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For such a tiny country, Belize is incredibly rich in biodiversity. Whether you come to Belize to check a hundred or so species off your lifetime list, or just to check out of the rat race for a week or so, you'll be surrounded by a rich and varied collection of flora and fauna. This information is meant to be a selective introduction.

In many instances, the prime viewing recommendations should be taken with a firm dose of reality. Most casual visitors and even many dedicated naturalists will never see a wildcat or kinkajou in the wild. However, anyone working with a good guide should be able to see a broad selection of Belize's impressive flora and fauna.

Mammals

Belize has some 150 identified species of mammals, ranging from the majestic jaguar to the rowdy howler monkey. Note that the dolphin and manatee have been included in the "Sea Life" section.

Jaguar -- (Panthera onca) -- This cat measures from 1.1 to 1.8m (3 1/2-6 ft.) plus tail, and is distinguished by its tan/yellowish fur with black spots. As jaguars are protected by Belize's hunting ordinances, the country maintains one of the healthiest populations in Central America. Prime Viewing: Although they exist throughout mainland Belize, jaguars are extremely hard to see in the wild. The best places to spot them are in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Río Bravo Conservation Area.

Puma -- (Puma concolor) -- Nearly 1.5m (5 ft.) long when fully grown, these feline predators are the largest unspotted cats in the region. Also known as a mountain lion, the puma is brownish, reddish-brown, or tawny in color with a white throat. Prime Viewing: Southeastern, western, and southern Belize in the lowland forests and semi-open areas.

Jaguarundi -- (Herpailurus yaguarondi) -- This smallish to midsize cat, with a solid black, brown, or reddish coat, can occasionally be spotted in a clearing or climbing trees. Prime Viewing: Wet and dry forests throughout Belize.

Ocelot -- (Leopardus pardalis) -- The tail of the tiger cat (as it's called in Belize) is longer than its rear leg, which makes for easy identification. Ocelots are mostly nocturnal, and during the daytime they sleep in trees. Prime Viewing: Dense forests in all regions of Belize.

Margay -- (Leopardus wiedii) -- An endangered species, it's one of the smaller wild cats of the region and (like its cousin, the ocelot), is often found in trees. Prime Viewing: Forests in all regions of Belize.

Gibnut -- (Agouti paca) -- This nocturnal rodent (also called a paca) inhabits the forest floor, feeding on fallen fruit, leaves, and some tubers dug from the ground. Prime Viewing: Most often found near water throughout many habitats of Belize, from river valleys to swamps to dense tropical forest. However, you're almost as likely to see gibnut on a restaurant menu as in the wild.

Neotropical Otter -- (Lutra longicaudis) -- The neotropical otter goes by many nicknames in Belize, including perro de agua (water dog) and lobito de río (little river wolf). Prime Viewing: In rivers and streams throughout the country.

Baird's Tapir -- (Tapirus bairdii) -- Known as the "mountain cow" in Belize, the tapir is active mostly at night, foraging along riverbanks, streams, and forest clearings. Prime Viewing: The Stann Creek and Toledo districts of southern Belize and the Cayo District of western Belize.

Coatimundi -- (Nasua narica) -- This raccoonlike mammal is one of few with the ability to adapt to habitat disturbances. During the night, they tend to hunt along open trails; during the day, they stay hidden within the deeper bush. Prime Viewing: Found in a variety of habitats in Belize, from dry scrub to dense forests, on the mainland as well as some coastal islands.

Collared Peccary -- (Tayassu tajacu) -- These black or brown piglike animals travel in small groups (larger where populations are still numerous) and have a strong musk odor. Prime Viewing: Throughout dry and moist forests in most of Belize.

Anteater -- (Cyclopes didactylus) -- Also known as the pygmy anteater, this nocturnal creature grows up to 18cm (7 in.), not counting its thick tail (which is as long as or longer than its body). Prime Viewing: Wet forests in all regions of Belize.

Armadillo -- (Dasypus novemcinctus) -- Also known as the dilly in Belize, these prehistoric-looking animals are nocturnal and terrestrial. Prime Viewing: All regions.

