Coastal Zone | Protected Areas | Ecosystems | Inhabitants | Marine Plants | Endangered Species | Commercial | Management | Ethics and Safety

INHABITANTS OF THE COASTAL ZONE

The coastal zone in Belize is teeming with a great variety of creatures of all sizes and characteristics belonging to various taxonomic groups. Homes include the prop root of a mangrove, the leaf of a seagrass, a coral head, a burrow in the sand or a sinkhole such as the Blue Hole. Some of the most common creatures include the following :

INVERTEBRATES - The invertebrates are the basis of the rich fisheries in Belize. The invertebrates can be divided into the following groups :

Sponges - They are the simplest multicellular invertebrates. The sponges' surface is covered by numerous pores where water is drawn in and filtered as it passes out the large opening that dominates its structure.

Anthozoans - These include corals and sea anemones.

Anemones
They are solitary polyps that attach themselves to the sea bed or some other substrate. They lack any hard parts and their tentacles are often the key to their identification. For example, Condylactis gigantea and Bartholomea spp.
Zoanthoids
These appear similar to anemones but are smaller and often occur in colonies. For example Parazoantus spp. and Zoanthus spp.
Corallimorphs
These are easily confused with anemones. They are occasionally called "false corals" since they resemble the coral's polyp structure, but they secrete no hard skeletons. For example, Ricordea florida.
Tube dwelling anemones
They live inside tubes buried in the mud, sand or gravel. They have a ring of short tentacles encircling the mouth along with the ring of longer outer tentacles surrounding the outside of the tube, for example, Arachnanthus nocturnus.

Segmented Worms - Their distinguishing characteristics is a segmented body. They can be divided into the following common groups :

Fire worms
These are segmented worms covered with tiny bundles of white, sharp detachable bristles, for example, Hermodice species.
Feather Duster worms
They are also known as fan worms and their bodies are hidden inside parchment-like tubes attached to substrate. Feather-like appendages called radioles on the head of the worm which extend from the tube as feeding structures, sweeping the water for food and breathing . They are very sensitive to currents and will retract instantly such as Sabellastarte species.
Calcareous tube worms
These build hard calcareous tubes unlike the parchment-like tubes of the featherduster. The radioles form spirals and whorls and a hard structure called the operculum covers the tube opening when the worm contracts. Examples include Spirobranchus and Eupolymnia species.

Arthropoda - Arthropoda make up the largest phylum in the Animal Kingdom. While most are insects on land, they are well represented in the sea and contain some of the best known marine creatures. They all have five pairs of legs and a dorsal shell called a carapace. They can be divided into the following groups :

Shrimps
The most distinguishable characteristic of shrimps is the long hair-like antennae. They are often beautifully colored or patterned. Many species feed by removing parasites and bacteria from fish. Others find protection by living in association with anemones. They are highly adapted for swimming. Common species are Stenopus hispidus and Periclimenes yucatanicus.
Lobster
These creatures are bottom dwellers that have well developed legs for crawling. They can swim backwards very efficiently with strong strokes of their tails. They rely on their shell and camouflage for protection. Panulirus argus is an important commercial species.
Hermit crabs
They use discarded sea shells as mobile homes and they have long antennae and three pairs of walking legs, for example, Paguristes spp.
True Crabs
They have greatly reduced abdomens and tails which are kept curled under their large round carapace. Their first pair of legs have developed into claws. Examples include Mithrax and Portunus species.
Barnacles
They are calcareous colonial creatures that attach to a variety of substrates, including the surface of whales and turtles. For example, subclass Cirripedia.

Mollusca - These animals have soft bodies and lack a true skeleton with majority having external shells for protection. The shells are made of calcium carbonate. They are important commercially. Mollusca is a very large group which can be categorized into the following groups :

Snails
This is by far the largest group of molluscs. They are identified by their shells' shape, sculpturing color or patterns, for example Strombus species.
Shell-less snails
Members of this group lack an external shell. They are often brightly colored and carnivorous, for example Aplysia species.
Chitons
These are easily recognized by their oval shape and overlapping plates. They are normally found hugging coral skeletons along the reef crest or shallow exposed reefs. For example, Acanthopleura granulata.
Bivalves
These are soft-bodied animals that are protected by two shells called valves. They are filter feeders drawing water in through a siphon which then passes through a complex food-oxygen extractor and is expelled out another siphon. For example, Lima scabra and Pteria species.
Squid and Octopus
These are powerful swimmers with suction cups on their arms. They have highly evolved nervous systems, including eyes which appear similar to ours, but with no external shells, and move by water-jet action, for example, Sepioteuthis sepiodea.

Echinodermata - All animals of this group have hard, internal skeletons composed of calcareous plates called ossicles. The ossicles often have projections giving the surface a spiny appearance. Echinoderms can be categorized into the following groups :

Feather stars
They are known as crinoids and are the most ancient echinoderms. They are sometimes referred to as living fossils. Their bodies have five arms that are immediately forked one or more times to give them arms in multiples of five, for example, Nemaster species.
Sea Stars
These are known as "starfish". They usually have five arms which are triangular and merge at the base into the central disc. They are efficient predators on molluscs, for example, Oreaster reticulatus.
Brittle and basket stars
These nocturnal creatures have long thin arms with flattened central discs. At night the brittle star's arms can be seen extruding from rock crevices and often produce bioluminescence. Basket-stars have five arms that continually divide into numerous branches. For example, Ophiothrix and Ophioderma species.
Sea Urchins
The bodies of these creatures are covered with spines, often long and sharp. This group includes the sand dollar and sea urchins, Diadema spp., Echinodermata spp. and Mellita sexiesperforata.
Sea Cucumbers
These animals have sausage-shaped bodies. Their external spines have reduced to microscopic size. They scoop up and process organic debris from the bottom of the sea, for example, Holothuria spp.

Tunicates - Tunicates are among the most common marine invertebrates, but also probably the least understood. Most chordates possess backbones hence are called vertebrates, but even though tunicates do not, they are included in this phylum ( a major unit of classification) because at some point in their life cycle they have characteristics just like those of vertebrates. The name "tunicate" comes from a body covering called a tunic. For example, Ascidiacea species and Clavelina picta and several new species that have been identified in Belize.
VERTEBRATES - Among the creatures with backbones are thousands of fish species, several marine mammals such as dolphins and manatees, reptiles such as turtles and American saltwater crocodiles and birds. ,

Fish - The most obvious of the marine inhabitants are the scores of bright red, yellow, green and blue reef fishes. Their varied colors provide camouflage, identification, warning, and aid in courtship. Common names of fish include parrotfish, snappers, groupers, mullets, bonefish, barracudas and angelfish.

Coastal Birds - One only needs to take a stroll along any coastal area in the country to see that it is the home of a large number of birds. In fact, about 286 species of birds have been seen using the different resources along the coastal zone, from hummingbirds to wood storks. Important nesting sites of many wading birds are found along the coast. For example, 4000 red-footed boobies live on Half-Moon Caye, Lighthouse Reef and a number of brown noddy nest on Southwest Caye on Glover's Reef. Man-O-War Caye is one of the largest nesting sites of the magnificent frigate birds and brown boobies.

The principal threat to Belize's coastal bird population is habit destruction caused by erosion, development and sea level rising.

Common coastal birds include: great egrets, wood storks, tri-colored herons, roseate spoonbills, white ibis, boatbilled herons, snowy egrets, roseate terns, brown boobies, red-footed boobies, magnificent frigates, brown pelicans, least terns, double crested cormorants, ospreys, green-backed herons, boat-tailed grackles and black catbirds.

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