Belize is a small Central American country, which is part of the Yucatan Peninsula.  It is bordered by Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the west and south, and the Caribbean Sea to the east.  Belize’s land area covers almost  23,000 square kilometerswith it’s near-coastal waters dotted by hundreds of islands and cays.  The climate is subtropical.  Vegetation throughout most of Belize is characterized as both tropical broad-leaf forests and pine forests in the lowlands and submontane regions.

map_of_belize.jpgEssentially, Belize is one big cave.  With annual rainfall ranging from 1,524 mm in the north to 4,064 mm in the south, andmost of Belize being comprised of one type of sedimentary rock – limestone, this is the perfect combination for the formation of caves.  As rain falls, it picks up atmospheric carbon dioxide forming a weak solution of carbonic acid.  As this water percolates through the soil and rock, it slowly dissolves the limestone and forms caves.

Ollas_Chechemha.jpgBelizean archaeologist, Oscar Raul “Chino” Chi, inspecting the contents of large ceramic vessels (ollas).  These vessels were cached by the ancient Maya within Chechem-Ha cave.

As a result, Belize boasts some of the world’s largest passageways and domed rooms.  The ancient Maya used these majestic features extensively for numerous ceremonial purposes.  They believed caves provided access to Xibalba (the Maya underworld).  Because of this, Belize also contains the greatest concentration of significant archaeological caves within its borders. 

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Jut in the background with two funnel-eared bats in the foreground, Actun Chapat Cave

Today, caves are the focus of numerous archaeological investigations.  Many of these investigations are conducted to better understand the relationship between the ancient Maya and the subterranean realm.  Despite considerable scientific focus on these features, little is presently known regarding the cave biology of Belize.

Twenty-seven of Belize’s 81 bat species are known to roost in caves.   However, published information on direct observations of bat use exists for only one cave – Actun Chapat cave.  Research conducted by Dr. Bruce Miller of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Jut Wynne and others resulted in the identification of at least 10 bat species from Actun Chapat.  They identified several fruit bat species and a large maternity roost of funnel-eared (Natalus stramineus) and ghost-faced (Mormoops megalophylla)bats – this roost supports well over a hundred thousand of bats.

FunEarGhostFaceBats.jpgFunnel-eared bat (left) and ghost-faced bat (right) captured using mist nets above the sinkhole entrance of Actun Chapat Cave in 2001.

Information on other vertebrates using Belizean caves is also sparse in the literature.  Jut and colleagues identified the Alfredo’s rainforest frog (Eleutherodactylus alfredi), Maya night lizard (Lepidophyma mayae) and the yellow-spotted night lizard (Lepidophyma flavimaculatum) using a sinkhole entrance of Actun Chapat cave.  These animals were attracted to the cave entrance because of an abundance of insect prey residing on the cave floor.  A vacuum effect within the sinkhole entrance resulted in the entrance “inhaling” surface air.  Due to the strength of this “vacuum,” insects and even birds were sucked into the entrance.  A spiraling swarm of insects resulted as insects attempted to fly out of the cave against the strong wind current.  Those unable to fly out of the cave became exhausted and fell to the cave floor where they were met by a host of predators (frogs, lizards and spiders) who laid in wait for the weary insects.

Trphlopseudothelphusa acanthochela_actun_chapat.jpgCave-adapted crab (Typhlopseudothelphusa acanthochela) known to both Actun Cebada and Actun Chapat caves.  It may be found along the silty banks of subterranean pools within both caves.

Regarding cave-dwelling invertebrates, published reports exist for only 21 of the hundreds of caves in Belize.  To date, most of this work has focused on single taxonomic groups (for example, flies or spiders).  To date, none of the 21 previously studied caves have been thoroughly inventoried.  Although far from complete, we have the most information for Actun Cebada and Actun Chapat caves.  At least 27 species are known from Actun Cebada including four troglobites (a terrestrial cave-adapted pseudoscorpion, spider, springtail and crab) and one stygobite (an aquatic cave-adapted shrimp).  For Actun Chapat, at least 12 species of invertebrates have been identified including at least two troglobites (a beetle and crab) and one stygobite (a cave-adapted shrimp). 

Presently, the Subterranean Ecology Institute is working to improve the knowledge of cave-dwelling insects in Belize.  In 2011, they reported at least seven new cave-adapted insects!  Jut looks forward to following their progress.