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A Natural History of Belize

A Natural History of Belize
Inside the Maya Forest

Written for a popular audience and richly illustrated, this book presents the first detailed portrait of the habitats, biodiversity, and ecology of Belize, one of the earth's most biologically profuse places.

Series: Corrie Herring Hooks Endowment, Number 67

January 2012
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400 pages | 7 x 9.875 | 199 color photos, 6 line drawings, 3 maps |

Belize's Chiquibul Forest is one of the largest remaining expanses of tropical moist forest in Central America. It forms part of what is popularly known as the Maya Forest. Battered by hurricanes over millions of years, occupied by the Maya for thousands of years, and logged for hundreds of years, this ecosystem has demonstrated its remarkable ecological resilience through its continued existence into the twenty-first century. Despite its history of disturbance, or maybe in part because of it, the Maya Forest is ranked as an important regional biodiversity hot spot and provides some of the last regional habitats for endangered species such as the jaguar, the scarlet macaw, Baird's tapir, and Morelet's crocodile.

A Natural History of Belize presents for the first time a detailed portrait of the habitats, biodiversity, and ecology of the Maya Forest, and Belize more broadly, in a format accessible to a popular audience. It is based in part on the research findings of scientists studying at Las Cuevas Research Station in the Chiquibul Forest. The book is unique in demystifying many of the big scientific debates related to rainforests. These include "Why are tropical forests so diverse?"; "How do flora and fauna evolve?"; and "How do species interact?" By focusing on the ecotourism paradise of Belize, this book illustrates how science has solved some of the riddles that once perplexed the likes of Charles Darwin, and also shows how it can assist us in managing our planet and forest resources wisely in the future.

  • Foreword by Stephen Blackmore
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Out of the Ocean: The Origins of Belizean Life
  • Chapter 2. The Chiquibul Forest and Belize's Terrestrial Ecosystems
  • Chapter 3. From the Ancient Maya to the New Millennium: A History of Forest Use in the Chiquibul and Belize
  • Chapter 4. The Fauna of the Chiquibul
  • Chapter 5. Rhythm and Recovery: Ecological Associations, Seasonality, Hurricanes, and Forest Dynamics
  • Appendix A. Provisional Amphibian Species Checklist of the Chiquibul
  • Appendix B. Provisional Reptile Species Checklist of the Chiquibul
  • Appendix C. Provisional Mammal Species Checklist of the Chiquibul
  • Appendix D. Provisional Bird Species Checklist of the Chiquibul
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Samuel Bridgewater is an Associate Researcher with the Natural History Museum, London, and the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. He was formerly Research Station Manager at Las Cuevas in Belize. He is a field botanist, ecologist, and ethnobotanist with more than twenty years' experience working in Brazil, Peru, and Belize. He currently divides his time between Wester Ross, Scotland, where he coordinates a landscape partnership initiative, and Belize, where he continues to conduct ecological research.


The Maya Forest is the second-largest continuous expanse of moist tropical forest in South and Central America after Amazonia. Battered by hurricanes for millions of years, occupied by Maya Indians for thousand of years, and logged for hundreds of years, the continued existence of this forest into the twenty-first century is a testament to its remarkable ecological resilience.


Despite its history of disturbance, or maybe because of it, the Maya Forest is ranked as an important global biodiversity hotspot. It occurs within the confines of Central America, which itself is recognized as one of the most significant ecological areas in the world on account of its great biological diversity and the unusually high number of animals and plants unique to the region. Stretching across the Yucatán region of southern Mexico, Belize, and northern Guatemala and extending into peripheral areas of southern Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the Maya Forest is known locally as La Selva Maya. Its wildlife includes a range of animal species unknown even from other parts of Central America, including eleven species of mammals, twenty species of birds, thirty-nine species of reptiles, and eleven species of amphibians. It is also a center of plant diversity, provides some of the last regional habitats for endangered species such as the jaguar, the scarlet macaw, Baird's tapir, and Morelet's crocodile, and forms a critical component of the internationally supported Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which was conceived with the aim of maintaining regional ecological connectivity across Central America. As such, La Selva Maya is considered a top priority for conservation protection by many international organizations.


