Linking Central and South America, Panama is a transcontinental country located on a narrow meandering strip of land that separates the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Panama encompasses the isthmus and more than 1,600 islands off its coasts and is the only place in the world where you can see the sunrise on the Pacific and set on the Atlantic, but are there dangerous animals in Panama?
The tropical nation is renowned for the Panama Canal, a man-made waterway that cuts through its midsection and provides a vital trade route, but Panama is also known for its impressive biodiversity which is three times greater than that of the United States. Out of Panama’s 1,000 indigenous birds, 200 species of amphibians, and nearly 300 different species of mammals, you’ll find big cats, poisonous serpents, and winged beasts among its most dangerous.
Find out all about Panama’s most deadly residents and some of its more unsuspecting critters in our guide. Let’s get into it.
One of the five big cats that prowl through Panama’s jungle, the jaguar is the largest cat species in the Americas and the third largest in the world—second only to tigers and lions. Jaguars can reach body lengths of between 1.6 and 2.5 m and weigh up to 158 kg, but they’re most recognizable for their patterned coat which has made them a prized catch in the fur trade.
Jaguars are the only living member of the Panthera genus that are native to the Americas. Other Panthera cats include tigers, lions, and leopards. Jaguars have brownish-yellow fur with dark rosettes which act as a perfect camouflage when hunting prey. They’re often confused with leopards thanks to their coats, but can be distinguished by the additional marks in the center of their dark rosettes. Jaguars also have stockier bodies, shorter limbs, and larger paws than leopards.
In Panama, jaguars can be found in the dense jungle of national parks like La Amistad, Darien, and Cerra Hoya. Fairly large populations of jaguars will persist in these protected areas, but it’s unlikely that you’ll find them anywhere else in the wild in Panama.
Jaguars rarely attack humans and since jaguars only really live in protected areas in Panama, incidents are even less common. But when they do attack, they often prove fatal. Jaguars might not be typically aggressive, but they’re formidable hunters and possess explosive force. Their victims face little chance against their brute strength. Jaguars are stalk-and-pounce animals and actually have the strongest bite of any cat on the planet at 1,350 BSI—that beats lions and tigers by a long shot.
You wouldn’t want to get anywhere near these creatures without guidance, and you certainly wouldn’t want to startle or aggravate them.
Ocelots are medium-sized spotted wild cats that are abundant in Panama. They live at the top of the food pyramid and play an important role as hunters in controlling the populations of other species in Panama’s forests. Ocelots are often seen under the leafy canopies in La Amistad and Darien National Parks, but they can adapt to human habitats and sometimes dwell in close proximity to villages and settlements. Ocelots aren’t unique to the Americas and can be found as far north as Texas.
Ocelots might be one of Panama’s “big cats” but they’re actually among the smallest species of wild feline found in the country. They’re compact, muscular, and athletic. Ocelots reach lengths of around 70-100 cm, not including their tails, which usually measure around 40 cm, and they weigh between 7 and 15 kg on average.
The cat has gray to golden brown fur with brown spots and patches that are bordered in black on its side. They look similar to the margay, which can also be found in Panama, but the spots come in many patterns unlike the uniformity of a margay’s coat. These include rosettes, slashes, speckles, and bars.
Ocelots aren’t immediately aggressive and don’t have the inclination to kill a human, some people even keep them as pets. However, they are strong and have the potential to do serious damage in a short space of time. They also know to go for sensitive areas when attacking, like the armpits, neck, throat, and groin.
Margays are also small wild cats that are native to Central and South America. Solitary and nocturnal, they’re stealthy hunters and live mostly in primary evergreen and deciduous forests. These cats were hunted illegally for their coat until the 1990s and sadly, their numbers saw a huge drop all over the continent. However, like all of Panama’s big cats, they’re now strictly protected by law and lots of conservation efforts have gone into the restoration of their populations.
Margays are spotted and golden brown with white bellies, chests, throats, and chins. Their spots often have solid black or pale centers and their ears have white eye spots on their backs. Their tails are also either ringed or spotted.
Margays reach lengths of around 50-80 cm and weigh between 3 and 9 kg. They’re generally smaller and less robust than Ocelots and mainly forage for food in trees, showing adaptations for arboreal living that Ocelots don’t display.
Unfortunately, margays can’t be called common in Central America and exist at a population density of just 1 to 5 every 100 square kilometers. Their small size, fur coat, and nocturnal habits make them experts at camouflage so they’re very hard to spot in the wild. They live in the national parks in Panama and stick to the dense forests.
They’re considered dangerous to humans due to their unpredictable nature and sharp claws. However, humans pose more of a danger to margays than they do to us since deforestation continues to threaten their populations.
One of the “Big Three” in the shark world, the warm coastal waters off Panama provide the perfect habitat for bull sharks to thrive. Perhaps more terrifying though is that there are some tropical rivers in Panama where bull sharks also dwell, such as Río Bayano in eastern Panama.
Bull sharks are formidable hunters and have no natural predators. Male and female bull sharks vary quite a bit in size, with males reaching lengths of seven feet (2.1 m) and females growing up to 11 feet (3.4 m). They weigh between 90 and 225 kg and are extremely aggressive by nature. They have a bite force of 1,300 lbs or 6,000 newtons.
Living in both fresh and salty water, bull sharks eat just as much garbage as they do fish, but this also means they’ll attack just about anything that moves. Bull sharks have been responsible for 117 attacks on humans, 25 of which have proven fatal and one of which took place in the Gulf of Mexico involving a 14-year-old girl.