Kinkajou -- (Potos flavus) -- The nocturnal, tree-dwelling kinkajou is appropriately nicknamed "nightwalker" in Belize. Prime Viewing: Strictly nocturnal and extremely hard to see, the kinkajou nevertheless is found in forests throughout Belize.

Spider Monkey -- (Ateles geoffroyi) -- A large monkey (64cm/25 in.) with brown or silvery fur, this creature is often hunted for its meat and is listed as endangered in some countries. Prime Viewing: The Orange Walk (northwestern), Cayo (western), and Toledo (southern) districts of Belize.

Howler Monkey -- (Alouatta pigra) -- Known locally as a baboon, this highly social creature grows to 56cm (22 in.) in size. As the species travel only from tree to tree (limiting their presence to dense jungle canopy), a community-based conservation organization protects the land along the Belize River for the howler monkey, ensuring that their food trees are not destroyed to make way for pasture. Prime Viewing: In the lowland forests that encompass Belize's mainland. Sightings are pretty much guaranteed at the Community Baboon Sanctuary.

Red Brocket Deer -- (Mazama americana) -- Also known as the antelope in Belize, these small animals measure 1 to 1.4m (3 1/2-4 1/2 ft.). Small, straight antlers distinguish the male. Prime Viewing: Southern and southeastern Belize and some coastal islands.

Hairy-Legged Bat -- (Myotis keaysi) -- The hairy-legged bat grows to a whopping 5.1cm (2 in.) in length, not including the length of its tail. Prime Viewing: All regions of Belize, in forests, rock crevices, gardens, and buildings.

Birds

Belize has at least 618 identified species of resident and migrant birds. The variety of habitats and compact nature of the country make this a major bird-watching destination.

Jabiru Stork -- (Jabiru mycteria) -- One of the largest birds in the world and an endangered species, the jabiru stands 1.5m (5 ft.) tall, with a wingspan of 2.4m (8 ft.) and a .3m-long (1 ft.) bill. The birds arrive in Belize from Mexico in November and fly north with the first rains in June or July. Prime Viewing: The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, located 53km (33 miles) north of Belize City, has the largest population in the country.

Keel-Billed Toucan -- (Ramphastos solfurantus) -- The canoe-shape bill and brightly colored feathers make the national bird of Belize almost instantly recognizable. The toucan is about 51cm (20 in.) in length. Prime Viewing: Throughout the country's lowland forests, nesting in the holes of tree trunks.

Scarlet Macaw -- (Ara macao) -- Over most of its range, the scarlet macaw is endangered. However, in 1996, a new population of over 100 birds was "discovered" south of the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. Prime Viewing: The wet lowland forests of the Toledo District in southern Belize.

Ocellated Turkey -- (Agriocharis ocellata) -- This colorful bird has a thin, light blue head and neck with orange-yellow knoblike wattles on the top that the bird will proudly display. The wings and tail are rounded with shimmering metallic bronze primaries and metallic emerald-green shoulders; the feathers are a dark, shiny brown, barred with a metallic shimmering green that looks black in poor light. Prime Viewing: Northern and western Belize.

Frigate Bird -- (Fregata magnificens) -- The frigate bird is a naturally agile flier and it swoops (unlike other birds, it doesn't dive or swim) to pluck food from the water's surface -- or more commonly, it steals catch from the mouths of other birds. Prime Viewing: All coastal regions of Belize. Man-O-War Caye is a protected nesting site for this bird.

Red-Footed Booby -- (Sula sula rubripes) -- This unique bird experiences many color changes during its life. Adult boobies have a blue-gray bill and eye ring, and pink skin about the bill base. The head and neck are washed with yellow, and the white body holds black primary and secondary feathers. The feet and legs of the aptly named species are all red. Prime Viewing: Half Moon Caye National Monument, Belize's first national park, is now the protected home for over 4,000 red-footed boobies, but these birds can be found in all coastal regions of Belize.

Montezuma's Oropendola -- (Pasrocolius montezuma) -- Also called "yellowtails" in Belize, these birds have a black head and chest, a yellow-edged tail, a large black bill with an orange tip, and a blue patch under the eye. Prime Viewing: Throughout Belize.

