Some 300 species of mammals have been recorded in Ecuador. These vary from monkeys in the Amazonian lowlands to the rare Andean spectacled bear in the highlands. The most diverse mammals are the bats, of which there are easily more than 100 species in Ecuador alone.
For many, the most delightful mammals to spy upon are monkeys. Ecuador’s monkey species include the howler, spider, woolly, titi, capuchin, squirrel monkeys, tamarins and marmosets. The best places to see them in their natural habitat include Reserva Producción Faunística Cuyabeno and Parque Nacional Yasuní in the Amazonian lowlands, and the rarely visited lowlands sector of Reserva Ecológica Cotacachi-Cayapas near the coast. A group of marvelously mischievous capuchin monkeys have taken over the central plaza in the Oriente town of Misahuallí, where you’re guaranteed an up-close (and sometimes too personal) experience. In the Oriente, you may hear howler monkeys well before you see them; the males’ eerie roars carry great distances and can sound like anything from a baby crying to wind moaning spookily through the trees.
Other tropical specialties include two species of sloth: the diurnal three-toed sloth and the nocturnal two-toed sloth. It’s very possible you’ll spot one of the former while hiking in the Amazon. They are usually found hanging motionless from tree limbs or progressing at a painfully slow speed along a branch toward a particularly succulent bunch of leaves, which are their primary food source. Leaf digestion takes several days, and sloths defecate about once a week. Sloths are most fastidious with their toilet habits, always climbing down from their tree to deposit their weekly movement on the ground. Why they go to all this trouble is one of the mysteries of mammalian life in the tropics.
There are far fewer species of mammals in the highlands than in the lowlands, but commonly seen critters include deer and rabbits and less commonly sighted mammals include Andean foxes. The mammals most commonly associated with the Andes are llamas, which are domesticated and used primarily as pack animals. Their wild relative, the lovely vicuña, has been reintroduced to the Chimborazo area, where you’re almost guaranteed to see them as you drive, bus or walk through the park.
Other possible mammal sightings include anteaters, armadillos, agoutis (large rodents), capybaras (even larger rodents, some weighing up to 65kg), peccaries (wild pigs) and otters. River dolphins are occasionally sighted in Amazonian tributaries. Other exotic mammals, such as ocelots, jaguars, tapirs, pumas and the Andean spectacled bear, are very rarely seen.
Many thousands of insect species have been recorded in Ecuador; undoubtedly, tens of thousands more remain undiscovered.
Butterflies, of which there are some 4500 species in Ecuador, are among the first insects that the visitor to the tropics notices. Perhaps the most dazzling are the morphos. With their 15cm wingspan and electric-blue upper wings, they lazily flap and glide along tropical rivers in a shimmering display.
Caterpillars are often masters of disguise themselves. Some species mimic twigs; another is capable of constricting certain muscles to make itself look like the head of a viper, and yet another species looks so much like bird droppings that it rarely gets attacked by predators. Mindo has a wonderful butterfly farm, as does Misahuallí, and these farms are well worth a visit to see these creatures in their marvelous stages as they morph from caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly.
Ants are also a delightful diversion in the forest. Nearly any walk through a tropical forest will allow the observer to study many different types. Particularly interesting are the leaf-cutter ants, which can be seen marching in columns along the forest floor carrying pieces of leaves like little sails above their heads. The leaf segments are taken into the ants’ underground colony where they rot into a mulch, which produces a fungus that feeds the ants.
The majority of Ecuador’s approximately 460 species of amphibians are frogs. There are tree frogs that spend their entire lives in trees and lay their eggs in water trapped inside bromeliads (a type of epiphytic plant). The ominously named poison-dart frog is among the most brightly colored species of frog anywhere. The colors of poison-dart frogs run the spectrum from bright red-orange with jet-black spots to neon green with black wavey lines. Some poison-dart frogs have skin glands exuding toxins that can cause paralysis and death in animals, including (and you probably don’t want to hear this) humans.
Of Ecuador’s reptiles, four really make an impression on visitors: three of them – land tortoises, land iguanas and marine iguanas – live in the Galápagos and are easy to see. The fourth are the caimans, which inhabit lagoons in the Oriente. With a little patience and a good canoe guide, you’ll spot these spooky creatures as well. But that’s only four of Ecuador’s 410 species, which is over 150 more than are found in all of North America!
Snakes, which are much talked about but seldom seen, make up a large portion of reptiles in Ecuador. They usually slither away into the undergrowth when people are coming, so only a few fortunate visitors get to see them. Perhaps Ecuador’s most feared snake is the fer-de-lance, which is extremely poisonous. Visitors are rarely bitten.