Allow us to introduce the fascinating and abundant tropical biology of Belize. We have highlighted some of the interesting wildlife and plant life you will encounter snorkeling, diving, hiking and paddling in Belize.
Tropical forests of Belize
Tropical rainforests encompass only seven percent of the planet yet harbor over 50 percent of the earth's species. In the mist shrouded Maya Mountains thrive some of the richest rainforests in Central America. Unlike many countries in the region, Belize has been able to protect almost 65 percent of its original forest cover. Once you enter the rainforest, toucans, flocks of scarlet macaw and troops of howler monkey may be encountered at any time.
The phenomonal abundance of biology found in such a small country is the result of a small population and a unique diversity of habitats - the coastal mangrove forests, the mountain pine forest in the west, and the mixed pine and oak forests, pine savannah in the north. In a matter of hours you can travel from coral reefs and sun-bright tropical islands to pristine rainforests teeming with tropical wildlife.
The Barrier Reef & Atolls
The reef system offshore of Belize is a biological gem among the world's tropical marine habitats. It is an example of how a communithy of animals can profoundly change geography. This living wall of coral animals extends north and south for hundreds of miles, shielding the coast of Belize from the full force of the sea. Islands are formed behind the reef crest through wave action and erosion of reef building organisms. In the lagoons, mangroves are able to colonize and thrive in shallow protected waters. Their submerged roots trap sediments which build more land and provide critical habitat for juvenile fish, countless marine invertebrates and many species of birds.
Glover's, Lighthouse and Turneffe atolls lie 20 to 30 miles further offshore of the barrier reef, on the edge of the deep Caribbean trench. These remote island and coral reef habitats are indisputably the richest marine habitats in all of Belize and perhaps the entire Caribbean.
"In addition to taking part in fun, exciting and new experiences, the guides allow ample opportunity for the students to take charge of their own learning. For example, the students were encouraged to use the resources available at each site to read and learn more about the different flora and fauna they were seeing." They became experts on their own different topics and we were able to learn from each other."
-Tony Rino & Lisa Carroll, Teachers, St Peters School
West Indian Manatee
Known in Belize as the "sea cow", the West Indian Manatee is a little-known marine mammal that inhabits the nutrient rich estuaries, coastal regions and the reefs offshore of Belize. Adults grow to 12 feet long and can weigh over 1000 pounds. Classified in the Order Sirenia, manatees are distantly related to the elephant. Their evolutionary path is thought to have split some 50 million years ago when a related species adapted to a marine environment characterized by shallow seas with extensive underwater sea grass meadows. It is thought that the origin of the fabled mermaid comes from sailors (perhaps after a long time at sea) encountering the female Manatee which has distinct human-like breasts. Today, manatees are endangered in much of their habitat, and Belize is one of the last strongholds for this marine herbivore.
Known locally as the "mountain cow", the Baird's Tapir is Belize's national animal. It is the largest mammal to roam the tropical rainforest and can weigh up to 650 pounds. The tapir is closely related to the horse and hippopotamus. This herbivor spends approximately 90 percent of its waking hours hunting for food. Its long, flexible upper lip and flat molars are well suited for foraging and swallowing twigs, nuts, and other tough plant tissues found throughout river basins in Belize. The tapir has limited vision, but an excellent sense of smell and hearing. As the tapir is largely nocturnal, it relies more on these two senses.
The queen angelfish is one of the most beautiful fish in the Caribbean basin. It is easily distinguished from other western Atlantic angelfish by its brilliant blue and yellow coloring, and the dark, ringed spot with blue dots on its forehead that resembles a crown. The queen angelfish can be found in nearshore shallows, as well as the deepest portion of the reef where the lack of light inhibits coral growth. The adults feed on sponges, tunicates, corals, and algae. They have small protractile mouths that contain slender brush-like teeth in a narrow band. The adults are found in pairs year round, perhaps suggesting a long-term monogamous bond.
The kinkajou, known as the "night walker" in Belize, is a nocturnal animal which lives among the upper canopy of the tropical forest. They feed mainly on fruit and insects. In the dry season, they often eat flowers for their nectar.
A relative of the raccoon, the kinkajou is extremely agile and fast, traveling quickly along the tree tops, jumping noisily from tree to tree. The long prehensile tail is used to balance and hold on while traveling among the tree tops. The kinkajou is one of the most commonly seen tropical forest animals. A strong flashlight shone into the canopy will often reveal the kinkajou - its tremendous eyeshine which can be seen from a great distance.
The snowy egret is a slender, graceful heron that forages in marshlands. The snowy egret feeds in all the shallow waters of Belize. This bird coils its sinewy neck, ready to spear prey. Prey includes fish, aquatic invertebrates and reptiles. During the drier months, the bird will stalk small mammals, snails and nesting birds.
During the early nineteenth century, the breeding plumage was in wide demand for use on womens' hats. Heavy hunting nearly drove the species to extinction before public demand resulted in laws to protect the bird. Today, pollution and habitat loss has caused their numbers to decline worldwide.
Black Howler Monkey
The Black Howler Monkey, known locally as the "baboon", is the largest monkey in Belize and one of the largest in the Americas. Throughout most of its range, the Howler Monkey is endangered from hunting and habitat destruction. Fortunately, Belize has a healthy population of these loudest of primates.
The Black Howler lives in troops of four to eight monkeys. Each troop has its own territory in which it feeds and lives. The size of the territory depends on the size of the troop, ranging from three to 25 acres. Howler monkeys are vegetarians, feeding on flowers, fruits and leaves. Baboons defend this territory from other troops through the use of their voices. The howling is one of the loudest animal sounds in the tropical forest of Belize.
Ocelots are nocturnal and diurnal, feeding mainly on the ground. Although they are excellent climbers, they rarely climb trees. They hunt along open trails at night, and stay hidden within the deeper bush during the day.
Ocelots feed on small mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. The Belizean name for the ocelot is the same as the margay "tiger cat". The name "ocelot" comes from the Mexican Aztec word "tlalocelot" meaning field tiger. Ocelots appear to be better adapted to habitat disturbance and can live in disturbed forest. They can be found in a variety of habitats, from dry scrub to dense forests.
The ocelot is an endangered species throughout its territory which spans the extreme southern United States to Argentina. The ocelot's fur is very beautiful and has been long sought after for fur coats. Fortunately, the United States banned importation of ocelot pelts in 1972.
The osprey is known in Belize as the "billy hawk". The osprey spends its summers along the lakes, rivers and seacoasts of the United States, Canada and Alaska, then travels southward to its winter nesting grounds in South America, Central America, and the southern United States. This bird is found throughout the world, except in the polar regions.
The osprey are similar in size to eagles, with the females being slightly larger than the males, have a dark-brown upper body, with a spotted / white head, throat and undersides; the back, nape, tail and back of the head are dark brown. A black eye stripe is located behind the eye. Look for the crook in the wing and the black "wrist" mark in flight to differentiate this bird from the Bald Eagle.