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  • Simon Dauphinee

Mantises, Monkeys & Manatees, Oh My! An Expat’s Guide to Wildlife in Belize, Part Three

Welcome to the final post of our three-part series, An Expat’s Guide to Wildlife in Belize. Let’s continue exploring what foreigners can expect to encounter on land and in the sea. There are many breathtaking, interesting, and fearsome animals to experience and live alongside! Let’s start with…


Tapirs: National Animal of Belize


A Tapir

Tapirs in Belize are a remarkable sight and a significant part of the country's rich wildlife. The Baird’s tapir, AKA the "mountain cow," is Belize’s national animal. These herbivorous mammals are easily recognized by their prehensile snouts, which they use to grab leaves and fruit from trees. Even though they resemble an ant eater or pig, they are not related. The Tapir's closest genetic relatives are the horse and rhinoceros, as all three are odd-toed ungulates.

  

Tapirs are most commonly found in dense forests and along riverbanks. They are solitary and nocturnal, so not often seen. Although I have briefly seen one from a distance, I am more acquainted with the tapir crossing signs dotted along the Hummingbird Highway.


Frogs & Toads


What’s the Diff’?

Did you know that all toads are frogs, but not all frogs are toads? Both amphibians are members of the order Anura, but toads are part of the family Bufonidae. Belize is a haven for these animals, with over thirty different species of frogs and toads. They are critical indicators of the health of our environment as they are highly sensitive to pollution and environmental changes.


Though many species of frog and toad are similar in appearance, there are considerable differences between the two. Here are some distinguishing characteristics:



Frogs

Toads

Skin

smooth, moist skin that helps them absorb water and breathe

dry, rough, and bumpy skin, often with a more warty appearance

Legs

long, powerful hind legs adapted for jumping and swimming

shorter, sturdier legs better suited for walking or short hops rather than long jumps

Habitat

found in or near water bodies such as ponds, streams, and wetlands. Their moist skin requires them to stay in humid environments

more terrestrial and can often be found farther from water sources. They tend to inhabit drier areas, such as gardens, forests, and grasslands

Behaviour

active during the day (diurnal) 

more active at night (nocturnal)

Toxins

smooth skin secretes mucus to keep it moist, and some species have mild toxins as a defense mechanism

parotoid glands behind their eyes secrete a bitter, milky toxin to deter predators. Some species are highly poisonous when ingested


Frogs

A frog

Frogs are a diverse and fascinating group, thriving in the country's humid tropical rainforests, savannahs, and riverbanks. Species like the Red-eyed Tree Frog, with vivid colors and striking red eyes, and the delicate Hourglass Tree Frog are some of the fascinating amphibians you can encounter. These frogs play crucial roles in the ecosystem, acting as both predators of insects and prey for larger animals, thus maintaining the ecological balance.


Toads

A toad

Belize is home to various toad species, ranging from the small Elegant-mouth toad to the large and deadly Cane toad. As an expat with dogs, it's important to understand that some toad species in Belize, like the cane toad, aka Bufo Alvarius, are poisonous. The glands on their back produce a toxic skin secretion as a defense mechanism against predators. If an unsuspecting dog or cat licks or eats one, it can kill them quickly. I can attest to this, as our beloved Australian Labradoodle, Bandit, had a recent run-in with one. The effects of the toxin were swift and severe. Bandit’s behaviour became irregular, sitting in a posture uncommon to him, which caught my attention from a distance. As I approached him, I noticed rapid breathing and fully dilated pupils. He began to fidget and vomit. He walked restlessly in tight circles in an attempt to get comfortable. Shortly thereafter, he couldn’t stand, losing control of his motor skills. His muscles tensed uncontrollably, which contorted his body into an unnatural position. Within ten minutes, he was incapacitated. I loaded him into my friend’s truck, fully expecting never to see him alive again, and was whisked off to a vet  At the time, we thought it was a snake bite, but the vet in Belmopan knew it was a toad immediately upon seeing him. Thankfully, Bandit didn't receive a full dose of venom and, with immediate treatment, survived. He bounced back quickly, was on his feet, albeit wobbly, six hours later, and by the next day, was back to his favourite activity: chasing lizards in the jungle. 


Cane Toad Treatment

This was surprisingly basic, but it worked. The vet had my wife shove activated charcoal down this throat while he sedated Bandit and hooked up a saline IV drip. The toxin was absorbed into the charcoal by the time the sedative wore off. The key is immediate action. When you suspect something is off with your pet, get it to the veterinarian. It's also a good idea to keep some activated charcoal in your first aid kit.


