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NATURAL HISTORY > Vegetation

Vegetation Transect
Northern Belize supports a wide variety of ecosystems. Lowland broadleaf forest blanket the escarpments of western Orange Walk and much of the Freshwater Creek Forest Reserve where rich, lime soils have built up. The scattered, nutrient poor soils give rise to what is known as "pine ridge" where pine trees and savanna grasses exist. Along much of the riverways and low depressions of northern Belize are the freshwater wetlands and swamps, sometimes referred to as "bajos". Finally, along the coast and the north east region of the Corozal District lie extensive salt water swamps called "mangrove forests".
Vegetation Map of Northern Belize
The figure above provides a generalized view of the vegetation of northern Belize. The actual pattern of vegetation is of course, much more complex than is implied by the map. The following sections cover each of these vegetation types in greater detail.

Lowland Broadleaf Forest

The lowland broadleaf forest of northern Belize have been described as semi-deciduous rain forest. This means that the amount of rainfall is not sufficient to ensure that the trees will keep their leaves year around. Broadleaf forestIn fact, more trees will loose their leaves in the northern forests than in the south, producing a "rain" of leaves onto the forest floor throughout the year.

These forest contain a very complex and diverse assembledge of trees, without any one species dominating. Occasionally, on the richest, moderately drained soils, you will encounter dense stands of the cohune palm. The most common species characteristic of this type of forest is the mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), cedar (Cedrela mexicana), sapodilla (Manilkara zapota), ramon (Brosimum alicastrum) and figs (Ficus spp.).

Within this diverse ecosystem you will encounter immense trees forming a canopy so thick that only streaks of sunlight filter through to the forest floor. This has often been described as the "cathedral" effect. broadleaf forest The understory, being deprived of sunlight, will consist of young trees with large, thin leaves and occasional bunches of heliconias, ferns and other shrubs where the forest floor is damp. The forest floor will be a thick mat of decomposing plant material and riddled with invertebrates. Lianas and other vines will snake from tree to tree, while orchids and bromeliads will hang precariously on the trunks and branches above.

Access to this type of forest is easy at the Rio Bravo Conservation Area (RBCA), Chan Chich Lodge, and the Freshwater Creek Forest Reserve (FCFR). Rio Bravo and Chan Chich have well maintained trails while you will have to hire a guide and "sweat" a little to visit the relatively untouched forests of the FCFR.

Read more on the Wildlife of Lowland Broadleaf Forest...

Pine Ridge/Savanna

Tropical savannas are a type of ecosystem dominated by bunch grasses and sedges. The savanna also includes shrubs, trees and palms, but they never form a continuous canopy. pines on savannaThey occur throughout northern Belize and are associated with low nutrient soils. The local name for this habitat is "pine ridge" as the pine trees are often the most obvious large tree visible.

This ecosystem is often water-logged during the wet season and completely dried out during the "dry", so that much of the vegetation is a hardy type that can withstand drought and submersion. The vegetation has been further modified by seasonal fires which frequently sweep the savanna. The tree species are all relatively fire resistant. fire on the savannaTree species include the Caribbean pine (Pinus caribea), calabash (Cresentia cujete), oak (Quercus spp.), craboo (Byrsonima crassifolia) and the plametto (Paurotis wrightii).

Walking over the savanna, you will find the soil is coarse, made up of hard quartz and shallow gravel. Clumps of wiry grass and sedges knee high dominate the ground cover. The tree species tend to grow in clumps also, with stands of pure pine separated from large clumps of palmetto. Though not rich in species diversity, the savanna does support a variety of birds, mammals and reptiles.

Read more on the Wildlife of Savannas...

Freshwater Rivers, Lagoons, Wetlands and Swamps

The rivers, lagoons, and wetlands of northern Belize are its lifelines. Not only do they provide the drainage from the occasional rains, but they are also transportation routes for nutrients and wildlife from the interior to the sea.

The forest along the rivers is called riverine or riparian forest. This riparian vegetation plays a vital part in preventing erosion of river and Vegetation alongside Rio Bravolagoon banks as the dense roots of bamboo and other shrubs hold soil and prevent fast flowing water from carrying away the river banks. Common species include amate (Ficus spp.), quamwood (Schizolobium parahybum), ceiba (Ceiba pentandra) and the fast growing Trumpet Tree (Cecropia obtusifolia). As you near the coast, the vegetation along the river banks changes to bri-bri (Inga edulis), logwood (Haematoxylon campechianum) and copna (Erythrina fusca). The vegetation often forms cathedral like roofs over the smaller rivers and drainages and are rich habitats for birds and small mammals.

The numerous lagoons of northern Belize are usually surrounded by marshland and swamp. Rushes, sedges, grass-mats, cattails, bullrushes, waterlilies and other shrubs form a dense vegetated transition zone between lagoon and broadleaf forest or savanna. New River Lagoon at sunsetThe edges of the lagoons are wondrous places to explore with their abundance of invertebrates, fish and wildlife. It is as if the rich source of nutrients has life bursting at the seems as the food chain transforms detritus to top predator.

Exploring the wetlands of northern Belize is best done by canoe, quietly, slowly, and either early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

Read more on the Wildlife of Freshwater Habitats...

Mangroves and Coastal Lagoons

The mangroves and coastal lagoons of Belize are arguably the most productive and important ecosystem for the continuing health of the marine coastal zone. The entire northeast corner of Northern Belize has one of the largest mangrove lagoon systems in the country in Shipstern Wildlife Sanctuary. Shipstern Lagoon Mangrove Mangrove habitat borders most of the lower reaches of all the rivers and the coastline where human development is absent.

While the biodiversity of the mangrove habitat is relatively low when compared to the broadleaf forest, it is the biological processes the mangrove facilitate that define its importance. Basically, soils and biological debris are carried from the interior forests via the fast flowing rivers and water ways to the river deltas and shorelines. Here, the flow of water slows and spreads out, dropping its load on the bacteria rich bottom. The bacteria transform the nutrients into food in the form of their bodies, which are fed upon by microscopic invertebrates, which are in turn ingested by macro invertebrates like crabs, shrimps and larvae fish. The process continues on up the food chain to the top predators - tarpon, snook, egrets, reptiles, small mammals and manatee.

Red mangrove aerial roots near mouth of New River

The structure of roots, detritus and leaves form the perfect substrate to hide the young of most sea creatures, making the mangrove habitat the nurseries of the sea.

There are four mangrove species in Belize, all partitioning the mangrove habitat according to their biological needs. The red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) is the pioneer species which can tolerate salt water better than any other mangrove. It's stilt roots are usually found half submerged along most of the shoreline of Belize. Immediately behind the red mangrove grows a zone of black mangrove (Avicennia germinans). The black mangrove is the true transition plant between land and water. The distinguishing characteristic of the black mangrove are the pencil thin root extensions called pneumatophores which rise out of the anoxic mud. They often form thick mats at the base of the trunk and are used to take in oxygen. Further inland grow the white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa) and the buttonwood (Conocarpus erecta) which is not a true mangrove, but a common associate of mangrove swamps.

Read more on the Wildlife of Mangrove and Coastal Lagoons...

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