Osprey -- (Pandion haliatus) -- These large (.6m/2 ft., with a 1.8m/6-ft. wingspan), brownish birds with white heads are also known as "fishing eagles." In flight, the osprey's wings "bend" backward. Prime Viewing: Throughout Belize, although predominantly near the coasts, flying or perched in trees near water.

Roseate Spoonbill -- (Ajaia ajaja) -- This large water bird is pink or light red in color, with a large spoon-shape bill. They were almost made extinct in the United States because their pink wings were sought for feather fans. Prime Viewing: Along the coast and in the wetlands of northern Belize.

Cattle Egret -- (Bubulcus ibis) -- The cattle egret changes color during breeding: A yellowish buff color appears on the head, chest, and back, and a reddish hue emerges on the bill and legs. They are often seen following behind tractors, because these stir up insects. Prime Viewing: Throughout the country. As the name implies, almost always found accompanying livestock.

Pygmy Owl -- (Glaucidium brasilianum) -- This small (about 38cm/15 in.) grayish brown or reddish brown owl is also known as the lechucita listada ("little striped screech owl"). Unlike most owls, they are most active during the day. Prime Viewing: Throughout Belize.

Boat-Billed Heron -- (Cochlearius cochlearius) -- This midsize heron (about 51cm/20 in.) has a large black head, a large broad bill, and a rusty brown color. Prime Viewing: Throughout the country, near marshes, swamps, rivers, and mangroves.

Laughing Falcon -- (Herpetotheres cachinnans) -- This largish (56cm/22 in.) bird of prey is also known as the vaquero (cowboy) in Belize. The laughing falcon's wingspan reaches an impressive 94cm (37 in.). Prime Viewing: Throughout the country.

Sea Life

Boasting the longest continuous barrier reef in the Americas, Belize has a rich diversity of underwater flora and fauna. Any visitor to Belize's beach or island resorts should take some time to peek at the various undersea wonders of the ocean and barrier reef, whether it be by snorkeling, scuba diving, or riding in a glass-bottomed boat.

West Indian Manatee -- (Trichechus manatus) -- Manatees in Belize are Antillean manatees, a subspecies of the West Indian manatee. Belize is home to the largest known concentration of Antillean manatees in the wider Caribbean. These "sea cows" can reach lengths of 3 to 4m (10-13 ft.) and weigh 499 to 1,588kg (1,100-3,500 lb.). Prime Viewing: Coastal mangroves, and particularly in the Gales Point Lagoon.

Manta Ray -- (Manta birostris) -- Manta rays are the largest type of rays, with a wingspan that can reach 6m (20 ft.) and a body weight known to exceed 1,361kg (3,000 lb.). Despite their daunting appearance, manta rays are quite gentle. If you are snorkeling or diving, watch for one of these extraordinary and graceful creatures. Prime Viewing: All along the barrier reef, particularly in deeper water, or alongside steep walls and drop-offs.

Stingray -- (Dasyatis americana) -- True to their name, these rays can give you a painful shock if you touch the venomous spine at the base of their tails. Be careful when wading in sandy areas, where they prefer to bury themselves. Prime Viewing: All along the coast and barrier reef, especially in shallow sand or grassy areas.

Whale Shark -- (Rhincodon typus) -- Although the whale shark grows to lengths of 14m (45 ft.) or more, its gentle nature makes swimming with them a special treat for divers and snorkelers. Although 3 or 4 days before and after the full and new moons in April and May are the best times to interact with the sharks, they are often sighted in the summer months as well. Prime Viewing: Gladden Spit, off Placencia.

Nurse Shark -- (Ginglymostoma cirratum) -- The most frequently spotted shark in Belizean waters, this species spends most of its time resting on the ocean floor. Reaching lengths of 4.3m (14 ft.), their heads are larger than those of most sharks, and they appear to be missing the bottom half of their tail. Prime Viewing: All along the coast and barrier reef.

Leatherback Sea Turtle -- (Dermochelys coriacea) -- The world's largest sea turtle (reaching nearly 2.4m/8 ft. in length and weighing more than 544kg/1,200 lb.), it's now an endangered species. Prime Viewing: Sightings are exceedingly rare, so it's highly unlikely that you'll spot them nesting on the coast of Belize, but you might get lucky and spot them in the sea.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle -- (Eretmochelys imbricata) -- The hawksbill turtle is a shy, tropical, reef-dwelling species that feeds primarily on sponges. Registered on the endangered species list, commercial exploitation exacerbates the species' continued decline. Prime Viewing: All along the coast and barrier reef.

