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Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica

Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica
Photos by the author; illustrated by Steve Adams; foreword by Alexander F. Skutch

This field guide presents nearly three hundred species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, moths, and other invertebrates.

Series: Corrie Herring Hooks Endowment, Number Fifty-one

January 2002
This book is out of print and no longer available.
560 pages | 6 x 9 | 345 color and 75 b&w photos, 11 line drawings, 273 maps |

Look Inside

Content from "Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica"Content from "Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica"Content from "Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica"Content from "Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica"Content from "Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica"

At the biological crossroads of the Americas, Costa Rica hosts an astonishing array of plants and animals—over half a million species! Ecotourists, birders, and biologists come from around the world to immerse themselves in the country's unspoiled rain forests, mountains, and beaches, drawn by the likelihood of seeing more than three or four hundred species of birds and other animals during even a short stay. To help all of these visitors and local residents identify and enjoy the wildlife of Costa Rica, this field guide presents nearly three hundred species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, moths, and other invertebrates.


Carrol Henderson, an experienced wildlife biologist, traveler, and tour leader in Costa Rica, has chosen the species that ecotourists are most likely to see, along with a selection of rarer, sought-after animals. He gives a general introduction to each group of animals, followed by individual species accounts that highlight identification features and interesting ecological adaptations for survival. His stunning close-up photographs and distribution maps complete each entry.



In addition, Henderson includes a wealth of data about Costa Rica's natural environment, as well as a trip preparation checklist and lists of conservation organizations, wildlife tourism sites, and wildlife vocalization tapes and CDs. With so much information so readily and readably accessible, this field guide will be essential for planning and enjoying your time in Costa Rica.


  • Foreword by Alexander F. Skutch
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • About the Author
  • Introduction
    • Historical Perspective

