Belize's position at the biological crossroads between North and South America has blessed it with an astonishingly broad assortment of wildlife. Belize's wide ranging geography and habitat have also been a primary factor in the diversity and complexity of its ecosystems and their denizens.
Belize is a Garden of Eden. Four thousand species of native flowering plants include 250 species of orchids and approximately 700 species of trees. Most of the country's forests have been logged off and on for more than 300 years (2,000 years, if you count the widespread deforestation during the time of the ancient Maya). The areas closest to the rivers and coast were the hardest hit because boats could be docked and logs easily loaded to be taken farther out to sea to the large ships used to haul the precious timber.
Flying over the countryside gives you a view of the patchwork landscape of cleared areas and secondary growth. Belize consists of four distinct forest communities: pine-oak, mixed broadleaf, cohune palm, and riverine forests. Pine-oak forests are found in sandy, dry soils. In the same areas, large numbers of mango, cashew, and coconut palm are grown near homes and villages. The mixed broadleaf forest is a transition area between the sandy pine soils and the clay soils found along the river. Often the mixed broadleaf forest is broken up here and there and doesn't reach great height; it's species-rich but not as diverse as the cohune forest. The cohune forest area is characterized by the cohune palm, which is found in fertile clay soil where a moderate amount of rain falls throughout the year. The cohune nut was an important part of the Maya diet. Archaeologists say that where they see a cohune forest, they know they'll find evidence of the Maya.
The cohune forest gives way to the riverine forest along river shorelines, where vast amounts of water are found year-round from excessive rain and from the flooding rivers. About 50-60 tree varieties and hundreds of species of vines, epiphytes, and shrubs grow here. Logwood, mahogany, cedar, and pine are difficult to find along the easily accessible rivers because of extensive logging. The forest is in different stages of growth and age. To find virgin forest, it's necessary to go high into the mountains that divide Belize. Because of the rugged terrain and distance from the rivers, these areas were left almost untouched. Even today, few roads exist. If left undisturbed for many, many years, the forest will eventually regenerate itself.
Among the plant life of Belize, look for mangroves, bamboo, and swamp cypresses, as well as ferns, vines, and flowers creeping from tree to tree, creating a dense growth. On topmost limbs, orchids and air ferns reach for the sun. As you go farther south you'll find the classic tropical rainforest, including tall mahoganies, campeche, sapote, and ceiba, thick with vines.
In remote areas of Belize, one of the more exotic blooms, the orchid, is often found on the highest limbs of tall trees. Of all the species reported in Belize, 20 percent are terrestrial (growing in the ground) and 80 percent are epiphytic (attached to a host plant-in this case trees-and deriving moisture and nutrients from the air and rain). Both types grow in many sizes and shapes: tiny buttons, spanning the length of a long branch; large-petaled blossoms with ruffled edges; or intense, tiger-striped miniatures. The lovely flowers come in a wide variety of colors, some subtle, some brilliant. The black orchid is Belize's national flower. All orchids are protected by strict laws, so look but don't pick.
A walk through the jungle brings you close to myriad animal and bird species, many of which are almost extinct in other Central American countries-and the world. Bring your binoculars, some fast film, and be vewy, vewy quiet.
Following is a short introduction to a few of the creatures you are likely to see in the wild if you spend any amount of time outside your room. This is an incomplete, quite random selection; for more detailed information, find yourself one of the abundant field guides to the various flora and fauna of Belize.
| BUTTERFLY-WATCHING |
|A number of butterfly "farms" or "ranches" have been built around Belize, and a visit to one is always a pleasant, educational, and colorful experience. Many began as export businesses, to raise butterflies for foreign zoos and classrooms, but now feature screened-in rooms where you'll see the creatures fluttering about your head as you walk through.
