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Yucatán’s amazing animals, from the solitary jaguar to the misunderstood opossum

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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.

The Yucatán Peninsula is home to a wide array of wildlife, ranging from harmless tiny insects to massive apex predators. Though the exact number of species is hard to nail down, even conservative estimates place the number in the thousands. While some of these species are virtually unknown to most in Yucatán, others have achieved iconic status  — either because of their beauty or rarity, though often both. 

Jaguar

It is estimated that in the state of Yucatán as few as 600 jaguars remain. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Of the six species of large cats native to Mexico, five can be found on the Yucatán Peninsula. But the largest and most famous is the Jaguar, or as the Maya call this majestic feline, Balam. Adult males of the species can grow to be nearly 2 meters long, not including their massive tails, and can weigh up to 100 kilograms. Jaguars are carnivores who depend solely on flesh for their diet. They are also quite territorial and competitive when it comes to mating, emitting loud roars to scare away intruders and competitors. Spotting a jaguar in the wild can be tricky. I have only ever seen them twice and consider myself quite fortunate. The first time was in Coba back on New Year’s Eve 1997. I remember getting up to go to the bathroom at like 5 a.m. and from the window saw a stunning juvenile jaguar drinking water from a puddle. It was quite the moment, but sadly I did not have a camera handy. Luckily, the next time I was more prepared. Your best bet to see these magnificent cats is in the thick jungles of southern Campeche and Quintana Roo, especially near water sources early in the morning. 

Tlacuache, zarigüeya or opossum

As Tlacuaches are nocturnal and very shy they are tricky to get good pictures of. This particular specimen was photographed after he fell into my parents’ pool in the middle of the day, hence the wet fur. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It is a little ironic that given its many names, this furry creature is best known in Yucatán by the name of another animal, zorro  — which means fox. Tlacuaches are not foxes and in fact, are the only marsupial native to the Peninsula. They are extremely adaptive and thrive both in the wild and urban environments. Their activity is mainly nocturnal and terrestrial, with some arboreal exploration and nesting. They have never been known to attack a human being and unlike rodents, do not carry communicable diseases. But despite their gentle nature, they are often attacked and killed by people who do not know any better or are just jerks. I will always remember the time a Canadian friend from college (hi Zane!) fell off his chair on my parents’ front patio and exclaimed “I just saw the world’s biggest rat.”

Mesoamerican Tapir

Tapirs are one of the largest animals found in Yucatán and make quite a ruckus when moving through the bush, so keep alert. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Tapirs are large herbivorous mammals native to the Yucatán Peninsula, Central America, and parts of South America. They vaguely resemble a very large pig but have a short trunk which is prehensile, meaning it can be used for grasping and howling. Most tapirs are about two meters long, stand about one meter high at the shoulder, and weigh between 150 and 300 kilograms. Although they spend most of their time on dryland, tapirs are surprisingly good swimmers. They will enter the water to feed on soft vegetation or to take refuge from predators. Tapirs’ diet consists mostly of fruit, berries, and leaves. Their natural lifespan is between 25 to 30 years, both in the wild and in zoos. They are normally not aggressive but will attack if you accidentally encroach on their territory. Pro tip: Because tapirs have very low centers of gravity, you can evade them more easily by zig-zagging. I will forever be grateful to my Lancandon guide in Chiapas for that priceless bit of info that really got me out of a scary situation a couple of years later. 

Pink Flamingos

The best way to see flamingos in large numbers is to take a boat tour around the mangroves of Yucatán’s coast. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The Pink Flamingo is among Yucatán’s most beloved birds. They can be seen in Celestún, Sisal, and Río Lagartos in great numbers, but smaller groups can also be seen around Progreso and Telchac. You may have heard that flamingos get their bright pink color from eating a small variety of shrimp. In reality that is not exactly the case. Flamingos and shrimp both get their color from eating algae that contain carotenoid pigments. Because they have not yet absorbed the pigmentation, flamingos are born white. To learn more about dozens of Yucatán’s most beautiful birds take a look at our amazing birds of Yucatán series. 

