Central America: Central Belize

The pine forests of Belize on Central America’s northwestern Caribbean coast represent various relatively preserved fragments of vegetation as well as a considerable abundance of fauna. They represent one of the few examples of lowland and premontane pine forests in the Neotropics, where the predominant tree species is Pinus caribaea var. hondurensis (pine, ocote), which requires periodic low intensity burns for its regeneration (Perry 1991). The vegetation is adapted to the xeric, acidic and nutrient-poor conditions that occur primarily in the dry season (Horwich & Lyon 1990). The coastal areas of the ecoregion, with vegetation that is less dense, are somewhat threatened due to selective forestry operations and the expansion of citrus fruit and banana plantations, although the situation is not urgent (Dinerstein et al. 1995, McCarthy & Salas 1998).

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    1,100 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
This small ecoregion of less than 3,000 km2 is found almost entirely in Belize and is included in the zone of wet subtropical forests (more than 2,000 mm of average annual precipitation and no frosts). There are two other patches of this ecoregion in isolated locations in Mexico (southern Quintana Roo) and Guatemala (northeast), which do not appear on the map of Central American ecoregions (Perry 1991). In Belize there is a relatively large premontane area (about 700 m above sea level), more or less in the center of the country (western strip of Mountain Pine in the Maya mountains), with closed or semi-closed pine forests, and numerous more irregular and smaller fragments that correspond to pine savanna with varying degrees of forest cover. Of these latter, the forests that are most fragmented, smallest and have the least forest cover are found in areas on the southern coast, while on the country’s southern plains the coverage is somewhat greater and the areas more continuous. In the forest of the Maya Mountains, vegetation reaches higher altitudes, the topography is more rugged and crossed by various rivers, and nighttime temperatures are lower. The pine trees are larger and numerous, and the pine forest intersects other formations of interest such as rainforest, cohune palm (corozal), cactus associations, and others (International Expeditions, 1992). It is estimated that 11% of Belize is covered by natural pine vegetation. Only 2% corresponds to totally closed forests, 3% to semi-closed forests, and the remaining 6% to pine savannas that occupy coastal areas and contain isolated pine trees and/or groups of pine trees separated by extensive pastures (Harcourt & Sayer 1996). In addition to human activity, edaphic factors are a determining factor in this distribution, as the forests on the northern plain and southern coast are on sandy soils or sandy-clayey soils and usually have less drainage than the more fertile soils in the center of the country (Perry 1991).

In addition to the Caribbean pine (Pinus caribaea var. hondurensis) that is characteristic of this region, there are Crescentia cujete, some species of oak (Quercus spp.), Curatella americana, Byrsonima crassifolia, and the palms Acoelorraphe and Paurotis wrightii. The canopy of these pine forests is usually never closed. There are abundant low shrubs and savanna areas with grasses, reeds and numerous common wildflower species. Due to the burning of unprotected areas to foster cattle raising or attract deer, tree density depends to a great extent on the frequency and severity of fires. It should be noted that fires in mature forests could be beneficial to the trees (Horwich 1990, Perry 1991). At elevations of 650-700 m., the forests become premontane in terms of vegetation. Representative species are Pinus oocarpa (which crosses with P. caribaea where their distributions overlap, although belonging to subsections of different genera), Podocarpus guatemalensis and Quercus spp., and in still wetter areas there is a predominance of Pinus patula together with the palm Euterpe macrospadix and the arboreal ferns Alsophila myosuroides and Hemitelia multiflora (Harsthorn et al., 1984, Harcourt & Sayer 1996).

Biodiversity Features
Due to this ecoregion’s geographic location, the presence of elements of the flora and fauna of both North and South America is to be noted. In terms of flora, there are few endemisms in the region (Hartshorn et al. 1984) although there are some interesting adaptations. Pinus caribaea, for example, depends on periodic low-intensity burns for its regeneration. Adult trees are protected from the flames and heat thanks to their thick and corky trunks. The natural hybridization among the various species of pine in their overlapping zones, and the hybrid vigor they confer, show the complexity of relations among the different groups and require more detailed study (Perry 1991).

On the coasts, interior lakes and rivers of Belize and by extension in this ecoregion there are two species of threatened crocodiles, Crocodylus acutus and C. moreletii, while the river turtles Dermatemys mawii are relatively common.

There are two endangered bird species in Belize, according to Collar et al. (1992). One of them, the yellow-headed parrot (Amazona oratrix) lives in this ecoregion, although it is being adversely affected by destruction of the habitat. Of particular interest is the presence of Central America’s highest procreative colony of jabiru (Jabiru mycteria), a large migratory bird, particularly in the Crooked Tree sanctuary, on the country’s northern plains.

