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Animals and Plants of the Ancient Maya

Animals and Plants of the Ancient Maya
A Guide
Introduction by Carlos Galindo-Leal; illustrated by Juan C. Chab-Medina

This field guide highlights nearly 100 species of plants and animals that were significant to the ancient Maya and that continue to inhabit the Maya region today.

January 2002
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373 pages | 6 x 9 | 138 line drawings, 3 maps |

A growing interest in all things Maya brings an increasing number of visitors to prehistoric Maya ruins and contemporary Maya communities in Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, western Honduras, the Yucatán Peninsula, and the southern areas of Chiapas and Tabasco, Mexico. For these visitors and indeed everyone with an interest in the Maya, this field guide highlights nearly 100 species of plants and animals that were significant to the ancient Maya and that continue to inhabit the Maya region today.

Drawing from the disciplines of biology, ecology, and anthropology, Victoria Schlesinger describes each plant or animal's habitat and natural history, identifying characteristics (also shown in a black-and-white drawing), and cultural significance to the ancient and contemporary Maya. An introductory section explains how to use the book and offers a concise overview of the history, lifeways, and cosmology of the ancient Maya. The concluding section describes the collapse of ancient Maya society and briefly traces the history of the Maya region from colonial times to the present.

  • Foreword by Carlos Galindo-Leal
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • The Ancient Maya
    1. The Maya Today
    2. History—The Peopling of Mesoamerica to the Spanish Conquest
    3. Maya Culture
  • Animals and Plants of the Ancient Maya
    1. Pine-Oak Forest
    2. Cloud Forest
    3. Tropical Forest
    4. Savanna
    5. Mangrove
    6. Coral Reef
  • The Environment Today
  • Works Consulted
  • Index

Based in the San Francisco area, Victoria Schlesinger is a writer, conservationist, and outdoor educator who has lived and conducted research throughout the Maya region with the guidance of Stanford University's Tropical Research Program.


The species covered in this guide have been chosen based on the following criteria: the likelihood that a person will encounter the species, its significance to the Maya of the past and the present, and its importance within its ecosystem. Because of this selection process, only a small number of the total species found in the Maya area are discussed at length. The intention here is not to name every species in the Maya area, but to bring to life the interaction between an ancient people and their environment.


As with the species, the vegetation types covered in the guide represent only a small portion of the ecosystems found within the Maya area. In fact, the Maya area contains one of the most diverse ranges of vegetation types found in the world. I have chosen to write about vegetation types people will commonly come across, those which were of recorded significance to the ancient Maya and those which play an important role in the overall natural environment of the Maya area. Each vegetation type is quite broadly defined to encompass as large an area as possible.


The majority of my research has centered on the Classic period in Maya history; as a result, about 65 percent of the species in the guide live primarily in lowland tropical forests, where much of the Classic period unfolded. The ancient Maya species information—religious, consumptive, and practical uses and beliefs about the natural world—comes predominantly from the Classic period, but information is also drawn from the Postclassic period, especially in regard to the coastal species, and the Popol Vuh. I have included only a select number of references to how present-day residents in the Maya area relate to their environment. A good deal of interesting work exists concerning the contemporary environmental views and practices of people living in the area, and I encourage you to seek out these sources; understanding current relationships to the environment is the key to ensuring its survival.


Chapters solely discussing the Maya are intended to be brief and often express the most commonly accepted view on a topic or a view that helps to reveal the relationship of the Maya with their natural world. Citations remain in the text to assist researchers and students; to the layperson, I apologize for the clutter.


To best clear up the ongoing confusion over when to use the term Maya or Mayan, I quote a passage from Robert J. Sharer's The Ancient Maya: "The term 'Maya' is used throughout this book as both a noun, in reference to the Maya people, as in'the Maya,'and as an adjective, as in'Maya books,"Maya writing,'etc. When referring specifically to the language family, however, it is customary to use the term 'Mayan,' as both a noun and an adjective, as in 'the Mayan languages,' 'Proto-Mayan,' 'Yucatec Mayan,' etc."


Each species essay begins with the scientific name of the species, followed by its common names in English, Spanish, and Mayan. In some instances, a name for the species does not exist in one of the languages or is not generally accepted. I have adopted the species name most commonly used in the field regardless of its linguistic origin (such as "ramón" rather than "breadnut" or "chakaj" rather than "gumbo limbo"). However, common names can vary greatly from one area to another.