Moray Eel -- (Gymnothorax moringa) -- Distinguished by a swaying serpent-head and teeth-filled jaw that continually opens and closes, the moray eel is most commonly seen with only its head appearing from behind rocks. At night, however, it leaves its home along the reef to hunt for small fish, crustaceans, shrimp, and octopus. Prime Viewing: Saltwater areas along the coast, usually near coral reefs or kelp forests.

Barracuda -- (Sphyraena barracuda) -- The barracuda is a slender fish with two dorsal fins and a large mouth. Juvenile barracudas often swim near the shore, so exercise caution, as attacks on humans occasionally occur. Prime Viewing: All along the coast and barrier reef.

Bottle-Nosed Dolphin -- (Tursiops truncates) -- Their wide back fin, dark-gray back, and light-gray sides identify bottle-nosed dolphins. Dolphins grow to lengths of 3.6m (12 ft.) and weigh up to 635kg (1,400 lb.). Prime Viewing: Along the coast and barrier reef.

Loggerhead Sponge -- (Spheciospongia vesparia) -- This barrel sponge is a large, stubby, purplish creature. Its large, central depression often plays host to small fish; shrimp and other sea life dwell in its canals. Prime Viewing: All along the barrier reef.

Elkhorn Coral -- (Acropora palmata) -- Elkhorn coral was formerly the dominant species in shallow water throughout the Caribbean, forming extensive thickets in areas of heavy surf. Since 1980, populations have collapsed from disease outbreaks, with losses compounded locally by hurricanes, increased predation, and bleaching. Prime Viewing: Along the barrier reef.

Brain Coral -- (Diploria strigosa) -- Named for its striking physical similarity to a human brain, brain coral has been growing continuously in the waters off Belize for at least a century, though it's vulnerable to hurricanes. Prime Viewing: All along the barrier reef.

Porous Coral -- (Porites) -- The branches of this pink coral have a fuzzy appearance during the day, when its polyps are extended. Prime Viewing: All along the barrier reef.

Moon Jelly -- (Aurelia aurita) -- Like most jellies, the moon jelly is almost transparent. That four-leaf-clover-like area on its top is its reproductive organs. Prime Viewing: All along the coast and barrier reef.

Amphibians

Frogs, toads, and salamanders are actually some of the most beguiling, beautiful, and easy-to-spot residents of tropical forests.

Rufescent Salamander -- (Bolitoglossa rufescens) -- This very small (3.8cm/1 1/2-in.), brown amphibian is also known as the "northern banana salamander," which is fitting since it can often be found in banana leaves. Prime Viewing: Forest floors and creek beds, particularly in the Stann Creek, Toledo, and Cayo districts.

Red-Eyed Tree Frog -- (Agalychnis callidryas) -- This colorful 7.6cm (3-in.) frog usually has a pale or dark green back, sometimes with white or yellow spots, with blue-purple patches and vertical bars on the body, orange hands and feet, and deep red eyes. Prime Viewing: This nocturnal frog can be found in forests throughout Belize. It is often best to look on the undersides of broad-leafed plants.

Maya Rain Frog -- (Eleutherodactyulus chac) -- This small, skinny frog is usually brown or yellowish, with webbed toes and red eyes. Prime Viewing: Forests in southeastern, southern, and western Belize.

Marine Toad -- (Bufo marinus) -- This 20cm (8-in.), wart-covered toad is also known as sapo grande, or "giant toad." The females are mottled in color, while the males are uniformly brown. Prime Viewing: This terrestrial frog can be found in forests throughout Belize.

Mexican Burrowing Toad -- (Rhinophrynus dorsalis) -- This bloblike, 7.6cm (3-in.) toad will inflate like a blowfish when frightened. It often has a single red, orange, or yellow line down the center of its brown or black back. Prime Viewing: This terrestrial frog can be found throughout Belize.