Some experts actually consider bull sharks to be more dangerous than great whites since they spend more time in shallow waters where humans tend to swim, increasing the likelihood of attacks. They’re responsible for the most nearshore attacks of any shark, and although they haven’t caused any human fatalities in Panama’s waters, you should only swim in daylight hours with good visibility, stay away from people fishing with bait in the water and remove jewelry before swimming to prevent unwanted attention.
The fer-de-lance snake, officially Bothrops Asper, is a species of extremely venomous pit viper that lives at varying elevations across Central and South America from the Caribbean beaches of Mexico and Trinidad to 2,600 meters high in the Colombian and Ecuadorian Andes.
These snakes are not afraid of human dwellings and can be found in a range of habitats including cultivated lands and tropical rainforests. They get their nickname, meaning “lance head”, from their broad triangular snouts and are also known locally as “Equis” meaning “X” in Spanish. The snakes are gray or brown and marked by a series of black-edge diamonds that are usually bordered by a lighter color.
The fer-de-lance can reach up to two meters in length and has been known to be very aggressive. In fact, it is the most dangerous snake in all of Central and South America and is responsible for more human deaths than any other American reptile. The snake injects around 105 mg of venom in a single bite, while the fatal dose for a human is just 50 mg.
You can survive an encounter with a fur-de-lance, but you should be very careful not to disturb or aggravate the snake if you come across one. If you do get bitten, you should keep the affected limb below heart level, clean the wound, and get to a hospital as soon as possible.
There is an antivenom available in Panama and if you don’t receive it, the death rate is around 7 to 9 percent. Fer-de-lance snakes bite around 30 people a year in the Americas, and even if you don’t die, the bite can cause severe limb necrosis which might result in you needing amputation.
They might not be the human-hunting beasts that they’re made out to be in the movies, but vampire bats are every bit as scary as they sound. Gliding stealthily through Panama’s night skies, the vampire bat shares some likenesses with the legendary monster that they’re named after since they feed entirely on the blood of other animals. Bats are the only mammal that can fly, and since blood is their only food source, they make a scary predator.
Still, bats pose no immediate physical danger to humans. They feed on livestock due to their abundance, and sometimes on birds and other wild mammals, but they have no taste for human blood. Vampire bats are small with wingspans of 30 to 40 cm, weighing less than 50 grams. However, they are still one of Panama’s deadliest animals since they are one of the number one spreaders of disease.
One of these diseases is rabies which is responsible for killing thousands of livestock every year in Panama, but it can also spread to farmers and field workers. Since so many bats fly around at night too, they can fly into humans and accidentally scratch or even bite them.
Any infectious material, like saliva, can spread disease quickly if it gets into contact with your eyes, mouth, or a wound. Be sure to wash any affected areas with soap and water if you come into contact with a bat in Panama and seek medical attention if you show any signs of infection.
Bullet ants are often described as wingless wasps with their reddish-black bodies, large mandibles, and visible stingers. They might be small, but they shouldn’t be underestimated and a bite from one of these critters could actually put you in much more pain than a hornet sting would.
Bullet ants are distributed throughout the tropical rainforests of Central and South America, including Panama’s jungles. Like bees, each bullet ant colony has a queen that is larger than her workers. Colonies burrow nests with different entrances on the ground between tree buttresses while workers guard the nest.
Worker ants are predator-scavengers with voracious appetites, but they don’t seek out human prey. Rather, they’re likely to bite in defense or if their nest is disturbed. They might also fall from tree branches and will often bite if they land on a human.
A bullet ant possesses one of the most painful insect bites and stings you can encounter. That’s right, the bullet ant both bites and stings. After a bullet ant has secured its mandibles into its victim’s flesh, it will turn its abdomen and sting the site at the same time with its 3 mm stinger. While its venom won’t cause sickness or death, it does contain a neurotoxin, and the pain measures off the charts of Schmidt’s sting index at 4.0+.
Described as “pure, intense, brilliant pain”, the sting has been likened to walking over flaming hot charcoals with a three-inch nail in your heel. The bullet ant actually gets its name from some victims having compared the pain to that of being shot.
You could be in agony for up to eight hours after one of these stings and it will likely leave small blisters on the skin. If these burst, there’s always the worry of infection so be sure to keep your wounds clean and seek medical attention. However, amazingly, there are little to no lasting effects of a bullet ant sting and there have been no scientifically documented deaths as a result.
Why does Panama have so much biodiversity?
Panama is one of the most biodiverse nations in the Americas with three times the variety of the US. A big reason for this is that when the country rose up through volcanic activity over three million years ago, it created a bridge between North and South America and allowed for land and marine life to migrate from north to south and vice versa in ways they had never before. This created an amalgamation of wildlife that evolved to thrive in Panama’s tropical lands.
Does Panama have poisonous snakes?
Panama is home to several species of poisonous snakes including the Fer-de-lance pit viper which is one of the most venomous reptiles in Central and South America. Antivenom is widely available but one bite from the Fur-de-lance contains more than twice the amount of venom needed to kill a human. Panama is also home to coral snakes and side-striped palm-pit vipers, both of which are poisonous.
Are there crocodiles in Panama?
Although mellow-tempered when it comes to crocodiles, Panama’s tropical climate has allowed American crocodiles to thrive. The Panama Canal provides many of the ecosystems where American crocodiles dwell including the brackish waters of river estuaries, mangrove swamps, and coastal lagoons and they can be spotted throughout the canal.