When combined with the Caracol Archaeological Reserve that lies within its confines, the Chiquibul Forest covers 177,000 hectares of the Maya Mountain Massif of Belize and is an integral part of the wider international Maya Forest. Bordered and buffered by eight complementary national Belizean reserves, the Chiquibul Forest is also contiguous with adjacent protected areas in the Petén region of Guatemala. Together these conservation units cover an area of outstanding natural beauty in excess of 500,000 hectares and encompass what is known as the Chiquibul-Maya Mountains Key Biodiversity Area (CMMKBA).


Historical Context


Three centuries ago the Spanish and British fought over Belize's natural resources. Spain claimed territorial rights over this entire section of Central America, although Britain held colonial settlements in the small coastal territory that would later become known as British Honduras and eventually Belize. In 1859 a treaty between Guatemala (which had become independent from Spain in 1839) and Britain sought to end the dispute over the boundaries between Guatemala and British Honduras. The agreed frontier ran north to south directly through the dense forest now known as the Chiquibul. The treaty obligated both parties to jointly improve trade and establish communication between the countries by means of a road from Guatemala City in the west to the British settlement on the coast in the east. Eighty years later, however, Guatemala declared the treaty void, claiming that Britain had not upheld its part of the agreement. Dispute and conflict over the border has dominated the politics of the region ever since and remains a cause of fluctuating tension today. While the border is still contested, its general location is visible when viewed from space, with satellite images revealing a reasonably clear demarcation line: forest generally occurs on the Belizean side to the east with urban development and agricultural areas tending to define the Guatemalan side to the west.


Long before any border disputes, in fact long before any demarcated borders, the forest was home to the sophisticated and culturally advanced Maya civilization. Even during this era, however, territorial conflicts existed between adjacent city-states, with regional centers of power waxing and waning in their sphere of influence. With a population believed to have reached close to four million at its peak, the lowland Maya dominated the land for three thousand years. Their traditional territory extended from the southeastern Mexican states into Guatemala and included Belize, northern Honduras, and parts of El Salvador. This was a civilization that rose from the very depths of the tropical forest and initially flourished within it, although the Maya undoubtedly cleared great tracts of forest as their civilization grew. Archaeologists have discovered Mayan settlements, temples, and great cities throughout the region, with the center of this culture focused on the southern lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula. The large, internationally famous Caracol Maya archaeological site, for example, is located within the heart of the Chiquibul Forest. Reputedly stretching over sixty-five square miles, at its height this city and its immediate environs had a population of more than 120,000. Indeed it is difficult to walk anywhere in the Chiquibul jungle today without stumbling across the crumbling remains of past Mayan occupation. The evidence suggests that much of the area we know as forest today was replaced by an agricultural landscape during this period. As the Maya Classic period progressed from ca. AD 250 onward, large-scale agriculture, construction, and urbanization initiated a period of unprecedented cultural and religious development. The Maya developed an empire that consisted of numerous independent and interdependent states, including the famous archaeological sites of Palenque (Mexico), Copán (Honduras), and Tikal (Guatemala). They participated in long-distance trade, not just among themselves but also with other neighboring Amerindian groups. Goods such as salt, cotton, fish, cacao, jade, and obsidian fueled their growing economies. As their population grew, they learned how to make marginal land agriculturally productive and farmed steep hillsides and swamps. They domesticated animals. They had scientists, astronomers, and teachers who studied the skies and seasons and developed complex systems for reading, writing, and arithmetic. They had rulers, statesmen, and priests, who made laws, formed governments, initiated wars, and predicted catastrophic events.


However, during and subsequent to the ninth century in a period known as the Terminal Classic, many lowland cities went into decline and were subsequently abandoned. The reasons for this remain shrouded in mystery and form part of the great Maya enigma. While no theory is universally accepted, some researchers support environmental and political explanations for the fall of regional city-centers, with warfare, crop failure, epidemic disease, and drought all variously invoked.


