Villa Quetzal

Villa Quetzal

Friday, February 3, 2012

IGUANAS, "The Chicken of the Jungle"

Costa Rica is famous for the number of iguanas running freely from one side of the highway to the other and from a papaya treetop to a house roof.  Some of us consider iguanas as very interesting creatures, others consider them quite adorable; some even try to keep them as pets but more interestingly,  many local I have talked to, go from one extreme,  which is being annoyed by the iguanas, to the other extreme which is “delicious,”  it tastes like chicken.

Costa Rica has two kinds of large lizard-like reptiles: green iguanas and "black iguanas"(which are not technically an iguana).  These ground nesting reptiles can be found high in the treetops, feeding on leaves and basking in the sun.  Juvenile iguanas eat grubs and other invertebrates, while adults are mostly plant eaters but will occasionally eat small mammals and nesting birds.

These reptiles are restricted to living on land, since all throughout their lives; they are air-breathing creatures.

There is an amazing variety of lizards of many different kinds in Costa Rica.  They live everywhere, mostly in leaf piles and dry underbrush.  One of the best places to find lizards is on the beach, where they hang out around driftwood logs and eat insects. 

Black Ctenosaur (Ctenosaura similis) Spanish Name: Iguana Negra, Gallina de Palo

Here are some of the places where you can find this charming dinosaur looking creatures:
Corcovado National Park, Santa Rosa National Park, Manuel Antonio National Park, Carara National Park, Palo Verde National Park, Guanacaste National Park, Rincón de la Vieja National Park, Cano Negro National Wildlife Refuge, Ballena National Park, Barra Honda National Park.

This animal requires sunny areas with perches, which may be rocks, boulders, fallen trees, dead snags, or fence posts.  Beyond this requirement, its habitat is flexible.  Iguanas can live in beach side scrub, dry deciduous and moist forests, and disturbed adjacent zones such as pastures.  They have been found living in gardens and other settings within urban areas. 
The Black iguana is actually a yellowish gray or tan color with vaguely outlined dark bands on the back end of its body.  Juveniles are a bright green who darkens with age.  Adult color varies considerably and may be nearly black; color also changes throughout the day with activity and body temperature.  

The long, heavy tail of this lizard is covered in whorls of intimidating spines, and its feet are equipped with sharp claws.  Males have wider heads and even more muscular jaws than females.

These enormous Pacific slope lizards are unmistakable from any other in Costa Rica—with the single exception of its Atlantic side relative; the Green Iguana can be distinguished from the iguana because the iguana has a distinct, single large scale on either side of its face below the tympanum.  The iguana also has a brighter green color, longer tail, and is restricted to very moist riparian areas in deciduous forest. 

Green Iguanas come in a variety of shades ranging from gray/green to bronze or even brown / orange.  Tails of both males and females are banded with light and dark thick rings.

Their diet is entirely vegetarian; however, it is possible that very small juveniles eat insects, if that is the case; they do become entirely vegetarian very early on and for the remaining part of their lives.  They tend to prefer, in this order: mature leaves, flowers, and fruits.  The diets of Green Iguanas may vary depending on their habitat.  Their preference is perhaps dictated by the nutritional value and taste of certain plants and is related to the abundance of such plants in any given area.

How can we tell the difference between a baby green iguana and a baby black iguana?
It is possible, even though it is not quite easy, especially because these reptiles are good at camouflage.  They tend to choose trees in which they blend in and more often than not, will pick a branch over water, so they may jump in and swim to safety should they be threatened.  When they are very young, green iguanas and black spiny iguanas look almost identical.  They have a lime-green body and tail.  As they gradually take on the color of mature adults.  To tell the difference between a baby green iguana and a baby black spiny iguana, one has to look at the tail.  The black spiny iguana will have a spiny ridge along the tail while the Green iguana’s is smooth.

The common large gray lizards seen in the drier parts of Costa Rica are not strictly iguanas, and usually are called “garrobos” They are mostly found on the ground though perfectly capable of climbing, and the biggest adults spend as much time in trees as iguanas.

Large adult garrobos look much like adult iguanas, but iguanas have a large scale behind the jaw.  Garrobos adapt readily to human-altered habitats, so are much more abundant.

Those who have sampled iguana as a dish, say that the lizards taste, unsurprisingly, like chicken.  Catching and cooking iguana is a good way to experiment with a new exotic food.

Read more:  How to Catch and Cook an Iguana

Most people will look at an Iguana/Garrobo and say: do you eat that thing?  The answer from a Costa Rican would be oh yes; you can my friend.  Many Costa Ricans seem to recognize that iguana consumption is common; however, it is not a staple of the normal daily diet, some say that the majority of the consumption occurs during Semana Santa (Holy Week), a tradition that seems to have no support by younger generations.  Some Costa Ricans also acknowledge that mothers have fed iguana meat to their sick children, as one would eat chicken noodle soup, and some other say that it is a cure for hangovers and is good to keep the elderly strong.

Whether iguana is on your list of thing that you would like to try, or not; when you come to this tropical Costa Rica, if you get to meet a hospitable rural family, there is a chance that you might be invited for a meal, and, also an iguana/garrobo might be invited too, as the main course.  
After all, they say, “It tastes like chicken”

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