The species' Mayan names appear in Yucatec Mayan, a language that continues to be spoken by many Maya living in the Yucatan today. Cholan languages and Yucatec Mayan are believed to be the languages most similar to the Mayan spoken during ancient times. The spelling of the Mayan species names adheres to the 1984 alphabet, in an attempt to encourage this relatively new system and to help eliminate the ongoing confusion over how to write in Yucatec Mayan. Other Mayan terms in the text are written as their cited author spelled them.


How to Use This Book


This guide to the Maya area, unique in its essay format, attempts to cater to various situations, interests, and styles. You may read straight though the book as you travel, or while at home, in order to gain the entire story of the Maya area, or you may refer to it for identifying and learning about a specific species.


The book is divided into three parts. The first, titled "The Ancient Maya," contains chapters that discuss the Maya today, the area's history from the peopling of the Americas through the collapse and up to the Spanish Conquest, and ancient Maya culture. These initial chapters lay the foundation for the second part of the book, called "Animals and Plants of the Ancient Maya," which is divided into six ecosystems, ordered from highest (pine-oak forest) to lowest (coral reef) in elevation. Following each ecosystem description is an essay about a specific species, which begins with basic field guide information: identification, habitat, range, similar species, and, in cases where a species is endangered, a warning section describing its status. The essay goes on to cover the natural history of the species, its significance to the ancient Maya (if known), and to some degree its importance or use today. The guide concludes with "The Environment Today," a brief discussion of innuences affecting the environmental situation in the Maya area today and what travelers can do about it.


You will notice that throughout the guide some species' names appear in bold letters while others, in plain text, are followed by their scientific name. Words in bold signal a species or a species within a group which may be read about in depth elsewhere in the guide. Species followed by their scientific name, or those that appear in plain type, are not discussed at any length in the guide.


The three maps of the Maya area reflect the essential perspectives of the book—Maya ruin sites and settlement regions (Map 1), vegetation types of the Maya area (Map 2), and the present-day Maya area (Map 3). Common features appear on each map to help when referencing between them. The metric system, which is most commonly used in scientific research, is also used throughout the book; Figure 1 provides conversion scales to the English system. The key below, which consists of seven vegetation types, may be used while traveling through the Maya area to identify your ecological surroundings. Without a doubt, far more than seven vegetation types exist in the Maya area; interpret the key descriptions liberally. Upon identifying your whereabouts, turn to the section of the book that discusses the vegetation type and the species most commonly and easily found within it. A species essay is listed under the vegetation type in which the species most commonly resides. The regions defined on the vegetation map (Map 2) correspond with the vegetation types discussed in the guide.




Pine-Oak Forest: The mountains, or hills, may rise dramatically or undulate slowly. The air and soil feel dry. Oaks and pines, reaching 10-35 m high, grow in mixed scatterings or in dense stands where a single species of oak or pine dominates. Alder, sweetgum, fir, laurel, dogwood, cypress, and juniper constitute the mixes and stands as well. Dry grasses and scrub cover the soil; accumulations of fallen oak leaves look like drifts of golden coins, and the dry ochre pine needles create a spongy mat of duff.


Cloud Forest: Clouds bump up against the sides of mountains or volcanoes, and, in the sometimes 30 m high forest, they hang wet and gray throughout most of the year. Cloud water settles on leaves and condenses into drops. Epiphytes, tree ferns, mosses, liverworts, and orchids take root on trees; it looks as if the forest floor has been raised into the branches. The understory remains open. Many trees bear thick, leathery leaves and are supported by plank buttresses. Aerial roots dangle down from high branches while ground roots bulge up out of the earth.


Tropical Wet Forest: Trees stretch 30 m or more overhead and the thick mat of their leaves and branches, intertwined with lianas and epiphytes, block the view of the sky—little sunlight reaches the ground floor. Roots radiate from the bases of trees, while buttresses, like those in great cathedrals, rise up along the trunks and help to support the trees in the shallow tropical soil. Between three and five levels of lush vegetation can be distinguished—the lone tallest trees, the closed canopy, shaded palms, and the open forest floor.


Tropical Dry Forest: Trees may reach up as high as 30 m, but many stand closer to 15-20 m; in the very northern Yucatan Peninsula some grow no higher than 8 m. When the dry, hot season comes, the trees drop their leaves, covering the crumbling limestone with drifts of dead foliage. The trees stand skeletal and gray as they do in temperate forests during fall. Water can rarely be found accept for the occasional murky aguada or algae-green cenote.


