10 Bizarre-Looking Animals You’ll Find in Colombia
“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent,
But the one most responsive to change.
Looking like a real wacko, a total animal nut job helps too.”
– Charles Darwin, English naturalist, biologist and geologist [possibly said this]
Taking a tour in Colombia is definitely going to provide the adventurous traveler with a whole host of amazing, jaw-dropping experiences, and you can include meeting the local wildlife in that. Thanks to its seemingly limitless biodiversity, so providing a full range of the necessary natural habitats required for diverse animal populations to flourish, Colombia is home to the exotic, the stunningly beautiful, the weird and the wonderful, and the simply outright bizarre.
There is no documentary evidence that Charles Darwin, kind of quoted above, ever made it to Colombian soil on his merry travels (Colombian tour options were probably quite limited back in the 1880s); therefore, he was never witness himself to the bizarre, wonderful animals that inhabit the jungles, the mountains, the rivers, the deserts, or the coastlines of this unique country. Would it have affected his proclaimed “Theory of Evolution”? Scientifically speaking, probably. Would large chunks of the much-heralded “On the Origin of Species” need re-writing? Again, probably. His loss then.
In this article, we, however, shall travel to those diverse, natural Colombian habitats (unlike Mr. Darwin, who is probably now laying in his grave, reading this online, and just plain kicking himself), and see for ourselves just a few of the many bizarre examples of what this planet can provide. So here, adventurous traveler, are 10 (of the very best) bizarre-looking animals you’ll find in Colombia:
10. The Andean Condor
The Andes (or Andean Mountains) is the longest continental mountain range in the world, and so seems a fitting, thermally-blessed home for the Andean condor (vultur gryphus), the largest flying bird, by combined weight and wingspan, in the world. The Andean Mountains are also home to many myths and legends, real South American folklore, and the Andean condor features heavily in these. Being also one of the world’s longest-living birds (a 70+ year lifespan is not uncommon), it’s not difficult to see why the condor gained its place among such folklore.
With a wingspan of over 3 meters (only select ocean-going albatrosses and pelicans go wider), the Andean condor, pretty much bereft of feathers on its head and neck, is a little on the ugly side admittedly, but that hasn’t stopped it being a Colombian national symbol (it also gets the same status in Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Argentina). A large black ominous-looking vulture, it has a distinct white ruff of feathers around its neck (a sort of carrion-eating Shakespeare look), and its head and neck are usually dull red in color, unless it gets a little emotional, making this much more vibrant and threatening.
If you’re hoping to watch and enjoy these jumbo jets of the bird kingdom soaring majestically around you, and high over the mountain skyline, Colombia’s Andean region is clearly the spot for you. Obviously, with an average height of around 4,000 meters, the Andes can be somewhat inaccessible, so joining a Colombian tour for such a mountain safari would be your best option.
9. The Colombian Titi Monkey
No sniggering in the back now. A quick change of habitat here as we head off to a small and fragmented area of jungle to find the Caquetá titi (callicebus caquetensis), a rare variation of the Titi monkey species. Also known as the “red-bearded titi” or “bushy-bearded titi” (no need for a scientific explanation there), it’s sad to report these beautifully bizarre creatures are now classed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Found only in Colombia’s Caquetá department, the Caqutá titi is a brown-furred primate, with a lighter-colored tail and chestnut red cheeks, neck and undersides, and with a highly distinctive bushy beard. The monkeys form very small and delightfully cohesive family groups – usually, just a bonded pair of monogamous adults and their offspring.
Because of their rarity, and the precarious nature of their actual existence, it’s highly recommended that you seek the services of a Colombian tour operator if you’d like to view them in a way that doesn’t impinge upon their well-being. The department of Caquetá is located in the Amazonas region of southern Colombia.
8. The Andean Cock-of-the-Rock or “Tunki”
Please, stop that sniggering now. Next up on our textual natural history tour of Colombia is another bird, vastly different to our condor, called the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (rupicola peruvianus). To be found in the awe-inspiring Andean cloud forests, where the clouds sit happily at canopy level, the Andean cock-of-the-rock, also known by the somewhat shorter and snappier name of “tunki,” is widely considered to be the national bird of Peru (is that condor going all red in the face?).
