Dry forests

Cuban dry forests

July 30, 2012, 12:16 am
Content Cover Image

Isla de la Juventud, Cuba Photograph by © WWF-Canon/Michel ROGGO

The Cuban dry forests ecoregion ecoregion occupied most of the island’s plains and lowlands as well as some submontane zones along the coast or with specific edaphic characteristics (serpentinites, karstic limestone), representing more than 50% of the original natural vegetation. Currently, most of these forests have been replaced by anthropic vegetation or changed into savannas. There are multiple types of dry forest, some of them with a high level of endemism and distinctive species.

Location and General Description

Originally the dry forests of Cuba accounted for most of the island’s vegetation (more than 50%), particularly on the plains, hills and mountains of the interior, from sea level to an elevation of about 700 meters (m) above sea level (ASL), as well as in some coastal zones. Forests were numerous from west to east: on the plains of the Guanahacabibes peninsula, on the southern plain of Pinar del Río, in parts of the Sierra de los Órganos and the Sierra del Rosario, on the southern plains on Isla de la Juventud, on the plains of Habana-Matanzas, the central-western plains, the central-eastern plains (southern and northern Camagüey), in parts of the Sabana-Camagüey archipelago, on the Nipe-Cauto plains and in certain parts of the southern coast in the provinces of Oriente.

These deciduous forests develop under varied geological, edaphic and climatic conditions and it is thus difficult to make generalizations. The appearance of the dry forests in this ecoregion is due to both climatic and edaphic factors, since many of them are located on soils that have little ability to retain water, are toxic or shallow. The soils on which these forests develop may be limestones (alkaline), acid (in the submontane forests, particularly in the Sierra del Rosario and Sierra Maestra, corresponding to vegetation in transition to the mountain rainforests), poorly-drained soils in the lowland plains, karstic clinícola and culminícola soils (in formations called mogotes), and serpentinites (in the cuabales). There is also a seasonal sub-humid semi-deciduous forest on the plains with fertile soils.

Average annual precipitation in these forests is varied but always above 1,000 millimeters (mm) and usually below 2,000 mm. The highest precipitation usually occurs during the summer rains. Average annual temperature is about 25°C, and somewhat lower at higher elevations. In the wetter zones (higher elevations), these dry forests are transitioning to wet forests, and in the drier zones (coastal) or on toxic soils (serpentinites), they are transitioning to xeric shrubland.

As noted earlier, depending on the availability of water, soil and altitude characteristics, we can differentiate many types of dry forest in Cuba. A preliminary classification of these deciduous forests can be based on whether the principal tree species are evergreen or semi-deciduous.

caption Cuban fig-eating bat (''Phyllops falcatus'') Guanahacabibes Biosphere Reserve, Cuba. (Source: Photograph by © WWF-Canon/Michel Roggo)

The evergreen forest is characterized by the fact that less than 30% of its trees lose their leaves, in addition to shrubs and herbaceae and little development of epiphytes and lianas. It is classified according to the predominance of specific leaf length as mesophilous (13-26 centimeters (cm)) or microphyllous (1-6 cm), coastal and subcoastal. The mesophilous forest may be low-lying (less than 400 meters above sea level) or submontane (400-800 meters above sea level) and has an arboreal story 15-25 m high with palms and trees emerging some 25-30 m, with shrubs, grasses, epiphytes and lianas. Examples of the first layer of trees (Sierra del Rosario) are Alchornea latifolia ("aguacatillo"), Calophylum antillanum (ocuje), Mastichodendron foetidissimum (jocuma) and Matayba oppositifolia (macurije). The second layer includes Oxandra lanceolata (yaya), Wallenia laurifolia, Trophis racemosa (ramón de caballo) and Ficus spp. The coastal and subcoastal microphyllous evergreen forest, also called "dry mountain" forest in Cuba, characteristically establishes itself over coastal limestone. It has evergreen and deciduous trees with two stories of trees 12-15 and 5-10 m high, some thorny shrubs, columnar or arborescent cactaceae, other succulents, herbaceae, epiphytes and dry lianas. Examples of trees are Bucida spinosa (júcaro espinoso), Conella winteriana (cúrbana), Guaiacum sanctum (guayacán), Gymnanthes lucidus (yaití), Hypelate trifoliata (cerillo), Lysiloma bahamense (soplillo), Metopium toxiferum (guao de costa), Bursera simaruba (almácigo), Hymenea torrei (caguairán amarillo) and Coccoloba diversifolia. Mention should be made of the palm Coccothrinax spp. (miraguanos) and the cactacea Opuntia dillenii (tuna).

