Puerto Rico, officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, is a territory of the United States, located in the northeastern Caribbean; east of the Dominican Republic and west of the US Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands. Due to its location, Puerto Rico enjoys a tropical climate and is subject to beautiful weather year round. Originally populated for centuries by the aboriginal people known as Tainos, the island was claimed by Christopher Columbus for Spain during his second voyage to the Americas on November 19, 1493. In 1898, Spain ceded the archipelago to the United States as a result of its defeat in the Spanish–American War under the terms of the Treaty of Paris.
The island is mostly mountainous with large coastal areas in the north and south. The main mountain range is called "La Cordillera Central" (The Central Range). The highest elevation in Puerto Rico, Cerro de Punta 1,339 meters (4,393 ft), is located in this range. Another important peak is El Yunque ("the anvil"), one of the highest in the Sierra de Luquillo at the El Yunque National Forest, with an elevation of 1,077 m (3,533 ft).
The beach at Carolina, a short drive east from San Juan
A view of the northern coast from El Yunque National Forest.
El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System. Although the forest is relatively small at 28,900 acres in size, it is rich in biodiversity due to its year-round tropical climate. Caressed by gentle easterly winds, the forest has an average temperature of 73° F (21° C), and seasonal changes are almost imperceptible. Located at the Northeastern side of the island, the Luquilo Mountains are the first land mass the moisture loaded trade winds encounter. These Mountains have the highest elevations in Puerto Rico and also the most rainfall. They rise to 3,533 ft. above sea level and can sometimes receive rainfall of over 200 inches per year. It is the ideal climate for tropical vegetation. The forest consists of four major forest types: Tabonuco, Colorado, Palm, and Dwarf. It includes five ecological life zones: subtropical wet forest, subtropical rain forest, lower montane wet forest, lower montane rain forest and subtropical moist forest. El Yunque is “home” to thousands of native plants including 150 fern species, and 240 tree species (88 of these are endemic or rare and 23 are exclusively found in this forest). The El Yunque National Forest has no large wildlife species, but hundreds of smaller animals thrive in this gentle forest, many of which exist nowhere else on the planet. In the forest there are at least 16 amphibian species, 20 known reptile species, 11 native mammal species, 5 introduced mammal species, and a blend of about 120 avian species including migratory birds. Each year the park welcomes about 600,000 visitors from all over the world who come to sample the rain-forest’s eco-tourism pleasures while developing a greater understanding of its ecological importance by walking the many beautiful trails.
The Humacao Nature Reserve is located on the Southeastern coast of Puerto Rico, and is a must see for nature lovers of all kinds. Over 3000 acres of beautiful scenery full of beaches, mangrove swamps, and channels that are perfectly connected to a lagoon that is excellent for kayaking, bird watching, and fishing. Don’t forget to note all of the amazing sounds you hear throughout your visit.
Not only is Humacao’s landscape breath-taking, it also holds some pretty amazing history. It is the home to a Naval base bunker that was used in WWII, a closed down sugar cane plantation, coconut plantation, and a great turtle population that frequents its beaches, and almost 90 birds species that have made their home here. In addition to all the wonder that HNR brings, it stays very environmentally friendly as buildings and structures have been constructed from eco-conscience building materials that won’t contrast with the beauty of the reserve.
Rocky limestone hills are situated along Carreterra 10, from the Utuado-Arecibo municipality border to the city of Arecibo itself much further north (about 50 miles west of San Juan). This area features tall hills topped with deciduous, broad-leaved trees such as Tabebuia, shrubs, and smaller flowering plants such as Clitoria. Trees in limestone forests tend not to grow very large, as one may observe from photographs. However, these plants still show remarkable diversity and many of them can be (and often are) sold as houseplants for ornamental purposes. Any exposed white limestone on the hillsides shows remarkable indentations and caves if one looks for them.