Reptiles

Belize's reptile species range from the frightening and justly feared fer-de-lance pit viper and American crocodile to a wide variety of turtles and lizards.

Snapping Turtle -- (Chelydra serpentina) -- This turtle's back is brown, olive, or black, and marked with three ridges of sharp bumps -- which might explain why it's also known as tortuga lagarto ("alligator turtle") in Belize. Prime Viewing: In ponds and streams throughout Belize.

Boa Constrictor -- (Boa constrictor) -- Adult boa constrictors average about 1.8 to 3m (6-10 ft.) in length and weigh over 27kg (60 lb.). Their coloration camouflages them, but look for varying patterns of cream, brown, tan, gray, and black with ovals and diamonds. Prime Viewing: In forests and mangroves countrywide, including on some of the offshore cayes.

Fer-de-Lance -- (Bothrops asper) -- Also known as a tommygoff in Belize, this venomous and aggressive snake can grow to 2.4m (8 ft.) in length. Beige, brown, or black triangles flank either side of the snake's head, while the area under the head is a vivid yellow. Prime Viewing: All regions. This snake is arboreal as a youngster and becomes terrestrial as it grows larger and older.

Mussurana -- (Clelia clelia) -- This bluish-black, brown, or grayish snake grows to 2.4m (8 ft.) in length. While slightly venomous, this snake is a rear-fanged snake and of little danger to humans. In fact, it is prized and protected by locals, since its primary prey happens to be much more venomous pit vipers, like the fer-de-lance. Prime Viewing: Forests in central, southeastern, and western Belize.

Rattlesnake -- (Crotalus durissus) -- Look out for its triangular head, 1.8m (6-ft.) length, the ridge running along the middle of its back, and (of course) its rattling tail. Prime Viewing: Throughout the country

Shiny Skink -- (Mabuya brachypoda) -- This midsize (7.6cm/3 in.) brown lizard with a narrow head and short legs is also known as "snake waiting boy." Prime Viewing: Throughout the country.

Silky Anole -- (Anolis sericeus) -- This small (5.1cm/2-in.) gray lizard can be hard to spot, as it often aligns itself on a blade of grass when startled. Prime Viewing: On the ground and forest floors throughout the country.

Leaf-Toed Gecko -- (Phyllodactylus tuberculosus) -- You'll have no problem spotting this 6.4cm (2 1/2-in.) gecko on rocks and on the ground -- it loves to be around buildings and other areas of human activity. Prime Viewing: Central, southeastern, and western Belize.

Smooth Gecko -- (Thecadactylus rapicaudus) -- This gecko's autonomous tail detaches from its body and acts as a diversion to a potential predator; it grows back later in a lighter shade. Prime Viewing: In northwestern, western, and southern Belize, especially where humans can be found.

Green Iguana -- (Iguana iguana) -- Green iguanas, not surprisingly, are green in color, but vary in shades ranging from bright green to a dull grayish-green. The iguana will often perch on a branch overhanging a river and plunge into the water when threatened. Prime Viewing: All regions of the country, living along the rivers and streams. Often seen sunning on exposed rocks or tree limbs.

Basilisk -- (Basiliscus vittatus) -- The basilisk can run across the surface of water for short distances by using its hind legs and holding its body almost upright; thus, the reptile is also known as "the Jesus Christ lizard." Prime Viewing: In trees, rocks, and forest floor, especially near water in tropical rainforests.

Morelet's Crocodile -- (Crocodylus moreleti) -- This reptile can grow to a length of 4m (13 ft.), although the average specimen measures less than 2.4m (8 ft.). Adults are brown or blackish in color, while young Morelet's crocodiles are olive or yellowish, with dark bands on their bodies and tails. Prime Viewing: Northern and central coastal Belize, in most of the freshwater lowland interior rivers, lagoons, and ponds.

American Crocodile -- (Crocodylus acutus) -- This endangered species is distinguished from the Morelet's crocodile by their generally larger size and narrower snout. While they can reach lengths of 6.4m (21 ft.), the majority are much smaller, usually less than 4m (13 ft.). Prime Viewing: Near swamps, mangrove swamps, estuaries, large rivers, coastal lowlands, and islands.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.