At an ecological level, Guatemala presents 7 main ecosystems, one of them considered unique to the country, the Thorn Scrub of the Motagua Valley. These ecosystems are defined by characteristic abiotic factors (such as altitude, temperatureand precipitation), as well as dominant plants composition.
Guatemala’s natural diversity is the result of both historical and geographical factors, especially the ones related to topography and climate. The high and complex biodiversity is product of two pre historical events; the north-south migration due to the closing of the Central American isthmus, and the altitudinal migration and climate changes related to the glaciations.
More than 720 bird species have been reported in Guatemala; about 370 of them are known to breed in the country, but recent data indicate that 116 more should be added to the breeding list. On the other hand a total of 221 species are classified as non-breeding migrants from North or South America In a geographical spatial perspective the Atlantic Slope of Guatemala presents higher species richness values. However the vast majority of regional endemic species are located at the Highlands. Around twenty two (22) species inhabiting the highlands are endemic to the Northern Central American Highlands.
Three (3) more species are endemic to the Northern Central American Pacific Slope and nine (9) species are endemic to the Yucatan peninsula. The species living in the lowlands are more closely related to the South American avifauna; and the ones living in the highlands have North American ancestors.
7 Biomes & Emblematic Birds Of Guatemala
The classification of biomes in this guide is exclusive for Guatemala, categorized and described as distinct biogeographical entities by Villar-Anleu (1998), where he presents several ecosystems that have different structural and functional relations and are also related with the present flora characteristics (Villar-Anleu 1998, Dallies 2008). Accordingly, we describe the seven biomes that you will find in Guatemala, all of them based on Villar-Anleu (1998).
1. Tropical Humid Forest:
This biome is representative of the Petén region, the northern part of Guatemala. It is characterized by its plain land, with poor soils but exuberant jungles, and a very diverse fauna. In this biome several type of vegetation are present, such as high- and low-altitude forest, savanna, and wetlands systems (from lakes and flooding). In general, a Tropical Humid biome is defined by a very hot and humid climate, an altitude below 2953 feet above sea level, and no clear difference between the rainy season and dry season, although it is assumed that the dry season occurs between November and June. The dominant vegetation type is broad-leafed trees, and there are also some pines (Pinus caribbea). The most representative birds in this biome are: Ocellated Turkey, Yucatan Flycatcher, White-browed Wren, Black-throated Shrike-tanager, and Rose-throated Tanager.
Representative of the Northern and Eastern Part of Peten. Characterized by its flat terrain, karstic landscape, exuberant forests and high values of species richness and diversity. The climate is hot and humid; and this is where the Mayan Biosphere Reserve is located. It is the country’s largest remnant of jungle and home of the most spectacular Mayan archeological sites; including Tikal declared as a Cultural and Natural Heritage site by UNESCO. Representative bird species:
2. Tropical Rain Forest:
CONAP photo stockAunque es similar a la Selva Tropical Húmeda, la pluviosidad y humedad atmosférica es mucho más alta, la vegetación es más compleja y se observa mucha similitud con la vegetación suramericana. Con un rango altitudinal desde el nivel del mar hasta 1300msnm, el clima predominante es cálido húmedo y aunque la época seca de verano no está muy definida se puede esperar más lluvias entre junio y octubre. En este bioma se encuentran varios ecosistemas, incluyendo selvas altas perennifolias, sabanas y pastizales asociados, manglares y esteros entre otros. La vegetación dominante son árboles de hoja ancha, aunque hay algunas asociaciones de pinos (Pinus caribea y P. oocarpa). Algunas de las aves de este bioma son: Orange-breasted Falcon, White-crowned Pigeon, White-collared Manakin, Snowy Cotinga, Gray-headed Tanager, Olive-backed Euphonia, Golden-winged Warbler, Green-backed Sparrow.
Somehow similar to a Tropical Humid Forest, but with much higher levels of rainfall and atmospheric humidity, this ecosystem ranges from sea level to 1,300 m (4,290 ft) in altitude. It is the wettest part of the country, and holds several ecosystems, such as bogs, floodable forests, wetlands, estuaries, Caribbean marine coastlands, tall evergreen forests, savannahs and associated grasslands. Representative bird species:
3. Cloud Forest:
With a great complexity in its floristic composition, it is located on mountain slopes, among 3600 to 9514 feet above sea level. This habitat presents a wide biodiversity and associated vegetation (avocados, pine, oaks, and tree ferns); the understory is created by a variety of plants and mosses located in different strata that confers a high complexity, while high in the canopy you can observe a wide diversity of epiphytes due to the high humidity. The climate is temperate and humid during the day, but the nights can be somewhat cold. The high level of rain is characteristic of this biome, occurring generally between the months of April and September. Some birds of this biome are: Horned Guan, Highland Guan, Resplendent Quetzal, Belted Flycatcher, and Pink Headed Warbler.
