Olive Ridley Turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea; Spanish: Tortuga golfina)
This sea turtle, which can weigh up to 100 pounds and reach 30 inches in length, spends most of its life within 10 miles of shore basking and feeding on its diet of jellyfish, snails, shrimp and crabs. It can be recognized by its roundish, heart-shaped shell which is olive gray on the back with greenish white on the underside. Ridley females return to their birth beach, including Playa Blanca, to lay their eggs. They ride night-time high tides following a full moon ashore where they dig a nest 12-22 inches deep, deposit an average of 107 eggs and lumber back into the sea, all within less than an hour. The eggs, which look like ping pong balls, incubate in the warm sand of 40-51 days, depending on the temperature (which also determines the sex of the baby turtles). The young emerge at night and try to make it back to the sea before marauding crabs and birds can eat them.
Olive Ridleys, Leatherbacks and Hawksbill turtles all nest on Playa Blanca. In 2008 the first government-sanctioned turtle preservation program here was established in Los Farrollones. Mario and his helpers gather freshly laid eggs and protect them during incubation and during the dangerous return to the sea. They also protect them from egg poachers, which remain a serious threat. Young Mexican men used to believe that eating turtle eggs stimulated virility. In an ironic twist, there now are reports that link eating turtle eggs with testicular cancer.
Leatherback Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea; Spanish: Tortuga laud)
This is the largest of the sea turtles; reaching a length of up to 7 feet with a flipper to flipper span of up to 9 feet. The largest recorded specimen weighed 2020 pounds. It is easily recognized because its shell is hidden by its dark brown or black leathery skin. Seven pronounced ridges run lengthwise down its back.
Leatherbacks spend most of their lives in the open sea and range thousands of miles. They have a mechanism that allows them to maintain an elevated body temperature which allows them to travel to colder water and dive to 3300 feet in search of food, but they reproduce on land, including on Playa Blanca. Females deposit roughly 70 eggs in deep nests in the sand. Incubation takes 55-62 days and nests experiencing hotter temperatures produce all females; cooler nests, all males.
The Leatherback is among the most critically endangered turtles.
Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate; Spanish: Tortuga carey)
These are large sea turtles. Nesting females average 35 inches in length and 175 pounds in weight. The shells are serrated and are streaked and marbled with amber, yellow or brown. The Hawksbill shell is the ancient source for tortoise shell used in prized jewelry. They have long heads and a strongly hooked beak that gives them their common name.
Hawksbills inhabit hard-bottomed and reef zones and generally are found in less than 60 feet of clear water in bays, estuaries and lagoons. They feed primarily on sponges, jellyfish, mollusks, fish, marine algae, crustaceans and other sea plants. Females typically lay up to five clutches of up to 100 eggs each during one breeding season and then wait a few years before nesting again.
Gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus; Spanish: Gecko casero)
There are over 750 species of geckos, mostly inhabiting the tropics. The most common local one is the house gecko which appears after dark on walls and ceilings near lights in search of its insect meal. On the bottom of the toe pads of geckos are scales covered with microscopic hair-like bristles. On the tips of the bristles, there are tiny suction cups that allow geckos to walk up walls and across ceilings. Geckos are also the most vocal lizards. The cricket-like chirps they spout are to defend their feeding site. Their small fecal pellets look like those of mice. Most species lay two eggs at a time. Since geckos are ubiquitous in Playa Blanca you may find their eggs in unusual places, like your hotel room. They look like small white mints and have a crispy shell. Think twice before nibbling a “found mint”, the contents may be disturbing to the palate.
Green iguana (Iguana, iguana; Spanish: Pancha)
Oddly, this lizard is not always green. In the southern countries of its range such as Peru, they are bluish with bold black markings. Those on Caribbean islands vary from green to lavender to pink. In Mexico they often appear orange, while the juveniles are bright blue. Regardless of shade, they are easily recognized by their size (up to six feet), by the row of spines extending along their back and tail, and by their dewlap or neck pouch that they puff up if they are threatened or if they want to impress the girls. The whip- like tail can deliver a painful strike and their teeth are very sharp. Iguanas have excellent vision which incorporates a third eye. The white pineal gland or parietal eye on the top of their head is photosensitive and helps protect them from attacks from above, particularly from hawks whose cries cause iguanas to freeze. The diet of the young is mainly insects, but as adults, they are vegetarians. Once found in abundance in the tropics and around water sources in Mexico, this ancient reptile is now listed as an endangered and protected species. The pet trade was one cause; 800,000 green iguanas were imported into the US in 1995 alone. Green iguanas use communal nesting sites with females laying their 10-70 eggs in burrows. Approximately 50% of the eggs hatch with the babies then falling prey to numerous predators.
