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The wetlands of Cuba represent about 4% of the island’s territory and include habitats with unique and ideal vegetation for numerous organisms such as manatis, crocodiles, fish and turtles, many resident and particularly migrant birds and numerous endangered endemic species. The Zapata Swamp, the largest wetland in Cuba, is also the largest in the Caribbean, and the best preserved to date in the Antilles, although it is currently subject to numerous threats (Borhidi et al. 1993, de Jesús 2000).

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    2,200 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
Most of Cuba’s wetlands are located on floodplains and depressions subject to influence from the tides. The most important wetlands are Pesquero Lake and Alcatraz Grande Lagoon (in Pinar del Río), Lanier Swamp (on Isla de la Juventud), along the southern shore of the province of Havana (Gulf of Batabanó) extending toward the great Zapata Swamp (with a western swamp, an eastern swamp and Tesoro lagoon) on the Zapata peninsula (Matanzas), the Bay of Santa Clara (on the northern coast of Matanzas), de la Leche lagoon and its surroundings (on the northern shore of Ciego de Ávila), on the Gulf of Ana María (southern shore of Ciego de Ávila and Camagüey) and on the gulf of Guacanayabo (Birama inlet and Leonero lagoon), primarily in the province of Granma.

The largest wetland of all is the Zapata Swamp, followed by Birama, Lanier and Leche Lagoon. The Zapata Swamp lies between 22º01’ and 22º40’ N latitude and between 80º33’ and 82º09’ W longitude in southern Matanzas province. With an area of 450 Km2, a length of 175 Km from Punta Gorda to Jagua, a maximum width of 58 Km from southern Torriente to Cayo Miguel and an average width of 14-16 km, the territory consists of marine surfaces subject to the presence carbonated rocks with varying degrees of karsification with two well-defined blocks: the Western Swamp and the Eastern Swamp.

The first is lower and has cumulative shores [?] and the second is higher with a predominant abrasive shore [?]. The Zapata basin is among the largest and most complex drainage systems in the country and is the outlet area for the southern basin. In addition, it is a principal component providing a buffer against saline intrusion for the aquifer of the upper third of the basin. Climatically it is different from the rest of the country given the N-S gradient of the different climatic variables with extreme air temperature values and higher annual precipitation. Near the keys [?], the temperatures are more homogeneous, lower than the average for most of the country. The circulation of winds is the fundamental climatic mechanism regulating precipitation.

There are very wet days with the country’s highest average annual relative humidity occurring on the plains. Geomorphological structure and hydrogeological conditions affect the spatial distribution of soils and define their development. For these reasons, soils are not suitable for agricultural activity. Given the extended area they cover, peaty soils contain potential utilitarian values that need to be studied. There is remarkable consensus regarding the biochemical regulator role that could be significant in terms of the greenhouse effect (Áreas de Interés 1997).

Generally speaking, the spatial distribution of the vegetation in the Zapata Swamp reflects the presence and characteristics of water as an ecological factor. For this reason there is a wide range of vegetation types, including their successive phases, ranging from aquatic vegetation to xeromorphic vegetation typical of semi-desert areas (Habitat terrestres Cuba 1997). The principal types of vegetation around the Swamp (Bisse 1988, Habitats terrestres Cuba 1997, Áreas de Interés 1997) are:

i) Swamp grassland in marshy or swampy areas that may be under water permanently or periodically. Some characteristics species are Thypha dominguensis (macío), Eleocharris interstincta (cortadera), Claudium jamaicense, Paspalum giganteum, Cyperus spp., Isoetes palustris, Erianthus giganteus and Thalia geniculata.

ii) Aquatic vegetation formed by grasses that live in the water, rooted or floating, submerged or emergent. Examples of these species include Eichhornia crassipes (jacinto de agua), Pistis stratiotes (lechuga de agua), Nymphaea odorata (loto, flor de agua or ova), Utricularia spp., Salvinia auriculata, Potamogeton spp. and Brasenia scheberi.

iii) In locations like the Zapata Swamp and Lanier Swamp, mangrove swamps develop with the four mangrove species existing in Cuba, constituting an independent ecoregion. They develop on lacustrine-palustrine surfaces characterized by the presence of lacustrine materials, derived from differential accumulation as well as biogenic deposits coming from the remains of the mangrove swamp itself or other similar ecosystems like the swamp grasslands. It is common to find mixtures of these sediments with very diverse terrigenic materials transported by surface runoff from different sites.

iv) The typical swamp forest is a forest with an arboreal story 8-15 and up to 20 meters high with halo-hydatophytic deciduous arboreal elements and epiphytes, and possibly some mangrove elements. Notable are Tabebuia angustata (roble de yugo), Fraxinus cubensis (búfano), Annona glabra, Gueltarda combiri, Sabal parviflora, Bucida palustris, Hibiscus elatus, H. tiliaceus (majagua), Jatropha integerrima, Copernicia spp. Ilex cassine, Salix longipes and Chrysobalanus icaco.

v) Semideciduous (dry) forest and to a lesser extent vi) Evergreen forest and coastal scrubland.