By the time the Spanish arrived in Central America six hundred years later in the early sixteenth century, some of the major centers of Maya population in Belize had been abandoned, leaving the lowland to be reclaimed by forest, although smaller towns and villages persisted in favored areas. In the 1600s British pirates and buccaneers who had previously been plying their trade pillaging Spanish ships in the Bay of Honduras discovered they could make a good living by cutting and selling logwood and, later, mahogany and Spanish cedar. These hardy men became known as the Baymen and originally settled to the north of what is now Belize City. The British and Spanish continued to have numerous disputes over ownership of the territory, but after the Baymen successfully won the Battle of St. George's Caye against the Spanish in 1798, the British gained full control of the settlement, affirmed by its subsequent appointment as a fully fledged colonial state in 1862. Forestry dominated the economic activity of the colony throughout much of its subsequent life, and as it flourished, logging pushed ever deeper into the inland territory, eventually encroaching into the Chiquibul in the early decades of the twentieth century. The influence of forestry suppressed the development of other social and economic activities such as agriculture, although overexploitation of the country's timber resources and the appearance of new markets for natural wild-harvested products resulted in moderate diversification of forest use. Exports of chicle, the basis of chewing gum, extracted from the sapodilla tree (Manilkara spp.), strengthened the economy from the late 1800s. Indeed, the Chiquibul Forest derives its name from its association with the sapodilla (also known as chicle) tree. The fruits of allspice (Pimenta dioca) were also collected and exported as a preservative and culinary flavoring. However, over time these resources also became uneconomical to harvest and have not been extracted from Belize in significant quantities since the 1950s. With little financial incentive to keep them there, the British began to withdraw.


In 1964 British Honduras attained self-government and in June 1973, in recognition of its developing national identity, the official name of the country was changed to Belize. Full independence, however, was not achieved until September 21, 1981. On this date George Price—the "father of the nation"—became the country's first prime minister. The government of Belize has alternated periodically ever since between the two main political forces, the People’s United Party (PUP) and the United Democratic Party (UDP).


Today Belize has a population of approximately 300,000 and one of the lowest population densities in the region. Most of the country's populace live within the coastal and lowland zones centered upon the towns of Corozal, Orange Walk, Belize City, Dangriga, and Punta Gorda. Relatively few sizable settlements occur inland, with the notable exceptions of San Ignacio and Belmopan, the capital. The country is culturally diverse: much of the population consists of Mopan, Yucatec and Kekchi Maya and Mestizo, Creole and Garifuna peoples of Mesoamerican, European, and African extraction. In part, the current ethnic mix of Belize relates to the early days of the timber industry when slaves were brought from Africa to cut logs. Over the last four decades there has been a steady increase in the population and cultural diversity of the country due to immigration from Guatemala and other neighboring Latin American countries, North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. With this population increase there has been an associated increase in deforestation due to a rise in both intensive and traditional slash-and-burn agricultural practices. Part of the former is driven by the Mennonites, a group originating in the Netherlands that arrived in Belize via Mexico in 1958. Despite the forward march of development, Belize—unlike many Central American countries—still has much of its natural resources intact, with about a quarter of its territory under some form of protection, including ca. 167,000 hectares (4 percent) designated as National Park and ca. 380,000 hectares (9 percent) as Extractive Forest Reserve.




