Mesoamerica is a term meaning ‘middle America’, referring to an area covering Mexico and Central America. This area is now made up of the countries Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and El Salvador, and in some classifications it also includes Nicaragua, Costa Rica and some of Panama. The term is mostly used by archaeologists and anthropologists as it groups the ancient civilizations that originated there. The most famous were the Aztecs and the Mayas, with complex societies and a great understanding and respect for the natural world.
The people living in Mesoamerica today are descendants of those ancient civilizations, and many still live in similar ways. This could include inhabiting the same areas (about 20% of the descendants of the Maya in Mexico still live in the same areas), speaking the same language, or using the same agricultural practices. Often celebrations or festivals are the same too, for example Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos) in Mexico is argued to have a basis in Aztec culture as a way of remembering forebears. These ancient civilisations had a great impact on the ecosystems and cultures that can be found in Mesoamerica today.
The geographic region of Mesoamerica is estimated to only cover 0.5% of the planet, and yet it is home to around 7.5% of the world’s biodiversity, making it the world’s third-largest biodiversity hotspot. There are 5 ‘great forests’ in this region which together make up 120,000 km2. This area is vitally important to wildlife and local indigenous communities, as well as for climate change. The forests are brilliant for carbon sequestration and help protect the region against natural disasters. The local people get access to resources including fresh water, wood, food and increasingly, economic benefits through ecotourism.
The habitats are home to a whole range of well-known endangered species including Baird’s tapirs (Tapirus bairdii), spider monkeys (Simia Paniscus), great green macaws (Ara ambiguus) and green turtles (Chelonia mydas). In addition to these familiar species, there are an estimated 24,000 plant species found in the region, with about 1/5 thought to be endemic. There are 4 main migratory bird routes across the Western Hemisphere, and 3 of these converge in Mesoamerica, with at least 225 species regularly stopping over. There are also over 1,900 species of herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) identified in Mesoamerica, of which around 1,000 are endemic.
Photo by Jalal Khan
One of the reasons that Mesoamerica is so biodiverse is because the land masses of North and South America were once separate, with species that had evolved independently. When they joined through the land bridge of Central America the species then started interacting with each other.
Speciation was also helped by the isolation caused by mountains. There are multiple mountain ranges in the region that mostly stretch in the North-South direction, meaning there are also a lot of differences between the species composition found along the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines.
The Mesoamerican reef is in the Western Caribbean, touching the coastline throughout Mesoamerica from Mexico down to Honduras. At nearly 700miles in length this is the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. Various combinations of corals provide homes for fish, turtles, sharks and more. Along the shores mangrove forests can be found, providing home to yet more fish species as well as sea birds. These mangroves are also vitally important for protecting the coast from storms and erosion. The soils nearer to the coast tend to be richer in nutrients, which has benefits for plants and insects. The high density of coastal regions found within Mesoamerica is potentially another reason for the incredibly high levels of biodiversity.
Operation Wallacea have two sites within Mesoamerica – Mexico and Honduras!
Our Mexico forest site is situated within the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in the Selva Maya, which spans Belize, Southeastern Mexico and Northern Guatemala. Calakmul Biosphere is the largest forest reserve in Mexico, made up of over 720,000 hectares of protected land within the Yucatan Peninsula. Calakmul itself is a Maya archaeological site within the reserve, which historically would’ve been a major seat of power among the ancient Mayas. The forest was strongly influenced by the Mayas, which you will learn about during your first week on site through the Maya Jungle Ecology Course, and through visiting the incredible Calakmul ruins. The fact that the forest spans multiple countries is brilliant in terms of connectivity, however the forested areas in each of the countries have different levels of protection. Negative impacts of this were felt when a drought in Mexico pushed many species into moving south into Guatemala, where there are less protections for wildlife in the Selva Maya.
The marine site is based at Akumal, which is part of the Mexican Caribbean Biosphere Reserve. As a section of the Mesoamerican barrier reef, there is great diversity of corals and crustaceans. Akumal itself is a vitally important nesting ground for turtles, and a large portion of Opwall’s work in this area has been focused on establishing a tourist-free zone that the turtles can swim in, after our previous research showed that stress levels were increased when they came into contact with people.
In Honduras we have a site in the cloud forests of Cusuco National Park, close to the border with Guatemala. The protected area spans 23,400 hectares and, as one of the top 50 most irreplaceable forest sites in the world, it is well-known for its exceptional species richness. It is of particular importance for reptiles and amphibians, but unfortunately the lack of law enforcement against deforestation in the region, as well as a lack of connectivity, poses a threat to this site.
Photo by Emily Sheraton
Finally, we have two marine sites in Honduras which are located at the islands of Utila and Tela. The reefs here are exceptional, and Opwall have built up a large data set in this area. Our marine sites in Honduras are now the base of Opwall’s pioneering efforts to use technology in order to monitor coral reefs, such as 3D computer modelling.
Connectivity has been mentioned above as beneficial for wildlife. This gives species the ability to move freely in order to breed, find food and establish territories. This improves genetic diversity through access to other populations, which also improves their ability to adapt to changing environments. This makes ecological connectivity vitally important in terms of climate change.
One of the main ways to achieve connectivity is through wildlife corridors. These link areas of habitat and enable species to move to find resources. These can be of various sizes – for example hedgerows in the UK act as wildlife corridors for bats when travelling to find food. At the other end of the scale, in 2017 Belize created a 27,000 hectare Northeastern Biological Corridor connecting Shipstern Nature Reserve to Freshwater Creek Forest Reserve and Honey Camp National Park. The corridor is across at least 13,000 hectares of private land and allows the free movement of iconic species including jaguars (Panthera onca) and pumas (Puma concolor).
The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor is a proposed corridor that is envisioned to stretch all the way through Mesoamerica along the Caribbean Coastline, and connect biodiverse regions of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. The corridor was originally proposed in the 1990s and aimed to designate areas into different zones for varying availability for use by humans. Work is ongoing on this project, with one of the major issues being political differences, especially across country borders.
The success of this project would have obvious benefits for the whole of Mesoamerica, and as a special bonus for us it would join our Mexico and Honduras sites! The biodiversity of this region is world-renowned, and protecting it is vitally important for the wildlife and people of the area.