Caribbean Islands: Cuba

This pine forest ecoregion represents Cuba’s only indigenous formation in which the arboreal story is dominated by a single species, the Caribbean pine tree (Pinus caribaea), with some deciduous trees, at higher altitudes in the west than in the east. The island ecoregion is a center of endemism housing a high number of bird and plant species. There is concern about the future of this ecoregion, as seventy percent of the original forest has been altered and fires are a major threat to the remaining forest.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    2,500 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
The Cuban pine forests are located in bipolar form in the island’s west and east. In the east they are abundant in the province of Pinar del Río surrounding the Sierra de los Organos particularly in the northern and southern plains and on the northern half of Isla de la Juventud. In the east, there are small patches around the Sierra del Cristal and Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa Mountains and in the Sierra Maestra. Annual precipitation in this ecoregion in the west is less than 1500 mm, with a dry season from November to April and a rainy season from May to October. Average annual temperature is 25ºC although somewhat less at higher elevations. August is the warmest month with an average temperature of 28ºC and January is the coldest month with an average of 21.5ºC (Davis et al. 1997). In the east, precipitation is higher and temperature generally lower. The existence of these forests is due to edaphic factors – the pine forests are found primarily in acid soils that have little water-retention capacity and are poor in essential elements. The principal soil types on which this ecoregion develops are quartziferous sands, pseudo-spodosols in the west and lateritic soils. Only pine trees, which have an ectomycorrhizal symbiosis with fungi, are capable of obtaining in this way a sufficient amount of food sources to achieve the size of trees (Bisse 1988).

Deciduous forests have a single tree story made up of primarily coniferous trees, and a dense xerophytic brushy story of mainly rubiaceae, euforbiaceae, mirtaceae and melastomataceae. A herbaceous story with a few epiphytes is also present, primarily from the genus Tillandsia, and lianas. In the east province of Pinar del Río, particularly on the plateau of Cajálbana and Arenas Blancas and Isla de la Juventud the predominant trees are pino macho (Pinus caribaea var. caribaea), which may reach heights of up to 30 m, and pino hembra (Pinus tropicalis) in addition to other species such as peralejo (Byrsonima crassifolia), palma barrigona (Colpothrinax wrightii), icaco (Chrysobalanus icaco var. hellocarpus), encino, also with ectomycorrhizae (Quercus cubana), Calophyllum pinetorum, Erythroxylum minutifolium, Phania cajalbanica, Vaccinium cubense, Hyperbaena columbica, Clusia rosea, Aristida spp. and Andropogon spp. Palms of the genus Copernicia and the yuraguano (Coccothrinax yuraguana) are particularly distinctive. There is a pine grove with a predominance of Pinus caribaea var. caribaea that develops over ferritic soils in the province of Pinar del Río with an undergrowth rich in endemic species (such as in the Cajálbana plateau) and a mixed pine grove, with Pinus caribaea var. caribaea and Pinus tropicalis that develops over oligotrophic quartzitic yellow soils and can be associated with Quercus oleoides ssp. sagraeana and is located in northern Pinar del Río province and Isla de la Juventud with its quartzitic white sands. In addition, on the southern side of the Cajálbana plateau a type of dry pine grove develops on rocky substrates, including pines, thorny scrublands and the endemic succulent Agave cajalbanenesis. In the pine forests of eastern Cuba the pino de la Maestra (Pinus maestrensis) predominates in the Sierra Maestra developing on landslide areas over granitic rock and the pino de Mayarí (Pinus cubensis) predominates in the Sierras del Norte in the east (Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa). Some accompanying species in these forests are the griñapo (Dracaena cubensis), Eupatorium spp., Myrtus spp., Baccharis spp., Jacaranda arborea and Eugenia pinetorum. These forests have many taxons that show a geographic vicariance with the pine trees in the western part of the country (Capote et al 1992). In the east, this type of forest reaches higher elevations and can be found at 800-1800 m ASL where there are also elements of the rainforest with an abundance of ferns. The pine forests that were deforested in the past have a more open canopy, the brushy story is dominated by Comocladia dentata, and grasses, lianas and epiphytes are poorly represented (Bisse 1988; Davis et al. 1997).

