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Wildlife Travel in Panama’s Cocobolo Nature Reserve: A Biodiversity Epicentre at the Continental Divide

The connecting bridge between two continents, Panama is the last link in the chain of countries making up the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, containing more overlapping fauna than anywhere else in the region.

With incredibly diverse ecosystems, from humid tropical lowland forests to globally important freshwater wetlands and mangroves, Caribbean and Pacific coastal habitats and islands, coral reefs, cloud forests and savannahs, the country protects some 3.5 million hectares of its land and waters ( 38.66 percent of the national area).

An ecology and wildlife research hotspot situated at one of the world’s most important biogeographical convergence and discontinuity points, Panama, along with Costa Rica, produces more than five times the biodiversity research of any other Central American country. 

As a nature and wildlife travel destination, Panama has long been famous as an international birding Mecca, with over 1,000 native and migratory birds recorded in the country (10 percent of the world’s known bird species), 107 of which are endemic.

Panama is also a world-class offshore diving destination. The Noriega era penal colony, Isla Coiba, 160 km off the country’s Pacific coast, is a renowned congregation point for the critically endangered Scalloped Hammerhead Shark–one of a few such places left on the planet–as well as a host of other pelagics.

Fantastic mammal and herpetofauna-oriented nature travel are also possible in Panama’s reserves and protected areas.

Pretty much any niche nature and wildlife travel interest can be catered to in Panama, from orchids to butterflies, snakes to birds.

One of the absolute best all-around wildlife travel experiences in the country has to be the Cocobolo Nature Reserve. 


Cocobolo

Source: Google Maps

Cocobolo, just a few hours southeast of Panama City, sits on the southern slope of the continental divide on a mountain ridge halfway between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. 

An extension of the Narganá Wilderness Area and Chagres National Park, it covers 410 hectares of primary cloud forest and secondary lowland rainforest and forms a crucial part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor–the private and public protected lands connecting habitat from southern Mexico to South America. 

Courtesy of Michael Roy @cocobolonature

With just 40 miles between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Cocobolo is situated at the narrowest stretch of Central America, the Marmoní Corridor, a highly important habitat for migratory species (especially birds) and possibly the most important biological corridor in the western hemisphere. 

Located where North meets South America, where species from both sides of the hemisphere converge, as well as at one of the lowest points on the continental divide, allowing Isthmian and Chocó-Darién flora and fauna to mix, Cocobolo is home to a unique mix of biodiversity found nowhere else in the Americas.

Accommodations here are rustic covered platforms where visitors are free to rent or pitch a tent: 

Courtesy of Michael Roy @cocobolonature

Shared bathrooms with dry composting toilets, solar panel electricity, filtered water from local streams, and locally sourced sustainable construction materials are what you will find here. 

Access is via rugged roads and river crossings that are season-dependent.

Courtesy of Michael Roy @cocobolonature

Owned and operated by the Non-profit CREA (Conservation Through Research Education and Action), Cocobolo is, first and foremost, a research site dedicated to the survey and study of one of Panama’s least understood, most unique and most threatened regions. 

It is home to one of, if not the last, populations of the iconic Limosa Harlequin Toad (Atelopus limosus) and is an important patch of forest for felines like Jaguar and Margay. 

Situated at the confluence of two major ecoregions, and encompassing both lowland and cloud forests, Cocobolo is, without a doubt, one of, if not the best, nature and wildlife travel experiences in Panama.

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Where Ecoregions Converge: Cocobolo and the Marmoní Corridor

The Marmoní Corridor/Valley in southeastern Panama sits along the continental divide.

A site of tremendous biological diversity and international biological importance, it is the convergence point of two worlds–where Mesoamerica meets South America.

This is where the Tumbes-Choco-Magdalena biodiversity hotspot, which includes forests that stretch down into Andean Colombia and along the Pacific coasts of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, transitions into the Isthmian Atlantic Forests of Mesoamerica. 

Wikicommons: ConservationIntl

A site of global ecological importance, this small valley, and places like Cocobolo, are home to prolific, albeit precarious, biodiversity. 

The reserve has recorded 400 species of birds, 91 species of mammals, 62 species of reptiles, and 51 species of amphibians and is home to (likely) thousands of species of invertebrates. 

Because of the valley’s proximity to Panama City, much of the land has been converted to farming and pasture over the years, making sites like the Cocobolo Reserve and the larger Mamoni Valley Preserve area vitally important in the fight against habitat fragmentation and for the connectivity of these vast forests. 