Notable places to see butterflies include the Fallen Stones, in the Toledo District, and Green Hills, at Mile 8 on the Mountain Pine Ridge Road in Cayo District. The latter is a butterfly breeding, educational, and interpretive center. All the butterfly farms pay as much attention to the plants that provide the larval food as to the pupae. And these fussy little creatures often have different tastes. You'll find another small but diverse butterfly reserve at the entrance road to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. It's right across the creek from the Women's Craft Co-op in Maya Center. Another readily accessible butterfly farm, with one of the highest numbers of species, is Tropical Wings, located at the Trek Stop, right on the Western Highway, just seven miles or so west of San Ignacio-they have an excellent interpretive center, guided tour, and a Frisbee golf course and café for when you've finished.
Depending on where you are in the country, you'll see the intense blue morpho as well as the white morpho, which is white but shot with iridescent blue. Three species of the owl butterfly (genus Caligo) love to come and lunch on the overripe fruit. You'll also see tiny heliconians and large yellow and white pierids, among many, many more.
Chaa Creek Lodge has developed the Blue Morpho Butterfly Breeding Center. A small flight room houses the blue beauties; naturalists on the grounds gladly explain the various stages of life the butterfly goes through.
A butterfly goes from tiny teardroplike egg, to colorful caterpillar, to pupae, and then graceful adult. Butterfly farms gather breeding populations of typical Belizean species in the pupal stage, and then the pupae are carefully "hung" in what is called an emerging cage with a simulated "jungle" atmosphere-hot and humid (not hard to do in Belize). A short time later they shed their pupal skin, and a tiny bit of Belize flutters away to the amazement and joy of all who behold.
Depending on the species, butterflies live anywhere from seven days to six weeks. If you plan to visit a farm, or to go into the rainforest on a butterfly safari to observe the beautiful creatures, go on a sunny day: you'll see lots more butterfly activity than on an overcast day. If it's raining, forget it!
If you're a serious bird-watcher, you know all about Belize. Scores of species can be seen while sitting on the deck of your jungle lodge: big and small, rare and common, and with local guides aplenty to help find them in all the vegetation. The keel-billed toucan is the national bird of Belize and is often seen perched high on a bare limb in the early morning.
Bats cling to the ceilings of caves, often attracted to warm pockets of air. Their urine and other bodily secretions slowly eat away at the limestone, creating these holes. The bats' sense of smell attracts them back to these same holes. Bats are harmless to humans (although confused vampire bats, with a risk of rabies, may bite, but only if you are sleeping outside); most that live in the caves are insect-eating bats. Their eyesight is excellent, as is their use of echolocation; fly-bys occur only if they go after the bugs attracted to your headlamp. Some scientists give warning about a pulmonary disease that can be carried in the dry dust of bat droppings. If you are concerned, ask your doctor and perhaps wear a breathing mask of some sort.
Seven species of cats are found in North America, five of them in Belize. For years, rich adventurers came to Belize on safari to hunt the jaguar for its beautiful skin. Likewise, hunting margay, puma, ocelots, and jaguarundis was a popular sport in the rainforest. All of that has changed. Hunting any endangered species in Belize is not allowed and there is much protected area in which they freely wander.
The jaguar is heavy-chested with sturdy, muscled forelegs, a relatively short tail, and small, rounded ears. Its tawny coat is uniformly spotted; the spots form rosettes: large circles with smaller spots in the center. The jaguar's belly is white with black spots. The male can weigh 145-255 pounds, females 125-165 pounds. Largest of the cats in Central America and third-largest cat in the world, the jaguar is about the same size as a leopard. It is nocturnal, spending most daylight hours snoozing in the sun. The male marks an area of about 65 square miles and spends its nights stalking deer, peccaries, agoutis, tapirs, monkeys, and birds. If hunting is poor and times are tough, the jaguar will go into rivers and scoop fish with its large paws. The river is also a favorite spot for the jaguar to hunt the large tapir when it comes to drink. Females begin breeding at about three years and generally produce twin cubs.
The smallest of the Belizean cats is the margay, weighing in at about 11 pounds and marked by a velvety coat with exotic designs in colors of yellow and black designs, and a tail that's half the length of its body. The bright eye shine indicates it has exceptional night vision. A shy animal, it is seldom seen in open country, preferring the protection of the dense forest. The "tiger cat," as it is called by locals, hunts mainly in the trees, satisfied with birds, monkeys, and insects as well as lizards and figs.