The sub-evergreen or semi-deciduous forests are forests in which about half of the trees are evergreen or deciduous, along with shrubs, epiphytes and a few herbaceae and an abundance of climbers. They are represented by the typical mesophilous semi-deciduous forest and the mesophilous forest with fluctuating moisture. The typical mesophilous semi-deciduous forest is characterized by having leaves 13-26 cm long. It has three arboreal stories and the upper story reaches from 15-20 up to 25 m high, generally includes deciduous elements (40-65%) and may have emergent species (up to 30 m high) and palms 25 m high. The lower arboreal story includes deciduous and schlerophyllous evergreen trees. This formation is found on soils of red or black rendzinas, or over brown soils in the flat and undulating plains of central and eastern Cuba (Sierra del Rosario). Trees generally grow rapidly due to the abundant rain in summer. The first layer of trees include Bursera simaruba (almácigo), Cedrela odorata (cedar) , Calycopfyllum candissimum (dagame), Ceiba pentandra (ceiba), Cordia gerascanthus (baría), Cordia collococca, Dipholis salicifolia (cuyá), Swietenia mahagoni (mahogany), Zanthoxylum martinicensis (ayúa), Celtis trinervia and Roystonea regia (palma real). The second layer includes Casearia hirsuta (jía), Cupania americana (guara), Guarea trichiloides (yamagua), Oxandra lanceolata (yaya) and Trichilia havanensis (siguaraya) and others. The mesophilous semideciduous forest with fluctuating moisture has an arboreal story 8-15 m high, an undergrowth of microphyllous and thorny deciduous species (with leaves 1-6 cm long), and a rich herbaceous layer formed by numerous geophytes.

Another type of dry forest is the vegetation known as mogote, which consists of a complex of plant formations with semi-deciduous and evergreen forests. These forests occur in mountain areas over conical karstic limestone and have a discontinuous story of trees 5-10 m high, with palms and deciduous species, abundant succulents, epiphytes and lianas. This complex is located in the eastern (Sierra de los Órganos and Pan de Guajaibón) and central-eastern part of the country and has vegetation rich in endemisms and biodiversity. In the eastern zone, mogotes are drier. Some species that can be found include Gaussia princeps (palma barrigona de sierra), Thrinax morrisii (guanito de sierra), Tabebuia calcicola (oak), Erythrina cubensis (piñón), Malpighia roigiana and the ancestral gymnosperms Microcycas calocoma (palma corcho). We also find Lantana strigosa, Agave spp. and Leptocereus spp. On rock faces we find vegetation that is bushy but very open and includes shrubs and some trees with roots adapted to living among the rocks, in particular the endemic ceibón (Bombacopsis cubensis).

Finally, there is also subarboreal to latifoliate bushy vegetation typical of serpentinites and transitional between the dry forests and the xeric shrublands. This is subdivided into wet schlerophyllous low forest (charrascal) of the hilly serpentinites and mountains, and dry schlerophyllous low forest (cuabal) of the hilly serpentinites (e.g., in Guanabacoa-Holguín). This latter area, drier than the former, can reach heights between 8 and 10 m., with abundant species with small, hard and very thorny leaves, and a notable abundance of palms. Emergent trees can be found. Some examples of species are Leucocroton flavicans (cuabal), Annona bullata (anón del cuabal), Bucida espinosa (júcaro espinoso), Coccoloba praecox (uverillo), Pseudocarpidium wrightii (chicharrón), Copernicia spp. (palmas jatas), Coccothrinax spp. (miraguanos), Buxus spp. Bourreria spp., Tabebuia spp., Guettarda spp., Rhodogeron coronopifolius and Agave cajalbanensis.

Biodiversity Features

caption Guanahacabibes robber frog (''Eleutherodactylus guanahacabibes''), Guanahacabibes Biosphere Reserve, Cuba. (Source: Photograph by © WWF-Canon/Michel Roggo)

In general, the degree of plant endemism in these forests is among the lowest (between 5 and 10%) for this island with such a higher number of endemic species (more than 50%). This is also true of the degree of animal endemism. An exception is some of the special types of formation (mogotes, coastal microphyllous evergreen forest, subhumid forests, cuabales) that have a higher percentage of endemisms and more distinctive flora. There are approximately eleven endemic genera and more than 200 endemic species in this ecoregion, particularly located in the mogotes of the Sierra de los Órganos-Viñales with high β-diversity. The western section of the ecoregion (Pinar del Río) is included within one of the three most important centers of plant diversity and endemism on the island (CPD Cb3), in particular the Guanahacabibes peninsula, the Sierra de los Órganos and the Sierra del Rosario. In the central region, note should be made of the serpentinites of Holguín.

Mention should be made of the fauna on the Guanahacabibes peninsula with 141 bird species, 11 of them endemic to the island, and some of which are endangered. In addition, it is an important region for migratory birds.

The peninsula also has 17 genera and 30 species of reptiles, one of them locally endemic, as well as stable populations of iguanas (Cyclura nubila).