Belize is one of the smallest countries in Central America, measuring ca. 280 kilometers from north to south and 110 kilometers from east to west, with a land area of approximately 22,960 square kilometers. It is located on the eastern seaboard of the Yucatán Peninsula with Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the south and west. The climate is subtropical, tempered by trade winds coming off the Caribbean Sea. The mean annual temperature ranges from 27ºC in coastal districts to 21ºC in the Maya Mountains, although there is considerable annual variation. Temperatures at Las Cuevas, for example, can fall below 10ºC at night during the first three months of the year and rise as high as 39ºC during the hottest month (May), although the average annual daily temperatures typically vary between 19ºC (January) and 27ºC (May). For the most part, across the country temperatures generally remain consistently hot, except when Belize experiences short-lived weather systems from the north (northers). The humidity of the country is also high, due in part to the influence of the trade winds collecting moisture over the Caribbean Sea before reaching the country. Despite its small size, annual precipitation varies greatly across the territory, with the south receiving four times as much as the north. Rainfall is not even throughout the year but highly seasonal—especially in the north of the country—with the dry season typically lasting between February and May. The annual rainfall at Las Cuevas varies between 1,500 and 1,800 millimeters, with the wettest months typically being July through to October.


Geographically the country can be divided into four distinct regions: the northern lowlands, the coastal plain, the offshore cays and atolls, and the Maya Mountains and their foothills.


The northern lowlands are characterized by broadleaf forest and pine savanna occurring on limestone-derived alkaline soils and sandy acidic soils of granitic, fluvial (riverine), and marine origin respectively. Wetland swamps, freshwater rivers, and lagoons are also common throughout this region. One of Belize's most important export crops is sugarcane, with the industry centered in the northern districts of Orange Walk and Corozal. This region is also home to significant communities of agriculturally productive Mennonites, who have converted large tracts of forest to grow a broad range of crops, including rice, millet, corn, and sorghum and who supply much of the local markets with poultry and eggs.


Much of the coastal plain region is formed from erosional deposits of the rocks that form the Maya Mountains. Across this area the soils are frequently acidic and infertile and covered by various forms of pine savanna; however, soils of high fertility also exist and such pockets in Stann Creek and Toledo Districts are often farmed for citrus and bananas, two other important export commodities. Mangrove forests line the country's coastal edge, although much of this ecosystem has been heavily cleared in recent years to make way for coastal developments.


Despite the wildlife attractions of the inland territory, the majority of Belize's tourists come to spend time exploring the offshore cays and atolls that form part of the second largest barrier reef in the world. Extending for 281 kilometers, this biodiverse ecosystem is one of Belize's greatest natural resources and the principal lure for the 250,000 international travelers that visit annually. Tourism is the country's most important service sector and represents over a fifth of the gross domestic product. The landscape of this region is dominated by sandy cays, coastal lagoons, and mangrove forest.


The Maya Mountains are a complex amalgamation of sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous rocks, dominated by submontane and montane broadleaf forest. The area also includes the Mountain Pine Ridge, a region largely defined by dense forms of pine savanna over granitic and acidic metamorphic rocks. The geology of the inland part of this region dates back to the mid-Paleozoic era ca. 400 million years ago (MYA) and includes the area known as the Chiquibul. This national park and forest reserve area covers much of the northwestern part of the Maya Mountains and is underlain largely by metamorphosed sedimentary mudstones and shales supporting acidic soils of low fertility. Limestone was deposited over these substrates in all but the highest mountain areas during the Cretaceous era when Belize lay under a shallow tropical sea. However, much of this calcium-rich bedrock has long since eroded away. The resulting complex mosaic of lime-rich (to the west) and acid soils provides the canvas for the development of the rich assemblage of plant species characteristic of the Chiquibul today. Rolling karst hills with numerous subterranean caves dominate the western expanse of the area, with sloping mountainous terrain underlain by sedimentary and metamorphic bedrock defining the eastern region.


Belize is renowned for having one of the highest national proportions of its territory under some degree of protection. Although there is an extremely comprehensive network of conservation areas, in reality, some have become what the literature refers to as "paper parks" in the sense that they are legally designated but either lack strategic long-term visions and management plans or suffer from inadequate funding and protection. Many have also been encroached by landless refugees from neighboring countries, are exploited legally and illegally for timber and extractive products, or suffer from internal agricultural incursions and settlements. Some are even threatened with losing their protected status altogether. Belize is currently experiencing relatively high rates of deforestation (about 2 percent per annum), and it is predicted that just under 60 percent of original forest cover will remain by 2020.