Visiting this small expanse of forest is a chance to experience a main artery in the biogeographical cardiovascular system of habitats that connect and disperse species over vast distances throughout the neotropics. 


Herpetofauna

CREA’s founder, Conservation Biologist Michael Roy, initially came to the valley looking to set up a conservation and education field centre and realized just how diverse this area was.

The overlapping Atlantic and Chocó-Darién Moist Forests are some of the most herpetologically diverse in the world–both exciting and worrying, given that there is still no national recognition of the area.

The reserve has gone and put together a handy inventory of all of the recorded species (so far), including 62 species of reptiles and 51 species of amphibians.

It should go without saying, Cocobolo is a fieldherper’s paradise. 

Snakes

They have recorded 36 species of snake, including some stunning coral and coral mimics. 

These include (clockwise top to bottom): False Coral Snake (Oxyrhopus petolarius), Common Liana Snake (Siphlophis cervinus), Many-banded Coral Snake (Micrurus multifasciatus), Puffing Snake (Phrynonax poecilonotus), False Tree Coral Snake (Rhinobothryum bovallii), and Cope’s False Coral Snake (Pliocercus euryzonus)

Courtesy of Michael Roy @cocobolonature

For a full list of recorded snake species, see the downloadable Excel spreadsheet (linked to here) that has been put together by Michael and Cocobolo.

Amphibians: Frogs, Toads, Caecilians, 

It is hard to decide whether it is the amphibian species that make Cocobolo most special herpetologically or the snakes. 

51 species of amphibians, including three poison-arrow frogs, have been recorded at the reserve.

These include (clockwise top to bottom): Yellow-bellied Poison Arrow Frog (Andinobates fulguritus), Ghost Glass Frog (Sachatamia ilex), New Grenada Cross-banded Tree Frog (Smilisca phaeota), Green and Black Poison Arrow Frog (Dendrobates auratus), Limosa Harlequin Frog (Atelopus limosus), and Gladiator Tree Frog (Hypsiboas boans)

Courtesy of Michael Roy @cocobolonature

Cocobolo is also home to at least three species of Bolitaglosa salamander:

  • Two-lined Climbing Salamander (Bolitoglossa biseriata)
  • Camp Sasardi Salamander (Bolitoglossa cf. cuna)
  • Finca Chibigui Salamander (Bolitoglossa medemi)

As well as one caecilian: 

  • Yellow-headed Caecilian (Oscaecilia ochrocephala)

It is the Limosa Harlequin Toad (Atelopus limosus), however, the flagship amphibian species of the reserve (and the entire Marmoní Corridor), that have given Cocobolo its reputation in the world of herpetology.

It is worth reiterating that this small patch of forest is home to the (likely) last remaining breeding population of this frog, an animal that has lost most of its numbers to habitat destruction, pollution and the pandemic chytrid fungus.

For a full list of recorded amphibian species, see the downloadable Excel spreadsheet (linked to here) that has been put together by Michael and Cocobolo.

Lizards, crocodilians and turtles 

The reserve has also recorded impressive lizard diversity (27 species).

These include (clockwise top to bottom): Helmeted Iguana (Corytophanes cristatus), Variated Worm Lizard (Amphisbaena varia), Yellow-headed Gecko (Gonatodes albogularis), Bocourt’s Dwarf Iguana (Enyalioides heterolepis)

Courtesy of Michael Roy @cocobolonature

As well as the Spectacled Caiman (Caiman crocodilus)

Courtesy of Michael Roy @cocobolonature

For a full list of recorded reptile species, see the downloadable Excel spreadsheet (linked to here) that has been put together by Michael and Cocobolo.


Birds

What Cocobolo is probably best known for is its birds.

With 400 recorded species (of Panama’s total 1,000) spread out across cloud and lowland forests, birds are the predominant vertebrate animals here. You would be hard-pressed to find many other sites in the neotropics with so many migrant and resident bird species in one place. 

The Marmoní Corridor acts as a funnel, forcing the myriad bird species found here through this narrow stretch as they follow the remaining forest islands that make up the Marmoní Valley Preserve in an otherwise heavily deforested and fragmented area. 

Species include (clockwise top to bottom): Tawny-crested Tanager, Ocellated Ant Bird, Great Curassow, Golden-hooded Tanager, and Violet-crowned Woodnymph. 