      • Research
      • Education
      • Preservation
      • Conservation
      • Nature Tourism
    • Geography
    • Biogeography
      • Migratory Birds
    • Endemic Species
      • Endemic Wildlife of the Highlands
      • Endemic Species of the Southern Pacific Lowlands
      • Endemic Species of Cocos Island
    • Major Biological Zones
      • Tropical Dry Forest
      • Southern Pacific Lowlands
      • Central Plateau (Central Valley)
      • Caribbean Lowlands
      • Highlands
      • Coastal Beaches and Mangrove Lagoons
    • Wildlife Overview and Species Coverage
  • Butterflies and Moths
    • Swallowtail Family (Papilionidae)
    • Brush-footed Butterfly Family (Nymphalidae)
    • Giant Silkworm Moth Family (Saturniidae)
    • Noctuid Moth Family (Noctuidae)
    • Uranlid Moth Family (Uraniidae)
  • Other Invertebrates
    • Bee Family (Apidae)
    • Ant Family (Formicidae)
    • Long-horned Beetle Family (Cerambycidae)
    • Beetle Family (Scarabaeidae)
    • Dobson Fly Family (Corydalidae)
    • Katydid Family (Tettigoniidae)
    • Orb-weaver Spider Family (Araneidae)
    • Giant Damselfly Family (Pseudostigmatidae)
    • Rock Runner Crab Family (Grapsidae)
    • Land Crab Family (Gecarcinidae)
  • Amphibians
    • Leptodactylid Frog Family (Leptodactylidae)
    • Toad Family (Bufonidae)
    • Hylid Frog Family (Hylidae)
    • Poison Dart Frog Family (Dendrobatidae)
    • Glass Frog Family (Centrolenidae)
  • Reptiles
    • Leatherback Turtle Family (Dermochelyidae)
    • Hard-shelled Sea Turtle Family (Cheloniidae)
    • Mud Turtle Family (Kinosternidae)
    • Semiaquatic Pond Turtle Family (Emydidae)
    • Lizard Family (Iguanidae)
    • Teiid Lizard Family (Teiidae)
    • Constrictor Family (Boidae)
    • Colubrid Snakes (Colubridae)
    • Viper Family (Crotalidae)
    • Coral Snake Family (Micruridae)
    • Crocodile Family (Crocodylidae)
  • Birds
    • Tinamou Family (Tinamidae)
    • Pelican Family (Pelecanidae)
    • Cormorant Family (Phalacrocoracidae)
    • Anhinga Family (Anhingidae)
    • Frigatebird Family (Fregatidae)
    • Heron Family (Ardeidae)
    • Stork Family (Ciconiidae)
    • American Vulture Family (Cathartidae)
    • Ibis and Spoonbill Family (Threskiornithidae)
    • Duck Family (Anatidae)
    • Osprey Family (Pandionidae)
    • Accipiter Family (Accipitridae)
    • Falcon Family (Falconidae)
    • Chachalaca, Guan, and Curassow Family (Cracidae)
    • Rail Family (Rallidae)
    • Sunbittern Family (Eurypygidae)
    • Jacana Family (Jacanidae)
    • Oystercatcher Family (Haematopodidae)
    • Stilt Family (Recurvirostridae)
    • Thick-knee Family (Burhinidae)
    • Plover Family (Charadrlidae)
    • Sandpiper Family (Scolopacidae)
    • Gull and Tern Family (Laridae)
    • Dove and Pigeon Family (Columbidae)
    • Parrot Family (Psittacidae)
    • Cuckoo Family (Cuculidae)
    • Owl Family (Strigidae)
    • Potoo Family (Nyctiblidae)
    • Nighthawk Family (Caprimulgidae)
    • Hummingbird Family (Trochilidae)
    • Trogon Family (Trogonidae)
    • Kingfisher Family (Alcedinidae)
    • Motmot Family (Momotidae)
    • Jacamar Family (Galbulidae)
    • Puffbird Family (Bucconidae)
    • Toucan Family (Ramphastidae)
    • Woodpecker Family (Picidae)
    • Woodcreeper Family (Dendrocolaptidae)
    • Antbird Family (Thamnophilidae)
    • Tityra Family (Tityridae)
    • Manakin Family (Pipridae)
    • Flycatcher Family (Tyrannidae)
    • Swallow Family (Hirundinidae)
    • Jay Family (Corvidae)
    • Dipper Family (Cinclidae)
    • Wren Family (Troglodytidae)
    • Thrush and Robin Family (Turdidae)
    • Silky-flycatcher Family (Ptilogonatidae)
    • Bananaquit Family (Coerebidae)
    • Warbler Family (Parulidae)
    • Blackbird and Oriole Family (Icteridae)
    • Tanager Family (Thraupidae)
    • Saltator, Grosbeak, and Finch Family (Emberizidae)
  • Mammals
    • Opossum Family (Didelphidae)
    • Porcupine Family (Erethizontidae)
    • Sheath-tailed Bat Family (Emballonuridae)
    • Leaf-nosed Bat Family (Phyllostomidae)
    • New World Monkey Family (Cebidae)
    • Anteater Family (Myrmecophagidae)
    • Sloth Family (Bradypodidae)
    • Armadillo Family (Dasypodidae)
    • Squirrel Family (Sciuridae)
    • Cavy Family (Dasyproctidae)
    • Weasel Family (Mustelidae)
    • Raccoon Family (Procyonidae)
    • Cat Family (Felidae)
    • Peccary Family (Tayassuidae)
    • Deer Family (Cervidae)
    • Tapir Family (Tapiridae)
    • Baleen Whale Family (Balaenopteridae)
  • Glossary
  • Appendix A. Costa Rica Conservation Organizations and Field Stations
  • Appendix B. Wildlife Tourism Sites and Field Stations Referred to in the Distribution Maps
  • Appendix C. Wildlife Vocalization Tapes and CDs
  • Appendix D. Costa Rican Trip Preparation Checklist
  • Index

Carrol L. Henderson, a professional wildlife biologist, has made over twenty-five trips to Costa Rica since 1969 and has led over thirty-five birding and wildlife tours there and throughout Latin America since 1987. He lives in Blaine, Minnesota.