Tabebuia heterophylla, also known as the pink trumpet tree. This tree is considered one of the most important trees for timber production in the Caribbean due to its weight and durability, but it is also a widely cultivated plant. It flowers near the end of the dry season in the Caribbean, signaling the change from dry to wet season around March and April.
Clitoria, a genus of flowering pea plants of the family Leguminosae (Fabacae), native to many tropical areas of the world including Asia and Madagascar. The plants grow wild in the limestone hills of Puerto Rico, but are also cultivated for ornamental purposes, dyes, and for consumption of the flower and roots in other parts of the world, such as India.
The limestone hills along Carreterra 10, not long after the crossing of the border into the municipality of Arecibo. The hills show vast plant growth of slim trees, shrubs, lower flowering plants, and ferns which grow from the rock face. Tree flowering is generally the greatest from March to May, after the start of mild spring rains. Quite a few small caves and notches can be seen in the rock face as one might traverse down the highway.
The Guanica dry forest is a subtropical dry forest on the southwest side of Puerto Rico. It is considered the best preserved subtropical forest and the best example of a dry forest in the Caribbean. The forest covers 9,000 acres and has rolling hills, open plains, and ends in the Guanica Bay. It was designated as a nature reserve in 1919, later to be appointed as a United Nations Biosphere Reserve in 1981. This forest occurs in the rain shadow caused by the Cordillera Central, which is a large mountain range that crosses the entire island from west to east, separating both sides of Puerto Rico and aiding the island’s overall biodiversity. Interestingly, the rusty red soil is very similar to the soil which may be found in Florida, composed of matter from an extinct coral reef and so white, conical mollusk shells can be found littered around some of the more rocky parts of the forest. Guanica is Puerto Rico’s driest area, with temperatures ranging from 27 °C (80° F) in the shade to 38 °C (100 °F) in the sunnier, exposed areas. A very dry place, Guanica receives less than a centimeter of rain per year, averaging 791 millimeters annually. The rain shadow of the Cordillera Central thus makes a significant difference in the climate of the area, even though both Guanica and places like Arecibo are part of the same relatively small island.
Sixteen species of birds are endemic to the island of Puerto Rico, and out of those sixteen, nine can be found in Guanica. Some of these species include the Puerto Rican woodpecker (Melanerpes portoricensis), Puerto Rican lizard cuckoo (Coccyzus vieilloti), the critically endangered Puerto Rican nightjar (Antrostomus noctitherus), and the Puerto Rican emerald hummingbird (Chlorostilbon maugeaus). Puerto Rico is also home to numerous species of reptiles and frogs, including the Puerto Rican crested anole (Anolis cristatellus cristatellus) and sharp-mouthed lizard (Anolis pulchellus) along with many other Anolis species and the notorious Coqui frogs (Eleutherodactylus), the symbol of Puerto Rico itself.
The vegetation of Guanica can be divided into three main groups: upland deciduous, semi-evergreen, and the scrub forest. The lower scrub forest contains various species of cactus and is known for the plentiful exposed limestone. The semi-evergreen zone is where the tallest trees can be found, including the trumpet flowering Guayacan trees (Tabebuia). In the upland deciduous zone the Caribbean princewood (Exostema caribaeum) can be found with its unique flowers. The flowers of Exostema caribaeum are known for their slender white tubular petals. Out of the 700 plant species found in the forest, 48 are endangered, and 16 are endemic to Guanica. A common attraction to the forest is a Guayacan tree, El Guayacan Centenario (genus Guaiacum), believed to be around 700 years old. This tree can be found at the end of a side trail shooting off of the Ballena Trail in the Guanica dry forest (Bosque Estatal De Guanica), just follow the signs for “Guayacan Centenario”.
Comocladia dodonaea (image from Wikipedia), common names include poison ash Christmas bush. This small plant is endemic to the Caribbean islands and each of its leaves contain at least three needles. Despite its look, it is part of the cashew family Anacardiaceae.
