Colombia’s Hard-to-Believe Animals
By “Awake!” correspondent in Colombia
EARTHWORMS larger than snakes! Moths larger than birds! Frogs more deadly than tigers! Deer the size of rabbits! These are just some of the claims made about the animals of Colombia.
Our dense jungle rain forests, high mountains, broad grassy plains and arid deserts make for a great variety of animal life. We are said to have 259 species and subspecies of mammals, including 8 species of the cat family and 31 representatives of the primates, such as monkeys and similar animals. Also, there are reportedly 1,500 different species of birds that live in or migrate through Colombia, more than in any other country.
Worms How Big?
Surprising as it may seem, there are earthworms bigger than many snakes! Pre-Columbian (before Columbus) artists depicted these giant worms on pottery, and a search for them was started in 1956. They were finally located in the páramo (high cold region) in southwestern Colombia near the city of Popayán. Some were up to five feet long, and over two inches in diameter! Appearing black, they are actually deep blue and green when seen in bright light.
These huge worms are found only in the high mountains at elevations of 13,000 to 14,000 feet. This locates them above the hardwood forests, but below the snow line at that latitude. For comparison, the famous Matterhorn mountain between Switzerland and Italy is 14,685 feet high.
Burrowing just below the surface, these giant worms are often found along paths. But that does not mean they are easy to pick up! Just as a robin braces to pull a common earthworm from the ground, so we can imagine a man trying to pull one out. He had better not pull too hard or the large-segmented worm will come apart! Over half of the worm must be dug from the ground before it can be removed intact.
Moths Larger than Birds?
At a much lower elevation, down in the valley of the Cauca River near Cali, capital of the department of Valle, we encounter moths that really are that large. Some years ago one of them was captured and is now found in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. It measures ten and a half inches from wing tip to wing tip!
This gray and black vermiculated giant held claim to being the largest moth in the world until an even larger one was found. The new record holder measures thirteen inches! It is on display in the Museum of Natural History in Cali, Colombia.
A short walk here may not turn up such giants of the moth world, but one will encounter a variety of beautiful butterflies. There are large ones, small ones, colorful ones—brilliant blues, oranges and drab browns. Also, butterflies with false heads on their tails for confusing their enemies, and butterflies with what appears to be the number 98 on their wings—for who knows what reason. Around the porch light at night will be found all sorts of moths, even some that look like dried-up leaves.
Frogs More Deadly than Tigers?
It is true, and yet these frogs are small enough to fit into a teaspoon! These little fellows do not attack men. They do, however, have a very toxic poison in their skin that is used by the Indians to make their hunting arrows lethal.
This tiny, black-and-yellow striped frog is found in the jungles of Chocó in far western Colombia. In this area of high rainfall the Indians catch the frogs by imitating their chee, chee, chee, chee, and then quickly grabbing them when they answer. The frog is held over a fire until the heat causes the poison to drip out, to be collected and smeared on an arrow tip.
It takes 2,400 of these frogs to yield only 30 milligrams of poison—enough, it is calculated, to kill 3,000,000 mice. After entering a break in a man’s skin, the poison causes a metallic taste in the mouth. The person perspires, there is heart constriction and eventually death. Interestingly, an enzyme destroys the poison upon the frog’s death, so only live frogs yield poison.
Medical science is interested in this poison, as it is similar to the curate poison of South America and the strophanthin poison of South Africa. Both of these have been used in treating heart ailments and in surgery, and now the poison of this frog, kokoá, may prove to have a similar use.
A “Pocket-Size” Deer
Could a deer really be as small as a rabbit? Well, strange as it may seem, nearly so. The so-called rabbit deer, Pudu mephistophiles, may weigh only twenty-two pounds. This slender dark-faced deer has a very restricted range in the Andes of the Colombian-Ecuadorian border, at the same general altitude where the giant worms are found.
In common with many animals, the rabbit deer has a marked territory and keeps within its borders. It is a very small territory, as one might expect for a very small deer. But, as a result, it is easily hunted by dogs.
Very little is known of the habits of this tiny deer, and Colombian naturalists hope that some protective measures may be taken to preserve it. Its extinction would indeed be a great loss.
Cats of Colombia
There are also eight species of cats in Colombia. The best known are the jaguar—the tiger of South and Central America—and the puma, also known as the mountain lion or cougar. There are some very interesting smaller cats such as the ocelot and the jaguarundi. But many people consider the most interesting cat of Colombia to be the margay.
The margay is not much larger than a house cat, and is about as playful as one. It has black-on-yellow color markings suggestive of a rosette, with the rosettes elongating on the back and head, even appearing as stripes on the head. The margay’s beauty and playfulness make one want to take him home.
The Matecaña Zoo in Pereira, Colombia, has a couple of these little charmers. Here one of them was observed to play with a dry leaf as a house cat would. A notebook held close to his cage attracted a number of delicate pats without hint of claws. He also was observed to exercise discretion.
He could not be enticed near the adjoining cage where his neighbor, a larger ocelot, was ready to bestow unfriendly attentions. However, the other margay positioned himself near his neighbor, a bear cub, and at each passing of the bear would hiss and spit much as a domestic cat hisses and spits at a dog. He well knew that the bear could not reach him.
In their natural habitat these cats are active at night, and live in trees. Because of their retiring nature and the denseness of their jungle home, comparatively little is yet known about them.
When asked what she considered the most interesting animal in Colombia, the taxidermist at the Cali Museum of Natural History replied without hesitating, “The harpy eagle.” Although it is not exclusively Colombian, since it inhabits much of tropical America, her choice is understandable.
This eagle is far from being the monster of Greek mythology, with the head of a woman, and body and talons of a bird. Rather, it is a handsome grayish bird of considerable size. Its name is undoubtedly due to its peculiar yet dignified face, which, when seen from the front, does look startlingly human. This resemblance is heightened by a double crest of feathers that frame the top of its head as a woman’s hairstyle might. Its weight of twenty-five pounds for larger females is said to make it the heaviest of the eagles, although the North American eagles may be taller.
Another bird, the condor, is considered the symbol of Colombia. A majestic vulture with a ten-foot wingspread, the condor soars over the high Andes. It is now a threatened species, with no more than two hundred believed to remain in Colombia, although it is more numerous in other South American countries.
In the Cali Museum of Natural History are a number of hummingbirds, including the reportedly largest hummingbird. However, now a still larger variety is said to have been seen in the foothills of the Andes above Pereira, Colombia. Size can easily be mistaken, of course. But when one considers how little is known about some of Colombia’s wildlife, it is likely that many yet unidentified species of birds and other animals still remain to be discovered. Remember, the giant earthworms here were not rediscovered until the late 1950’s.
At the same time, quite a few Colombian animals have been greatly reduced in number. These include such birds as the horned screamer, the common egret, the buff-necked ibis and the condor. In addition, the jaguar, spectacled bear, rabbit deer and puma all may be in danger of extinction.
But, happily, there is now a growing movement for conservation in Colombia. We who live here are glad for this, since the abundance of strange, even hard-to-believe, animals and the beauty and interest of the better-known ones add greatly to the fascination of our lovely country.
[Picture on page 13]
[Picture on page 13]
[Picture on page 13]