Courtesy of Michael Roy @cocobolonature

In Cocobolo’s extensive ornithological surveys and research, they have recorded:

Great Curassows, Ground cuckoos, King Vultures, 16 species of hawks and eagles, 20 species of hummingbirds, seven species of owls, five species of kingfishers and five species of toucans and toucanets.

For a full list of recorded bird species, see the downloadable Excel spreadsheet (linked to here) that has been put together by Michael and Cocobolo.


Mammals

Cocobolo is also a mammal watcher’s dream. 

Here, at the narrowest and lowest point of the continental divide, far-ranging animals like Jaguars, Ocelots, Coyotes and Puma are forced to traverse places like the Marmoní Corridor, as the private reserves scattered throughout provide the only habitat connectivity in the area.

Courtesy of Michael Roy @cocobolonature

Reserve mammals also include species like the endangered Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey (left) and range-restricted species like Geoffroy’s Tamarin.

Courtesy of Michael Roy @cocobolonature

The call of the Mantled Howler Monkeys is omnipresent throughout the reserve

Courtesy of Michael Roy @cocobolonature

In total, 91 species of mammals have been recorded here, including Ocelots, Pumas, Margay, Jaguar and Jaguarundi, Baird’s Tapir, Silky and Giant Anteaters, Tamandua, Tayras, Pacas, Mouse Possums, Agoutis and 53 species of bats. 


Invertebrates

It would be almost impossible to do a complete inventory of the invertebrate species found at a place like Cocobolo. 

Thousands of species (many, almost certainly, yet to be described, let alone discovered) of ants, termites, bees, wasps, butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, robber flies, scarabs, worms, leafhoppers, caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, tarantulas, orb weavers, wandering spiders, jumping spiders, fishing spiders, net-casting spiders, Uropygi, praying mantises, cicadas, katydids, stick insects, crustaceans, and molluscs can be seen (and heard) in every direction at a place like this.

Here is a small but impressive sampling of some of the myriad invertebrate creatures that wander the forests and grounds of Cocobolo: 

Clockwise top to bottom: Rhinoceros Beetle sp., Boxer Mantis sp., Panama Blonde Tarantula, Leafhopper Sp., Peruvian Shield Mantis

Courtesy of Michael Roy @cocobolonature

Fish

Unless you’re a real biotope enthusiast with a very niche interest in lower Mesoamerican freshwater fish, most nature and wildlife enthusiasts (even seasoned aquarists) are probably unaware of just how special the ichthyological fauna is at a place like Cocobolo. 

Panama has both the largest share of the total primary freshwater fish species in Mesoamerica, as well as the most endemics and threatened species (Contreras-MacBeath et al., 2022)–not surprising considering its situation on the continental divide and proximity to Northwest Colombia’s Pacific Coast and Atrato drainages–and the Marmoní River, in the Chepo-Bayano River Basin, is part of the most species-rich freshwater biogeographical province in Panama: the Tuira Ecoregion.

This is true both in terms of primary and secondary freshwater fish composition (Smith & Bermingham, 2005).

Here you will find genera like the small armoured catfishes, hatchet fish and knife fish–South American river basin fish restricted to the eastern part of Lower Mesoamerica–and a much larger diversity of tetras than anywhere else north of Colombia.

This is in addition to the secondary freshwater fish like livebearers and cichlids that dominate the rest of Mesoamerica. 

What’s more, 26 of these species are endemic–the highest rate of endemism in the already endemically blessed Panama (Smith & Birmingham, 2005).

In short, the Marmoní Valley is part of a freshwater biogeographical region that hosts the most impressive freshwater fish diversity in Mesoamerica and is, therefore, a globally and regionally important fish conversation priority. 


Visit Cocobolo and the Marmoní Corridor while it’s still there

The Marmoní Valley Preserve describes its mission as the protection of “one of our planet’s most unique natural treasures.”

A critical intercontinental migrational and dispersal point for a tremendous number of plant and animal species, this small stretch of land at the continental divide is undoubtedly one of the most biologically rich patches of forest in the world. 

But the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor is under constant threat. 

Increasing human populations in and around the Marmoní Valley means more cattle ranches, more agriculture, more roads and more human development. Habitat destruction and fragmentation make it harder for species to traverse the small forest islands that remain (places like Cocobolo), which is bad for gene flow, species diversity and population numbers.

If you are interested in experiencing one of the best remaining microcosms of perhaps the most important biological corridor in the western hemisphere in a way that is rugged, authentic, connected to the land and its people and in the company of scientists and committed conservationists, you will find no place in Panama better than Cocobolo.