Biodiversity Features
The great wealth of species and the diversity of ecosystems in this territory distinguish it from the rest of the country. There are about 900 plants with 13% (150 species) of endemisms on the island and some 212 species of vertebrates (17.9% endemic), not including a great variety of insects and other invertebrates. There are five local endemic plant species and a similar number of fauna species, and 16 species are in danger of becoming extinct. According to Davis et al. 1997, the wetlands of the province of Pinar del Río and those in Zapata are included within one of the three most important centers of plant diversity and endemism in Cuba (CPD Cb 3). The Zapata peninsula, together with the Birama swamp, is also one of the richest areas in bird species. Of the 20 endemic species existing in Cuba, 17 have been reported on the peninsula. Zapata is one of the most important refuges for 65 species of migratory birds, and is home to about half of the 346 known species of birds in the country.

There are three species of autochthonous birds in the Swamp, ferminia (Fermina cerverai), gallinuela de Santo Tomás (Cyanolignas cerverai) and Zapata Sparrow

(Torreornis inexpectata), with populations that seem to be recovering (de Jesús 2000). These are confined to the northern area of Santo Tomás, and are seriously at risk of becoming extinct. The forests of this ecoregion also have species that have disappeared at other points in Cuba such Cuban pygmy owl (Glaucidium siju), sijú cotunto (Gymnoglaux lawrenci), garzas reales, las cotorras (Aratinga eups and Amazona leucocephala, CITES appendix I), zunzuncito, Blue-headed pigeon (Starnoenas cyanocephala), Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) and Fernandina's Flicker (Colaptes fernandinae), or passeriforms like the chillina (Terestristis fernandinae), cabrero (Spindalis zena), chichinguaco (Quiscalus niger), mayito de ciénaga (Agelaius phoeniseus) and the tomeguines de la tierra (Tiaris olivacea) and pinar (Tiaris canora), which are also currently extremely vulnerable as a result of constant transformations occurring in their habitats (Wotzkow 1998).

Among mammals, the fishing bat (Noctilio leporinus) is one of the largest in the Americas. In addition, the above-mentioned manatee and the endemic Dwarf Hutia
of Zapata (Capromys nanus) are among the most important as well as the rarest mammals and are already on their way to becoming extinct (Áreas de Interés 1997, Wotzkow 1998). Another wetland that bears mentioning is Birama Swamp and Leonero Lagoon, located in southwestern Oriente, as they comprise of one Cuba’s most important areas for studies on bird migration thanks to the great abundance of migratory birds (primarily aquatic birds) that visit the area as well as very diverse and species-rich fauna. Common inhabitants of the area include Double-crested Cormorants (Phalocrocorax auritus), Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga), Glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) and White ibis (Eudocimus albus), Roseate spoonbill (Ajaia ajaja), flamincos (Phoenicopterus ruber), Common Black-Hawk (Buteogallus anthracinus), Fish hawk (Pandion haliaetus), Black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), shorebirds and seagulls of various species, anatidae, columbidae, estrigidae and passeriformes. Leonero is also a key point for the observation of migratory species like the Black skimmer (Rynchops niger), Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) and Peregrin (Falco peregrinus) that arrive in numbers hard to equal in other reserves of the archipelago (Wotzkow 1998).

Current Status
According to Dinerstein et al. 1995, this ecoregion’s conservation status is at risk and it is biologically distinctive at the regional level, making it a top regional priority. According to Olson et al. 1996, the biogeographic and taxonomic data on this ecoregion is sufficient for implementing appropriate conservation projects. In 1997 the percentage of Cuban territory with swamp forest was about 2%, swamp grassland was 1.5% and aquatic vegetation was 0.65% (Habitats terrestres Cuba 1997).

In Zapata, 625,354 hectares were declared a Biosphere Reserve (IUCN category IX) in 2000 and 452,000 hectares were declared a Ramsar Site in mid-2001. Cuba also has the Zapata Peninsula National Park, Zapata Swamp Natural Reserve (with 70,277 ha) and the La Laguna del Tesoro-Playa Larga-Playa Girón Natural Tourism Area with 3,230 hectares and a IUCN category of V. In Birama, there is the Delta del Cauto Wildlife Refuge (60,000 hectares and a IUCN category of IV) (CEP 1996, UNEP-WCMC 1997).

Types and Severity of Threats
According to Dinerstein et al. 1995, some serious threats for the region are drainage, agricultural expansion and the pollution associated with it, production of charcoal, grazing, extraction of peat and the invasion of exotic species. The development of aquiculture (780 ha) creates reproductive and nutritive stresses to the detriment of local freshwater ichthyofauna. Manjuarís as well as other fish species are highly sensitive to pesticide contamination and are very affected by the introduction of exotic species. The principal enemy is human poachers. Fish populations are declining considerably in locations where they used to be abundant. The felling of trees, whether on a mass-scale or not, has been used historically to obtain charcoal and constitutes one of the more significant direct threats to forest ecosystems and to biological diversity in general. Combined with this practice, selective cutting of the underbrush to obtain poles and timber-yielding species also seriously comprises the regeneration of the forest. Added to this is the forest fires that have a great effect on freshwater grasslands and compromise other forested areas of the territory (Wotzkow 1998). Continuous hunting of jutías by peasants to make up for government neglect of the supply, and the cutting of endemic palms (Saval parviflora) that are used by psitacidae, strigiformes, piciformes, trogonidae and other species of avifauna to build their nests have been increasing in recent years due to the increase in personnel from the Youth Labor Army who, in the absence of sanctions and with the complicity of forest rangers themselves, knock palms down every day in their search for young parrots and as a lucrative way to pass the time while in military service. There are entire palm groves cited in current scientific literature that no longer exist, and there is no doubt that within a few years, if this irrational destruction is not stopped, the Zapata Swamp will cease to be the important natural enclave that it was in the past (Wotzkow 1998).

Some years ago an international hunting reserve was created within the Birama swamp in which the list of hunted species was increasing. Despite this abuse, the largest problem is not that associated with this sui generis method of increasing the list of species that can be captured, but rather the problem of salinity in the aquatic ecosystem. Taking advantage of the condition of lowlands to the east, north and south of the swamp, large areas have been used to grow rice. As a result, a considerable amount of pesticides such as DDT, DDE, and other organochlorated products (prohibited in many countries due to the harmful effects on human health and ecosystems) are regularly sprayed by airplane and gravity carries them toward the surrounding lagoon and marshes through the vast network of existing canals. In conjunction with this, intense deforestation in the Sierra Maestra (as of 1992 it was 63 %) has caused the Cauto river, Cuba’s largest river, to become nothing more than a stream in the dry season. This impoverishment of the volume of water in the river decreases the contribution of water to the swamp where salinization has begun to take on a very rapid pace. Thus, there has been a considerable decline in the nutrients on which many microorganisms, crustaceans, fish and birds depend, and in some places the landscape has become truly desolate. Added to all the preceding is the fact that a large number of fishing cooperatives operate in the Birama swamp. The unlimited capture of crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus), jicoteas (Pseudemys decussata), and endemic fish like the biajaca (Cichlasoma tethracantha) is being carried out there in a completely irrational way. These operations are for local consumption and commercial export, but they are carried out in clear violation of provisions of the CITES treaty to which Cuba is a signatory (Wotzkow 1998).

The potential effect of a higher sea level due to global warming does not fail to affect the Zapata region, one of the country’s most endangered areas. According to some estimates, by the year 2030 the potential floodable area of the coastline will reach 70% and would involve 1-2 Km of the coast and possibly be more severe toward the Occidental Swamp (up to 4 Km) (Habitats terrestres Cuba 1997). Extreme fragility and the degree of threat currently affecting the territory of the Zapata Swamp not only causes internal changes but also encompasses its borders, affecting environmental quality. Thus, a comprehensive protection and management category is to be recommended (Wotzkow 1998).

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
The delineation’s for the lines of these Cuban Wetlands were derived from Hernandez (1989) by lumping the following potential vegetation zones: typical marsh, low marsh, herbaceous marsh, and aquatic vegetation. Comparisons were also made with other studies (Borhidi 1991). This ecoregion is classified as part of an endemic bird area (Stattersfield et al 1998).

ACC-ICGC 1993. Estudio Geográfico Integral. Ciénaga de Zapata. Publicaciones del Servicio de Información y Traducciones, La Habana, Cuba.

Áreas de Interés para la Biota terrestre y dulceacuícola 1997.

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

Biodiversidad de la biota cubana 1997. Parte 2.

Borhidi, A. 1991. Phytogeography and vegetation ecology of Cuba. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest.

Borhidi, A., Muñoz, O y Del Risco, E. 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, editors. 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.

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, editor, 1997. Centres of Plant Diversity. A guide and strategy for their conservation. Volume 3: The americas. World Wildlife Fund and IUCN.

De Jesús, J. 2000. Península de Zapata: mejor ecosistema del Caribe.

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.

Durgan, P. 1993. Wetlands in danger: A world conservation atlas. IUCN, Oxford University Press, NY.

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

Hernández, J.R. 1989. Atlas de Cuba: mapa de la vegetación original de Cuba. Mapa a una escala de 1:2.000.000. Instituto de Geografía de Cuba, Habana.

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.

Stattersfield, A.J., M.J. Crosby, A.J. Long, and D.C. Wege. 1998. Endemic bird areas of the world: priorities for conservation. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK.

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

Wotzkow, C. 1998. Cuba:SOS por su naturaleza. Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana 8/9: 16-23.

Prepared by: Ugo D'Ambrosio
Reviewed by: In process