Fauna and Flora
Utila Whale Sharks
Sightings & Aggregations
Whale shark (Rhincodon typus) sightings and aggregations occur year after year in the waters surrounding the Island of Utila. These whale sightings have come to form the basis of an entire eco-tourism industry around the worlds biggest fish. The Whale Shark is the largest fish in the sea, reaching lengths of approximately 18 m - 20 m. It is thought that this species is circumglobal in tropical waters. Being of pelágicos habits, the fish is sighted near the surface. As an object of commercial fisheries, especially Asia, the Whale Shark finds itself in the Endangered Species List of Wild Fauna and Flora Wild (CITES), and has been declared a Vulnerable Species for Extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
WHALE SHARK CONSERVATION
The first initiatives for the conservation of the Whale Sharks in Honduras were established in 1999 when the Government of Honduras declared it as a species "worthy of consideration" through the Presidential Agreement. Because of its ecological importance (Subsequently in 2008), SERNA and the ITH elaborated the Guidelines for the Protection of the Whale Shark (Tiburon Ballena). The guidelines are aimed at normalizing tourism activity and promoting those activities which benefit the stability of the species, as well as the people involved in their preservation. Utila Island operates the Whale Shark & ceanic Research Center (WSORC). The WSORC is also associated with efforts that generate a library for photo-identification from which it is possible to distinguish (by the patterns of spots) individuals, and also their navigation patterns and movement around the world.
The only crocodile that inhabits the Bay Islands is the crocodile of the species Crocodylus Acutus. Their distribution is limited to the mangroves of Santa Elena, Old and New Port Royal, Camp Bay, as well as at Gibson Bight in Roatan. Female crocodiles construct and deposit their eggs in nests made from natural debris. Nest are built high above the high tide line. The female remains in association with the nest until the eggs hatch and with juveniles for a longer period of time. Reports on sightings of crocodiles are becoming less frequent in the Bay Islands, where existing crocodiles are hunted and they are losing habitat to local villages.
Sea Turtle Species
Sea Turtle Nesting Sites have been reported for three species: loggerhead (Caretta caretta), green (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata). It is also known from other species (e.g., Lepidochelys kempii) that despite not nesting in the Bay Islands, they frequent the area and are subject to illegal hunting.
Known nesting sites for these turtles have been observed in Flowers Bay, Marbella Beach, Punta Pimienta, Punta Gorda, Turquoise Bay, Paya Bay, Camp Bay, Oak Ridge, French Harbor and French Cay. Reports indicate that although there have been recent nesting activities on certain beaches, most sites have not reported. The season of Nesting on Roatan Island occurs between June and November, which coincides with the nesting in the Cayos Cochinos.
The most recent records on nesting events (all of Eretmochelys imbricata) in Utila and Roatan include:
- Utila: Pumpkin Hill in July, August, September, and October
- Utila: Sandy Cay in August
- Roatan: Port Royal in March and June
- Roatan: Lizzette's Beach in August
- Roatán: West Bay in November 2011
FISH SPAWNING AGGREGATION SITES (SPAG's)
There are declining fish in traditional fishing areas. During reproductive cycles of some species of value the SPAGs represent specific sites where periodically and almost predictably, large aggregations occur. During this stage, the fish are more vulnerable and easy to capture. This means that for some time these sites have been overexploited without any control or oversight. A modest number of SPAGs are known around the Bay Islands. These active aggregations areas are named Banco Cordelia and Western Banks southwest of Roatan. Other SPAGs not yet validated include Western Banks (Nova Scotia / Anchor) and Southeast Bank (Black Hills) around Utila, Northeast Bank (Groupers Joy) around Roatan and Black Rock Point around Guanaja. Another known SPAG site is located north of Guanaja and its called "Caldera del Diablo," which is used by the grouper of Nassau (E. striatus), the mere tiger (Mycteroperca tigris), black grouper (M. bonaci) and other species. Although according to reports, this site was frequented very little by fishermen of Guanaja due to the difficulty of accessing this area. As suspected for the "devil's boiler," reports reflect collapses of SPAG's around Utila, which shows the unsustainability of the fishery in Honduras. These reports find that Nassau fishing has been declining in commercial importance and in the country, where its exports have declined from 7% by weight to only 0.7%. Although SPAG's of other species of commercial interest has recently been validated in the Archipelago Cayos Cochinos, it is no longer a protection effort, but an attempt for restoration for not only fishing but also for visiting tourist as the diving in these spectacular concentrations of fish can generate significant income.
