Panama’s Ecology and Biodiversity
The Republic of Panama has a fascinating and varied ecology and biodiversity as there are twelve existing “life zones” in Panama, according to Holdridge’s classification. U.S. Botanist, the late L.R. Holridge, is considered a foremost authority on tropical ecology. A life zone in ecology is defined by climatic and soil conditions that create the type of forests growing in those regions.
Panama appeared 3 million years ago as a bridge between two continents and a barrier between two oceans. Annual precipitation fluctuates between 4,000 and 5,000 mm. and its highest peak is Barú Volcano, 3,475m, in the Chiriquí province. Geologically speaking, there are areas that emerged 135 million years ago on the Caribbean littoral. Panama ‘s central territory is the lowest point of the mountainous chain extending on the western coast of the American continent from Alaska to Cape Horn. The territory has the humidity of both oceans concentrating over the isthmus, making Panama an interesting locale to observe changes in the world hydrologic cycle.
More than 12% of the territory of the Republic of Panama – over one million fifty thousand hectares are Protected Wild life Enclaves. The flora is abundant with 10,000 species of plants – almost 8 different species per square kilometer – including 1,000 varieties of orchids, exotic plants that inhabit eleven of the twelve zones within the subalpine area.
On the Caribbean coast, there is a spectacular 790 hectares extension of coral reefs in active life with 1,680 hectares of mangroves and 90 hectares of coconut trees which total 2,560 hectares between the provinces of Bocas del Toro and San Blas.
On the Pacific coast, 21 species of coral are registered but the littoral has suffered from sustained erosion and contamination produced by industry and cattle farming and from the EL NIÑO current.
There are 27 locations where six species of turtles come to nest. Although there is a lot of pressure from predators, an important rescue operation, with the participation of non-government organizations and nature conservation agencies has slowed down the killing of turtles for meat or eggs
Land invertebrates are still not fully classified. Amphibious fauna and reptiles in Panama represent 4% of the world fauna. There are 140 species of frogs in Panama . Some species, like the “golden frog” (Atelopus zeteki), are endemic to El Valle de Antón and much sought after by collectors.
In the province of Chiriquí alone, there are 13 species of snakes and 13 species of lizards. The green iguana (Iguana iguana) though still on the endangered species list, is being farmed for reproduction as an important source of protein.
Panama ‘s avifauna has over 900 species, 883 of them being indigenous in more than 20 orders and 80 subfamilies. Hummingbirds account for 52 species, marine birds 32 and birds of prey around 70 species. Migratory species may make up almost 15% of the birds of Panama. In the capital city Metropolitan Park, approximately 200 species of birds have been registered.
Only 200 species of mammals still exist, depleted mostly by hunting for subsistance or sport, among them whales and dolphins, big cats, Baird tapirs, agutis, white tail deer, monkeys, bats, wild pigs – all of them on the endangered species list. A special programme for the protection of manatees is in effect in the Bocas del Toro province where 70 of them have been counted. Today, many of the animal species found in the country’s national parks are in danger of extinction due to illegal hunting and to the destruction of the forest that provides them with food and refuge. The list of endangered species, protected by special legislation against which infractions are strictly punished, totals 82 species among which are 13 mammals, 10 species of birds and 5 species of reptiles.