The management of protected areas in Belize is the subject of increasing debate as the country struggles to reconcile social and economic development with environmental protection. The pressures on Belize's protected areas are increasing as consumption of natural resources, coupled with agricultural expansion, fuels the demand for the release of land previously designated as conservation areas. The most recent manifestation of development threatening the ecological integrity of the Chiquibul region was the completion of the controversial hydroelectric Chalillo Dam in 2005. The main rivers of note running through the Chiquibul are the Raspaculo River, the Macal River, the Chiquibul River, the Ceibo Grande River, and the Ceibo Chico River. Together they provide the lifeline to many terrestrial species as well as to aquatic animals, particularly during the dry season when food shortages and lack of water create particularly challenging conditions. The Chalillo Dam, located on the Macal River in the north of the region where it borders the Mountain Pine Ridge, has permanently inundated a significant proportion of the area's riverine habitat and altered the aquatic ecology of the region. Without doubt, the dam has had a serious environmental impact in the area, not least of which is the loss of crucial areas of habitat for endangered species such as the Baird's tapir and the scarlet macaw. The dam has also greatly increased access into this previously remote region, and it is highly likely that other infrastructure projects will follow. This project was the second of three dams planned for this river system. The governmental rationale for the project was to increase the country's independence in electrical energy, much of which is currently imported from Mexico.


The Chiquibul


The western region of Belize known as the Chiquibul covers an area of some 177,000 hectares and is the largest protected area in the country. It includes the Caracol Archaeological Reserve (CCR), designated in 1995; the Chiquibul Forest Reserve (CFR), designated in 1956; and the Chiquibul National Park (CNP), designated in 1991. The CFR initially covered the majority of the area and was managed primarily for timber production. Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) and Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) were the primary species extracted, along with smaller amounts of other secondary hardwoods such as Santa Maria (Calophyllum brasiliense) and nargusta (Terminalia amazonia). Pine (Pinus spp.) has also been logged from islands of pine savanna occurring within the broadleaf forest. Intense lobbying by conservationists in the 1980s, however, led to part of the reserve being reclassified as a national park under the National Parks System Act in 1991. It remains legal to extract timber and other natural resources from the CFR under government license, although the national park area is theoretically inviolate. In the late 1990s, both boundaries were once again reevaluated with the entire area redesignated in May 1998. These subsequent changes have been made to account for environmental, biodiversity, and timber production characteristics under the auspices of the Forest Planning and Management Project (FPMP). The boundaries have now been redrawn to encapsulate not only the core timber production area in the reserve and the protective buffer zone in the national park, but also a 100-hectare working circle around Las Cuevas Research Station, designated specifically to conduct research.


In addition to logging and large-scale governmental development projects, multiple critical issues face the conservation of biodiversity in the Chiquibul, including hunting, looting of Maya archaeological sites, and Guatemalan incursions for milpa farming. Some of these activities are associated with the Chamaedorea industry, which supplies a source of greenery for the international floricultural industry through the collection of the leaves of this widespread understory palm. This activity has occurred in the region throughout much of the last decade. Leaf harvesting was initially undertaken primarily by Guatemalans crossing the border illegally, although legal Belizean concessions were granted within the CFR in 2004. However, even in its legalized form doubt remains regarding the sustainability of the industry.