Bromelia pinguin (image from the University of Panama), a terrestrial bromelia which may be found in Puerto Rico as well as South America, Mexico, and some southwest states of North America. This plant contains edible fruit after flowering and leaves which may be used for a needle and thread by breaking the darker tips off and pulling out the fibers from the leaves. These fibers are remarkably strong, and the leaves may be boiled and smashed with a heavy object to remove all the fibers if one desires to make rope.
Pseudosphinx tetrio, otherwise known as the tetrio sphinx or plumeria caterpillar. This to-be moth is a common moth of the Caribbean, northern South America, Mexico, and may occasionally arise in Florida, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Some have even been seen further north in Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. Its host plant may be any local dogbane plant, family Apocynaceae, such as those of genus Plumeria. After pupating and emerging, the resulting moth is a large sphinx moth but with a much more drab coloration.
The insular shelf of La Parguera, on the southwest coast of Puerto Rico, is characterized by an extensive development of coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove forests. The dry, warm, and relatively stable climate, low wave energy, high water transparency, relatively wide shelf, oligotrophic offshore waters, and low urban coastal development are some of the factors that contribute to the conditions of the marine ecosystem of La Parguera. Interactions among coral reef, sea grass, and mangrove communities provide for a highly productive, structurally complex, and biologically diverse ecosystem.
Coral reefs act as barriers to wave action and permit the establishment of sea grasses and fringing mangroves. In turn, sea grasses and mangroves contribute organic matter for coral nutrition and serve as important foraging and nursery habitats for coral reef fishes and other organisms. Also, a new discovery of thriving coral reefs off the coast of Puerto Rico has been found. Scuba diving scientists discovered sprawling and diverse coral reefs at 100 to 500 feet (30 to 150 meters) below the ocean surface within a 12-mile (19-kilometer) span off the southwestern coast near La Parguera, Puerto Rico.
La Parguera is a small fishing village in the town of Lajas, Puerto Rico; located on the southwest coast of the island La Parguera is one of four areas in Puerto Rico that has a very unique and remarkable night time phenomenon, a Phosphorescent Bay. The Bioluminescent Bay is actually made up of two bays, Bahia Monsio Jose and Bahia la Parguera; when the still waters are disturbed they glow with millions of microscopic organisms known as dinoflagellates. This unique bay contains up to 720,000 single-celled bioluminescent dinoflagellates per gallon of water. This phenomenon occurs only in tropical areas, typically in mangrove-protected bays such as the one found at La Parguera. Puerto Rico is the only place on the planet that has three sites where you can depend on this phenomenon to occur every night, La Parguera being one of them. Nature is unpredictable and there are plenty of factors that affect biobay’s performance – anything from moon phase to weather and tides.
People swimming in the bioluminescent bay
The William Miranda Marin Botanical and Cultural Garden was originally constructed in April 2007 with the objective to educate tourists and the public alike about the rich history of Puerto Rican culture in nature and agriculture. However, it was not always named after the famous and beloved mayor of Caguas; that name came about in September of 2010. It was originally named Jardin Botanical and Cultural Garden, but it is still located in the small town of Caguas; just 30 minutes away from San Juan, the capital city of Puerto Rico. Specifically positioned in the Canabon Cagus neighborhood, the garden presents the countries best rendition to portray the rich culture in relation with nature and tropical agriculture of the area. The Garden physically sits on around 60 acres of land and promotes a lot more than just respect for nature; it is also an exponent of the country’s history. Sugar cane production and commerce are inseparable elements of the Caribbean’s evolution during the last centuries. This rich history presents a unique opportunity for this museum to bring the past into the future. The Garden is labeled as a “living museum,” placed on the centuries-old ruins of the ancient San Jose Sugar Plantation. The old plantation was the center of agricultural production in the Valle del Turabo during the late 1800’s and early to mid 1900’s.