Biodiversity Features
These forests are home to numerous endemic species of plants and animals, including a number of specialist species found on limestone and serpentine soils (Olson et al. 1997). The pine forests of Pinar del Río in the west represent one of the three most distinctive centers of plant diversity and endemism in Cuba (Davis et al. 1997). The flora of the Cajálbana plateau and Preluda Mountains contain nearly 330 species of angiosperms, 3 species of gymnosperms and about 20 species of ferns and close relatives. Of the 75 genera present, 4 are strictly endemic to the region including Neomazaea, Sauvallella, Phyllacanthus and the liana Lescaillea and about 40 plant species, making this area the most concentrated area of endemisms per unit of surface area on the island. Numerous plants in the ecoregion are endangered to some extent according to the IUCN. The eastern forests are also within a center of plant diversity (Davis et al. 1997). The pine forests of western Cuba, compared to those in the east, show a relatively pronounced affinity with Florida and Yucatán, in addition to being rich in strict endemics and having local centers of endemism. Most notable is the Cajálbana Plateau and Arenas Blancas. The pine forests of eastern Cuba, in contrast, show a strong relationship to Hispaniola and like western Cuba are rich in strict endemics and are within centers of local endemism, particularly Moa–Toa, the heights of Pico Turquino, the Nipe plateau and the Sierra Cristal. Another phenomenon of biological interest in this ecoregion is vicariance, due to the polar distribution between the west and east of the country. Some genera also have a concentration of endemic species at one or the other end of the island (Areas de Interés 1997).

Insects and other arthropods, as well as land snails (guanajos of the genus Liguus and others), amphibians and reptiles have highly variable forms in this ecoregion, and some of them have marked local or regional distribution.

Birds are also highly diverse, most notable because they are endemic to the island including the olive-capped warbler (Dendroica pityophila), the critically endangered Cuban kite (Chondrohierax wilsonii), the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), which is gravely in danger of becoming extinct given how rare it is and that only a few individuals may survive, the Cuban trogon (Priotelus temnurus), rose-throated parrot (Amazona leucocephala leucocephala and A.l. palmarum) and the Cuban tody (Todus multicolor).

Among mammals, mention should be made of the almiquí or solenodonte (Solenodon cubanus), which is an archaic representative of Cuban fauna with current distribution confined to the island’s northeastern region near Sierra de Nipe, Sierra Cristal, Cuchillas del Toa and Baracoa with critically endangered status (E) (IUCN 1996). Another mammal of interest in this ecoregion is hutia or "jutía" (Capromys spp.), although it is more common in the wet forests of the island that are adjacent to pine forests. To be noted on the Isla de la Juventud are the marble hills in the north that are distinctive for their peculiar malacofauna and the presence of some endemic insects and arachnids (Areas de Interés 1997).

Current Status
According to Dinerstein et al. (1995), about 70% of the original habitat has been lost, and there are three or more blocks of intact habitat larger than 250 km2. The degree of fragmentation is relatively low, which means that half of the fragments are grouped to some extent, and the rate of conversion from original to disturbed habitat is low at about 0.5% lost each year. More than 100 km2 of intact habitat have some degree of protection (Dinerstein et al. 1995). According to Olson et al. (1996), there is sufficient biogeographic and taxonomic data on the ecoregion for implementing appropriate conservation strategies. The surface area of Cuba with this type of vegetation in 1997 was 2.2%, where as it was originally about 5% (Habitats terrestres Cuba 1997).