Black Iguana (Ctenosaura similis; Spanish: Iguana negra )
Sometimes called the Black Spiny-Tailed Iguana, this is the fast lizard on earth; the Guinness Book of World Records lists the running speed of this species at 21.7 miles per hour (35 km per hour). Males grow to 1.5 meters (4.9 ft) in length with females slightly shorter at 1 meter (3.3 ft). They have a crest of long spines which extend down the center of their back. Although coloration varies among individuals of the same population, adults usually have a whitish gray or tan ground color with a series of 4–12 well-defined dark dorsal bands that extend nearly to the ventral scales. These bands make them easy to distinguish from their cousins the Green Iguanas. Black Spiny-tailed Iguanas are excellent climbers, and prefer a rocky habitat with plenty of crevices to hide in, rocks to bask on, and nearby trees to climb. They are primarily herbivorous, eating flowers leaves, stems, and fruit, but they will opportunistically eat smaller animals, eggs, and arthropods. Juveniles tend to be insectivores becoming more herbivorous as they get older.
Giant Toad (Bufus marinus: Spanish: Bufo)
When we call this toad, “giant”, we mean GIANT, as in up to nine inches from snout to rear and tipping the scales at over two pounds for a typical adult female. A pet toad kept in
farther. This has had a comic-tragic side effect: about 10% of the leading edge toads have developed arthritis. But even hobbling, the toads are migrating an average of 25 miles a year. Around Playa Blanca which is part of their native range, they emerge at night in short fat hops near ponds and fountains, and emit a deep sound reminicent of a distant motorboat chugging. The effect is more humorous than menacing.
Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus; Spanish: Cocodrilo)
The local species of croc is commonly called the American crocodile, although the Southern United States is the northern limit of its range. The 10,000- 20,000 surviving members of the species spread south through Mexico into Central America and are also found in Cuba, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. This is one of the larger croc species; males typically reach 5 meters or more. Their snouts are pointed and adults are olive brown in color. In this part of Mexico, they live mainly in the mangrove lagoons where they feed on fish, but also take turtles, birds and whatever domestic animals they may come upon during their nocturnal feedings. In 2008, a nine foot specimen was wrangled alive out of a local well by a crocodile hunter and these crocs are numerous at the golf course in Ixtapa where they add extra hazard to the water hazards.
Crocodylus acutus build burrows that they use for hiding and dig their hole nests nearby. They lay eggs in the dry season following a period of heavy courtship that can last two months. A nest will contain 30-60 eggs and the hatchlings emerge after 90 days. Crocodile embryos do not have sex chromosomes, and unlike humans, sex is not determined genetically. Gender is determined by temperature, with males produced at around 31.6 degrees Celsius, and females produced at slightly lower and higher temperatures.
The land speed record for a crocodile is 17 km/m (11 mph) measured in a galloping Australian freshwater crocodile. Maximum speed varies from species to species. Certain types of crocodiles can indeed gallop, including Cuban crocodiles, New Guinea crocodiles, African dwarf crocodiles and even smaller Nile crocodiles. But for most species, their fastest gear is a kind of "belly run", where the body moves in a snake-like fashion, limbs splayed out to either side paddling away frantically while the tail whips to and fro.
The speed of crocodiles becomes relevant because of the consequences of being slower than a pursuing croc. They have extremely powerful jaws, capable of biting down with immense force; by far the strongest bite of any animal. The crocodile's bite force is more than 5,000 pounds per square inch, compared to just 335 psi for a rottweiler, 400 psi for a large great white shark or 800 to 1,000 psi for a hyena. Should the question ever suddenly arise, for example on a golf course near a water hazard: a human can outrun a crocodile; the best way is to run in a straight line rather than zigzagging back and forth. Fortunately authenticated attacks on humans from this species are very rare.
Pelagic Sea Snake or Yellow-Belly Sea Snake (Polaris plateaus; Spanish: Serpiente marina)
This ocean-going snake lives in tropical waters of the Pacific and uses its neurotoxic venom on its fish prey. The venom is ten times as toxic as that of an Egyptian cobra, but the yellow-belly delivers it in small doses and is not normally aggressive towards humans. There is no record of a human death from a bite. This is the most widespread of all sea snakes, and although it breathes air, it is capable of giving birth and living its entire life at sea. Evolution has provided them with nostrils with valves that keep water out while they swim and glands around the tongue allow them to expel salt. The color varies but is usually black above and yellow or brown below often with a series of black spots or bars on the yellow background. They are 2-3 feet long and sport a paddle tail which increases their swimming ability.
Pelagic sea snakes sometimes wash ashore on Playa Blanca after storms at sea. We have seen them in late winter. They are totally helpless on the beach but occasionally make aggressive postures. Given the potency of their venom, we give them wide berth.