Also seen are lagartijas (Anolis quadriocellifer), ranitas de cuevas (Eleutherodactylus guanahacabibes) and the schizomid Schizomus laborcae. In the southern part of Isla de la Juventud we find the cabrero (Spindalis zena), murciélago mariposa (Natalus lepidus), paloma perdiz (Starnoenas cyanocephala), barbiquejo (Geotrygon chrysia) and jutía (Mysateles meridionalis).

Other interesting species in this ecoregion are vulnerable snails (particularly in restricted habitats over calcareous substrate) such as Priotrochatella constellata. Also to be seen are birds such as the tocororo (Priotelus temnurus), zunzuncito or pájaro mosca (Mellisuga helenae), sabanero (Sturnella magna hipocrepis), cartacuba (Todus multicolor), carpintero jabado (Melanerpes superciliaris) and the bat endemic to the island, Mormopterus minutus.

Current Status

According to Habitats terrestres Cuba 1997, these forests cover only 10% of the island, although they originally occupied more than half of the island. This ecoregion has mostly been replaced by anthropic vegetation or converted to savanna. According to Dinerstein et al., more than 90% of the original vegetation has been lost and the degree of habitat fragmentation is advanced, which means low connectivity among fragments with natural vegetation and impedes the spread of most taxons. There is at least one original habitat block covering 500 square kilometers (km2) and the annual conversation rate from intact to altered, in the period 1990-1995, was about 1%. There is at least one protected area larger than 250 km2, making it possible to preserve these forests. According to Olson et al., the gaps in taxonomic data for the ecoregion are sufficient to hamper conservation programs and other activities, and further research is thus required. Biogeographic data is not as deficient although it is not sufficient.

Going from west to east, the island’s protected areas that have at least some of this type of vegetation are the Guanahacabibes Peninsula Biosphere Reserve (1,015 km2, IUCN category IX), the El Veral Natural Reserve (75 km2, IUCN category I), the Sierra del Rosario Biosphere Reserve (100 km2, IUCN category IX), the Mil Cumbres Integrated Management Area (166 km2, IUCN category VIII), the Viñales National Park for mogotes vegetation (134 km2, IUCN category II), the Southern National Park on the Isla de la Juventud (800 km2, IUCN category V), the Buenavista Biosphere Reserve (890 km2, IUCN category IX), the Escambray Integrated Management Area (1.870 km2, IUCN category VIII) and the Gran Parque Sierra Maestra Integrated Management Area (5.270 km2, IUCN category VIII).

These forests are more protected in the west than in the east. Most of this ecoregion (the country’s central plains) are not protected.

Types and Severity of Threats

Felling of trees and selective forestry operations, the production of charcoal, frequent burning and slash and burn agriculture represent threats to the region.

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation

Cuban dry forests were delineated for their distinctive species. The lines for the Cuban Dry forest were derived by combining various semi-deciduous elements from the Hernandez atlas. The following semi-deciduous elements were combined: typical mesophile, fluxuating humid mesophile, notophile, and microphile forests. Comparisons were also made with other studies and some minor line modifications were made from expert opinion at ecoregion planning workshops.

Further Reading

  • For a more terse summary of this entry, see the WWF WildWorld profile of this ecoregion
  • Áreas de Interés para la biota terrestre y dulceacuicola 1997.
  • Bisse, J. 1988. Árboles de Cuba. Editorial Científico-Técnica, Ciudad de la Habana, Cuba.
  • Biodiversidad de la biota cubana 1997.
  • Borhindi, A. 1991. Phytogeography and vegetation ecology of Cuba. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest. ISBN: 9630552957
  • 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. IUCN Publications Unit, Cambridge, U.K. 562 pp.
  • Dinerstein, E., D.M. Olson, D.J. Graham, A.L. Webster, S.A. Primm, M.P. Bookbinder, and G. Ledec. 1995. A conservation assessment of the terrestrial ecoregions of Latin America and the Caribbean. The World Bank, Washington, DC, USA. 129 pp. ISBN: 0821332953
  • 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.
  • Oldfield, S. (comp.), 1997. Cactus and Succulent Plants. IUCN/SCC Cacuts and Succulent Specialist Group. Gland, Switzerland. ISB: 2831703905.
  • Olson, D., E. Dinerstein, G. Castro, and E. Maravi. 1996. Identifying gaps in botanical information for biodiversity conservation in Latin America and the Caribbean. World Wildlife Fund, Washington, D.C., USA.
  • Samek, V. 1973. Regiones fitogeográficas de Cuba. Academia de Ciencias de Cuba. Serie forestal 15:163.
  • UNEP-WCMC 1997. United Nations List of Protected Areas. ISBN: 283170426X
  • WWF-US 2000. Ecoregions of the Caribbean (Map).

Disclaimer: This article contains information that was originally published by the World Wildlife Fund. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth have edited its content and added new information. The use of information from the World Wildlife Fund should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.




Fund, W. (2012). Cuban dry forests. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/151562


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