A walk through the jungle brings you close to myriad animal and bird species, many of which are critically endangered in other Central American countries—and the world. Bring your binoculars and a camera, and be vewy, vewy quiet.
Following is a short introduction to a few of the creatures you are likely to see in the wild if you spend any amount of time outside your hotel room. This is an incomplete, quite random selection; for more detailed information, pick up one of the many field guides to the flora and fauna of Belize.
If you’re a serious birder, you know all about Belize. Scores of species can be seen while sitting on the deck of your jungle lodge: big and small, rare and common, resident and migratory—and with local guides aplenty to help find them in all the vegetation. The keel-billed toucan is the national bird of Belize and is often seen perched on a bare limb in the early morning. For more about birding attractions and trips in Belize, see Bird-Watching in Belize.
Seven species of felines are found in North America, five of them in Belize. For years, rich adventurers came to Belize on safari to hunt the jaguar for its beautiful skin. Likewise, hunting margay, puma, ocelots, and jaguarundis was a popular sport in the rainforest. Today, hunting endangered cats (and other species) in Belize is illegal, and there are many protected areas the help protect their wide-ranging habitats.
The jaguar is heavy-chested with sturdy, muscled forelegs; a relatively short tail; and small, rounded ears. Its tawny coat is uniformly spotted and the spots form rosettes: large circles with smaller spots in the center. The jaguar’s belly is white with black spots. The male can weigh 145–255 pounds, females 125–165 pounds. Largest of the cats in Central America and third-largest cat in the world, the jaguar is about the same size as a leopard. It is nocturnal, spending most daylight hours snoozing in the sun. The male marks an area of about 65 square miles and spends its nights stalking deer, peccaries, agoutis, tapirs, monkeys, and birds. If hunting is poor and times are tough, the jaguar will go into rivers and scoop fish with its large paws. The river is also a favorite spot for the jaguar to hunt the large tapir when it comes to drink. Females begin breeding at about three years old and generally produce twin cubs.
The smallest of the Belizean cats is the margay, weighing in at about 11 pounds and marked by a velvety coat with exotic designs in yellow and black and a tail that’s half the length of its body. The bright eye shine indicates it has exceptional night vision. A shy animal, it is seldom seen in open country, preferring the protection of the dense forest. The “tiger cat,” as it is called by locals, hunts mainly in the trees, satisfied with birds, monkeys, and insects as well as lizards and figs.
Larger and not nearly as catlike as the margay, the black or brown jaguarundi has a small flattened head, rounded ears, short legs, and a long tail. It hunts by day for birds and small mammals in the rainforests of Central America. The ocelot has a striped and spotted coat and an average weight of about 35 pounds. A good climber, the cat hunts in trees as well as on the ground. Its prey include birds, monkeys, snakes, rabbits, young deer, and fish. Ocelots usually have litters of two kittens but can have as many as four. The puma is also known as the cougar or mountain lion. The adult male measures about six feet in length and weighs up to 198 pounds. It thrives in any environment that supports deer, porcupines, or rabbits. The puma hunts day or night.
In Creole, the black howler monkey (Alouatta caraya) is referred to as a “baboon” (in Spanish, saraguate), though it is not closely related to the African species with that name. Because the howler prefers low-lying tropical rainforests (under 1,000 feet of elevation), Belize is a perfect habitat. The monkeys are commonly found near the riverine forests, especially on the Belize River and its major branches. The adult howler monkey is entirely black and weighs 15–25 pounds. Its most distinctive trait is a roar that can be heard up to a mile away. A bone in the throat acts as an amplifier; the cry sounds much like that of a jaguar. The howler’s unforgettable bark is said by some to be used to warn other monkey troops away from its territory. Locals, on the other hand, say the howlers roar when it’s about to rain, to greet the sun, to say good night, or when they’re feeding. The Community Baboon Sanctuary is the best place to see howler monkeys in the wild in Belize, though they are very common in the forests around many jungle lodges throughout the country.
Spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) are smaller than black howlers and live in troops of a dozen or more, feeding on leaves, fruits, and flowers high in the jungle canopy. Slender limbs and elongated prehensile tails assist them as they climb and swing from tree to tree. Though not as numerous in Belize as howler monkeys because of disease and habitat loss, they remain an important part of the country’s natural legacy.
Rodents of Unusual Size
A relative of the rabbit, the agouti or “Indian rabbit” has coarse gray-brown fur and a hopping gait. It is most often encountered scampering along a forest trail or clearing. Not the brightest of creatures, it makes up for this lack of wit with typical rodent libido and fecundity. Though it inhabits the same areas as the paca, these two seldom meet, as the agouti minds its business during the day and the paca prefers nighttime pursuits. The agouti is less delectable than the paca. Nonetheless, it is taken by animal and human hunters and is a staple food of jaguars.
The paca, or gibnut, is a quick, brownish rodent about the size of a small dog, with white spots along its back. Nocturnal by habit and highly prized as a food item by many Belizeans, the gibnut is more apt to be seen by the visitor on an occasional restaurant menu than in the wild.
A member of the raccoon family, the coatimundi—or “quash”—has a long, ringed tail, a masked face, and a lengthy snout. Sharp claws aid the coati in climbing trees and digging up insects and other small prey. Omnivorous, the quash also relishes jungle fruits. Usually seen in small troops of females and young, coatis have an amusing, jaunty appearance as they cross a jungle path, tails at attention.
The national animal of Belize, the Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii) is found from the southern part of Mexico through northern Colombia. It is stout-bodied (91–136 pounds), with short legs, a short tail, small eyes, and rounded ears. Its nose and upper lip extend into a short but very mobile proboscis. Totally herbivorous, tapirs usually live near streams or rivers in the forest. They bathe daily and also use the water as an escape when hunted either by humans or by their prime predator, the jaguar. Shy, nonaggressive animals, they are nocturnal with a definite home range, wearing a path between the jungle and their feeding area.
Found all over Central America, lizards of the family Iguanidae include various large plant-eaters, in many sizes and typically dark in color with slight variations. The young iguana is bright emerald green. The common lizard grows to three feet long and has a blunt head and long flat tail. Bands of black and gray circle its body, and a serrated column reaches down the middle of its back, almost to its tail. During mating season, it’s common to see brilliant orange males on sunny branches near the river.
This reptile is not aggressive, but if cornered it will bite and use its tail in self-defense. Though hawks prey on young iguanas and their eggs, the human still remains its most dangerous predator. It is not unusual to see locals along dirt paths carrying sturdy specimens by the tail to put in the cook pot. Iguana stew is believed to cure or relieve various human ailments, such as impotence. Another reason for their popularity at the market is their delicate white flesh, which tastes so much like chicken that locals refer to iguana meat as “bamboo chicken.”
Though they’re often referred to as alligators, Belize has only crocodiles, the American (Crocodylus acutus, up to 20 feet) and the Morelet’s (Crocodylus moreletii, up to 8 feet). Crocodiles have a well-earned bad reputation in Africa, Australia, and New Guinea as man-eaters, especially the larger saltwater varieties. Their American cousins are fussier about their cuisine, preferring fish, dogs, and other small mammals to people.
But when humans feed crocs, either intentionally or by tossing food wastes into the waters, the animals can acquire a taste for pets, making them extremely dangerous. When apex predators become fearless of man, they are more prone to attack, especially small children.
The territories of both croc species overlap in estuaries and brackish coastal waters. They are most abundant in the rivers, swamps, and lagoons of Belize City and Orange Walk Districts. Able to filter excess salt from its system, only the American crocodile ventures to the more distant cayes, including Turneffe Islands. Endangered throughout their ranges, both crocs are protected by international law and should not be disturbed. Often seen floating near the edges of lagoons or canals during midday, they are best observed at night with the help of a flashlight. When caught in the beam, their eyes glow red (LED flashlights make white eye-shine).
Of the 59 species of snakes that have been identified in Belize, at least nine are venomous, notably the infamous fer-de-lance (locally called a “Tommygoff”) and the coral snake.
© Joshua Berman and Avalon Travel from Moon Belize, 9th Edition