Savanna: Dry grasses grow in shocks and cockeyed tufts while the trees and shrubs twist in on themselves, their bark thick and scaly. Pines, oaks, palms, nance trees, and chaparro dot the expanse, growing in either clusters or stands. Outcroppings of tropical species, called gallery forests, thrive where water winds its way through the plains. Much of Central America may look like savanna country; in fact, a great difference exists between the species composition of farmed or grazed land and naturally occurring savanna.


Mangrove: Thick, moist air hangs heavy. Dropped and decaying leaves hang too, in the tangle of mangrove branches, which interrupt their fall. Arcing roots sprout from the branches of red mangrove trees and descend into the salty or brackish water. Mats of black mangrove roots grow from the sodden shore like a woody lawn. Tree crabs climb and descend the stilting roots while both shorebirds and forest birds fill the overhead branches.


Coral reef: Coral fans out in crisscrossing nets; antlers of brown coral flex with the current; and tremendous boulders of coral spill with populations of urchins, sea stars, worms, and snails. Fish streaked blue and yellow, with red stripes radiating from each eye, wag by. A silver, rod-shaped barracuda waits motionless as blue neon-striped gobies pick it meticulously clean of parasites. A school of tiny fish drift past a red hill of coral; they look like a cloud passing over a mountain range. Light streams down into the clear sea and the underwater city of coral and fish and invertebrates can be witnessed for tens and hundreds of yards.

Rhinophrynus dorsalis


Ranita boquita, Alma de Vaca (S) Woj much (M)


Identification: The uo toad is a small, rubbery sack of an anuran with beady black eyes. Its grayish to maroon-brown body (5--8.8 cm long) displays a smattering of orange spots and a line running down its back; the females reach a greater size than the males. Thick webbing stretches between the toes of the back feet. Uos call a long-winded "uoooooooh," especially at the beginning of the rainy season (Foster and McDiarmid 1983).


Habitat: Uo toads live in savannas and in seasonally dry forests near temporary water sources, particularly as the long months of rain commence (Lee 1996).


Range: Surviving best at. a low elevation, uo toads reside in various areas from southern Texas to Costa Rica (Lee 1996). Similar species: The uo stands as the only living member of the family Rhinophrynidae (Foster and McDiarmid 1933).


In early May everything living in the Maya area lolls and droops while waiting for the big rain that will bring an end to the heat of the dry season. Buried beneath the splits and cracks of the soil, uo toads wait and call. They call a long, ascending "uoooooooh" that rises up from their mud dens through the packed earth.


The smooth skin of the uo falls like a loose dress around its shapeless body; and as it crawls, its belly brushes the ground. Uos bury and unbury themselves throughout the year. Sometimes they remain underground for a day, though it has been said that they can stay down for a month to two years. With heads facing skyward, the toads shovel out holes that are 7-15 cm deep or deeper, allowing the soil to collapse back in on top of them. They dig caves bigger than themselves and inflate their baggy skin to fill in the hollows; skin melds with the outline of the den, making it difficult to pull an uo from its hole. When a paw or snout or hand comes groping in search of food, the uo excretes a white sticky poison as its last defense. People often have an allergic reaction to the poison; yet the uo is considered a delicacy—and always noted for its tasty fat (Foster and McDiarmid 1983).


Thompson mentioned that Mayas working with him during excavations treated any accidentally unearthed uos with great tenderness. Symbolizing strength, the toad was the co-conspirator of humans in their struggle to survive times of drought (Thompson 1970). Today for some, the uo call heralds the arrival of the rains (Lee 1996).


When the big rain comes, the aguadas fill and the surrounding banks become saturated. Drops seep down into the uo's den and loosen the soil. The toads begin to dig and push their way to the surface, sometimes emerging with a caked-on second skin of dry mud. As the sun sets, they crawl to the water's edge and wait, or inflate their loose skins and float out, like stray balloons, into the aguada's deeper water. The males commence their mating call and, when singing together, can he heard for kilometers (Foster and McDiarmid 1983). This is why the ancient Maya said the uos were the pets, the perambulatory musicians, or the children of Chac, the rain god.


Chac, or Ah Hoyaob, means "sprinklers" or "urinators." They bring or take rain, and in the Maya codices are most often depicted either urinating or pouring water from bowls and gourds. Many Chac gods existed, and each embodied a different quality of thunder, lightning, or rain. The great Chacs lived at the foot of the sky, the sun's birthplace in the east, and the lesser Chacs may have lived in caves or cenotes. They were often depicted riding on the backs of serpents or marked with snake features themselves. Around ruin sites, adorning all types of structures, stone-carved Chacs can easily be identified by their long curling noses (Thompson 1970).


