|A Natural History of Belize: Inside the Maya Forest|
A Natural History of Belize : A Review by Scott W. Shumway [pdf]
Readily available comprehensive guides to the flora, fauna, or ecology of specific tropical regions are difficult to find. Those that do exist are often highly technical scientific monographs or highly simplified picture-guides for tourists. Thanks to A Natural History of Belize: Inside the Maya Forest by Samuel Bridgewater (2012) there is no longer an empty niche for a comprehensive guide to the ecology of Belizean forests.
A Natural History of Belize consists of five long chapters broken up by many subheadings. In the first chapter Bridgewater does a masterful job of weaving together the geologic history and evolutionary events that led to the present-day diversity of flora and fauna of Belize. Geologic history and vicariance biogeography are traced from Pangea to the present. The Great American Interchange resulted in contribution of Southern and Northern species to the present day diversity of Belize, as well as all of Mesoamerica. Various theories to explain tropical species diversity are nicely explained and followed by a balanced consideration of the evidence for and against them.
Chapter 2 explains how precipitation, elevation, and soil type interact to generate the forest ecosystems found in Belize. Forest stature and plant diversity are described for broadleaf rain forest, swamp forest, dry forest, pine savannah, and mangrove. The content is focused on the author’s research site in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve (named after the chicle trees found here) and the surrounding Maya Mountains and lowland forest. Chiquibul is one of the largest protected areas in Belize, yet even as this book was released, increased illegal logging and poaching of scarlet macaws were being featured on local news stations. Despite the focus on Chiquibul, the book does an admirable job of meeting the needs of visitors to most of the terrestrial ecosystems of Belize and other Mesoamerican forests.
Two thousand years of human interactions with the forest, including the great cities and agricultural practices of the ancient Maya, logging of tropical hardwoods following European colonization, and present-day attempts at “sustainable” forestry are the topic of the third chapter. The vastness of the Mayan empire and the large-scale alteration of the environment that must have taken place challenges the imagination of anthropologists and biologists alike, but, as the author notes, this influence clearly must be considered when interpreting present-day forest ecology. It is remarkable that after 500 years of intensive timber harvesting (mahogany, logwood, Spanish cedar), half of the country remains in a forested state.
Chapter 4 describes forest fauna diversity (reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and birds) and highlights species that are charismatic (cats and monkeys), intimidating (vipers), or of disproportionate ecological importance (frugivorous birds). Arthropods, other than pollinators or mutualists, are short-changed throughout the book, but, as the author notes, little is known about this diverse group.
The concluding chapter is entitled “Rhythm and Recovery: Ecological Associations, Seasonality, Hurricanes, and Forest Dynamics.” Gap dynamics and the role of periodic high magnitude hurricanes in shaping the stature and biological diversity of the forests of Belize are explained. “Ecological associations” appears to be a catchall for whatever did not fit neatly into any other chapters. A description of ant-plant mutualisms makes for an odd ending to this otherwise highly cohesive book.
This book is very accessible and written in plain English with minimal jargon and with necessary scientific terminology clearly explained. This is an excellent choice for the novice reader with some prior exposure to biology, college students about to study in Belize, as well as for the college professor preparing for his or her next visit to the tropics. It is well-organized, profusely illustrated with color photographs and has an attractive layout.
The accessibility of the book is similar, yet somewhat less academic in its feel, to the clear prose of Neoptropical Companion by John Kricher. The only comparable book with a focus specifically on Belize is Belize and Northern Guatemala: The Ecotraveller’s Wildlife Guide by Les Beletsky. All three belong on the bookshelf of anyone planning serious study of the neotropics. Whereas Beletsky provides a comprehensive animal identification guide, Bridgewater employs a natural history approach that never allows the reader to forget about evolutionary history, the important role of plants in forest ecosystems, and the human impact on forest ecosystems and forest inhabitants. The extensive coverage of botanical topics, other than simply “plants as animal food”, is both refreshing and highly appropriate. There should be more books like this. The only glaring omission was how to pronounce “Chiquibul” (chick-a-bull).
Scott W. Shumway is Professor of Biology at Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts.