Flora and Fauna
Belize is home to thousands of species of trees and flowers, hundreds of kinds of birds, butterflies, and moths. An amazing array of creatures makes its home in Belize. Many are not terribly difficult to see, thanks to their brilliant coloring. Others are likely to elude you completely. A rundown of some of the region's most attention-grabbing mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians—even a few insects—is provided below. Also, we've listed a few of the more colorful or interesting plants and trees. Common names, in English and Spanish or Mayan, are given, so you can understand the local wild things lingo.
Africanized Honeybee (killer bee): African honeybees were accidentally released in Brazil in the 1950s, interbred with European honeybees (a subset of the genus Apis) and spread north, reaching Belize in the 1980s. Now, most honeybees in Belize are Africanized. While their sting is no worse than a regular bee, they are highly aggressive. Many livestock animals have been killed by Africanized bees in Belize, and in 2013 a four-year-old Mennonite child was stung to death. If attacked, try to protect your face and get inside a building.
Bat (murciélago): There are more than 80 species of bats in Belize, making them by far the most common mammal found in the country. Belize has three species of vampire bats.
Black orchid (clamshell orchid, cockleshell orchid): The national flower of Belize is the black orchid, now Prosthechea cochleata and formerly Encyclia cochleata. The very dark purple flower is unusual among orchids, as the flower is effectively upside down. It is pollinated not by bees but by a small fly.
Bukut (stinking toe): Howler monkeys love the leaves of the bukut, which grows to almost 100 feet (30 meters) in open fields and pastures. You can see bukut trees at Community Baboon Sanctuary, along the Hummingbird Highway, and elsewhere in Belize. In April and May they are loaded with salmon-pink flowers. The long brown seedpods also are eaten by monkeys and birds, but they have an unpleasant smell, like sweaty socks. Hence the common name, stinking toe.
Cacao (wild cacao, kakaw): Most prevalent in Toledo District, the wild cacao is a small tree that grows to about 32 feet (10 meters). Its fruit pods, which are directly on the trunk, contain seeds that are the source of chocolate and cocoa powder. The Toledo Cacao Growers' Association (TCGA) represents over 1,000 organic cacao growers in southern Belize.
Caiman (cocodrilo): The spectacled caiman is a small crocodile that subsists mainly on fish. It's most active at night (its eyes glow red when illuminated by a flashlight), basking in the sun by day. It's distinguished from its American cousin by its sloping brow and smooth back scales.
Cashew (marañon): This tree, related to the mango, is about the size of a small apple tree, growing up to about 40 feet (12 meters), often in a serpentine fashion. In late spring and early summer it bears cashew apples, pear-shaped bright red or yellow pseudofruit. These can be eaten, though they have a somewhat unpleasant aftertaste, but a wonderful grape-like aroma. But the true fruit is the cashew nut, attached to the base of the cashew apple. The cashew nut shell contains a poisonous liquid. Before the nuts can be safely eaten they must be roasted twice. Crooked Tree village is the center of cashew cultivation in Belize, and cashew wine is also available here.
Ceiba (cotton tree, kapok, yaaxche): The national tree of Guatemala and the sacred tree of the ancient Maya, who cultivated it in their plazas, the ceiba (say-ba) is one of the giants of the bush, sometimes growing more than 230 feet (70 meters), rising out of the jungle canopy. It has a gray, cylindrical trunk supported by large buttresses at the ground and, high up, nearly horizontal branches.
Cohune palm (corozo palm): The cohune is one of the most important trees for the Maya in Belize. Its leaves are used to thatch the roofs of buildings, its nuts are used for oil or soap and as fuel for fires, the sweet heart is eaten, traditionally in Belize during Easter week, and the heart sap can be used to make a wine. It is often a marker for ancient Mayan sites now hidden by jungle. Its distinctive fluted shape and tall height (up to 100 feet or more than 30 meters) make it easy to spot.
Cougar (puma): Growing to 5 feet (1½ meters) in length, mountain lions are the largest unspotted cats in Central America. Rarely seen, they live in most habitats in the region and feed on vertebrates ranging from snakes to deer.
Crocodile (lagarto): Although often referred to by Belizeans as alligators, crocodiles reign supreme in this region. They are distinguished from the smaller caiman by their flat heads, narrow snouts, and spiky scales. Crocodiles seldom attack humans, preferring fish, birds, and the occasional small mammal. Both species are endangered and protected by international law.
Fer-de-lance (barba amarilla): One of the most dangerous of all pit vipers, the fer-de-lance has a host of names, such as tommygoff, in Belize. This aggressive snake grows up to 8 feet in length and is distinguished by the bright yellow patches on its head.
Flamboyant (flame tree, royal Poinciana, guacamayo): This is perhaps the most visually striking tree in Belize, at least May through July when it is covered in blazing blossoms of flame-color orange. Originally from Madagascar, the flamboyant is easily identified, even when not in bloom, because of its umbrella shape, much wider than it is tall.