Also to be noted is the use of this habitat by the Mexican black howler (Alouatta pigra), which can be considered the most endangered howler monkey of the genus, and the Central American spider monkey (Atteles geoffroyi). Both species experienced a decline due to the epidemic yellow fever that swept the country in the 1950s (Horwich 1990). The five feline species that exist in Belize: jaguar (Panthera onca), puma (F. concolor), ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), margay (Leopardus wiedii) and yaguarundí (Herpailurus yagouaroundi) are in appendix I of CITES, as well as the Central American tapir (Tapirus bairdii) can been seen with relative frequency. Belize has the highest density of felines in Central America (Carrillo et al. 1994). The tapir is abundant around rivers. The white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) in appendix II of CITES, is also distributed in the region.

Although most of the amphibians and reptiles are found in humid premontane and lowland forests, the only endemic frog in this ecoregion, Rana juliani, is restricted to the Mountain Pine Ridge in the Maya Mountains (Belize Biodiversity Information 1999).

Current Status
According to Dinerstein et al. (1995), this ecoregion has a level II biodiversity priority (high priority on the regional level). This ecoregion is felt to have a relatively stable conservation status, and corresponds to one of the best represented ecoregions in the region (McCarthy & Salas 1998). Its biological singularity is important at the bioregional level. There are no concrete figures for determining the ecoregion’s conservation status because sufficient high-quality data are not available (Dinerstein et al. 1995). More than 70% of the closed pine forests are found in forest reserves while only 25% of the pine savanna areas are found in protected areas. The regions around the central fragment are also protected. Sustainable lumber operations are being carried out in the reserve in the Mountain Pine strip; if this continues as at present it could ensure a long-term domestic supply of soft wood (Harcourt & Sayer 1996). The protected areas are relatively large compared to the area occupied by the ecoregion, and the protection system is one of the best in the region.

Types and Severity of Threats
Threats associated with reduced biodiversity are not as significant as in other parts of the world, due to the protection existing in the country. However, we should note the increased number of refugees accustomed to consuming wildlife species and increased agriculture, although maximum efforts have been made to keep agriculture confined only to those lands that are most suited to this purpose (Carrillo &Vaughan 1994). An IUCN study showed that deforestation due to this cause is relatively small (Harcourt & Sayer 1996).

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
The delineation for this ecoregion were derived from Hampshire (1988) to encompass the unique pine forests which occur with Belize’s montane regions. This area is host to a number of endemic species, and is distinct from all surrounding ecoregions by unique Pinus species associations and processes.

Belize Biodiversity Information System. 1999. Retrieved (2001) from http://fwie.fw.vt.edu/wcs/020400.HTM

Carrillo, E., and C. Vaughan, editors. 1994. La vida silvestre de mesoamérica: Diagnóstico y estrategia para su conservación. Editorial Universidad Nacional, Heredia, Costa Rica.

Dinerstein, E., D.M. Olson, et al. 1995. A Conservation Assessment of the Terrestrial Ecoregions of Latin America and the Caribbean. The World Bank in association with WWF, Washington, D.C.

Hampshire, R. J. 1988. Belize. Pages 288-289 in D.G. Campbell, and H.D. Hammond, editors. Floristic inventory of tropical countries. New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York, USA.

Harcourt, C., and J. Sayer, editors. 1996. The conservation atlas of tropical forests: The Americas. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Horwich, R.H., and J. Lyon. 1990. A belizean rain forest. The community baboon sanctuary. Orang-utan Press. Gays Mills, WI, USA.

International Expeditions, Inc. 1992. Belize natural history and archaeology. International Expeditions, Inc., Helena, Alabama.

Li, X., T. Boucher, R. Sayre, J. Courrau, y M. Connor. 1999. Evaluación de conservación d ela vegetación y la ecorregiones de Centroamérica. Enfoque de análisis de brechas.

Mains, D. Adventures in Central America. Sierra Club Travel Guide.

McCarthy, R., and A. Salas. 1998. Las áreas protegidas de Centroamérica. Área de conservación de bosques y áreas protegidas. UICN/ORMA.

Perry, J. 1991. The pines of México and Central America. Timber Press, Portland, OR.

Reid, F. A. 1997. A field guide to the mammals of Central America and Southeast Mexico. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

Wege, D.C. & A. J. Long. 1995. Key areas for threatened birds in the Neotropics. Birdlife international, Smithsonian, Washington, DC.

Wood, S. D., Leberman, R. C. and D. Weyer. 1986. Checklist of the birds of Belize. Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Special Publication No. 12, Pittsburgh, PA.

World Bank. 1995. Critical Natural Habitats in Latin America and the Caribbean.

WWF, Museo Nacional de Costa Rica. 1999. Identificación de vacíos de información botánica en Centroamérica. Taller de análisis de información. San José, CR.

Prepared by: Sandra Andraka, Claudia Locklin, and Jan Schipper
Reviewed by: In process