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Sunday, December 4, 2022

Yucatán’s amazing animals — from the cute to the scaly and the smelly

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Last week we explored the depths of Yucatán’s jungles, oceans, and coastlines to introduce you to some of the region’s most interesting animal inhabitants. This week we continue on this quest and share with you photographs and information about some of our favorites. 

Coati or coatimundis

In the wild, coatis live for about seven years, while in captivity they can live for up to 15 or 16 years.

Coatis are mostly active during the daytime and can be found all over the Yucatán Peninsula. Adults measure between 33 and 69 centimeters from head to the base of the tail, which can be as long as their bodies and sticks straight up when moving, giving them quite a particular and somewhat funny appearance. Their long tails have rings that are anywhere from starkly defined like a raccoon’s to very faint. They have bear-like claws and walk on the soles of their feet, just like humans do. The coati snout is long and somewhat pig-like and accounts for its nickname, the hog-nosed raccoon. Their diet is made up mostly of invertebrates such as spiders, as well as fruits. Likely because tourists enjoy feeding them, their numbers have increased considerably in the Mayan Riviera, where they can be seen foraging on the grounds of hotels and golf courses.

Lizards or lagartijas 

It is hypothesized that several of the Peninsula’s species were introduced by way of powerful wind gusts containing tiny lizard eggs from across the Caribbean. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Yucatán is home to several species of lizards including the dwarf gecko, mourning gecko, and the house gecko. There are also several species endemic only to certain regions, such as in the case of the Cozumel spiny lizard. Visitors to the region are often taken aback by the number of lizards found in homes. But far from being a threat, these tiny reptiles do not carry disease and are great allies when it comes to combating pests like cockroaches and even mosquitoes. Species such as the mourning gecko, or common smooth-scaled gecko are known for making a distinct guttural sound that can sound a little odd at first, but with time actually becomes fairly soothing. 

If you spot a little lizard make sure to thank them for helping to keep the mosquito population at bay. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Yucatecan white tailed deer or venado de cola blanca yucateco


Deer have been hunted in the Yucatán for thousands of years, but the Maya of antiquity who called these animals ceh, seem to have done a better job than contemporary Yucatecos when it comes to maintaining the species population. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht.

This species of Yucatecan deer is closely related to other white-tailed deer variants found across North America. Although they are now extremely endangered, their numbers were once so vast that Yucatán came to be nicknamed la tierra del faisán y el venado — the land of deer and pheasants. Deer even appear on the center of Yucatán’s coat of arms, where a single specimen can be seen jumping over a henequen agave. Although deer are now a protected species in Yucatán, they are still commonly hunted by poachers, especially in extremely remote parts of the state’s interior.

Peccary or javelina

Although they have fairly decent eyesight, it is believed that individuals identify other members of their group by means of their strong odor — hence their nickname of skunk pigs. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

A peccary is a medium-sized pig-like hoofed mammal belonging to the new-world pig family. They can be found throughout the jungles of the Yucatán Peninsula and much of Central America. At between 90 and 130 centimeters in length and up to 40 kilograms, they are quite hefty. They are extremely social creatures that live in herds and eat mostly roots and grubs. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Maya have domesticated these wild pigs for millennia. Thus it is widely believed that Yucatán’s most famous prehispanic delicacy, cochinita pibil, was first developed calling for peccary in the recipe. 

Monkeys or monos 

When not foraging for food, spider monkeys can usually be found lounging about on the forest’s tallest branches. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Other than human beings, Yucatán is home to two species of primates, these being howler and spider monkeys. But if you want to see them in the wild you will have to head to the south of the Peninsula. Some of the best locations include Punta Laguna in Quintana Roo and Calakmul national park in Campeche. To learn more about these fascinating primates check out Spiders and howlers: Yucatán’s charming species of New World monkeys.

Butterflies or mariposas

Like in much of the world, butterflies are a common but welcome sign in Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Yucatán is home to more than 300 different species of butterflies. Some of the most observed species include the malachite, gulf fritillary, common mestra, and banded peacock. The health of butterfly populations is often taken as a proxy for the overall health of several ecosystems because of their close relationship with the region’s flora. This is because as the butterflies travel from one flower to another, they pollinate the plants, resulting in further development of plant species. During the spring and early summer, great numbers of butterflies can be seen migrating through the peninsula on their way to Central America. Two of the most common migratory species include Anteos maerula and Anteos chloride, both of which are bright yellow and can be seen in huge numbers, especially after rains, in Yucatán’s countryside — especially in the Puuc region

Snakes or serpientes

Snakes, even those that are not venomous are often attacked by people who don´t understand their ecological role. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In Yucatán, there are roughly 40 different species of snakes, but only five are poisonous. These are the variable coral snake, neotropical rattlesnake, cantil, barba amarilla, and the jumping pitviper. Scared yet? Well, you shouldn’t be. In all honesty, unless you are making huge treks into the jungle you are unlikely to see any snakes at all. But even if you do, the likelihood that you will encounter a poisonous snake is negligible. In all my years of adventuring in the Yucatán, I have only encountered a handful of snakes, and none of them were poisonous or acted menacingly at all. Snakes hold a special place in Mayan cosmology, with depictions being extremely common, not least of which, in the form of Kukulkán, the fabled feathered serpent. Even the Peninsula’s most famous tourist resort owes its name to snakes, as the word Cancún derives from the Yucatec-Mayan words kàan, meaning snake, and kun, meaning to swell or overfill. 

Tortoises or Tortugas terrestres

Most species of tortoises in Yucatán live between 20 and 50 years, not quite the 150+ reached by the Aldabra giant tortoise of Seychelles, but still not bad at all. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Ok, first things first. Tortoises are turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises. For starters, tortoises have more rounded shells where turtles have thinner, and more water-dynamic shells, as they are better adapted for swimming. Tortoises have club-like forelegs and hind legs that are sometimes described as elephantine. Common species of tortoises found in Yucatán include tortugra blanca, pecho quebrado, de pantano, de guadalupe and the tortuga gravada. Native to the Yucatán and Florida, the red-eared slider has become popular in the pet trade and has been introduced to other parts of the world by people releasing it to the wild. Hatchling and juvenile red-eared sliders have a greenish upper shell, yellow bottom shell, and green and yellow stripes and markings on their skin. These patterns and colors in the skin and shell fade with age until their shell changes to an olive-green hue.

Well, that’s all for today. Check back soon for more wildlife articles featuring Yucatán’s amazing biodiversity.

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