Frog (rana): More than 30 species of frogs can be found in Belize. Most are nocturnal in an effort to avoid being eaten, but the brightly colored poison dart frogs—whose brilliant red, blue, and green coloration warns predators that they don't make a good meal—can be spotted during the day. Red-eyed leaf frogs are among the showiest of nocturnal species.
Howler monkey (mono congo): These chunky-bodied monkeys travel in troops of up to 20. A bit on the lethargic side, they eat leaves, fruits, and flowers. The deep, resounding howls of the males serve as communication among and between troops. Erroneously termed "baboons" by Belizeans, these dark-faced monkeys travel only from tree to tree, limiting their presence to dense jungle canopy.
Iguana: The largest lizards in Central America, these scaly creatures can grow to 10 feet. They are good swimmers, and will often plop into a body of water when threatened by a predator. Only young green iguanas are brightly colored; adult females are grayish, while adult males are olive (with orangish heads during mating season). They are considered a delicacy among Belizeans, who call them "bamboo chicken."
Jaguar (tigre): The largest feline in the Western Hemisphere grows up to 6 feet (2 meters) long and can weigh up to 250 pounds. Exceedingly rare, this nocturnal predator is most often spotted near the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize or near Chan Chich Lodge.
Leaf-cutter ant (zompopa): Called wee wee ants in Creole, leaf-cutter ants are the region's most commonly noticed ants. They are found in all lowland habitats. Columns of these industrious little guys, all carrying clippings of leaves, sometimes extend for several hundred yards from plants to the underground nest. The leaves are used to cultivate the fungus that they eat.
Macaw (lapas): The beautiful scarlet macaw is the only species of this bird found in Belize. Huge, raucous birds with long tails, macaws use their immense bills to rip apart fruits to get to the seeds. Their nests are in hollow trees. They are endangered because of poachers and deforestation.
Mahogany (caoba): The national tree of Belize appears on the Belize flag, and the country's motto, Sub Umbra Florero ("Under the Shade I Flourish"), refers to the mahogany tree. Mahogany was the mainstay of the Belize (then British Honduras) economy for almost two centuries, from the mid-1700s until the 1950s. Most of the largest trees—the mahogany can soar to over 150 feet (45 meters) and reach trunk widths of over 6 feet (2 meters)—were cut down and exported to Europe where they were made into fine furniture and railway carriages. Some large specimens remain in the Programme for Belize lands in Orange Walk District.
Manatee: An immense and gentle mammal, the manatee is often called the sea cow. Living exclusively in the water, particularly in shallow and sheltered areas, manatees are said to be the basis of myths about mermaids. Fairly scarce today, these vegetarians have been hunted for thousands of years for their tasty flesh; their image frequently appears in ancient Mayan art.
Morpho (morfo): This spectacular butterfly doesn't fail to astound first-time viewers. Easy to overlook when resting, their color is only apparent when they take flight. One species has brilliant-blue wings, while another is distinguished by its intense violet color. Adults feed on fallen fruit, never flowers.
Parrot (loro): A prerequisite of any tropical setting, there are five species of parrot in Central America. All are clad in green, which means they virtually disappear upon landing in the trees. Most have a splash of color or two on their head or wings.
Poisonwood (che chem, chechem negro): Avoid this low-growing small tree. Fairly common in Belize, it can be identified by the black, oily sap on the trunk. The bark, sap, and leaves of the poisonwood cause a reaction similar to poison ivy or poison oak. Fortunately, an antidote, the red gumbo limbo tree, usually grows next to or near the poisonwood. Rub a strip of gumbo limbo bark on the affected area, or boil the bark in water and apply with a sponge.
Scorpion (escorpión): Centruroides gracilis is the most common scorpion in Belize. It grows up to 6 inches in length. Its sting is poisonous, and painful—about like a wasp sting—but not serious or fatal except in the case of an allergic reaction. If you're stung, don't panic—wash the area with soap and water (the venom is water-soluble) and apply an icepack.
Sea turtle: Sea turtles on the coasts of Belize come in three varieties: green, hawksbill, and loggerhead. All have paddlelike flippers and have to surface to breathe.
Spider monkey (mono colorado, mono araña): These lanky, long-tailed monkeys hang out in groups of two to four. Their diet consists of ripe fruit, leaves, and flowers. Incredible aerialists, they can swing effortlessly through the trees using their long arms, legs, and prehensile tails.
Tapir (danta): The national animal of Belize is also known as the mountain cow. Like a small rhinoceros without the armor, it has a stout body, short legs, and small eyes. Completely vegetarian, it uses its prehensile snout for harvesting vegetation. The shy creature lives in forested areas near streams and lakes, where it can sometimes be spotted bathing.
Toucan (tucán, tucancillo): Recognizable to fans of Froot Loops cereal, the toucan is common in Belize. The keel-billed and chestnut-mandibled toucans can grow to 22 inches long. The smaller and stouter emerald toucanet and yellow-ear toucanet are among the most colorful. All eat fruit with their curved, multihued beaks.
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