Here’s a natural history phrase for you: sexual dimorphism, where the male and female of the species differ in varying degrees of size, coloring, even behavioural characteristics. This natural phenomenon was first observed and studied by (yes, you know) our amigo, Mr. Darwin, way back in 1871, and the tunki is a prime example of it. The males are larger, with a vivid, bright orange or scarlet crest, and the females are (sorry to say) smaller, darker and browner. Plainer, in other words. The male’s hopeful pre-coital display is a mixture of call, hops, bobs, and just showing of his vibrant feathers. Post-coital, he’s off, and so the female makes a nest and, once her eggs have hatched, rears the young all on her lonesome.
As we’re up in the cloudy Andes again, a Colombian tour to witness the male tunki’s displaying antics, and a complete lack of “new man” sensibilities, is your best bet. As with the condors, the Andean cocks-of-the-rock cover a huge swathe of western Colombia, so your choice of venues is as diverse as the country itself.
7. The Pink Dolphin or “Boto”
No, this isn’t the name of a Medellín nightclub (actually, it could be), but rather the amazing Pink Dolphin, or more correctly put – the amazing Amazon River Dolphin. These wonderful aquatic mammals, a real sight to behold as they swim and play and feed, are nailed-on, semi-magical candidates for a spot of Amazonian folklore and myth considering their abstract coloring.
Legends abound – for example, if you make eye contact with a pink dolphin, you’ll have nightmares for life. None are more well-known than this: at night, the pink dolphin becomes a handsome man, then seduces a village girl, impregnating her, then, in the morning, returns to the river to become a dolphin again. True? Who really knows, but it’s a great cover story when you consider the lurid sexual etiquette of remote Amazonian river communities (“Honestly, father, it was a dolphin in the night…”).
Pink dolphins aren’t born pink, but dark grey. As they mature into adults, the pink skin manifests itself through simple yet surprising repeated skin abrasion caused by dolphin arguments. It’s why the males tend to be pinker than the female – more aggression to others.
These spectacular mammals are also, on occasion, quite content to interact in a friendly way with us humans. Therefore, viewing them in their natural habitat becomes even more of a joy. Obviously, to do so, you need to get yourself along the Amazon river – this can be done either by an organised Colombian tour or by adventurously hiring a boat and a guide locally.
6. Mountain Tapir
The Mountain Tapir, or “Woolly Tapir,” (tapirus pinchaque) is the only tapir that is happy to live beyond the tropical rainforests, in the mountainous cloud forests and surrounding páramos (South American high plateaus devoid of forestry) of the Andes. These unique animals, now sadly another endangered species, are the only tapirs to have thick woolly coats, and, quite unusually, white lips, making them look like an animal equivalent of an Arctic explorer from the last century.
Interestingly, their species name comes from “La Pinchaque”, an imaginary beast said to roam the same regions as the mountain tapir itself. Come on, people, think about it. So, if you’d like to see these wonderfully bizarre beasts in their natural habitat, it’s time to pack your mountain hiking boots for the Andes, but, again, the recommendation is to take a designated Colombian tour.
5. Golden Poison Frog
And now for something completely different – something that could kill you. The Golden Poison Frog (phyllobates terribilis), also known as the Golden Poison Arrow Frog or the Golden Dart Frog, is a lethal little thing that’s endemic to Colombia’s Pacific coast. These rainforest-dwelling poison dart frogs look pretty innocuous (in fact, they just look plain pretty, either yellow, orange or a nice mint green in color); however, the toxin emitted from their skin is lethal to the touch, and making the muscles of unwitting victims severely contract, resulting in heart failure of fibrillation.
The golden poison frog doesn’t go out of its way to cause you harm, unless you decide to pick it up or actually eat it. The poison is there simply for self-defense, and highly effective it can be. So effective that the amount of toxin in just one frog is enough to kill between 10 and 20 humans (or 2 bull elephants, if they happen to chance along). Funnily enough, the only living creature to have immunity from the toxin is the little frog itself.
The local indigenous communities, like the Choco Embera tribespeople of the rainforest, capture the frogs and, by holding them over fire, collect the rare poison to soak their darts and arrowheads in, as preparation for hunting. These arrows can actually retain the lethality of the poison for over 2 years. So, the Pacific coastal rainforests in the Cauca and Valle de Cauca departments of Colombia are the area to head in if you wish to catch sight of these bright, little frogs with the deadly touch, either with a Colombian tour or a personal exploration.