Larger and not nearly as catlike as the margay, the black or brown jaguarundi has a small flattened head, rounded ears, short legs, and a long tail. It hunts by day for birds and small mammals in the rainforests of Central America. The ocelot has a striped and spotted coat. Average weight is about 35 pounds. A good climber, the cat hunts in trees as well as on the ground. Its prey include birds, monkeys, snakes, rabbits, young deer, and fish. Ocelots usually have litters of two but can have as many as four. The puma is also known as the cougar or mountain lion. The adult male measures about six feet in length and weighs up to 198 pounds. It thrives in any environment that supports deer, porcupine, or rabbit. The puma hunts day or night.
In Creole, the black howler monkey is referred to as "baboon" (in Spanish, saraguate) though it has no close connection to its African relatives. Because the howler prefers low-lying tropical rainforests under 1,000 feet of elevation, Belize is a perfect habitat. They are more commonly found near the riverine forests, especially on the Belize River and its major branches. The howler monkey, along with its small cousin the spider monkey, also enjoys the foothills of the Maya Mountains.
To protect the howler monkey, the Community Baboon Sanctuary was organized in Bermudian Landing to help conserve the lands where it lives. Thanks to an all-out effort involving local property owners, the Belize Ministry of Natural Resources, the U.S. World Wildlife Fund, the Belize Audubon Society, and the Peace Corps, the land that provides for the howler will be saved. The sanctuary is an ideal place for researchers to study its habits and perhaps discover the key to its survival among encroaching humans (and for tourists to get close to these creatures in their natural habitat). In fact, natural breeding was so successful there that troops of howlers have been relocated to Cockscomb and other regions where the monkey was decimated by yellow fever decades ago.
The adult howler monkey is entirely black and weighs 15-25 pounds. Its most distinctive trait is a roar that can be heard up to a mile distant. A bone in the throat acts as an amplifier; the cry sounds much like that of a jaguar. The howler's unforgettable bark is said by some to be used to warn other monkey troops away from its territory. Locals, on the other hand, say the howlers roar when it's about to rain, to greet the sun, to say good night, or when they're feeding.
Howlers live in troops that number four to eight and no more than 10, consisting of one adult male and the rest females and young. Infants nurse for about 18 months, making the space between pregnancies about 24 months. Initially, "mom" carries her young clutched to her chest; once they're a little older, they ride piggyback. The troop sleeps, eats, and travels together. The howlers primarily eat leaves, but include flowers and fruit in their diet (when available). Highly selective, they require particular segments of certain trees and blossoms: sapodilla, hog-plum, bay cedar, fig, and buket trees. The locals even put up with the monkey's occasional invasion of cashew trees. Although the baboon has a couple of natural predators-the jaguar and the harpy eagle-its worst foe is deforestation by humans. An unexpected boon to the area has been the reappearance of other small animals and bird species that are also taking advantage of the protected area.
Spider monkeys are smaller than black howlers and live in troops of a dozen or more, feeding on leaves, fruits, and flowers high in the jungle canopy. Slender limbs and elongated prehensile tails assist them as they climb and swing from tree to tree. With a border of white around their faces, adults look like little old people. Baby spider monkeys are winsome in appearance too, and often are captured for pets. So curious and mischievous are they, however, that frustrated owners frequently cage or even release them back into the wild. Without the skills to survive or the support of a troop, such freed orphans are doomed to perish. Unlike howler monkeys, which may allow human proximity during their midday siesta, spider monkeys rarely approve. They usually dissolve into the forest canopy. On occasion, they have been known to aim small sticks, urine, and worse at intruders. Though not as numerous in Belize as howler monkeys because of disease and habitat loss, they remain an important part of the country's natural legacy.
A relative of the rabbit, the agouti or "Indian rabbit" has coarse gray-brown fur and a hopping gait. It is most often encountered scampering along a forest trail or clearing. Not the brightest of creatures, it makes up for this lack of wit with typical rodent libido and fecundity. Inhabiting the same areas as the paca, these two seldom meet, as the agouti minds its business during the day and the paca prefers nighttime pursuits. The agouti is less delectable than the paca. Nonetheless, it is taken by animal and human hunters and is a staple food of jaguars.
The paca, or gibnut, is a quick, brownish rodent about the size of a large rabbit with white spots along its back. Nocturnal by habit and highly prized as a food item by many Belizeans, the gibnut is more apt to be seen by the visitor on an occasional restaurant menu than in the wild.
A member of the raccoon family, the coati-or quash-has a long, ringed tail, masked face, and lengthy snout. Sharp claws aid the coati in climbing trees and digging up insects and other small prey. Omnivorous, the quash also relishes jungle fruits. A sensitive, agile nose helps it sniff out trees bearing these favored goodies. Usually seen in small troops of females and young, coatis have an amusing, jaunty appearance as they cross a jungle path, tails at attention. The occasional solitary male is referred to as a coatimundi or solitary coati.
Next to deer, peccaries are the most widely hunted game in Central America. Other names for this piglike creature are musk hog and javelina. Some compare these nocturnal mammals to the wild pigs found in Europe, though in fact they are native to America.
Two species found in Belize are the collared and the white-lipped peccaries. The feisty collared peccary stands one foot at the shoulder and can be three feet long, weighing as much as 65 pounds. It is black and white with a narrow semicircular collar of white hair on the shoulders. In Spanish, jabalina means "spear," descriptive of the two spearlike tusks that protrude from its mouth. This more familiar peccary lives in deserts, woodlands, and rainforests, and travels in groups of 5-15.
Also with tusks, the white-lipped peccary or warrie is reddish-brown to black and has an area of white around the mouth. This larger animal, which can grow to four feet long, dwells deep in tropical rainforests and at one time lived in herds of 100 or more. They are more dangerous than their smaller cousins and should be given a wide berth.
The national animal of Belize, the South American tapir is found from the southern part of Mexico to southern Brazil. It is stout-bodied (200-300 kgs or 91-136 lbs.), with short legs, a short tail, small eyes, and rounded ears. Its nose and upper lip extend into a short but very mobile proboscis. Totally herbivorous, tapirs usually live near streams or rivers in the forest. They bathe daily and also use the water as an escape when hunted either by humans or by their prime predator, the jaguar. Shy, unaggressive animals, they are nocturnal with a definite home range, wearing a path between the jungle and their feeding area.
Found all over Central America, lizards of the family Iguanidae include various large plant-eaters, in many sizes and typically dark in color with slight variations. The young iguana is bright emerald green. The common lizard grows to three feet long and has a blunt head and long flat tail. Bands of black and gray circle its body, and a serrated column reaches down the middle of its back, almost to its tail. During mating season, it's common to see brilliant orange males on a sunny branch hoping to attract girlfriends.
Very large and shy, the lizard uses its forelimbs to hold the front half of its body up off the ground while the two back limbs remain relaxed and splayed alongside its hindquarters. However, when the iguana is frightened, its hind legs do everything they're supposed to, and the iguana crashes quickly (though clumsily) into the brush searching for its burrow and safety. This reptile is not aggressive, but if cornered it will bite and use its tail in self-defense. The iguana mostly enjoys basking in the bright sunshine along the Caribbean. Though they are mainly herbivores, the young also eat insects and larvae. Certain varieties in some areas of southern Mexico and Central America are almost hunted out-for example, the spiny-tailed iguana in the central valley of Chiapas, Mexico. A moderate number are still found in the rocky foothill slopes and thorn-scrub woodlands.
Several other species of iguana live in Belize, from the small to a gargantuan six feet long. Their habits are much the same, however. They all enjoy basking in the sun, sleeping in old hollow trees at night, and eating certain tender plants. The female can lay up to a hundred eggs, and when the pale green or tan hatchlings emerge from the rubbery egg skins, they scoot about quickly. One of the iguana's serious predators is the hawk. If an iguana sunbathing high in the trees senses a winged shadow, it flings itself from the tree either into a river below or the brush, skittering quickly into hiding. However, the human still remains its most dangerous predator.