When water becomes scarce and no drenching rain has fallen for months, the people call upon Chac by constructing an altar made of four poles. Six vines stretch overhead from its center, like the threads of a round cobweb (Freidel, Schele, and Parker 1993); Chacs are gods of the number six. Around the altar, in groups of four, nine, and thirteen, sit offerings of maize prepared in any and all forms by the women (Thompson 1970). Meat and chicken are placed on the altar as well. The food is first offered to the gods and then later eaten by the people.


The community's priest (h-men) walks counterclockwise around the al-tar. As he walks he burns copal, soaking the air with smoke and calling to the Otherworld. A man or boy crouches at each corner post. The h-men circles and circles the altar, talking to the spirits, sinking into a trance, and passing through a door into the Otherworld called Xibalba or "the place of awe." The surrounding men (or man) make booming thunder noises and shake water from gourds onto the dry earth. Young boys at each corner pole call "uoooooooh, uoooooooh.' as the uo toad does when buried in the soil and the rains soak through. Or in some areas they also chant "chachalaca, chachalaca,' as the chachalaca fowl do before it rains (Thompson 1970). Al-though the rendition of the ceremony varies from village to village, many people in the Maya area still perform a version of this ritual today (Freidel, Schele, and Parker 1993).


Amazilia t. tzacatl


Colibri colirrufo (S) Ts'unu'un (M)


Identification: A rufous-tailed humminghird measures about 11 cm in length, making it one of the larger lowland hummingbirds. The feathers of its green chest, gray belly, and rust-colored square tail shimmer like scales in the sun. The colors of the female are similar but in muted hues. Her black-tipped bill shows black on top with red underneath, unlike the male's black-tipped red bill. They call an abrupt "tchik-tchik" that may continue for minutes (Howell and Webb 1995).


Habitat: They live in tropical, wet lowland forests and commonly hover in clearings around blooming flowers, at the edge of the forest, or on agricultural land (Howell and Webb 1995).


Range: They range from southeastern Mexico to Ecuador and within the Maya area occur on the Atlantic slope from sea level to 1,200 m (Howell and Webb 1995)


Similar species: The buff-bellied hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis) looks very similar to the rufous-tailed, but its belly is a rich rust color rather than a brownish gray (Howell and Webb 1995).


Rufous-tailed humminghirds dart through the jungle and hover like giant insects over the throats of nectar-filled flowers. By beating the air, they hold their bodies upright while lapping up nectar and inadvertently dusting their needle-thin bills with pollen. Drinking from flower after flower, they pollinate the jungle.


Hummingbirds guard bushes of blooming flowers. When nectar drinkers such as bees, butterflies, or other hummingbirds come to drink, a sole hummingbird lunges at them with its lance beak in an attempt to drive off the competitors. Once the flowers have been drained, the hummingbird moves on, looking for a fresh source of blossoms. The nectar from red-hued flowers, such as hibiscus, is their main source of food.


By beating their wings over a broad leaf covered with water droplets, hummingbirds bathe themselves after a rainfall. The speed of their wings causes the water to spray and settle over their bodies. They also clean themselves by rubbing their face and body up against wet moss.


Rufous-tailed hummingbirds do not usually sit still for more than two minutes at a time except during the mating season when groups of males take to serenading. The same duo or quartet sings together at dawn, oftentimes continuing until the sun comes up. The singing calls of courtship can be heard throughout the year, less the very dry months.


The female hummingbird, unlike most birds, lays eggs throughout most of the year. She weaves a nest from grass, the sticky silk of cobwebs, and kapok fibers into a small open bowl. If nest-building resources become scarce, hummingbirds steal materials from other nests, making it risky to leave their own nest for fear of its destruction. Only the females keep the eggs warm and raise the young. The chicks eat nectar and tiny insects regurgitated by their mother and continue to do so for a month after they first leave the nest. She darts and jabs with her pointed bill at threatening intruders.


Nests are perched on exposed branches so that the mother, with her rapid, jerky movements, can reach it easily; however, this leaves the nest and the young vulnerable. On hot days young hummingbirds may begin to pant in the sun. Their mother stands on the rim of the nest with outspread wings to shade them. After rainstorms she dries the chicks by licking water droplets from their coats. Only about one out of three young survives to an age where it can leave the nest (Skutch 1981).




“Part field guide, part book of vignettes discussing the animals and plants most commonly seen in the Maya area, this fine guide provides a fresh synthesis of anthropological and biological research that will serve as an engaging and practical resource for visitors, students, and burgeoning naturalists.”
Paul R. Ehrlich, President, Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University