SEABIRDS NESTING SITES
Seabirds often nest in colonies. The protection of individual nesting sites can have a significant impact on the stability of Seabirds populations in Roatan. The population of seagulls (Sternidae), in particular, represent an essential part of the marine avifauna that breeds in Roatan and its surrounding islands. The species that are known to reproduce in Roatan are the seagull (Onychoprion anaethetus), pink gull (Sterna dougalli), the small seagull (Sternula antillarum), and the yellow-tipped seagull (Thalasseus sandvicensis). The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is another species of which also maintains colonies in Roatan.
- In the Islands of Utila, populations of P. Occidentalis, O. Anaethetus, S. Dougalli, and S. Antillarum, are found in Raggedy Cay, Sandy Cay, and Artificial Key.
- In the Island of Roatan, the active colonies are reported in the east end, in Barbareta and Pigeon Cays. Among the species found in these areas are P. occidentalis, O. anaethetus, S. Dougallii, S. antillarum and S. Sandvicensis.
- In the Island of Guanaja, there are three of cays (Kiatran's Cay, Clark Cay, and Elmar Reef) known for being nesting areas for the species: S. Antillarum.
The common denominator in all these sites is that they are mostly uninhabited keys, with extensive areas beaches and without or with little vegetation.
Nesting sites for flaccid gull (O. anaethetus) in Raggedy Cay, Cacho Zacate and Cayo Gallo are particularly important because the closest nesting sites documented for this species are in Mexico and Belize.
Queen Conch (Sea Snails)
BREEDING SITES (Strombus gigas)
The Queen Conch (also known as Pink Snail or Queen Snail), represents the main exploitation of the seagrass areas of Roatan and its surrounding islands. This species falls second in importance only to the spiny lobster Panulirus Argus.
The Queen Conch, as a species, is the most abundant among the gastropods Strombidae of the Caribbean region and the one that reaches the largest size (30 cm). The species is characterized by very gregarious behavior in all phases of its benthic (occurring at the bottom of a body of water) life. Throughout this epibenthic phase, the snail is very susceptible to fishing and can easily be exploited and overfished throughout the Caribbean, due to its high commercial value.
In Roatan, the daily observation of empty shells of mollusk (Conch & Snails), thrown away by fishermen after extracting the meat, tells us that fishing activity exerted on immature snail populations is high. It is a clear sign of the exploitation of this animal is real and occurring in plain view. This is especially unfortunate when you consider the slow growth rate of mollusk in general. Mollusk grows in seagrass areas and shallow sandy bottoms.
The continental shelf near Roatan is limited, and waters quickly become too deep to support snail populations. For this reason, most snails grow and prosper in lagoons and shallow waters. But that also makes snails more susceptible to fisheries. Studies show that once the population of snails collapses, it can take years or decades to recover. Research points out that 50 individual/ha are needed for snail populations to reach the critical density required for reproduction.
The data on the ecological evaluation collected around the Island of Barbareta reflect an average of 35.14 individuals/ha exist, while estimated of only 13.9 individuals/ha exist in the areas south of Roatan.
SPINY LOBSTER BREEDING SITES
Spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) exist across a wide geographical area. Populations extend from Brazil to the USA. Caribbean lobsters' main habitat extends from the coastline to about 50 m deep.
That said, there have been sightings of lobsters hundreds of meters below the surface. Adult lobsters are frequently found on the rocky and coral bottoms, where they feed at night on mollusks, small crustaceans, and other living or dead organisms. Juveniles inhabit coastal waters with a predilection for seagrasses while migrating progressively to their adult habitat starting at the age of 2 or 3 years. Spiny lobster has been overfished in years past but Roatan has lead the way in their preservation, and population growth has been on an uprise in the waters of Roatan.
Roatan's Fauna & Flora
Roatan's abundant rain and warm temperatures make it ideal for tropical life. Plants and animals thrive on Roatan. There are a variety of ecosystems ranging from Mangroves to tropical pine forest. The lowland marshes are home to a variety of species on Roatan as well.