As touched on earlier, the Garden is placed on the ruins of the old San Jose Hacienda as well as the rebuilt old large hut to house slaves, whose sacrifice represented an important element in the development of the Creole personality. As a compliment to the Garden, there are important archeological deposits of the Taino Indians the aborigines’ name of Puerto Rico. The garden also houses pieces that date from pre-Columbus times until the Spaniard colonization. It also exhibits a rich multicultural wealth conforming the Creole heritage. By combining in its own texture the Tainos, Negroes and Spaniards fibers, the Garden celebrates creolism, the sum of three races, in several of its educational zones.
The Garden has many trails and paths that run through the 4 zones differentiated by color and are labeled as the orange, yellow, blue and violet zones. Located in these zones are such things as the Fruit Orchard, African Ancestral Grove, Riparian Corridor, Heritage Forest, Lake Identity Creole, Plaza Artisanal, Florido Forest, the Aviary and the Water Garden just to name a few. In addition, the Garden exhibits tropical flora in all its exuberance and variety; all the while it is home to wildlife proper to such vegetation. The Garden also hosts special workshops for the public on topics ranging from the art of carving wood and stone to things as leisurely as bird-watching. Most importantly the Garden is an educational tool for all of its visitors young and old and also offers virtual presentations, educational tours as well as scientific publications and special activities. They say this Garden was designed for you (the people) so enjoy it and help celebrate nature and most importantly the Puerto Rican environment!
Pictured above, the entrance to Caquas Botanical and Cultural Garden William Miranda Marin
The life-like Stegosarus inside the William Miranda Marin Botanical and Cultural Garden
Cecropia – "Pumpwood, Yarumo or Guarumo"
A fast growing, dioecious tree easily identified by large, palmate, 7-10 deeply lobed leaves. With the exception of some species, a typical height is between 5-15m. Inflorescences are in green, spike-like clusters containing seeds with a gelatinous-coating. Fruits provide food for various bats, birds and other animals, who in turn spread seeds throughout the forest. These seeds will remain dormant until the right combination of sunlight and temperature initiates growth. The internodes are generally hollow, and are home to ants. This Azteca genus forms a mutualistic relationship with the tree, protecting it from foreign insects and encroaching plants. In turn, Cecropia provides shelter and food in the form of 1-2mm, white, Mullerian bodies rich in glycogen.
It is a pioneering species, being one of the first plants to colonize disturbed or freshly cleared areas. Distribution is mainly fixed to Neotropical, humid rainforests in the Central and South Americas, plus surrounding islands like Puerto Rico. However, it has been found in such places as French Polynesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Bambusa – Bamboo
A quick growing grass of the tropics, parts of Asia, and some of Africa. From deep (~ 3 m) underground rhizomes, arise clusters of woody, hollow stems. The stem walls are very hard, containing silica in addition to dense cells composed of cellulose and lignin. Upper nodes of the plant support alternating branches with lanceolate leaves. Plant height ranges from 10-15cm in the smallest species, and up to 40m in the largest species. All bamboos in a groove will flower at the same time. Inflorescences are arranged in a green panicle which develops at the stem tips. Sheathlike bracts enclose the flower-bearing spikelets. After wind pollination a one-seeded grain/caryopsis forms, then the plant dies. Bamboo is commonly used in the tropics as firewood, building material, pipes, plates, medicine, and instruments (flutes).
Palms form a large, monocot family composed of shrubs and trees. This family's distribution ranges from the tropics to such areas as Africa, Florida, California, and Georgia. They are the result of an evolutionary "attempt" to make a tree from a fern. Lacking secondary tissues, it was more favorable to create a thick stem and secondary roots to support the plant’s weight. Many palm "trunks" are covered with dense, stiff fibers. These fibers are composed into spines at the end. Leaf arrangement is either pinnately or palmately compound. White, unisexual, individual inflorescences are enclosed within a spathe (sheathing bracts) that becomes woody when mature. The fruit, generally a drupe, consists of a fleshy ring surrounding a seed. Several uses for the palm include oils, ropes, food, and wood.