4. Blue Anole
Pack your paddle as we now head out to the Pacific Colombian island of Gorgona, 35 kilometers off the coast but still in the Cauca department. Here, on an island most famous for its venomous snakes, you’ll find the only all-blue anole lizard in the entire world, the aptly named Blue Anole (anolis gorgonae) , and strikingly blue it is too. Endemic only to the island, the blue anole population hasn’t had it easy, with the deforestation in the 1950s to build a prison (closed in 1984), and then the introduction of the Western basilisk lizard, now a ravenous predator of our blue friend. However, the entire island was given national park status in 1985, so deforestation is no longer an issue.
Due to its exceptionally wary nature (you’d be wary too if another of your predators was a boa constrictor) and its preference to stay high up in the tree canopy, catching sight of a blue anole can be a extraordinary patient process. However, the island has numerous other species, both terrestrial and aquatic, for you to marvel at, including humpback whales and dolphins, and paradise beaches to die for..
Access to the island is only via a boat ride from Guapi on the Colombian mainland. Because of its national park status and venomous hosts, it’s best visited through an official Colombian tour.
Returning to the Amazon river, you’ll find a colossal dinosaur of a fish – the Pirarucu (arapaima gigas). Growing to nearly 3 meters in length and weighing in at around 220 kilograms, this freshwater giant has a very odd-shaped body, long and narrow in front and flat at the back, with a weird-looking round tail on the end to finish it off.
Known as the “cod of the Amazon,” it possesses a bony tongue which it uses to crush its prey (yes, they are carnivorous). In fact, the local people use dried picarucu tongues to grate seeds with. Because of their habitat, and the added bonus that they need to surface to breathe, you can witness these giants either on a Colombian tour or the hiring-a-guide-with-a-boat thing. Seriously weird to see, however you do it.
2. Sword-billed Hummingbird
High up in the Andean cloud forests, the only hummingbird in the world to have a beak longer than it’s body, the Sword-billed Hummingbird (ensifera ensifera), lives, thrives and survives. Feasting on plant nectar (and the odd insect or spider), this hummingbird feeds on the wing, and romances on the wing. Aerial displays to attract females are intricately performed, and, just like the Andean cock-of-the-rock, he’s straight off after the deed is done, leaving the female to rear the young.
As with our other Andean species, because of the locale, a Colombian tour is probably the better option for a sword-billed safari. That beak. Imagine if that was a person’s nose?
1. Spectacled Bear
Lastly, who doesn’t love a bear in glasses? The Spectacled Bear (tremarctos ornatus), also known as the Andean bear, is the last surviving species of bear native to the South American continent. It also happens to be the largest carnivore, but only technically, as the spectacled bear doesn’t need meat to survive, unlike the jaguar. Furthermore, it is the only bear that wears glasses. Well, it looks like it does anyway.
The bear has unique light brown or ginger-colored markings across it face and chest (ok, giving the appearance of spectacles), and, again, can be found in the cloud forests of the Andes, across the various countries that are home to that range; however, various spectacled bear populations have been known to travel as high as the mountain snow-line, and very occasionally as low as 250 meters. In fact, the spectacled bear has proven to be highly adaptable, and has inhabited areas of cloud forest, scrub deserts, high grasslands, and dry forests in the past.
As before, the best way to see the spectacled bear is through a Colombian tour, with a knowledgeable guide. But, hey, this is Colombia – you decide.
“Should Have Gone to Colombia…”
“Man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits.
Yep, a Colombian titi monkey, now I’ve seen it on Google images, looks a good bet.
Or maybe a spectacled bear? Man invented glasses.
Or maybe, and get this, it was a pink dolphin that climbed as a Man from the Amazon river, found no ladies to rumba with, and then simply forgot how to become a pink dolphin again?
Oh, I give up. Should’ve gone to Colombia.”
– Charles Darwin [yes, him again – very likely said this too]
So, there you have them: 10 bizarre-looking animals you’ll find in Colombia. The Andean condor, the Colombian titi monkey, the Andean cock-of-the-rock, the pink Amazon river dolphin, the mountain tapir, the golden poison frog, the blue anole, the pirarucu, the sword-billed hummingbird, and the spectacled bear – so, which is your favorite?
Personally, my choice would be the spectacled bear, a decision heavily influenced by a Paddington Bear-infused childhood (young Paddington was based on the spectacled bear; obviously the hat, duffle coat, wellington boots, little suitcase and marmalade sandwiches were just good old literary licence – a bit like these Darwin quotes).
If you’ve witnessed one or more of these bizarre-looking animals in their natural Colombian habitat, either on tour in Colombia or under your own steam, please share your experiences with a comment below. Thanks for your company on our (bizarre) little natural history tour around this beautiful country of biodiversity.