Off the Caribbean coast of Belize, between Mexico and Guatemala, lies the Belize Barrier Reef, the largest reef in the northern and western hemispheres. The reef is home to many species of coral reefs, coastal lagoons, seagrass meadows, and mangrove forests. It provides a habitat for a large number of fish species and many endangered animals. With global warming issues, local activities, and mass tourism threatening the very existence of the reef, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO ) has made the Belize Barrier Reef part of the World Heritage list, which preserves and protects the cultural and natural heritage around the world. Diversity of Life Forms
The Belize Barrier Reef is habitat to a diverse group of animal species. Over 500 species of fish have been recorded to live in its waters. Endangered species such as the marine turtle, manatee, and the American marine crocodile all depend on the reef for shelter, food, and nesting areas. Four species of dolphins have been sighted, one being the bottlenosed dolphin, and several species of sharks. Approximately 392 species of birds have made Belize their sanctuary, and thousands more depend on the lagoons during the migration and breeding season.
In 1982, there were 178 different species of vascular plants identified from the Belize coast, 32 of which are non-native. Mangroves are dominant among many of the southern cayes, while shrubs and coconut trees also thrive in the subtropical temperatures. The barrier reef holds around 247 species of marine plant life. Most dominant are the seagrass beds, shoalgrass, and manatee grass which host living organisms and trap sediments and nutrients to the ocean floor.
The Belize reef system is diverse in the species it supports. Studies have reported 66 species of scleratinian corals and 36 species of soft corals. Also identified are 45 species of hydroids and 350 species of mollusks. Also diverse in this system, is the many species of algae, crustaceans, echinoderms, sponges, marine worms, ascidians, and copepods. Biological Interrelationships Among Life Forms
Plant and animal species depend on the ecosystem in the coastal waters of Belize. In turn, the ecosystem relies on the plant and animal life in order to thrive. Take for example, the seagrass beds, which is a dominant plant in these coastal waters. The endangered manatees have found refuge in the beds from predators. The seagrass beds also play host to many other living organisms such as seaweeds, crustaceans, mollusks, grass and algae-eating fish, and many other creatures of the sea. These creatures work with the seagrass to help stabilize the sea floor by trapping sediments and nutrients, which is essential to the balance of marine life. The vegetation and animals on the islands of Belize have also evolved to help each other balance the ecosystem. Animals depend on the vegetation for food and shelter. The mangrove forests are home to many species of birds. Through evolution, they have learned to cooperate and work together to survive. Human Intrusions which Threaten the Environment
This beautiful and once natural environment is now in danger of losing many plant and animal species, some of which are endangered. Humans discovered the area was rich with marine life and so started a commercial fishery in the mid 19th century. They harvested turtle, sharks, finfish, crabs, sponges, and seaweed and eventually grew into commercial wholesale marketing. The fisheries are now experiencing a decline as resources are depleted.
More recently, tourism seems to be the biggest intrusion on the barrier reef. Drawn to its beautiful surroundings and comfortable climate, tourists flock to the islands for vacations and sightseeing. Approximately 128,000 visitors come to the reef every year to dive or snorkel, sightsee, sportfish from chartered boats, kayak, camp, and picnic. Human activities have caused trauma to the reef caused by boat...
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