Biodiversity Hotspots Lab- Mesoamerica Hotspot


This project explores biodiversity and affords the opportunity to learn what biological “hotspots” are and why they are threatened. Through research one will learn about endangered species in the selected hotpot and the awareness of human effects/impacts on biodiversity. This lab also allows one to see what is being done in regard to preservation of the selected hotspot.

The Earth’s Hotspots
Retrieved from: on 5/7/12


Hotpots are biologically diverse areas that contain extremely high levels of endemic (native; found only in a specific place) plant species. “To qualify as a hotspot, a region must meet two strict criteria: it must contain at least 1,500 species of vascular plants (> 0.5 percent of the world’s total) as endemics, and it has to have lost at least 70 percent of its original habitat.” (Retrieved from: on  5/06/12)

These hotspots are important as we face extinction of many species all over the world. Hotspots are places that can be considered irreplaceable, as they contain high percentages of endemic plants (and various mammal, amphibian, bird, fish, and reptile species) that can be found nowhere else. Once they are gone, they are gone forever. Already, there is an unknown decrease in the world’s amphibians. The Earth is one big interconnected web of life and ecosystems… what effects one species will ripple out and effect many, many, more.

I utilized Conservation International’s website to learn about hotspots and specifically chose the Mesoamerican hotspot to explore. This hotspot’s forests are the 3rdlargest among the world’s hotspots and contain approximately 17,000 plant species of which 17.3% are endemic. The Mesoamerican hotspot encompasses all tropical and subtropical ecosystems from central Mexico to the Panama Canal; the northern arm stretches to Sinaloa on the Pacific coast; eastern arm stretches to the middle of Sierra Madre Oriental on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico; then down south encompassing Central America; also includes many offshore and near shore islands in the Caribbean and Pacific. Within this vast expanse lie a complex mosaic of dry forests, montane forest, and lowland moist forest that range from coastal swamps on the Pacific coast to broad leafed and coniferous forests in higher lands, to rain forest east of the mountains of the Caribbean lowlands, and hardwood forests occupy steep and cloud shrouded slopes to the south.

This hotspot also yields high rates of endemic species of reptile (34.7%), fish (66.8%), and amphibians (64.5%). Endemic animals include the beautiful quetzal (a bird with emerald and crimson plumage) and the jaguar whose jaws have the strongest crushing power of all the Earth’s large cats. Chiapas and Guatemala are considered a center of origin and dispersal for tropical salamander species (120 of 160 species endemic). There are many species of endemic trees that are also considered valuable timber: Spanish cedar, Pacific Mahogany (nearly wiped clean from much of its natural range), Big Leaf Mahogany, and Rosewood. This hotspot also contains more than 300 cacti species of which approximately 85% can only be found in the Mexican portion of the hotspot.

As it only requires 1,500 species of vascular plants to be considered a hotspot, this area far exceeds this minimum with its 17,000 species. Plant endemism is highest in the mountainous regions of Southern Mexico and Guatemala. This area represents the confluence of fauna/flora from two biogeographic regions (Nearctic- North America and Neotropical-South America/Caribbean) as it has served as a land bridge for 3 million years allowing species to flow in both directions. This region is also the convergence place for 3 out of 4 major migratory bird routes in the western hemisphere!!

Jungle in Guatemala
Retrieved from: on 5/7/12

There is much poverty and some violence within the area of the Mesoamerican hotspot. Population growth rates are higher than many other hotspots around the world. This proves that much more difficult in preservation as the local people struggle to survive and provide the basic necessities of life. Areas of forest that had remained pristine and intact are opening up as the use of machinery for logging has become available. The poor people clear adjacent lands (from roads) to use for agriculture. This land has poor soil that becomes unproductive and then is sold to cattle ranchers as more trees are cleared for more agriculture and the cycle continues. Settlements border the protected areas (most parks and protected areas are only on paper as they have inadequate management/enforcement) and the locals must poach for food or clear land for agriculture to feed their families.

The largest concern in this region seems to stem from the logging and deforestation. This became most troublesome due to “technology” and the use of machinery. In the 19thcentury large scale agriculture (coffee, bananas, and oil palm) and livestock development have led to deforestation. In recent decades Mesoamerica has been the site of some of the world’s highest deforestation rates (1980-1990 1.4% annually). It is estimated that 80% of the areas original habitat has been severely modified or cleared. This is the worst in El Salvador as less than 5% of its original forest remains today! Recently, oil development and mineral extraction have increased the threat to the regions forests.

Thankfully, there people who are attempting to make efforts toward conservation. In recent decades there has been regional cooperation toward the creation/expansion of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. This is an initiative towards conserving biodiversity and ecosystems while promoting sustainable social/economic development. This initiative serves to protect important areas and provide connectivity between these areas through plantation forests, private reserves, and agroforestry systems. This will allow the plants/animals to disperse and move throughout the region. There are already established reserves of land that comprise this initiative: Maya Biosphere Reserve (Guatemala), Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (Campeche, Mexico), Rio Bravo (Belize), Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve (Chiapas), Guanacaste Conservation Area (Costa Rica), and the largest block of undisturbed cloud forest in Central Mexico- La Amistad International Park and Biosphere (Costa Rica and Panama- also convergence point for 75% of all migratory birds in Western Hemisphere!!!)

Ecotourism has become an important asset to nearly every country in Mesoamerica, most notably Costa Rica. This country may be the world’s best-known example of successful promotion of economic benefit from conservation. It is estimated that around 70% of the country’s tourists visit protected areas and in 2000, Costa Rica earned about $1.25 billion from ecotourism.

It is extremely important to be concerned with species extinction. Again, ecosystems are interwoven, nature is a delicate balance. What happens with one species affects another, and so on. If enough species became extinct it would eventually directly impact human beings, and one day we could be threatened with extinction ourselves. We need diversity for the health of the planet. Diversity allows the fittest to continue on to overcome natural disasters and disease. As species population shrink, so does their diversity. As their diversity diminishes, their susceptibility increases. Rapid extinction of species is also a good indicator of the health or contamination of the environment. Human beings are part of the environment, and though they might like to try, cannot separate themselves from the Earth.

A small idea of how species are interconnected
Retrieved from: on 5/7/12


This lab helped me identify what hotspots are and why preserving them is so important. The statistics I found were astonishing; its concerning how humans have negatively impacted the worlds ecosystems. In my region, 80% of the land had been drastically altered. Finding a balance with nature may be difficult when there are human lives to consider as one chooses what is necessary to feed their family. I was very pleased to learn of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor and the knowledge that other countries are interested in preserving some of these biologically diverse gems.

Yucatan and Central America from space
Retrieved from: on 5/7/12


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