It is clear that if conserved areas are to be managed sustainably, they need to compete effectively with other land uses in contributing to both the economic and social development of the country as well as in fulfilling Belize's obligations under the Convention of Biodiversity. Agencies with management responsibilities for protected areas therefore face a challenging situation requiring a strategic, multiuse approach that is both socioeconomically and ecologically sustainable. Accordingly, the management of protected areas in Belize has shifted considerably in recent years away from governmental control. A relatively new development is the appearance of joint-management agreements between nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the state, with a diverse range of stakeholders involved in decision making. On June 1, 2007, one such agreement was signed between the Belize Forest Department and Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), providing a continuous management presence in the Chiquibul for the first time. With funding from Conservation International through the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) and the Belizean Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT), FCD provides rangers who conduct patrols and man checkpoints within the forest to ensure that the environmental laws of Belize are being monitored and enforced. Previously, the limited resources of the Belize Forest Department meant that the state could maintain only a sporadic presence in this remote region. FCD has also facilitated formal discussions among key Belizean institutions and bilateral partners in Guatemala to produce a common vision for the Chiquibul and neighboring forest ecosystems. In addition, the Belize Forest Department is keen to consolidate many of the country's existing protected units into larger, ecologically resilient management areas; in the future it is possible that the fourteen national protected areas that cover the Maya Mountain Massif may be managed as a single entity.


Las Cuevas


In 1992 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the government of Belize and the Natural History Museum of London (NHM). Under its terms, a research station, with financial assistance from the British High Commission in Belize was to be established in the Chiquibul Forest. Its mission was to document and make known the biological diversity of the area and contribute practical knowledge to the sustainable development of the region. Constructed by British Army Engineers, Las Cuevas Research Station became operational two years later. The varied topography, geology, hydrology, and strong seasonality of rainfall within the region have combined to create a complex mosaic of ecosystems that have excited the interest of scientists. Since its establishment, researchers from around the world have visited the station to study the region's biodiversity. Operated by the Natural History Museum for the first decade of its life, management of the station is now the responsibility of the Las Cuevas Trust, a consortium of Belizean and international partners. In its early days the work at Las Cuevas focused on describing and recording the constituent species of the forest, playing to the taxonomic strengths of the NHM. In more recent years, however, there has been a rise in applied ecological projects. The importance of the scientific work conducted at Las Cuevas and at Belize's other ecological research stations is highlighted by the sobering fact that in the last fifty years more than 70 percent of Central America's natural vegetation cover has been cleared and the wildlife that once occupied the region's vast swaths of jungle now survive in only a few fragmented pockets of forest, with the Maya Forest acting as a particularly important oasis of biodiversity within a sea of cultivated land. As Central America's population grows, agriculture devours ever more forest each year. There are many disturbing examples of countries that have almost entirely lost their biological heritage due to these pressures, compounded by urban expansion and the production of internationally traded commodities such as beef, coffee, and sugar. The Chiquibul and associated Belizean forest areas are unusual in that they still represent an area of outstanding biodiversity and are one of the last remaining true wilderness areas of Central America. It is here, more than anywhere in the region, that there is still a chance for nature in its full glory to be conserved and there exists the possibility of finding a balance between conservation and development—a balance that not only provides for the needs of the Belizean people but also safeguards the forest's rich biological heritage.


This book illustrates how science can help us understand the ecological foundations of the forest ecosystem and, in so doing, improve our ability to protect and manage it wisely. It draws on local and regional research findings to provide a popular portrait of the biodiverse and resilient Chiquibul. It does not provide the last word on the matter—no natural history book ever can—as much remains to be discovered. There are also considerable disciplinary biases related to the focus of the scientists that have visited the area. Research in the region is ongoing, and every year scientists return to Las Cuevas to continue their studies. As new data is collected, theories are amended and species records updated. Of necessity, much subject matter has been omitted from the book due to the constraints of space. Thus, for example, insects are not included. This super-diverse and ecologically important group deserves a book in its own right, although it may be many years before the information exists for such a book to be written. As in most tropical regions, insects remain among the poorest studied and the least understood class of animals, despite being of critical conservation significance. Nevertheless, regardless of its shortcomings, this book provides what we believe is a useful summary of the current state of ecological knowledge for the area, interpreting and presenting information from an extensive series of specialist peer-reviewed papers, reports, and theses of wide taxonomic, ecological, and conservation focus and placing this information in the public domain. In so doing, it is hoped that this book will stimulate further research within the Chiquibul and facilitate enjoyment, understanding, and the conservation of this fabulous region.



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