately 4% of the total estimated species worldwide. Of those, over 250 species are mammals and over 920 are birds. There are also over 240 reptiles, more than 210 amphibians, and insects, fish, flora, and much more make up the rest of the number.
Costa Rica is often praised internationally for its environmental preservation policies. Costa Rican wildlife is so diverse because of the country’s many microclimates. These encourage a large variety of ecosystems, where all sorts of animals find their home. To ensure their survival, around 25% of land and 30% of ocean territory are protected by law. It is easy to access many of these biodiverse locations in a short time, so spotting Costa Rican wildlife is always a good pastime when visiting.
Top Costa Rica National Parks for Wildlife Viewing
These are the best Costa Rica national parks to visit if you want to focus on spotting wildlife. All national parks in Costa Rica uphold the highest standards of environmental protection and safety protocols.
- Corcovado National Park. One of the most remote national parks in the country is also one of the most rewarding to visit if you want to see Costa Rican wildlife. This is where the most rare animals are, like jaguars, tapirs, peccaries, and whales.
- Tortuguero National Park. Only accessible by boat, Tortuguero protects natural river canals and rainforests. More importantly, this is where four species of sea turtles nest. More than 22,000 green turtles come during nesting season, it’s an impressive spectacle!
- Manuel Antonio National Park. The country’s smallest national park is also the most famous. Pristine beaches and rainforest hikes meet a plethora of Costa Rican animals. This includes sloths, toucans, and capuchin monkey troops.
- Carara National Park. With a unique transitional forest, this is one of Costa Rica’s best birdwatching spots. A large variety of birds can be seen near the river where alligators also roam. This park has one of the best populations of scarlet macaws.
- Palo Verde National Park. This is another good location for birdwatching. Many seasonal, resident, and aquatic birds depend on the multilayered ecosystem in the area. Wildlife enthusiasts will see many other mammals, amphibians, and reptiles hiding in the landscape.
Costa Rica’s Dazzling Birds: A Birdwatcher’s Paradise
Costa Rica birdwatching is one of the best experiences in the country for both amateurs and pros. Costa Rica has over 900 known species populating anywhere from the highest peaks to the waters of the sea. Here are some of the most famous ones.
- Resplendent quetzal. This chunky trogon from the cloud forest is famously elusive but gorgeous in flight.
- Scarlet and green macaw. Iconic and highly endangered, a Costa Rica birdwatching trip isn’t complete until you’ve spotted one.
- Keel-billed toucan. With a large colorful bill and lots of attitude, this toucan is a common sight in Manuel Antonio National Park.
- Jabiru. This is the largest stork in Central America, spotted in select locations like Palo Verde National Park.
- Motmot. The blue-crowned motmot has a beautiful blue tail with a unique shape. It’s particularly prominent in the Pacific side of the country.
- Hummingbird. Costa Rica has 53 recorded species of hummingbirds. They are a common and iridescent sight that provides a lot of variety for birdwatchers.
Costa Rican Mammals: From Jaguars to Howler Monkeys
Mammals are some of the most popular (and cute) Costa Rican animals. As of 2019, a total of 251 mammal species had been recorded in the country. They are key to the balance of Costa Rica's ecosystems and need a lot of protection to ensure their survival.
- Sloth. An iconic Costa Rican animal. There are two-toed and three-toed sloths in the country. They often eat leaves and flowers in national parks like Manuel Antonio, Tortuguero, and Arenal.
- Monkey. Costa Rica has four species: white-faced capuchin, howler, spider, and squirrel monkeys. Capuchins have the largest population and squirrel monkeys are the most endangered.
- Jaguar. The largest feline in the American continent is very elusive and keeps to himself. They frequent rivers and live in very remote protected forests.
- Tapir. Most abundant in Corcovado National Park, this shy creature is important in indigenous Costa Rican culture.
- Coatimundi. This curious and clever animal will always sniff out food anywhere it can.
Costa Rica Reptiles and Amphibians: The Cold-Blooded Wonders
Costa Rica reptiles and amphibians are fascinating. Cold-blooded and often mysterious, these animals are frequently misunderstood. Sadly, many people attack them out of fear even if they are not dangerous. Costa Rica provides plenty of variety for the enthusiast. There are at least 211 amphibian and 241 reptile species across the country.
Of the three main types of amphibians in Costa Rica, frogs and toads are the most popular. They are abundant and easy to see and hear. Among Costa Rica’s most famous frogs are the red-eyed tree frog, the poison red dart frog, and the glass frog, which has a translucent belly. One of them even looks like Kermit!
Reptiles in Costa Rica include all kinds of lizards, snakes, marine and freshwater turtles, and crocodilians. They are as varied as Costa Rica is, found anywhere from the mountains to the beach. Most reptiles keep near trees and foliage, but some live underground.
For turtle lovers, the best locations are Tortuguero National Park and Ostional. In Tortuguero, leatherback, hawksbill, loggerhead, and green turtles come to lay eggs. They are studied here as well. Snakes are very shy and not easy to spot, but a good guide might help you find them during a hike, especially at night. Some famous local species include boa constrictors, vine snakes, red coffee snakes, and coral and false coral snakes.
