- Where to Go
- The Best of Nicaragua
- Nicaragua’s Best Surfing
- Hiking Nicaragua’s Ring of Fire
- Nicaraguan Arts & Crafts
- Nicaragua’s Great Green North
- Sportfishing in Nicaragua
- Down the Río San Juan
- Nicaragua’s Celebrations & Fiestas
- Volunteering in Nicaragua
- Diving & Snorkeling in Nicaragua
- Managua’s Revolutionary Driving Tour
Nicaragua is home to a great deal of exotic wildlife, much of which—unfortunately—you’ll only see for sale on the sides of the highways and at intersections in Managua, where barefoot merchants peddle toucans, reptiles, ocelots, parrots, and macaws. This is a considerable, largely unchecked problem, more so because, of the animals that are captured for sale or export in Nicaragua, 80 percent die before reaching their final destination.
To view fauna in their natural habitat involves getting out there, being very, very quiet, and looking and listening. Most critters are shy and many are nocturnal, but they’re out there. To date, 1,804 vertebrate species, including 21 species endemic to Nicaragua, and approximately 14,000 invertebrate species have been defined. However, Nicaragua remains the least-studied country in the region.
Excursions into the relatively unexplored reserves of the north and northeast will surely uncover previously undiscovered species.
One-hundred seventy-six mammal species (including sea life) are known to exist in Nicaragua, more than half of which are bats or small mammals, including rodents. Of the at least three endemic mammal species, two are associated with the Caribbean town of El Rama—the Rama squirrel (Sciurus richmondi), considered the tropical world’s most endangered squirrel due to reduced habitat, and the Rama rice mouse (Oryzomis dimidiatus).
Nicaragua is also home to six big cat species, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be around for long. All six are listed as endangered, most seriously of all the jaguar and puma. Once common, both require vast amounts of wild hunting territory.
In the Pacific region, isolated communities on the higher slopes of some forested volcanoes like Mombacho may remain, but they have not been seen. In the Atlantic region, small communities of cats eke out their survival in the dense forests of the southeast side of the Bosawás reserve. These species are unstudied and untracked, and are presumably preyed upon by local communities. The smaller feline species like ocelots and tigrillos have fared better. Though they are largely trapped in the central forests, the latter at least makes a decent living preying on farming community chickens.
There are three kinds of monkeys in Nicaragua: the mantled howler monkey (Alouata palliata), known popularly as the mono congo; the Central American spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyii); and the white-faced capuchin (Cebus capucinus). Of the monkeys, the congo is the most common. One thousand individuals roam the slopes of Mombacho alone. You can also find them on Ometepe and the mountains of Matagalpa, particularly Selva Negra.
Howler monkeys are able to project their throaty, haunting cries to distances as great as several kilometers. They eat fruits and leaves and spend most of their time in high tree branches. The threatened white-faced capuchin lives in the forests in southeastern Nicaragua and parts of the Atlantic coast. But the spider monkey has nearly been eliminated and is the most threatened of the three.
The Baird’s tapir is present in very small numbers in eastern Nicaragua; several communities of this three-toed ungulate inhabit Bosawás, but this species is threatened with extinction.
The agouti paca (a large, forest-dwelling rodent known in Nicaragua as the painted rabbit), the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), and the collared peccary (Tayassu tajacu), a stocky piglike creature with coarse, spiky fur, though abundant, are under much pressure from hunters throughout northeastern Nicaragua. You may still see an agouti or peccary east of Jinotega if you’re lucky.
A wide variety of both saltwater and freshwater species of fish take advantage of the two large lakes, two ocean coastlines, and numerous isolated crater lakes. Among Nicaragua’s many saltwater species are flat needlefish (Ablennes hians), wahoo (Acanthocybium solandri), three kinds of sole, spotted eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari), the Gill’s sand lance (Ammodytoides gilli), two kinds of moray (Anarchias sp.), croakers (Bairdiella sp.), triggerfish (Balistes sp.), hogfish (Bodianus sp.), eight kinds of perch (Diplectrum sp.), sea bass (Diplectrum sp.), and a dozen kinds of shark, including blacktip (Carcharias limbatus), great white (C. carcharias), silky (C. falciformis), and spinner (C. brevipinna).
Among the freshwater species are needlefish (Strongylura sp.), grunts (Pomadasys sp.), introduced tilapia (Oreochromis aureus), catfish (Hexanematichthys sp.), mojarra (Eucinostomus sp.), and snook (Centropomus sp.). Some species of cichlid (Amphilophus sp.) found nowhere else in the world swim in Nicaragua’s varied crater lakes.
At least 58 different types of marine corals have been identified in the Atlantic, specifically in the Miskito Cays, Corn Island, and the Pearl Cays. Nicaragua’s most common coral species include Acropora pamata, A. cervicornis, and Montastrea anularis. Brain coral (Colypophylia natans) and black coral (Antipathes pennacea) are common. Studied for the first time in 1977 and 1978, the shallow reefs of the Pearl Cays contain the best coral formations in the nation, but are now threatened by the enormous sediment load discharged by the Río Grande de Matagalpa.