It is not unusual to see locals along dirt paths carrying sturdy specimens by the tail to put in the cook pot. From centuries past, recorded references attest to the medicinal value of this lizard, partly explaining the active trade of live iguanas in marketplaces in some parts of Belize. Iguana stew is believed to cure or relieve various human ailments, such as impotence. The unlaid eggs of iguanas caught before the nesting season are considered a delicacy. Another reason for their popularity at the market is their delicate white flesh, which tastes much like chicken. If people say they're having "bamboo chicken" for dinner, they are dining on iguana.
Though often referred to as alligators, Belize has only crocodiles, the American (up to 20 feet) and Morelet's (to eight feet). Crocodiles have a well-earned bad reputation in Africa, Australia, and New Guinea as man-eaters, especially the larger saltwater varieties. Their American cousins are fussier about their cuisine, preferring fish, dogs, and other small mammals to people. The territories of both species overlap in estuaries and brackish coastal waters. Able to filter excess salt from its system, only the American crocodile ventures to the more distant cayes. Endangered throughout their ranges, both crocs are protected by international law and should be left undisturbed. Often seen floating near the edge of lagoons or canals during midday, they are best observed at night with the help of a powerful flashlight. When caught in the beam, their eyes glow an eerie red. Crocodiles are most abundant in the rivers, swamps, and lagoons of the Belize City, Orange Walk, and Toledo Districts, as well as areas around the Turneffe Islands. Don't miss the Crocodile Reserve at Monkey Bay.
| MANGROVES AND HUMANS |
The doctor on Christopher Columbus's ship, Hispaniola, reported in 1494 that mangroves in the Caribbean were "so thick that a rabbit could scarcely walk through." The mangroves are just as dense today, a wall of bright green along the shore, but their location is probably not the same. Over a period of several hundred years, depending on hurricanes and other localized natural events, the red mangroves may have extended the edge of a coastline a mile or more in their determined march into the sea.
Mangrove islands and coastal forests play an important role in protecting Belize's coastline from destruction during major natural events such as hurricanes. Along with the seagrass beds, they also protect the Belize Barrier Reef by filtering much of the sediment out of river runoff before it reaches and smothers the delicate coral polyps. However, dense mangrove forests are also home to mosquitoes and biting flies. The mud and peat beneath mangrove thickets is often malodorous with decaying plant matter and hydrogen sulfide-producing bacteria. Many developers would like nothing better than to eliminate the mangroves and replace them with seawalls. But such modification to the coastline results in accelerated erosion and destruction of seaside properties during severe storms.
Importance to Wildlife
Birds of many species use the mangrove branches for roosting and nesting sites, including swallows, redstarts, warblers, grackles, herons, egrets, osprey, kingfishers, pelicans, and roseate spoonbills. Along the seaside edge of red mangrove forests, prop roots extend into the water creating thickets that are unparalleled as nurseries of the sea. Juveniles of commercial fisheries, such as snapper, hogfish, and lobster, find a safe haven here. The flats around mangrove islands are famous for recreational fisheries such as bonefish and tarpon. The roots that extend below the low tide mark provide important substrate (a platform to which organisms settle or attach) for sessile (immobile) marine invertebrates such as sponges, hydroids, corals, tube worms, mollusks, anemones, and tunicates. In many areas, snorkeling along a mangrove is often more colorful and exciting than along a reef.
The three-dimensional labyrinth often created by expanding red mangroves, seagrass beds, and bogues (small channels of seawater flowing through the mangroves) provides the home and often the nursery for nurse sharks, American crocodiles, and manatees.
Fortunately, the Belize government enforces laws that make it difficult to disturb these natural wonders. Destruction of mangroves is illegal in most areas; cutting and/or removal of mangroves requires a special permit and mitigation. Despite some illegal cutting, you can still see miles and miles of red mangrove forests edging the coast and islands of Belize, in some places as extensive as they were hundreds of years ago when the Hispaniola sailed through these waters.