Costa Rica! The name generates a sense of excitement and anticipation among international travelers. Among European explorers, the first recorded visitor was Christopher Columbus in 1502. On his fourth trip to the New World, Columbus landed where the port city of Limón is now located. The natives he encountered wore golden disks around their necks. He called this new place "Costa Rica," meaning "Rich Coast," because he thought the gold came from there. The gold had actually come from other countries and had been obtained as a trade item from native traders along the coast.

Spanish treasure seekers eventually discovered their error and went elsewhere in their quest for gold. The irony is that Christopher Columbus actually picked the perfect name for this country. The wealth overlooked by the Spaniards is the rich biological diversity that includes about 505,000 species of plants and wildlife! That species richness is an incredible natural resource that sustains one of the most successful nature tourism industries in the Western Hemisphere. It also provides the basis for a biodiversity industry of "chemical prospecting" among plants and creatures in search of new foods and medicines for humans.

For such a small country, Costa Rica gets much well-deserved international attention and has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Americas. The lure is not "sun and sand" experiences at big hotels on the country's beaches; it is unspoiled nature in far-flung nooks and crannies of wildlands that are accessible at rustic nature lodges throughout the country.

It is now possible to immerse yourself in the biological wealth of tropical forests during a vacation in Costa Rica. During a two-week visit you may see more than three to four hundred species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, moths, and other invertebrates. Some vacations are planned for rest and relaxation, but who can do that in such a diverse country where there is so much nature to see and experience!

Costa Rica is a country where every day is an adventure, and where the marvelous diversity and abundance of wildlife creates an enthusiasm for nature that many people have not experienced since childhood.

Three-toed Sloth (Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth)

Bradypus variegatus
COSTA RICAN NAME: Perezaso de tres dedos.
8/15 trips; 19 sightings.
TOTAL LENGTH: 22.4 - 26.0 inches, including 2.6-2.8-inch tail.
WEIGHT: 5 pounds 1 ounce—12 pounds 2 ounces (2,300-5,500 grams).
RANGE: Honduras to northern Argentina.
ELEVATIONAL RANGE: Sea level to 1,800 feet.

The Three-toed Sloth is one of the most distinctive and abundant rainforest mammals. Each foreleg has three long, curved claws that help grasp branches as it climbs. It has coarse pale brown to grayish hair that often has a greenish tinge caused by algae. The face is white with a dark stripe extending into each eye. There is often a light patch on the throat and chest. In a way, sloths are "cold-blooded." Their body temperature drops as much as twelve degrees at night to conserve energy. Each morning they climb to treetops to warm up in the sun.

There is a myth that sloths only eat Cecropia leaves, but they actually eat leaves from at least ninety-six trees and vines. Since sloths are often in dense foliage, they are not usually seen except in sparsely branched trees like Cecropia. Each sloth eats leaves from a unique combination of about forty tree species. Bacteria in the sloth's stomach are adapted to digesting those leaves—much like bacteria digest grass in the stomach of a cow. The combination of tree species needed is different for each sloth, so they can live at higher densities than if they all depended on the same plants. Densities may be as great as three sloths per acre but are usually about one per acre.

A sloth reaches sexual maturity at three years of age and may live twenty to thirty years. An infant clings to the mother for its first six months of life. During that time the young learns which leaves to eat from the female. The mother chews the leaves and passes them to the young so that the bacteria necessary for digestion are transferred to the young. Then the female leaves the young sloth alone in her territory for six months so it can learn to survive on its own. When the young sloth reaches one year of age, the female returns and forces the young to find its own territory.

Three-toed Sloths are most abundant in the Caribbean lowlands, especially in Cahuita NP and the nearby Cahuita vicinity. They can be seen along canals of Tortuguero NP, in Cecropia trees just east of Guapiles along the main highway from Guapiles to Limón, in the Central Park at Limón, and along the highway from Limón to Cahuita. They are also found at La Selva Biological Field Station and on the Pacific slope near Quepos, Manuel Antonio NP (along Perezoso Trail), Corcovado NP, and Tiskita Jungle Lodge.