Panama’s biodiversity is staggering – the country is home to 218 mammal species, 226 species of reptile, 164 amphibian species and 125 animal species found nowhere else in the world. Panama also boasts 940 avian species, which is the largest number in Central America. Panama is also home to more than 10,000 varieties of plants.
Panama is the youngest area of land in the Americas, having emerged from the oceans approximately 3-10 million years ago. The fact that Panama linked the landmasses of the two Americas helps explain its incredible biodiversity.
Bird-watchers consider Panama to be one of the world’s best birding sights. Quetzals, macaws, amazons, parrots and toucans all have sizable populations here, as do many species of tanager and raptor. The best bird-watching site in the country is Cana in Parque Nacional Darién, where you can see four species of macaw, golden-headed quetzals and black-tipped cotingas.
One of the most sought-after birds is the harpy eagle, the national bird of Panama. With a 2m wingspan and weights of up to 20lb, this raptor is the world’s most powerful bird of prey and a truly awesome sight. The bird is recognized by its huge size, it’s broad, black chest band with white underneath, its piercing yellow eyes and its prominent, regal crests. The harpy’s powerful claws can carry off howler monkeys and capuchins, and it also hunts sloths, coatis, anteaters and just about anything that moves.
Panama’s geographical position also makes it a crossroads for migratory birds. Out of the country’s 940 bird species, 122 occur only as long-distance migrants (ie they don’t breed in Panama). From August to December, North American raptors migrate south into Central America by the millions – at times, there are so many birds that they make a black streak across the sky. Panama holds a world record for 398 species of birds being spotted in one day.
Primate lovers are also drawn to Panama. Among the country’s many species – including white-faced capuchins, squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys and howler monkeys – are some fascinating varieties. The Geoffroy’s tamarin, for instance, is found nowhere else in Central America.
Big cats prowl the jungles of Panama and although you’d be extremely fortunate to catch even a glimpse of one, their prints are easy to come across. Jaguars, pumas, ocelots, jaguarundis and margays are all found on the isthmus. The jaguar is the biggest of the bunch and is the largest cat in the Americas. Jaguars (and pumas) both need large tracts of land in order to survive. Without them the big cats gradually exhaust their food supply (which numbers 85 hunted species) and perish. They are excellent swimmers and climbers and are commonly spotted resting on sunny riverbanks.
Panama’s offshore waters host a fascinating assortment of creatures. Reefs found off both coasts support a plethora of tropical fish, and visitors to the national marine parks might spot humpback whales, reef sharks, bottlenose dolphins, and killer or sperm whales. Underwater, whale sharks, black- and white-tip sharks and occasionally tiger sharks also visit.
One of Panama’s biggest coastal draws is the sea turtle. Of the world’s seven different species, five can be seen in Panama at various times throughout the year. All sea turtles originally evolved from terrestrial species and the most important stage of their survival happens on land when they come to nest. Although you’ll need a bit of luck and a lot of patience, the experience of seeing hatchlings emerge is unparalleled.
Arribadas (arrivals) are rare events that occur when thousands of female sea turtles flood the beach to lay their eggs. This happens occasionally on Isla de Cañas when 40,000 to 50,000 olive ridleys come to nest at a single time. This chance event most likely occurs in the wet season (usually September to October) during the first and last quarter of the moon. Although scientists are not entirely sure why these mass arrivals occur, a common theory is that arribadas are a defense mechanism to overwhelm would-be predators.
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