From the Panamanian jungle to the coastal tropics of Mexico, the Mesoamerican Hotspot encompasses all countries that make up Central America: Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, Guatemala, and southern Mexico. (Easternmost Panama with the Darien Gap is included in the Tumbes-Choco-Magdalena Hotspot.)
This hotspot has an impressive series of mountains and highlands, locally referred to as sierras or cordilleras, with a string of frequently active volcanoes reaching to 18,000 feet in Mexico. The hotspot also includes numerous islands Revillagigedos, Tres Maria Islands, Cozumel in Mexico, Islas de la Bahia in Honduras, Coiba, the former penal colony in Panama, Cocos in Costa Rica Providencia and San Andres in Colombia, as well as Clipperton Island of France.
Long mountain chains which stretch the length of the hotspot as well as isolated mountains and islands act as a barrier to species dispersal and has resulted in considerable biological diversity. The lowlands have long been a migratory path for plants, animals, and humans connecting North and South America giving rise to rich species interchanges. It’s estimated that 17,000 plants species with 2,941 endemics inhabit this area.
Rarely seen in the wild, the tapir and the jaguar are the two largest land mammals in the neotropics and are flagship species for neotropical forests.
There are 440 mammal species of which 66 are endemic including bats, rats, squirrels, and primates: the spider monkey and howler monkey.
The area is also home to 17 Endemic Bird Areas as defined by BirdLife International covering almost the entire hotspot. Perhaps the most well-known species is the resplendent quetzal which lives in the cloud forests, a habitat that includes the headwaters of critical watersheds in much of the region. The area is also a critical “flyway” for at least 225 migratory species.
Reptiles are present here in extremely high diversity including river turtles, crocodiles, and sea turtles. Beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean sides are important nesting grounds for at least four kinds of sea turtles.
Amphibians also occur with impressive diversity. The golden toad of Panama – now extinct – serves as a reminder of the worldwide decline of amphibians in a region full of magnificently colored poison dart and tree frogs.
Cultural diversity mirrors the rich biodiversity of the region where each country is home to numerous tribes of indigenous peoples from the colorfully bead-decked San Blas tribes of Panama to the Mayans of Mexico, and the mestizo cultures which derive from indigenous and Spanish backgrounds.
Subsistence agriculture dominates rural life of peoples in Mesoamerica. Eco-tourism and non-timber forest products are a growing source of income.
Mesoamerica faces some of the highest deforestation rates in the world. On the Pacific side, lowland forests were cleared prior to the 20th century for export crops and subsistence agriculture. Caribbean lowland forests continue to be cleared for banana production and at higher elevations, forests are cleared for coffee production.
The existence of the Panama Canal, its current expansion and a new canal in development in Nicaragua also present major threats to the region in terms of introduction and migration of invasive species.
12.6% of the Mesoamerican hotspot is included in protected areas, with Costa Rica and Belize leading the way with 36.6% and 31% of their land in protected areas respectively. Numerous efforts seek to integrate sustainable development with biodiversity conservation.
Efforts are concentrated on the development of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor with the areas governments, donors and four major international conservation groups collaborating – Conservation International, the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and the Wildlife Conservation Fund. The Corridor seeks to connect habitat of important species, maintain current protected areas and add additional ones.
The Critical Ecosystems Partnership is also supporting trans-boundary protected areas such as the one that exists on the border of Costa Rica and Panama.
Header Image by danhuse [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons