The wet forests of Cuba retain exceptionally distinctive insular flora and fauna, with many species, genera and families unique to its forests that have retained various relict taxons. The island’s long-standing isolation has made it possible for these relict taxons to continue and many unique groups have also diversified. Many of the old lines that survive in these forests are extinct on the nearby continents. The rich flora and diverse fauna should be pointed out, particularly land snails. At present, these forests are seriously reduced. Expansion in the production of cacao, coffee and tobacco as well as mining and other human activities represent a serious threat in some areas.
Location and General Description
Originally, this ecoregion was distributed in multiple patches of different sizes along the ranges and highlands of the island of Cuba (located between 19º50’N to 23º20’N and 74ºW to 85ºW), representing approximately one-fifth (20%) of the original insular vegetation, from 200 meters (m) above sea level (m.a.s.l.) to 1960 masl at Pico Turquino, the highest point on the island. In the west, there are numerous patches along the Guaniguanico range (Sierra de los Órganos and Sierra del Rosario as far as Escaleras de Jaruco) next to pine forests and dry forests; a larger patch and a smaller one in the Bejucal-Madruga-Coliseo highlands and various small patches in the northern half of Isla de la Juventud (Sierra de la Cañada). In the island’s central region there was a larger patch and a smaller patch in the Sierra de Trinidad-Guamuhaya (Escambray) and also in the Sierra de Jatibonito; there were small banks in the Fragoso, Romano and Sabinal keys (on the northern archipelago Jardines del Rey or de Sabana); a patch in the Sierra de Cubitas and another in the Sierra de Najasa. Finally, in the eastern region, a large patch in Sierra Maestra; a patch in Sierra de la Gran Piedra; another large patch in Sierra del Cristal-Montañas de Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa, where it is mixed with small patches of pine forests, and more or less continuously along the northeast coast of the island (from Punta de Prácticos to Punta de Mulas). The largest of these are found in the east, while they decrease going westward. The ecoregion naturally presented a discontinuous distribution associated with mountainous areas. This ecoregion is established under conditions of continuous moisture with precipitation above 2,000 millimeters (mm) per year and no dry season. Depending on altitude, it is subdivided into lowland forest or true rain forest (at altitudes below 400 masl), submontane forest (400-800 masl), and montane forest (800-1900 masl). Geologically, these forests are in land regions of the island that have been emerged for the longest time and thus where there is greater evolutionary history. Most of Cuba’s wet forests are located over quartziferous rock, limestone, and serpentinites.
In terms of vegetation and depending on water, edaphic, and altitudinal conditions we can distinguish: i) true rain forests, ii) mountain rainforests, iii) mountain rainforests in lateritic soils and iv) cloud forests.
i) True rain forests were the most vigorous type of wet forest, reaching altitudes of up to 40 meters (m) and consisting of three tree stories. These were found only in the valleys of rivers that flow toward the northeastern coast, between Mayarí and Baracoa, at heights between 200 and 400 m and on red mountainous soils over siliceous or basic igneous rock. The first story includes the plants "aguacatillo" (Alchornea latifolia), crabwood or "najesí" (Carapa guianensis), and "acana" (Manilkara albescens); the second story has ebony (Diospyros caribaea), Ocotea floribunda, Oxandra laurifolia, Talauma minor, Terminalia spp., and Ficus spp.; and the third story has numerous species of arborescent ferns, Mirtaceae and Melastomataceae. Epiphytic vegetation is abundant and very varied, with several species exclusive to this formation, such as the ferns Hymenodium crinitum and Oleandra articulata and the angiosperms Columnea tincta and Psychotria pendula. Typical palms are Calyptrogyne clementis, Euterpe globosa and Bactris cubensis. We also find Heliconia spp. and a great variety of mosses and epiphyllic hepatics. The area of this type of vegetation is currently and almost totally occupied by cacao and coffee crops.
ii) Mountain rain forests are found in the mountains of Cuba (Sierra Maestra and Sierra de Imías in the east and Sierra del Escambray in the central zone) at elevations above 600 m (300-400 m in northwest Oriente). They reach heights up to 30 m and consist of two tree stories and one shrub story. In the first story we find "aguacatillo" (Alchornea latifolia), yellow olivier (Buchenavia capitata), "purío prieto" (Guatteria blainii), Licaria jamaicensis, Tabebuia hypoleuca, and Zanthoxylon elephantiasis, et al. In the second story, we can mention "cuaba de la maestra" (Amyris lineata), myrtle laurelcherry or "cuajaní" (Prunus myrtifolia), Ditta myricoides, Laplacea spp., Oxandra laurifolia, Ocotea spp., Rapanea ferruginea, and Podocarpus spp. Arborescent ferns, Melastomataceae, Mirtaceae, and Rubiaceae flourish in the brush story. Epiphilia is very common.
iii) A different variety of mountain rain forest over ultisols in the northeast zone of Oriente (Sierra de Nipe and Cristal, Cuchillas de Moa, Toa, and Baracoa) reaches 20 m in height and has two stories with trees such as Calophyllum utile, Guatteria cubensis, Magnolia cristalensis, Tabebuia dubia, and Zanthoxylum cubense and the palm Bactris cubensis.
iv) Cloud forests at elevations above 1,000 m in the Sierra de Escambray and the mountains of Oriente, particularly in the Sierra Maestra, consist of two arboreal stories and reach a height of 20 m. The first story is dominated by "barril" (Cyrilla antillana), "marañon de la Maestra" (Magnolia cubensis), Persea anomala, and Laplacea angustifolia. The second story consists of Cleyera nimanimae, Freziera grisebachii, Haenianthus salicifolius, Lyconia spp., Torralbasia cuneata, and Juniperus saxicola. The great abundance of epiphytes, mosses, and ferns, land orchids and epiphytic lycopodiaceae is characteristic. There is a variety of cloud forest, the low forest, that is established over serpentinic soils.
The wet forests of western Cuba have a relatively pronounced similarity to Florida and the Yucatán, in addition to being rich in strict endemisms and having centers of local endemisms, notably the hills of the Sierra de los Órganos, the Cajálbana plateau, and the Sierra del Rosario. Central Cuba is characterized by its close relations to northern South America and its relative poverty in strict endemism and centers of local endemism., although in this regard we should keep in mind the massif of Guamuhaya, which has some endemic species, in particular the genus Copernicia of the palm family whose center of evolution is in its savannas. Eastern Cuba shows strong plant relations with Hispaniola and like western Cuba Occidental is rich in strict endemisms and in centers of local endemism, particularly Moa-Toa, followed by the Alturas del Pico Turquino, the Nipe plateau, and the Sierra Cristal. In particular, the Sierra Maestra and the Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa mountain group represent the sites with the greatest diversity of flora and fauna in the Caribbean, with a high degree of endemism, and along with the west of the island of Hispaniola represents the most prominent center of speciation in the Antilles. This ecoregion represents an important refuge for flora and fauna because it lies in mountainous areas subject to less human intervention, and is included in the three most important large centers of plant diversity and endemisms (CDP or CPD) in Cuba, in order of importance according to the representation of these forests: in the eastern mountains with exceptional wealth in the Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa massif (CPD Cb1), in the Trinidad-Sierra mountains of Escambray (CPD Cb2), and in Pinar del Río (CPD Cb3).
In this ecoregion, there are numerous endemic species (close to 30) and it is the center of distribution for many of the neotropical genera of the West Indies. The number of endemisms is greater in the eastern region than in the western and central regions, in that order. There is high fauna diversity in land pulmonates (snails), particularly in the west.
Birds, insectsm and arachnids also stand out for their high diversity and level of endemism in this ecoregion. Birds that can be mentioned are the fairy hummingbird, "zunzuncito" or "pájaro mosca" (Mellisuga helenae), known as the smallest bird in the world, the Cuban trogan or "tocororo" (Priotelus temnurus), the ivory-billed woodpecker or "carpintero real" (Campephilus principalis), the Cuban solitaire (Myadestes elizabeth), the hook-billed kite (Chondrohierax wilsonii), the red-legged honey-creeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus), the Cuban parakeet (Aratinga euops), the stigian owl or "siguapa" (Asio stygius), and the Gundlach’s hawk (Accipiter gundlachi).
As for reptiles, in the Moa-Sagua-Baracoa region there are 58 species, 14 of which are strict endemisms; in the Sierra Maestra there are 55 species, 9 of which are strict endemisms. In Guamuhaya, 4 of 41 species are strict endemisms and in the Guaniguanico region, 5 of 38 species are strict endemisms.
Notable mammals include the Cuban solenodon or "almiquí" (Solenodon cubanus), an archaic representative of Cuban fauna now confined to the northeastern part of the island (Sierra de Nipe, Sierra Cristal, Cuchillas del Toa, and Baracoa), with critically endangered status (E). Also of great interest are the hutias, like those of Fragoso Key, Mesocapromys auritus and Capromys pilorides. Another interesting biological phenomenon in this ecoregion is vicariance, due to the polar distribution between the west and east of the country. There are also some genera that show a concentration of endemic species on one end or the other of the island as happens with Eriocaulon, Eleocharis, Kalmiella, etc. that are typical of the western end while Cyrilla, Vaccinium, Spathelia, etc. concentrate their greater endemism at the eastern end.