It presents a complex flora structure in high relief areas ranging from 1,000 to 2,900 m above sea level (3,300 to 9,570 ft). It is characterized by great micro habitat diversity, high levels of atmospheric humidity and exuberant vegetation typical of mixed forest, where mosses and ferns grow. All these characteristics combined make these a high endemism region. Representative bird species:
4. Chaparral or Thorn Dry Scrub:
This is one of the most fragile biomes of the country, with less representation in the protected areas system (SIGAP). It has a discontinuous distribution through the central eastern region of the country, in valleys surrounded by mountains that generate the phenomenon known as rain shadow, creating dry zones as a consequence. The vegetation is typical from arid zones, with abundant cactus and thorn plants, generally deciduous (that means the loss of leaves during the dry season). This biome is located among 328 to 3280 feet above sea level, with a short but very well-marked rainy season between the months of June to October. Some of the birds in this biome are: Lesser Ground-cuckoo, Orange fronted Parakeet, Russet-crowned Motmot, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Cinnamon Hummingbird, White-lored Gnatcatcher, and Altamira Oriole.
This is a very dry region, created by the rain shadow effect of the Sierras de las Minas mountain range. As all dry areas, it has low levels of rainfall and characteristic flora of dry forest and xerophytic areas; well adapted to local conditions. Abundant cacti, acacias, Guayacan trees and low briery, most of them with spines, are common in the region. It is the hottest and driest ecosystems of the country, and considered to be the driest of all Central America. It is one of the most fragile and uniquenatural systems of Guatemala.
5. Mountain Forest:
In this biome the influence of the North American region is evident in biodiversity, as was previously described. The Mountain Forest has few species, with only one stratum differentiated and a very poor forest understory. However, several endemic plants and fauna can be found in this biome, which occupies all the central highlands of Guatemala between altitudinal ranges of 6560 to 13780 feet above sea level. The climate is usually cold, and you can observe seasons related with northern latitudes. Some of the birds that you can observe here are: White-breasted Hawk, Golden-cheeked Warbler, Goldsman´s Warbler, Pine Siskin, and Guatemalan Junco.
This region is very similar to Nearctic forests; where coniferous, birch and oaks are abundant. Its altitudinal range goes from 2,000 to 4,200 m above sea level (6,600 to 13,860 ft). Season changes are quite noticeable in the forest vegetation, passing from the dry to the rainy season. This region is characterized by its volcanic landscape, beautiful Lake Atitlan, and for having the most numerous indigenous populations of Mayans in the country. Representative bird species:
6. Tropical Humid Savannah:
It is located along the Pacific Coast, with an altitudinal range from sea level to nearly 2900 feet above sea level, with predominantly warm weather; the original vegetation (deciduous forest, evergreen forest, savannas, and mangroves) has been transformed and replaced by agricultural landscapes, although in some areas you can still observe remnants of the original vegetation, and rivers going down the volcanic chain towards the sea. Some of the most exciting birds that you can watch in this area are: Common Black-Hawk, White-bellied Chachalaca, Pacific Parakeet, Violet Sabrewing, and Long-tailed Manakin.
Located along the transition zone between the highlands and the Pacific Coast, along the volcanic chain southern slope. It ranges between 800 and 1200 meters above sea level (2,640 to 3600 ft). It is showered by abundant rainfall and broadleaf vegetation dominates the area. This is a very interesting birding region because it presents an ecotone between the highlands and lowlands
7. Subtropical Humid Forest:
This biome, located in the Pacific region known in Guatemala as “Boca Costa”, runs through slopes of the volcanic chain. With an altitudinal range from 2600 to 3900 feet above sea level, there is diverse vegetation and a moderate warm temperature, where the volcanic chain serves as a wind barrier for the humid winds that come from the south; this biome is nevertheless an unusually rainy place. Some birds of this biome are: Red-throated Parakeet, Blue-tailed Hummingbird, Azure-rumped Tanager, and Prevost´s Ground Sparrow.
The southern coast of the country used to be a tropical rainforest. Due to its fertile soils, the area has been turned into agricultural fields, where sugarcane dominates, as well as rubber, macadamia and African palm plantations. A few remnants of original vegetation to this region maintain local biodiversity in evergreen tropical forests along watersheds, savannahs and mangrove forests; that protects local biodiversity and creates an interesting habitat for thousands of resident and migratory bird species.
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