Psychedelica

Psychedelic toad

Interestingly, this same neurotoxin is a highly potent psychedelic that contains 5meoDMT. Some indigenous groups milk the glands and, after drying, smoke the secretions to unlock their psychoactive effects. The venom induces intense, short-lasting experiences characterized by profound alterations in consciousness. Users often report vivid visual and auditory hallucinations, a deep sense of interconnectedness, and transformative spiritual insights. The effects can last from 15 to 45 minutes. Those seeking alternate experiences such as this must exercise caution with toad venom due to its potency. Careful dosing and a safe and supervised journey environment are necessary.


Praying Mantis

a Mantis with greenery in the background

The praying mantis is a fascinating insect throughout Belize, known for its distinctive posture and predatory prowess. These insects are adept hunters, known for their elongated bodies and prominent front legs bent in a prayer-like position. Praying mantises inhabit the diverse environments of Belize, from lush rainforests and garden areas to French door glass (where we often see one at night). Like many insects mentioned here, they are crucial in controlling pest populations. An interesting fact about these creatures is their complex mating behavior, sometimes involving the female consuming the male post-copulation. This trait has fascinated scientists and inspired feminists worldwide. 


Dolphins

Dolphins in the water

Dolphins are intelligent and sociable marine mammals that grace the waters of Belize. With their sleek bodies and playful nature, they are a delightful sight off the deck of a boat or sandy shore. Belizean waters are home to various dolphin species, including the bottlenose and spinner dolphins. These highly intelligent marine mammals—whose intellect rivals great apes—swim in pods near the barrier reef or frolic in the shallow sea near shore.


Otherworldly Origins

Dolphins from outer space

For those interested in alternative history or conspiracy theories, there is an interesting hypothesis that dolphins have extraterrestrial origins. Corroborating evidence points to various ancient cultures, such as the Dogon tribe in Africa—known for their detailed astronomical knowledge—depicting dolphins as mystical or divine beings. The tribe elders claim that dolphin-like extraterrestrial beings imparted them their knowledge.


Whatever you believe to be the true nature of dolphins, you will surely see them at the beach across the street from The Green House by the Sea!


Crocs

Crocodile

Crocodiles are fascinating and formidable reptiles. There are two species in Belize: the larger American Crocodile and the more modest-sized Morelet's Crocodile, also known as the Mexican or Belizean crocodile. These ancient creatures inhabit the country's coastal areas, freshwater rivers, swamps, and lagoons. The American Crocodile is typically found in brackish waters along coastal mangroves, creeks, small islands, canals, and lagoons. The Morelet's Crocodile prefers freshwater swamps and marshes of the Yucatán Peninsula but also likes brackish waters and savannas. 

Crocodiles play a vital role in the ecosystem as apex predators, helping maintain the balance by controlling fish and other aquatic animal populations. Despite their fearsome reputation, crocodiles are generally reclusive and avoid human contact when possible. Conservation efforts in Belize aim to protect these important reptiles from habitat destruction and illegal hunting, ensuring their continued presence in the country's rich biodiversity.


Geckos

A gecko

These small lizards are ubiquitous in Belize. Often found clinging to walls or darting across ceilings, they are great house cleaners- apart from their droppings—disposing of unwanted insects inside and out of your home. They especially love hanging around exterior lights at night for the free all-you-can-eat buffet. Geckos are completely harmless to humans, personal belongings, or electronics, so there is no need to kill, harm, or capture them. With their distinctive chirping calls and ability to climb virtually any surface, geckos add charm to both urban and rural environments. 


My family and I enjoy living alongside them as we know they are natural house cleaners. The other day, we got to experience the unique defense mechanism of dropping their tail. My wife and I watched the tail twitch and thrash for a solid minute without a body attached. 


Hummingbirds

A hummingbird extracting nectar from a flower

Hummingbirds are tiny, iridescent birds known for their rapid wing beats and hovering flight. They are native to Belize and display a variety of dazzling colors. With their long, slender bills, they specialize in feeding on nectar from flowers. Hummingbirds play a crucial role in pollination, making them essential to the ecosystems they inhabit. These energetic birds are a delight to watch as they flit from flower to flower, emitting a distinctive humming sound and crackling chirps as they move.


Manatees

A manatee calf and cow

Belize is a haven for West Indian manatees, also known as sea cows, which inhabit the country's coastal mangroves, rivers, and lagoons. These gentle giants, characterized by their large, paddle-shaped tails and whiskered faces, are a well-established fixture of Belize's marine environments. Despite their docile nature, manatees face threats from habitat loss and boat collisions, making their conservation a priority for Belize's marine ecosystem. When you are out for a stroll on the beach or paddling in Placencia lagoon, keep an eye out for their round gray heads bobbing in the water.


