M Animal Life


^The only land-based mammal indigenous to Puerto Rico is the bat. These insect-devouring night flyers live in massive colonies in the caves of Isla Mona and the Camuy area, and outnumber humans on the island. Puerto Rico has 13 species of bats, nearly half of which are found only in the Greater Antilles: seven are insectivores, four eat fruit and one species feeds only on nectar. The Mexican bulldog bat (a.k.a. the fishing bat) hunts fish. Most live in the caves of the karst country (see North Coast, page 143), and have been given descriptive names. In the Cucaracha Cave near Aguadilla, the dominant Jamaican long-tongued bat lives alongside the sooty-moustached bat and the Antillean ghost-faced bat. In this cave alone, there are over 700,000 bats, and their nighttime feeding frenzy extends five miles around the cave entrance and makes for some spectacular wildlife watching (catch them at dusk). Although their main natural predator is the Puerto Rican boa, the biggest threat to the bats' survival is human encroachment. Several non-profit groups are dedicated to the protection of natural bat habitat, including Ciudadanos del Karso, which lobbies to conserve Puerto Rican "bat country."

All other mammal species have been introduced to Puerto Rico by human settlers, including pigs, cows, goats and horses brought by the Spanish, mongooses imported to control rat and snake populations (the rats were brought unintentionally, of course) and rhesus monkeys placed on the off-limits-to-public cays of Desecheo and Cayo Santiago for scientific experiments. Some of the species have flourished and gone wild. Pigs, for example, have run rampant on Isla Mona to an extent that hunting for them is permitted seasonally to keep their numbers down. Mongooses have thrived and now represent a nuisance to farmers.

Reptiles & Amphibians

It's often written that there are no snakes on Puerto Rico, but there are. The chance of seeing one is extremely unlikely, but not impossible. The island is home to the rare and endangered Puerto Rican boa and to the Puerto Rican racer - both found in El Yunque. Green iguanas, which are occasionally spotted in the Fajardo area and surrounding cays, can grow to four or more feet in length. Even more impressive in size is the Mona iguana (a species found only on Isla Mona). It lazes sluggishly on the beach until it is disturbed, when it can reach gazelle-like speeds. Stranger still is the caiman. These alligator relatives were brought to Puerto Rico as pets during the 1970s. They snapped at the fingers and toes of their owners until they were turned loose into Puerto Rico's biggest freshwater lagoon, Laguna Tortuguero. Here they have flourished and found their way onto the menus of a few local eateries. If you see one, don't try to pet it.

At the other end of the spectrum, the coqm is without a doubt Puerto Rico's most treasured critter. This frog, measuring just over an inch long and rarely glimpsed by the human eye, makes its presence known by a constant and enigmatic song - "koh-KEY, koh-KEY" - especially at night or after a rain shower. Island forests have as many as 10,000 coquis per acre -the highest frog population measured anywhere in the world - and you'll hear their endearing song throughout wetter parts ofthe island. There are well over a dozen varieties of coqui, most of which are found only in Puerto Rico.


Forest-dwelling coquis spend the night primarily in the upper canopy, dive-bombing as far as 45 feet to the forest floor when daytime winds dry their skin. Here they are protected from breakfasting birds, and absorb moisture from the forest floor through an especially porous area of their skin. At day's end, they return to the upper canopy, where they find refuge from night-feeding tarantulas and other predators.

Insects, Etc.

This being the tropics, bugs reach bigger proportions than their European or North American counterparts. Cockroaches the size of linebackers, spiders that could cover your face (only slight exaggerations) and other unspeakable horrors lurk in dark corners. Bees and fire ants tend to be aggressive and territorial. Mosquitoes cling and draw blood and the kamikaze tactics of sand flies and no-see-ums are enough to drive the calmest of people into a murderous frenzy. All of these pests are relatively harmless, however, especially if you liberally apply insect repellent. Cases of malaria and other tropical fevers are as rare here as in the United States, with the exception of a few isolated instances of dengue fever, a debilitating mosquito-borne disease that can keep you in bed for up to a month.

The nastiest critter on the island is undoubtedly the poisonous centipede, whose sting is excruciatingly painful and potentially (though seldom) fatal. Don't mistake it for the cute and harmless millipede, which usually measures no more than an inch or two long and which curls into a tight coil if touched. The centipede can grow to ghastly lengths of a foot or more, and is instantly recognizable by its two devilish horns and quickness on its (many) feet. It is a species seldom spared by Puerto Ricans, who kill it by squashing it repeatedly with a large stone or brick, or pinning it down and slicing it to pieces with long-handled kitchen utensils.

On the other hand, the friendly guaba tarantula is the object of misplaced fear. More friend than foe, it feeds on mosquitoes, flies and other irritating insects. Among the other 15,000 or so insect species on the island, 216 species of butterflies and moths (a few as large as the palm of your hand) come in a delightfully whimsical array of colors.


Puerto Rico attracts hundreds of birdwatchers each year because of the sheer abundance of different habitats and the amazing variety (several hundred) of species that live in them. About 130 species reside in the dry forest of Guanica (a hotspot on the international birder's circuit) alone, and El Yunque rain forest is home to 60 others. Some are extremely rare, endemic and in serious danger of extinction (such as the Puerto Rican parrot, the national bird, and the Puerto Rican nightjar). Boobies, brown pelicans, frigate birds and other marine birds are easily seen in coastal areas. The red-tailed hawk coasts on thermals in mountainous areas and a number of species of todies, thrashers, warblers and whip-poorwills can be spotted with a keen eye (and binoculars). See regional chapters for more specifics.

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