Rubiaceae – “Madder, Bedstraw, or Coffee Family”
This family consists of several herbs, trees and shrubs mainly located in the tropics. A typical stem structure involves leaves oppositely arranged and perpendicular to each other. The edge of the leaf is usually entire. Stipules are located interpetiolar. Bisexual flowers contain 4-5 of the following: stamens, corolla lobes, and calyx lobes. Inflorescences can be in a cymose position. The pistil is composed of 2 carpels.
Fruit takes on many forms, such as drupes, berries, nutlets. Secondary compounds (i.e. caffeine) in the fruit protect the plant from various animals and insects. Products of Rubiaceae family include the antimalarial compound quinine, coffee, and a red dye (from Rubia tinctorum). Cephalanthus, Houstonia and Gardenia are several species that may be cultivated as ornamental plants.
Pandanus – Screw Pine
The screw pine belongs to a monocot genus similar in appearance to palms. Spiral leaf scar patterns are the reason or the name. They are found by marshy areas or near a coast in such places as Madagascar, Hawaii, Japan, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, and the Malay Archipelago.
A unique feature involves extra support root "legs" that begin at the stem and end in the soil. Having the support allows for the tree to grow up to a height of approximately 20m. The leaves are arranged in densely alternating ranks of three at the end of the stem. Spines along the lanceolate leaf margins and midrib make the leaves very sharp. This dioecious tree has completely different male and female flowers. Male flowers are relatively simple, only containing spikes roughly 4 inches long. Female inflorescences appear as large spathe globe, containing many different sections similar to a pineapple. Later the fruit's color changes from green to yellow as it matures. Some plants are assumed to be pollinated by the wind, however, there are some species that emit an odor. It could be a mechanism to allow flowers to be pollinated by animals and insects as well. Ropes and fabric are commonly made from the leaves, while other parts are used for building materials.
Hibiscus – Hibiscus
Hibiscus belong to the family Malvaceae. Their distribution ranges from tropical to warm-temperate regions. The genus is known to contain woody shrubs, small trees and a multitude of flowering plants.
Leaves are lobed or toothed, organized in an alternating pattern along the stem, and contain veins that spread from the leaf base. Stipules grow beneath the leaves. The shape ranges from lanceolate to ovate. Flower color includes red, orange, purple, yellow, white or pink. Inflorescences are radially symmetrical with 5 sepals (separate or fused), 5 petals, and pollen-bearing / ovule-bearing parts. Each style is branched as many times as there are carpels. The fruit consists of a five-lobed capsule, which splits at maturity. As the flowers are considered beautiful, Hibiscus plants are mainly grown for ornamental purposes.
Clusia – Autograph Tree, Pitch Apple, Florida Clusia, Signature Tree
Writing on the tree leaves, by means of a fingernail or other semi sharp material, will remain until the leaf is shed. Hence the plant was given the common name of "Autograph Tree". Shrubs, vines, and small to medium trees compose the Clusia genus. Some species begin life as epiphytes that eventually kill their host. A full grown tree may be 20m tall. Leaf margins are entire. The dark green leaves are thick, leathery and oval-shaped. Flowers come in a variety of colors, from white to greenish-white, red, yellow or pink. Inflorescence's are typically arranged in a terminal/ lateral panicle and bloom for only a short time. After pollination several green, poisonous, seed capsules form. Inside the fruit are several red/orange seeds. When the fruit turns black and splits open, these seeds will be surrounded with a black material. Common ranges of this genus are in the tropical and subtropical Americas.
The most interesting thing about the genus is its ability to switch between C3 and C4 photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is used immediately in C3 photosynthetic reactions. However, C4 photosynthetic reactions store CO2> within the plant to be used at a later time with a higher temperature.
Piper – Pepper plant
The trees and shrubs that belong to this genus are commonly found in the lowland tropical rain forests. The fruit consists of a small, round and aromatic peppercorn when ripe. Besides being used as a cooking spice, several species are grown for ornamental purposes. Pepper also seems to have disinfectant properties and a few antibiotic properties.