The manatee (Trichechus manatus) is an important species currently protected by international statutes. You may see it at the mouth of the Río San Juan and in the coastal lagoons, notably in Bluefields Bay. In 1993, the freshwater dolphin (Sotalia fluviatilis) was first spotted in Nicaragua and since then has been occasionally sighted in Laguna de Wounta, despite conjecture that this species' northern range was Panamá.
Many thousands of bird species migrate through the Central American biosphere corridor. To date, 676 species of birds in 56 families have been observed here, the more exotic of which you’ll find in the mountains of the north and east, and along the Atlantic shore (check out the bird list of Martinez Juan Carlos, 2007, for details).
Nicaragua has no endemic bird species of its own, but hosts 87 percent of all bird species known. The most exotic species known to reside in Nicaragua is also its most elusive, the quetzal (Pharomacrus mocinno), known to inhabit highlands in Bosawás, Jinotega, and Matagalpa, especially along the slopes of Mt. Kilambé, and in Miraflor in Estelí.
Nicaragua’s elegant and colorful national bird, the guardabarranco (Momotus momota), is more easily found than you’d think. The Guardian of the Stream (as its Spanish name translates) can be found catching small insects in urban gardens in the capital. It is distinguished by its long, odd-shaped, iridescent tail, which it carefully preens to catch the eye of the opposite sex.
The urraca is a bigger, meaner version of the North American blue jay, with a dangly black crest on the top of its head. It’s one of the larger of the common birds in Nicaragua and scolds humans from the treetops. Though the urraca are everywhere, a particularly sizeable population patrols the slopes of Ometepe’s twin volcanoes and Las Isletas by Granada. Also in Las Isletas, look for the brightly colored oropendolas (Psarocolius wagleri) that hang their elaborate, suspended bag-nests from the treetops around the lakeshore.
Of the 172 reptile species in Nicaragua, nearly half are North American, found in Nicaragua at the southern limit of their habitat. Fifteen species are found only in Central America and another five are endemic to Nicaragua.
Nicaragua’s several species of marine turtles are all in danger of extinction. The Paslama turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) in the Pacific and the Carey turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) in the Atlantic are protected, and much effort has gone into setting aside habitat for them, particularly nesting beaches. However, the struggle is fierce between those who aim to conserve the turtles and those who’d like to harvest their eggs, meat, and shells.
There are approximately 20 beaches in the Pacific whose conditions permit the nesting of these turtle species, most of which play host to only occasional nesting events. But two beaches, Chacocente and La Flor on the Pacific coast, are the nesting grounds of the Paslama turtle and experience massive annual egg-laying events between July and January (primarily during the first and third quarters of the moon).
In them, 57,000 and 100,000 turtles crawl up on the moist sand at night to lay eggs. It’s a safety-in-numbers survival strategy—only 1 out of 100 hatchlings makes it to adulthood. Armed guards on these beaches do their part to make sure the youngsters make it to the sea instead of the soup.
Alligators, crocodiles (Crocodilus acutus), caimans (Caiman crocodilus), and the Ñoca turtle (Trachemys scripta) are frequently seen along the Río San Juan and some larger rivers of Jinotega. The garrobo is a bush lizard the size of a small house cat you’re more likely to see suspended by its tail on the side of the road than in the wild. Poor campesino children hunt and sell them to passing motorists who take it home and make an aphrodisiac soup from the meat. Similarly, the cusuco (Dasypus novemincinctus) is a type of armadillo with plated sides and sharp-clawed feet, commonly found in drier areas of the countryside.
Sixty-four known species of amphibians, four of which are endemic, live in Nicaragua’s humid forests and riversides. They include the Mombacho salamander (Bolitoglossa mombachoensis), the miadis frog, the Cerro Saslaya frog (Plectrohyla sp.), and the Saslaya salamander (Nolitron sp.).
Each of Nicaragua’s different ecosystems has a distinct insect population. Estimates of the total number of species reach as high as 250,000, only 1 percent of which have been identified. Notable species to seek out are several gigantic species of beetles, including Dynastes hercules (found in cloud forests); several species of brilliant green and golden Plusiotis (found in Cerro Saslaya and Cerro Kilambé); the iridescent blue butterfly Morpho peleides, common all over the country, and its less common cousin, M. amathonte, found at altitudes of 300–700 meters, especially in the forests of Bosawás. Nocturnal moths like the Rothschildia, Eacles, and others are common.
For more information about bug hunting in Nicaragua, you’ll want to contact Belgian entomologist Jean-Michel Maes (www.bio‑nica.info, jmmaes [at] ibw [dot] com [dot] ni), who, with nearly 20 years of research experience in Nicaragua, knows his stuff. He runs the entomological museum in León (normally closed to the public), and sells a CD-ROM entitled Butterflies of Nicaragua ($30).
© Randall Wood & Joshua Berman from Moon Nicaragua, 4th Edition