In the west, this ecoregion is represented in the Mil Cumbres Integrated Management Area (166 km2, IUCN category VIII), which includes the Cajálbana plateau and the Preluda mountain region (one of the places where this ecoregion is best preserved and that has a high number of endemic and endangered species) and in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve (100 km2, IUCN category IX). In the west, the ecoregion is represented primarily in the Loma de la Mensura National Park in the Sierra del Cristal (24 km2, IUCN category I), in the Pico Cristal National Park (150 km2, IUCN category II), in the Cuchillas del Toa Biosphere Reserve (1275 km2, IUCN category IX), and in the Integrated Management Area of the Great Sierra Maestra National Park (5270 km2, IUCN category VIII) (CEP 1996, UNEP-WCMC 1997).

Types and Severity of Threats
The most serious threat comes from fires that can spread rapidly through the resiniferous and xeromorphous vegetation. This could be minimized by planting certain latifoliate plants that would act as a barrier and by creating firebreaks in the forest (Davis et al. 1997). According to Dinerstein et al. (1995), the ecoregion is also seriously threatened by mining, citrus fruit plantations, grazing and forestry operations. Species and the vegetative structure of the ecoregion are also threatened due to the exploitation of various plants and populations of land snails, and to some extent by tourism (Olson et al. 1997; Davis et al. 1997). In the western sections, there is also the exploitation of populations of parrots that are endangered (Dinerstein et al. 1995).

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
The deliniations for the Cuban Pine Forest ecoregion were derived by limping various pine forest lements from the Herdandez (1989) atlas. The following pine elements were combined: forests with Pinus caribaea, with Pinus caribaea and Pinus tropicalis, with Pinus tropicalis and savanna vegetation, with Pinus cubensis, and with Pinus maestrensis. Comparisons were also made with other studies (Borhidi 1991).

<Áreas de Interés para la Biota terrestre y dulceacuícola 1997.

Berazaín, R. 1987. Notas sobre la vegetación y flora de la Sierra de Cajálbana y Sierra Preluda (Pinar del Río). Rev. Jardín Bot. Nac. 8: 39-68.

Borhindi, A. 1991. Phytogeography and Vegetation Ecology of Cuba. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest.

Bisse, J. 1988. Árboles de Cuba. Editorial Científico-Técnica, Ciudad de la Habana, Cuba.

Biodiversidad de la biota cubana 1997. Parte 2.

Borhidi, A., O. Muñoz, y E. Del Risco, 1993. Plant communities of Cuba. I. Fresh and salt water, swamp and coastal vegetation. Acta Botanica Hungarica 29: 337-376.

Campbell, D.G. and H.D. Hammond, 1989. Floristic inventory of tropical countries: the status of plant systematics, collections, and vegetation, plus recommendations for the future. New York Botanical Garden, New York.

Capote, R.P., R. Berazaín, A.Leiva, 1992. Flora and vegetation. Origen, evolution and diversity of cuban plant genetic resources. Vol. 1. Chapters 2:12-36.

Caribbean Environmental Programme (CEP) 1996. Status of Protected Area Systems in the Wider Caribbean Region. CEP Technical Report No. 36

Davis, S.D., V.H. Heywood, O. Herrera-MacBryde, J. Villa-Lobos, and A.C. Hamilton, editors. 1997. Centres of plant diversity. A guide and strategy for their conservation. Volume 3: The americas. World Wildlife Fund and IUCN.

Dinerstein, E. and 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.

Hábitats terrestres Cuba 1997. Cubierta Nacional de la vegetación natural.

Hernandez, J.R. 1989. Atlas de Cuba: mapa de la vegetación original de Cuba. Map 1:2,000,000. Instituto de Geografía de Cuba. Havana, Cuba.

Olson, D., E. Dinerstein, G. Castro, and E. Maravi, 1996. Identifying gaps in botanical infromation for biodiversity conservation in Latin America and the Caribbean. World Wildlife Fund, Washington, D.C., USA.

Olson, D. and E. Dinerstein, 1997. The global 200: A Representation Approach to Conserving the Earth’s Distinctive Ecoregions. World Wildlife Fund, Washington, D.C., USA.

UNEP-WCMC 1997. United Nations List of Protected Areas.

Prepared by: Ugo D'Ambrosio
Reviewed by: Rosemarie Gnam