Howler Monkeys

A howler monkey in a tree

The black howler monkey, known as "baboon" in local Creole, is found in Belize. It has a black coat and a distinct large throat that amplifies its calls. You will most likely hear these fellow apes before you see one. When you see one, you'll wonder how those noises come from such a cute-looking banana muncher. The “howl” they are known for is only a small part of their vocal repertoire, and, more often, they sound like demons hoarsely roaring in the trees. 


Though they don't sound like it, howler monkeys are gentle creatures that spend much time resting to digest their fibrous folivore diet, which consists of leaves, fruits, and flowers.


Pelicans

A pelican seaside with its mouth agape

Along Belize's shores and cayes, brown and white pelicans glide gracefully overhead, skim the water inches from the surface, or dive skillfully into the water for fish. With their distinctive beak pouches and impressive wingspans, pelicans are a common sight around the country's sandy beaches and turquoise sea. These iconic seabirds play a vital role in the coastal ecosystem, helping to regulate fish populations and maintain the balance of Belize's marine environment.


I thought I should wrap this section up with a pun: Why do they call a pelican a pelican? Because their beak can hold more than their belly-can! 


Food Bugs

In addition to sugar ants discussed in the previous post, two other common household pests can infest stored food products. You can prevent introducing both pests into your home by examining the packaging in-store before purchasing and storing the food in sealed glass containers once home.


Pantry Moths

Pantry moths, particularly the Indianmeal moth, lay eggs in grains, nuts, and other dry goods. Their larvae spin webs and contaminate food with silk and droppings. Once established, pantry moths are difficult to eradicate, requiring disposal of contaminated food and a thorough cleaning.


Rice Weevils: Bringing Belize Wildlife Home

 A lone rice weevil on grains of rice

Rice weevils are small beetles that bore into grains like rice, wheat, and corn, where they lay eggs. The larvae then develop inside the grain kernels and crawl over the food. Albeit an unappetizing discovery, rice weevils don’t contaminate the rice. You can pick them out, boil, and eat the rice as usual. These little bugs are often present in dry pasta packages, so shake the bag before putting it in your cart. Even then, you may still end up bringing them home. 


Parrots

A Scarlet Macaw parrot

Parrots are among Belize's most charismatic and diverse bird species, with vibrant plumage and remarkable intelligence. Found in the country's lush tropical rainforests and savannas, species such as the Red-lored Parrot, White-fronted Parrot, and the Scarlet Macaw bring bursts of color and life to their habitats. There are also many species of parakeet, a smaller species of parrot. Parrots are known for their strong, curved beaks and zygodactyl feet; they are adept climbers and foragers, feeding on fruits, seeds, and nuts. As a result, they play an essential ecological role in forest regeneration by dispersing seeds. 


Another species unique to Belize, the Yellow-headed Parrot, is an endangered species with an uncanny ability to mimic sounds and human speech. This ability has made it a highly sought-after species for the illegal pet industry. 


Parrot conservation efforts in Belize are crucial to protect these beautiful birds and their habitats from deforestation and exploitation.


Jaguars

a jaguar

I want to wrap up part three with the iconic big cat of Belize: the Jaguar. This three-part series was about the most commonly encountered animals, and though it's unlikely that you will ever see one in the wild, I didn't feel right leaving them out. With such a rich cultural history and ancient traditions surrounding the jaguar, I would be remiss not to touch on them. 


Jaguars are apex predators and reign as the largest felines in the Americas. Revered by the ancient Maya, these cats are present in cultural iconography and the center of folklore. With their sleek coats and piercing eyes, these elusive cats command respect and admiration from locals, expats, and tourists alike. Jaguars aren't your typical felines: they are excellent swimmers known to hunt prey on land and in water, making them formidable predators. In conjunction with Guatemala, Belize Is home to the Maya Forest Corridor, whose goal is to preserve the vitality of Mesoamerican biodiversity, including the jaguar. Interesting fact: a panther is actually a type of jaguar that is all black and not a separate animal.


Embracing the Wildlife Wonders of Belize

In wrapping up our three-part series, "An Expat’s Guide to Wildlife in Belize," we've journeyed through this beautiful country's diverse and enchanting ecosystems, uncovering the myriad creatures that call it home. I hope that by highlighting the commonly encountered animals and each species' vital role in Belize’s natural environment, I have prepared the expat or aspiring one for future encounters.  Even though some of the creatures we touched on insight fear in some, living alongside these creatures enriches the expat experience. 


As you continue your adventures in this vibrant country, remember to respect and appreciate the incredible wildlife that makes Belize unique and lovable. Stay curious and engaged, and let the wonders of Belize’s wildlife inspire your life as an expat in Belize.


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