Sea Turtles

In Cozumel, travelers can volunteer to monitor nests and to release hatchlings into the sea. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

There are three species of sea turtles native to the Peninsula: the Caguama, Carey, and Verde — all of which are endangered. Nests are usually found well above the high tide line, but mothers will sometimes venture up into people’s yards or homes. Turtle nests can often be found when walking on beaches in Yucatán, but it is important to not touch them or disturb them in any way. This is not just because it would be profoundly uncool to do so, but also because it is highly illegal. A lucrative black market for sea turtle eggs and shells continues across Mexico and other Latin American countries, where they are used as ingredients in food, traditional remedies, and jewelry. For the first time ever in Yucatán, biologists recorded the birth of a species of turtle known as Tortuga Lora, which is known to nest primarily on the shores of Veracruz. 

Tolok or Mexican Spiny-Tailed iguana

Two toloks taking in the sun rays at Uxmal, Yucatán. The larger spikier of the two is the male. Photo: Carlos Roado van der Gracht

This large species of iguanid lizard is ubiquitous in Yucatán. They can be found in people’s yards, even in large cities like Mérida and Valladolid, where they take in the sun, often perched atop large stones or piles of sheet metal. They are also the unofficial mascots of many of the Peninsula’s most famous archaeological sites — including Chichén Itzá and Uxmal — where they can be seen in large numbers. They have distinctive keeled scales on their long tails, which give them their common name. The males are capable of growing up to 1.4 meters in total length and females are slightly shorter at one meter. In some small villages, people are known to hunt them for their meat, although I can report from first-hand experience that they are not particularly tasty.

Corals

The Yucatán Peninsula offers some of the most spectacular views of coral reefs in the world, so don’t forget to bring your snorkel. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Despite what many believe, corals are in fact animals, not plants. They are marine invertebrates typically found forming compact colonies of many identical or nearly identical individuals. Corals may vary greatly in appearance and color and can reproduce sexually and asexually. Corals feed on a variety of small organisms, from microscopic zooplankton to small fish. They use small tentacles to immobilize or kill prey using stinging cells called nematocysts. The southwestern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula is home to part of the Great Mayan Reef, the second-largest coral habitat in the world. Unfortunately, the delicate equilibrium required for the flourishing of corals has been drastically altered by rising sea temperatures associated with man-made global warming. 

Sereque or Central American agouti

Like other agoutis, Central American agoutis are diurnal and live in monogamous pairs for life. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

These large rodents can weigh as much as five kilograms and are typically reddish and grizzled with black. They mainly feed on fruits and seeds and are important to the ecosystems which they inhabit because they act as very efficient seed dispersers. They have four fingerlike limbs on their front legs which they use to hold food while they eat (exhibiting similar behavior to squirrels,) while their hind legs only have three of these appendages. Sereques are hunted for food in northern Guatemala and even appear on some restaurant menus, though I have never heard of this being the case in Yucatán. I was once convinced to order a rotisserie sereque at a restaurant in Flores Guatemala, and let’s just say the meat was not to my liking.  

Cocodrilo de Morelet or Mexican crocodile

Like most crocodilians, Morelet’s crocodiles are highly opportunistic and will prey on practically anything that they can overpower including even nearly-grown cattle and tapirs. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The Mexican crocodile can be found in freshwaters and swamps across the Yucatán Peninsula. Almost all Morelet’s crocodiles in excess of 2.5 meters are males and at this advanced stage of maturity, the male goes through a significant change in skull osteological morphology as the skull appears to increase in broadness and robustness. Although 2.5 meters sounds quite large, they are actually fairly modest in size when compared to other species found around the world. These crocodiles become much more likely to come into contact with humans during heavy floods which allow them to move into territories otherwise inaccessible to them.

Join us next week when we explore even more into Yucatán’s wilderness. 

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