As is the case in many tropical habitats, fruit trees are found throughout the island of Roatan. You can find nut trees, Guanabana (Soursop), Avocado trees, Cashews, Hog Plum, Breadfruit, Star Fruit, Banana, and Papaya trees. Roatan also has a variety of Palm Trees. There are Fishtail palms, Areca, Fan Date, Veitchia, Chamaedorea, Majestic Norfolk, Pindo, Phoenix, and Royal palm trees. Perhaps the better-known trees are hardwoods. Honduras, and Roatan have many of the great hardwood trees including Spanish Cedar, Teak, Carreto, and Cordia, as well as Mahogany. The Gumbolimo tree is native to Roatan. This tree is also known as "Indio desnudo" (naked Indian) or "tourist tree" because of its reddish bark which is always pealing. Some see a brown skinned Indian removing his close and others see a sunburnt tourist with pealing skin. Whatever you see, you can be sure the trees are beautiful and abundant. Also native to Roatan is the Trumpet tree, Teta, and the Masica tree. Some of Roatan's common flowers include: Parrot Orchids, Jasmine, Exora, Ginger, Pentas, Heliconias, and Lantanas.
There are think pine forest on Roatan and in particular on Guanaja island. This caused past explorers, like Christopher Columbus to dub Guanaja as "the Island of Pines" in 1502.
Roatan is home to an expansive Mangrove population of trees. There are three main Mangrove species on Roatan, and these include Red Mangroves, Black Mangroves, and White or Buttonwood Mangroves. These trees and the forest they make protect the island, its coastline, and many species from storms and hurricane damage. Mangroves are a nursery for many marine and terrestrial species and it is now protected by the Roatan Marine Park.
Roatan's Bird Species
There are over 120 bird species on Roatan. Of those, 40 or so are permanent residents of Roatan and the rest are migratory birds. Yellow-Naped Parrots are native and endangered. Roatan is also home to the Golden-Fronted Woodpecker. Warblers, Tanagers, Vireos, and other Caribbean Sea Birds are migratory. This includes the White Ibis, the Brown Pelican, the Roseate Tern and the Frigate Bird.
Mammals on Roatan
There are an estimated 12 mammal species on Roatan. This list includes four bat species. Also native to Roatan are Guatusas or "Island Rabbits" (agoutis), rats, opossums, and Roatan even has a population of white-tailed deer.
There are approximately 36 amphibian species on Roatan. This includes the Hawksbill sea turtle which is also endangered. There are crocodiles, about six species of frogs, and several lizard species on Roatan. There is also a snake species both venomous and nonvenomous. The Coral Snake is the only known venomous snake found on Roatan. This snake is seldom seen, and it lacks fangs, so they have a hard time getting through to humans.
One of the most common sites on Roatan is the Gumbo-Limbo Tree (Bursera Simaruba), casually known as the Gumbalimba Tree. The tree is jokingly referred to as the "tourist" tree because the bark of the tree is comprised of red peeling skin, as in the pealing skin of tourist when they have taken on too much sun.
The Gumbalimo Tree is a medium-sized tree growing to 30 meters tall or approximately 100 feet. The bark is one of its differentiators as it is shiny dark red and peals of rather easily.
The tree produces ripe fruit year-round. The main fruiting season is in March and in April. The fruit is a three-valved capsule which encases a single seed. The seed is covered in red fatty seedcoat (aril) of approx. 6 mm in diameter. The fruit is borne loosely on the stems and can spontaneously detach regardless of how ripe or green the fruit may be. Ripe capsules are cracked open by birds all around the island or Roatan because the fruit is rich in lipids.
The Gumbo-limbo is a useful tree both economically and ecologically. The tree grows rapidly and adapts well to several habitats. For instance, the Gumbo-limbo adapts well well in salty and calcareous soils. The tree does not adapt well to boggy soils. Roatan provides an excellent habitat for the growth of the Gumbalimba Tree.
The Gumbalimba is one of the most wind-tolerant trees, and it is often recommended as a tough, hurricane-resistant species throughout the Caribbean. The tree may be planted as wind protection for crops or as living fences along property lines.
Gumbo-limbo wood is adequate for light construction as the wood is rather brittle, though the trunk is used throughout Honduras to make artifacts or as firewood. The tree's resin, called cachibou, chibou, or gomartis, is used as glue, incense, and varnish.
The arils are the main food source for local birds. Many migrant birds will feed off of gumbo-limbo trees even if they are in human-modified habitats. This is seen in Roatan where exotic birds are often found nesting or feeding on these trees.
The gumbo-limbo tree is often used as a starter tree in reforestation efforts because it is fast growing and it has a low cost of propagation.