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NATURAL HISTORY > Wildlife

Northwestern Belize has a high diversity of wildlife due to extensive areas of intact natural habitat and relatively low levels of human disturbance. The wide range of fauna reflects the diversity of Northern Belize's many habitats. The following are brief descriptions of the more common species you might encounter when visiting each of the different ecosystems of northern Belize. The list is by no means comprehensive.

You can easily access these areas at the Chan Chich/Gallon Jug area, the Rio Bravo Conservation Area, and near the Lamanai Mayan site.

Lowland Broadleaf Forest

Most of the lowland broadleaf forests of northern Belize support healthy populations of all 5 species of wildcat - Jaguar (Panthera onca), Puma (Felis concolor), Ocelot (Felis pardalis), Margay (Felis wiedii) and Jaguarundi (Felis yagouaroundi). NW Belize is an area with perhaps the largest population of wildcats in Belize probably because the natural prey base has not been hunted out.

Spider Monkeys

Two species of monkey inhabit the broadleaf forests of northern Belize. The howler monkey (Alouatta pigra), a large, relatively heavy set primate, can be heard roaring early mornings and evenings. Known in Belize as the "baboon", they live in the tree tops feeding on fruit and leaves. The spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi), known as "monkey" in Belize, also lives in the tree tops, but is much more agile than the howlers, swinging from branch to branch using their arms.

Medium and small sized mammals will probably dominate your wildlife sitings. Herds of 10 or 20 White-tailed deer grazing along the trimmed roadside and second growth bush are common near Gallon Jug. The grey fox, though an arboreal mammal, is a frequent roadside siting as are armadillos and opossums at night. Probably the most frequently seen nighttime mammal is the kinkajou, found high in the canopy and located by their eyeshine.

keel-billed toucan

Search openings in the canopy for the keel billed toucan, Belize's national bird. You can usually hear them even in the thick of the forest as a low, throaty, reptilian sound repeated over and over rrrk-rrrk-rrrk. In fact, because of the dense foliage, you will probably hear more birds than you will see. The Blue-crowned Motmot is a gorgeous bird with a deep-throated double hoot-hoot. Arguably the most beautiful and memorable call comes from the montezuma orependola. This crow sized bird builds large hanging nest high on emergent trees; the song is impossible to describe, but consists of an unforgettable series of bizarre gurgles and hollow popping notes.

Finally, all throughout the northwestern forest, you will encounter the large occellated turkey feeding along roadsides and clearings. As the sun sets, listen for the haunting, eerie, powerful, and quavering whistle of the great tinamou which so typifies nature in the tropics.

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

Pine Ridge/Savanna

At first glance, the pine ridge and savanna habitat appear to be void of wildlife. But wildlife watching often is rewarding. Probably the most frequently seen mammal is the grey fox running along the roadside with its bushy tail waving behind. Grey FoxIt feeds on small mammals and insects. At night, you can hear the nine-banded armadillo snuffling through dead leaves and soil searching for ants, termites and other insects. The puma is the principle top predator of the lowland savanna ecosystem of the north.

Characteristic reptiles include the beautiful rainbow ameiva, an iridescent lizard which feeds predominately on insects. Another extremely common lizard is the anole, a small, plain, greyish lizard perched on branches, shrubs or tuffs of grass. At night you can find the large cane toad, which feeds on almost anything that can fit into its mouth. This toad has a good supply of poison glands on its skin which can cause headaches and nausea if ingested; dogs have died from biting this toad.

vermillion flycatcher Birds are easily seen in the savanna habitat and include such notable species as the king vulture soaring overhead and the yellow-headed parrot and jabiru stork nesting on the top of dead pine trees. Along roadsides you will encounter a pretty white flycatcher with a long forked tail performing dramatic up-down-zigzag flight. The forked-tailed flycatcher is sometimes found in flocks of 30 or more birds in open areas with scattered bushes. Other birds that are mostly restricted to the savanna habitat include the brilliant vermilion flycatcher and the aplomado falcon.

