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Costa Rica offers an extraordinary abundance of flora, including more than 9,000 species of "higher plants." It has many more species of ferns--about 800--than the whole of North America, including Mexico. Of heliconias (members of the banana family more familiarly known as "birds of paradise"), there are some 30 species. It is a nation of green upon green upon green.

The forests and grasslands flare with color--some flamboyantly so, as plants advertise the delights and rewards they offer, including the ultimate bribe, nectar. Begonias, anthuriums, and blood of Christ, named for the red splotches on the underside of its leaves, are common. The vermilion poró tree (the bright flame-of-the-forest), pink-and-white meadow oak, purple jacaranda, and the almost fluorescent yellow corteza amarilla all add their seasonal bouquets to the landscape. And the morning glory spreads its thick lavender carpets across lowland pastures, joined by carnal red (but unromantically foul smelling--a crafty device to enlist the help of flies in pollination) passionflowers.

Many plants play out the game of love and reproduction in the heat of the tropical night, when they emit fragrances designed to attract specific insect species. Other flowering species employ markings on their petals to indicate the exact placing of the rewards insects seek. Many orchid species, for example, are marked with lines and spots like an airfield, to show the insect where to land and in which direction to taxi. Others display colors invisible to the human eye, yet clearly perceptible by insects whose eyesight spans the ultraviolet spectrum. And a remarkable holly species (Ocotea tenera) occasionally changes sex, being male one year and female the next, to increase its chance of pollination.

All plants depend on light to power the chemical process by which they synthesize their body substances from simple elements. Height is therefore of utmost importance. When an old tree falls, the strong, unaccustomed light triggers seeds that have lain dormant, and banana palms and ginger plants, heliconias and cecropias--all plants that live in the sunshine on riverbanks or in forest clearings--burst into life and put out big broad leaves to soak up the sun, to flower and to fruit. Another prominent plant is the poor man's umbrella (sombrilla de pobre), whose name you'll remember if you get caught in a downpour while in the rainforest; its giant leaves make excellent impromptu shelters.


Anyone who has traveled in the tropics in search of wildlife can tell you that disappointment comes easy (and often at considerable expense). But Costa Rica is one place that lives up to its reputation. Costa Rica is nature's live theater--and the actors aren't shy.
Then there are all the creatures that mimic other things and are harder to spot: insects that look like rotting leaves, moths that look like wasps, the giant Caligo memnon (cream owl) butterfly whose huge open wings resemble the wide-eyed face of an owl, and the mottled, bark-colored machaca (lantern fly), which is partly to blame for Costa Rica's soaring birthrate. According to local folklore, if a girl is stung by a machaca she must have sex within 24 hours or she will die.

Much of the wildlife is glimpsed only as shadows. (Some, like the dreaded fer-de-lance, for example, uncurling in the rotten leaves, you hope you don't meet.) Well-known animals that you are not likely to see are the cats--pumas, jaguars, margays, and ocelots--and tapirs and white-lipped peccaries. With patience, however, you can usually spot monkeys galore, as well as iguanas, quetzals, and three-fingered sloths that get most of their aerobic exercise by scratching their bellies and look, as someone has said, like "long-armed tree-dwelling Muppets."

Identifying the species is a prodigious task, which every day turns up something new. Insects, for example, make up about half of the estimated 500,000 to one million plant and animal species in Costa Rica. The country is home seasonally to more than 850 bird species--10 percent of all known bird species (the U.S. and Canada combined have less than half that number). One source reports there are 5,000 different species of grasshoppers, 160 known amphibians, 220 reptiles, and 10 percent of all known butterflies (Corcovado National Park alone has at least 220 different species).

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