According to Dinerstein et al., this ecoregion has lost about 70% of its original habitat, although it has one intact habitat block larger than 500 kilometers squared (km2) and the degree of fragmentation is medium-low. There is also a rate of habitat conversion from original to disturbed of about 1% per year (during 1990-1995), and it has one protected area larger than 500 km2 within the ecoregion. According to Olson et al., the existing biogeographic information on this ecoregion is relatively good although not sufficient, while the taxonomic data shows various gaps sufficient to hamper conservation strategies, particularly in the eastern zone. These forests have gone from occupying approximately 20% of the island’s vegetation to less than 2%.
The conservation status of these forests is greater in the east and less in the west, particularly at high altitudes and where the land is rugged. In the west, this ecoregion is represented to a greater or lesser degree in the Mil Cumbres Integrated Management Area (166 km2, (IUCN category VIII) and in the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve (100 km2, IUCN category IX). In the central region, we find these forests in the Escambray Integrated Management Area (1,870 km2, IUCN category VIII), in the Topes de Collantes Protected Natural Landscape (122 km2, IUCN Category V) and in the Sabinal Key Touristic Area (335 km2, IUCN category V). In the eastern central region we find the Desembarco del Granma National Park (258 km2, IUCN category II and a World Heritage Site since 1999), part of which also has this type of vegetation as do the Loma de la Mensura National Park in the Sierra del Cristal (24 km2, IUCN category I) and Pico Cristal National Park (150 km2, IUCN category II). In the east we find Turquino National Park (175 km2, category II), Gran Piedra National Park (34 km2, IUCN category II), Alejandro de Humboldt National Park within the Cuchillas del Toa Biosphere Reserve (1,275 km2, IUCN category IX), Bacanao Biosphere Reserve (846 km2, IUCN category V and IX), contained within the Sierra Maestra Great National Park Integrated Management Area (5,270 km2, IUCN category VIII), which includes the Hatibonico Fauna Reserve (52 km2, IUCN category IV).
Types and Severity of Threats
The area of true rain forest is currently and almost totally occupied by cacao and coffee crops. Other threats to these forests are the result of mining (iron, etc.), the proximity to urban centers, the extraction of wood and coal, pressure from cattle, the sale of endangered species (particularly parrots), pressure from tourism and the introduction of non-native species (mongoose, cats, wild dogs) that prey on endangered mammals. Rugged topography and erosion make some areas less suitable for agriculture and they are thus better preserved.
Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
The Cuban Moist Forests ecoregion was derived from the potential vegetation map of Cuba by Hernandez. The following perennial tropical forest latifoliate elements were combined: low altitude pluvial, submontane pluvial, montane pluvial, typical cloud, low cloud over serpentine, low altitude evergreen mesophile, submontane evergreen mesophile, and coastal microphile. In some areas, small patches of subparamo, knoll complex, were lumped into moist forest to match the broader scope of the study. Comparisons were also made with other studies.
Additional Information on this Ecoregion
- For a shorter summary of this entry, see the WWF WildWorld profile of this ecoregion.
- To see the species that live in this ecoregion, including images and threat levels, see the WWF Wildfinder description of this ecoregion.
- World Wildlife Fund Homepage
- 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. ISBN: 9630569566
- 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. ISBN: 0893273333
- Capote López, R.P., N.E. Ricardo Nápoles, A.V. González Areu, E.E. Garcia Rivera, D. Vilamajo Alberdi, and J. Urbino Rodríguez. 1989. Nuevo Atlas Nacional de Cuba: X Flora y Vegetación. Escala 1:1,000,000. Academia de Ciencias de Cuba.
- Caribbean Environmental Programme (CEP) 1996. Status of Protected Area Systems in the Wider Caribbean Region. CEP Technical Report No. 36
- Cuba 1997. Carte générale au 1:1.250.000. Institut géographique national, France.
- 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. ISBN: 283170197X
- 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. ISBN: 0821332961
- 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.
- 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.
- Perera, A. and Rosabal, P. 1986. Las Areas protegidas en Cuba. Flora, Fauna, y Areas Silvestres 2: 13-17.
- UNEP-WCMC 1997. United Nations List of Protected Areas. ISBN: 283170426X
- UNEP-WCMC 1988. Bacanao Biosphere Reserve.
- WWF-US 2000. Ecoregions of the Caribbean (Map).
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