The best way of experiencing the savanna is to hike during the early morning and late afternoon. Use a pair of binoculars. Walk slowly and stop often. Listen. Sounds of insects and birds will carry far in the open country. And if you are lucky enough to venture upon one of the many watering holes, find a dry place to sit down with a good view of the shore.

Read more on the vegetation of Savannas...

Freshwater Rivers, Lagoons, Wetlands and Swamps

Closely associated with the savannas of northern Belize are the freshwater wetlands, including rivers, swamps (bajos) and lagoons. While these wetlands are important flood channels and plains, the rich soil ladened runoff waters are the source of food for plants and invertebrates which make up the lower levels of the food chain. Snail Kite with apple snail This wealth of food attracts a large number of migrant and resident birds.

Common birds of this habitat include the many species of herons and egrets, ibis, woodstorks, spoonbills, and the relatively rare agami and bare-throated tiger herons. Rails are often heard foraging along the banks of lagoons in the tall grass, and anhingas and cormorants feed underwater on the plentiful freshwater fish.

One of the most common and noticeable predators in this habitat is the snail kite, a black hawk-like looking bird with a long hooked bill evolved to extract the body of the apple snail from its shell. This predator is the reason you will find so many large, beautiful shells littering the shoreline of lagoons and rivers of northern Belize.

Morelet's crocodile young

There are two important reptiles that frequent the waterways and lagoons of northern Belize. The hickatee turtle (Dermatemys mawii) lives in the large, deep lowland rivers and lagoons of northern Belize, feeding on leaves and fruit which drop into the river or are carried downstream. The hickatee is widely hunted for its meat. The other reptile is the Morelet's crocodile (Crocodylus moreleti), commonly known as "alligator". The Morelet's lives mainly in inland lagoons and the slow flowing rivers. They feed on any small prey such as birds and small mammals along the shorelines of the wetlands of northern Belize.

Read more on the vegetation of Freshwater Habitats...

Mangrove and Coastal Lagoons

The mangrove and coastal lagoon is home to a rich diversity of marine species both above and below the water. The animals that inhabit the underwater region of this habitat must be able to stand a wide and often sudden change in salinity, but take advantage of the shelter and abundant food source available. Nest of Great EgretBirds, reptiles, invertebrates and mammals also take advantage of the protection of the mangrove trees and vegetation while the rich source of food provides a perfect location for reproduction.

Many waterfowl use the mangrove for nesting. One of the most impressive is the wood stork, one of Belize's largest birds. Their rookeries are restricted to the coastal lagoons, with several large nesting sites accessible with proper guides in the Shipstern Lagoon. Other waterfowl frequenting the coastal mangrove include the many species of heron and egret, ibis, spoonbills and white-crowned pigeons. These birds feed on the abundance of shrimp, crabs, worms, small fish and insects which live in and around the mud and leaf detritus.

Below the waterline, life also flourishes. Many marine invertebrates such as sponges, tunicates, anemones, oysters and barnacles live on the root systems of the red mangrove. The young of commercial marine species such as snapper, grouper, lobster and crabs begin their life in the mangrove before moving out into the deeper marine waters. A snorkel through the rich mangrove lagoons of Bacalar Chico or along the mouths of the many rivers of northern Belize will give you a glimpse of the diversity and richness of this underwater habitat.

West Indian Manatee Common reptiles include the ubiquitous anole lizard, abundantly found on almost any tree trunk. Boa constrictors and other snakes feed on the many insects and young birds raised in the mangrove, as well as the unsuspecting migrants which use the coastal mangrove as a feeding and resting stop during their journeys. The other crocodile species in Belize, the American Crocodile, prefers the salt and brackish water of the coastal lagoons.

Mammals are less abundant, though the racoon and coatimundi are sometimes seen in the mangrove, as well as squirrels. The most impressive mammal you will see while exploring the coastal mangrove habitat is the West Indian Manatee. This endangered species feeds on the turtle grass in the shallows around mangrove islands along the north coast, and is normally seen with just the snout sticking out of the water, or a swirl of mud along side your boat.

Read more on the vegetation of Mangroves...

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