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The Diverse Wildlife of Central America

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

Resplendent Quetzal. Photo Credit: Unsplash/Unknown


Central America is one of the exotic regions in the world known for its various types of landscape and wildlife. It is a narrow southern area approximately 202,200 sq mi (523,698 sq km) in the continent of North America, while the country of Colombia connects it to the continent of South America. It separates the Caribbean sea in the East and from the Pacific Ocean in the West and is made up of seven small, mostly tropical countries that have much more in common with South America and Mexico than to the United States of America, the country to the North.


Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the region what is now known as Central America, was inhabited by the indigenous people of the so-called Mesoamerica to the North and West and the Isthmo-Colombian people to the South and East. Following the Spanish expedition of Columbus' voyages to the Americas, Spain began to colonize the Americas. The ancient Mayan civilizations (250-1697 AD) sprawled from Mexico to Honduras, leaving behind ruins in five present-day countries – four in Central America – where visitors can still step back in time and connect with an ancient and mysterious past. You can see the enchanting ancient temples of Tikal, see fearsome jaguars carved to life in stone at Copán, and ascend the mighty pyramid at Caracol all the while discovering a culture that harks back 4000 years – the greatest pre-Columbian civilization – which still flourishes today.

Map of Central America
Map of Central America. Photo Credit:


The Elusive Kinkajou

The Curious Kinkajou. Photo Credit:

The Kinkajous are related to coatis and raccoons. They are the only member of the genus Potos and are also known as the "honey bear" (a name that they share with the unrelated sun bear). Kinkajous are arboreal, seldom seen by people because of their strict nocturnal habits. They are omnivorous creatures. Their choice of food are bird eggs, small vertebrates, and fruits, especially, figs. And, of course, nectar and honey. However, they are hunted for the pet trade, for their skin (to make wallets and horse saddles), and for their meat. They are sometimes kept as exotic pets.

The Rare Orinico Crocodiles

Orinoco Crocodile
Aah! It feels so nice and warm! Orinoco Crocodile. Photo Credit:

The Orinoco crocodiles have no subspecies but do come in 3 colorations: Amarillo (light tan), Mariposa (greyish-green), and Negro (dark grey). These crocodiles can be found in Colombia and Venezuela in and around the Orinoco River basin. They prefer slower moving or still water. During the rainy season when the water levels rise, they retreat to neighboring lakes and ponds.

The adult crocodiles eat birds, fish, small mammals, and capybaras. Juvenile crocodiles dine on insects, snails, crustaceans, and fish. And these juveniles are also preyed on by anacondas, American black vultures, caimans, coatis, and jaguars. Adults have no natural predators, except for human beings.

Due to overfishing, hunting, trapping, and habitat destruction these crocodiles are listed as Critically Endangered according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). There are only about an estimated 250 remaining in the wild.


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Baird’s Tapir

Baird’s Tapir
Baird’s Tapir - It is always reassuring when mama is nearby. Photo Credit:

You may think that Tapirs are a relative of the elephant because of their snout, but they are actually close relatives of horses, donkeys, zebras, and rhinos!

Like all Tapirs, such as the Mountain Tapir and the South American Tapir, the Baird’s Tapir have a prominent proboscis, or tube-like noses. The noses are made up of soft tissues, which make the organs extremely flexible and allows them to be used to snatch leaves and stems that would otherwise be out of reach.

The Baird's Tapirs are herbivorous, rummaging from the forest floor up to 4.9 feet (1.5 m) over the ground. Leaves from an assortment of plant types provide the greater part of their eating regimen. They also like to eat twigs, blossoms, hedges, grasses, and fruits. Fruits tend to be favorable when in season, but it depends on their availability.

According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) the Baird’s Tapirs are endangered due to habitat loss and poaching for their meat and hide.

The Leatherback Sea Turtle

Leatherback Sea Turtle
Leatherback Sea Turtle. Photo Credit:

The Leatherback Sea Turtles are the largest turtles in the world. They are the only species of sea turtle that lack scales and a hard shell. They are named for their tough rubbery skin and have existed in their current form since the age of the dinosaurs. Leatherbacks are highly migratory, some swimming over 10,000 miles (16,093 Km) a year between nesting and foraging grounds. They are also accomplished divers with the deepest recorded dive reaching over 4,000 feet (1,219 m), deeper than most marine mammals.

They grow up to seven feet long and exceed 2,000 lbs (907 Kg). These reptilian relics are the only remaining representatives of a family of turtles that traces its evolutionary roots back more than 100 million years. Once prevalent in every ocean except the Arctic and Antarctic, the Leatherback population is rapidly declining in many parts of the world due to their shells being used as trophies and ornamental items and for their meat.

The Beautiful Quetzal

The Exotic Resplendent-Quetzal
The Exotic Resplendent Quetzal. Photo Credit:

The generic word for the birds called Quetzal includes any of the five species - the White-tipped Quetzal, Crested Quetzal, the Golden-headed Quetzal , the Resplendent Quetzal , and the Pavonine Quetzal.

Quetzals are found from Southern Mexico to Bolivia. The Resplendent Quetzal and the Golden-headed Quetzal are the only species found in Central America. Their diet consists of fruits, berries, and insects. The Resplendent Quetzal is the national emblem of Guatemala (whose monetary unit is the quetzal).

There are around 50,000 Quetzels in the wild, out of which around 20,000-49,000 are Resplendent Quetzels. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has placed this species in the near threatened category because their numbers are dwindling due to deforestation for creating agriculture patches, poaching for their beautiful feathers and also for their meat.

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