Belizean pine forests
The Belizean pine forests on Central America's northwestern Caribbean Sea coast represent various relatively well preserved fragments of vegetation as well as a considerable abundance of fauna. This ecoregion comprises a geographically small portion of the total land area of the ecoregions of Belize. There is relatively low endemism in the Belizean pine forests, and only a moderate species richness here; for example, only 447 vertebrate taxa have been recorded in the ecoregion.
They represent one of the few examples of lowland and premontane pine forests in the Neotropics, where the dominant tree species is Honduras Pine (Pinus hondurensis), which requires periodic low intensity burns for its regeneration. The vegetation is adapted to the xeric, acidic and nutrient-poor conditions that occur primarily in the dry season. 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.
Location and basic depiction
This small ecoregion of less than 3000 km2 is found almost entirely in Belize and is included in the zone of wet subtropical forests (more than 2000 millimetres 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. In Belize there is a relatively large premontane area (about 700 metres 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. About eleven percent of Belize is covered by natural pine vegetation. Only two percent represents totally closed forests; three percent semi-closed forests; and the remaining six percent pine savannas, that occupy coastal areas and contain isolated pine trees or stands of pine trees separated by extensive pastures. In addition to human activity, edaphic factors are a determining matter in this distribution, since the forests on the northern plain and southern coastal zone are on sandy soils or sandy-clay soils and usually have less drainage than the more fertile soils in the center of the country.
In addition to the Honduras Pine (Pinus hondurensis), which is characteristic of this region, these prominent trees are present: Common Calabash Tree (Crescentia cujete) some species of oak (Quercus spp.), Chaparro (Curatella americana), Maricao Cimun (Byrsonima crassifolia), and the palms Acoelorraphe and Paurotis wrightii. The canopy of these pine forests is hardly ever closed. There are abundant low shrubs and savanna areas with grasses, reeds and numerous 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. At elevations of 650 to 700 metres, the forests transition to premontane in terms of vegetation. At these higher levels, representative tree species are Egg-cone Pine (Pinus oocarpa), which crosses with Caribbean Pine (P. caribaea), where distributions overlap, although belonging to subsections of different genera; British Honduras Yellowwood (Podocarpus guatemalensis) and Quercus spp.; moreover, and in even more moist areas there is a predominance of Jelecote Pine (Pinus patula), together with the palm Euterpe precatoria var. longivaginata and the arboreal ferns Cyathea myosuroides and Hemitelia multiflora.
Due to this ecoregions 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 endemic organisms in the region 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.
A number of reptilian species are found in the Belizean pine forests, including: Guatemala Neckband Snake (Scaphiodontophis annulatus); Indigo Snake (Drymarchon corais); On the coasts, interior lakes and rivers of Belize and by extension in this ecoregion there are two species of threatened crocodiles: American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) and Morelet's Crocodile (C. moreletii), while observation of the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii CR) is not uncommon in this ecoregion.
There are two endangered bird species in Belize. One of them, the Yellow-headed Amazon Parrot (Amazona oratrix EN) lives in this ecoregion, although this taxon is adversely affected by ongoing habitat destruction. 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. The five feline species that exist in Belize: Jaguar (Panthera onca), Puma (F. concolor), Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), Margay (Leopardus wiedii) and Jaguarundí (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. The tapir is abundant around rivers. The White-lipped Peccary (Tayassu pecari) in appendix II of CITES, is also present in the ecoregion.
Although most of the amphibians and reptiles are found in humid premontane and lowland forests, the only endemic frog in this ecoregion, Maya Mountains Frog (Lithobates juliani), is restricted to the Mountain Pine Ridge in the Maya Mountains. Salamanders in the ecoregion are represented by the Alta Verapaz Salamander (Bolitoglossa dofleini NT), whose males are arboreal, while females live under logs. Anuran taxa found in the ecoregion include: Rio Grande Frog (Lithobates berlandieri); Sabinal Frog (Leptodactylus melanonotus); Northern Sheep Frog (Hypopachus variolosus); Stauffer's Long-nosed Treefrog (Scinax staufferi); and Tungara Treefrog (Engystomops pustulosus).
Thousands of years before the present, Mayan settlers arrived from the north (present day Guatemala). These early peoples developed a highly sophisticated civilization in cities at the edge of the Belizean pine forests, in the foothills of the Mayan Mountains. Ruins of such cities as Lubaantun and Nim li Punit are visible today, as testaments to the architectural skills of these stone builders. One of the chief uses of the Belizean pine forests was a travel route for water based trade with their ancestral tribes to the north. These Mayans were skillful canoers, and made use of the low gradient rivers descending from the Mayan Mountains as they reached discharge to the sea. After the river journey, they would continue on by sea to reach the northern lands, where they traded pottery and agricultural commodities.
This ecoregion has a level II biodiversity priority (high priority on the regional level). The Belizean pine forests ecoregion is thought to have a relatively stable conservation status, and corresponds to a well represented ecoregion in the larger Mesoamerican region. 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. More than 70 percent of the closed pine forests are found in forest reserves while only 25 percent 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. 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.
Ecological threat profile
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, one must 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. An IUCN study showed that deforestation due to this cause is relatively small.
Justification of ecoregion delineation
The delineation for this ecoregion is derived from Hampshire to encompass the unique pine forests which occur with Belize's montane and lowland 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.
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