The Underwater Realm: Marine Wildlife of Costa Rica
Many Costa Rica national parks protect the invaluable and delicate ocean habitats of the country. Manuel Antonio, Marino Ballena, Tortuguero, and, in particular, Coco’s Island have a vital role in protecting marine wildlife. Coco’s Island is unique because no visitors are allowed on the island. This guarantees the most protection possible for the species found there.
Costa Rica’s oceans are as rich as its forests. There are some precious coral reefs dotted along the coast, with plenty of sea creatures. Others make their home deeper into the sea or among rock formations in the gulfs and islands. Among the most famous species are sharks (like white-tip, tiger, and hammerhead sharks) as well as giant manta rays. Dolphins and whales are lucky sights, too. Humpback whales are seasonal visitors, traveling for their mating season from colder waters.
Other highly endangered animals are also protected in these parks. For example, manatees have a very small population on the Caribbean coast. Their limited range means their habitats need to be strictly guarded from human threats.
Endemic Species: Animals Unique to Costa Rica
When a species is endemic to an area, it means that it is the only place where you can find them in the wild. In some specific cases, some endemic species overlap with other countries. This is because the endemic zone where the animal lives crosses over the border, but their habitat is still reduced to one zone.
Most of the endemic species of Costa Rica are small. At least 47 species of birds are endemic to the mountains and foothills of Costa Rica. The renowned mangrove hummingbird and the coppery-headed emerald hummingbird are among these. Since Coco’s Island is very isolated, it has a variety of endemic species too. This includes the cocos cuckoo, cocos flycatcher, and the cocos finch.
The country’s list also has snakes, squirrels, mice, lizards, freshwater/saltwater fish, and invertebrates. One of them is known as the Bill Gates’ flower fly, curiously named after the owner of Microsoft.
A side effect of being an endemic species is more danger of extinction. A recent example is the golden toad of Monteverde. This toad used to be abundant in a very limited area in the cloud forest. As a series of environmental conditions changed, its numbers declined until extinction in the 1990s. It was a tragedy in spite of all the conservation efforts.
Wildlife Photography Tips in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a great destination for wildlife and nature photography. Whether you are a pro or an amateur, the following advice will help improve your experience.
- Decide beforehand which species you’ll target. This is crucial in a country like Costa Rica, which has so many animals. If you're clear on what you want, tour guides might be able to help you better.
- Be patient. Costa Rican animals (and animals everywhere) have their own rhythm and needs. Don’t make sudden movements, remain quiet, and you’ll have better chances. This also goes for fellow nature photographers. Everyone is itching to make the same shot, so be respectful of each other’s space.
- Don’t use flash. Flashes scare animals and leave them confused. Be respectful and don’t endanger them for a photo.
- Pack those lenses. If you can, bring a long lens and a macro lens. Wildlife photography usually needs you to stand away from your target, so the longest lens you own will be your best tool. If you have a zoom, bring it too. A macro lens is important for smaller creatures if you’re interested in them.
- Plan for the weather. A rain cover for your equipment is paramount. Rain sometimes makes wildlife more active, so you might want to head out when the rain comes down.
- Let your equipment acclimatize. Costa Rica is very humid, so your gear might fog at times. Keep it dry and let it acclimatize before use.
Responsible Wildlife Viewing: Ethics and Best Practices
Costa Rican animals are exciting and accessible, so it’s easy to forget wildlife is truly wild when you’re out there. Wildlife spotting is not unethical in itself, but guidelines should be respected. Learning from authorities how conservation works is also a good idea. To guarantee the experience is safe for all parties involved, follow these tips.
- Observation should be neutral. This means avoiding interaction with the animals in any form. Don't make noises near them and don’t touch them. So long as you’re not disruptive, there’s nothing wrong with admiring any animal at an appropriate distance.
- Do not feed the wildlife. This is one of the most important rules and one of the most broken. Feeding animals so they get close to you endangers their life. The food might make them sick, and if they think they can get food from humans, it makes them vulnerable to poachers.
- Always pick up after yourself. Trash could seriously hurt the wildlife and their habitat.
- Keep an eye on your belongings. Some animals like monkeys, coatimundi, and raccoons know they can steal treats from you. Keep an eye out so they don't, they could hurt themselves.
- Always follow the expert's advice. When in doubt, always ask an expert tour guide or a park ranger. If they ask you not to do something, there is a good reason for it. Listen carefully, and you'll have a great time.
- Educate others. Explain these guidelines to other members of your family or group, particularly children. This is how we spread the love for Costa Rican wildlife: sharing is caring!
Wildlife Tours in Costa Rica: What to Expect and How to Book
We recommend guided nature tours to fully get the best of Costa Rican wildlife. The best expert guides are locals with a fountain of unique insight and knowledge. They usually know the territories of the resident species and their daily customs, so they can help you find them. Their understanding of both the animal and its ecosystem means they can answer questions, provide guidance, and make you see the raw beauty of Costa Rica. They’re also happy to assist if you get tired or need some water.
If you want to book a nature tour, the process is easy. Make sure first the tour operator is reputable and sticks to the official environmental guidelines. Often hotels have trusted tour operators and they can help you book directly with them. If you’re booking a vacation package, your vacation expert could also arrange tours for you. Our partners go through a thorough process of selection that guarantees you get the best possible experience and the safety of our Costa Rican wildlife.