Ficus – Fig Tree
Ficus will mainly be found in the tropics and occasionally semi-warm temperate zones. The fig covers a wide variety of plant forms such as vines, shrubs, epiphytes and trees. A unique feature of the fig tree (either the Puerto Rican Ficus elastic or Ficus retusa) is the aerial roots hanging from the treetop. These roots absorb excess moisture in the air to help transport water throughout the plant. Fruit requires a symbiotic relationship with a fig wasp to germinate. Figs are enjoyed in a variety of recipes, from Fig newtons to homemade desserts.
Spathodea – African tuliptree, fountain tree, pichkari or Nandi flame
A monotypic genus that is a very common sight in Puerto Rico. Planted as a ornamental tree throughout the tropics, it is now considered highly invasive. This is due to its very showy appearance in the form of its crimson flowers that can be noticed from great distances away. Since is it so largely distributed now due to it being introduced to many tropical ecosystems, one could say this a sign that you are “in the tropics”.
Most species in this family are grown for ornamental purposes because they often contain beautiful spiked, cyme, or raceme inflorescences. This family is a major group of angiosperms with 250 genera and roughly 2,500 species. Mostly found in tropical regions, members of this family thrive in nearly every habitat such as sea coasts, forests, swamps, and mangrove woods.
Mangifera – Mango tree
Relatives to the cashew family Anacardiaceae, this genus has a very well-known member, the mango. Out of the roughly 69 species, more than 27 bear edible fruit. The diversity of these trees range from subtropical and tropical regions of South East Asia and they are widely cultivated there, however, these trees are typically canopy trees in lowland forests. Mangifera trees grow between 30–40 m in length.
This genus is part of the Gesneriaceae family, and is native to Caribbean islands and northern South America. This family consists mostly of epiphytes with a portion being shrub/trees. Some of the trees contain beautiful green, bell-shaped flowers.
Picramnia – This genus is hard to place in phylogeny, but is considered to be in the family of Picramniaceae. These trees are native to Brazil and other tropical regions.
Cocos – Coconut tree, Coconut palm
Cocos is a genus of trees belonging to the family Arecaceae. The term “coco” is derived from a Spanish/Portuguese word meaning “head” or “skull”. The fruit of these trees, coconuts, have been thought to look like heads. The rough, hairy material covering the outside of coconuts is known as “copra”. Cocos trees are wind pollinated and are native to tropical and subtropical regions.
Terminalia is a genus of plants belonging to the family Combretaceae. These plants are very common and can adapt almost anywhere. With nearly 100 species, many plants in this genus are very useful for reasons such as antifungal, antibacterial, anticancer, and aromatic properties. These plants are native to tropical regions.
Laguncularia – White mangrove
Laguncularia is a genus of flowering plants in the leadwood tree family, Combretaceae. These plants are native to the Caribbean, Mexico, and Bermuda. They can grow between 12–18 m tall.
Coccoloba is a genus in the family Polygonaceae, related to “Buckwheat”. It is common to see these plants on sea coasts across America, often functioning as place holders for the sand. There are approximately 120–150 species belonging to this genus, and they are native to tropical and subtropical regions of America, South America, Caribbean, and Central America.
Chrysobalanus – Caribbean apple
As the common name implies, this genus is native to the Caribbean. Members of this genus are evergreen perennial shrubs and small trees that attain a maximum height of 25–30 ft. Trees in this genus may contain small white flowers before giving way to apple like fruit.
There are multiple families of ferns, and most come from the tropics and some have made it to North Dakota. They are very frequently found in Puerto Rico. The following is a big group of tropical ferns, and are very common. They have leaves that are stem-like and can grow to be many meters long.
Like in most ferns (below), younger leaves, before they mature, are in a spiral and later flatten out. The roots on these ferns may have their roots planted further away than the leaves are as they grow towards the sunlight.
Typically on ferns there will be small brown bumps on the underside of the leaves (as shown in the picture above) and these are the sporangia (also called sori). These sporangia will immediately move to the sexual stage. These sporangia are wind dispersed and are microscopic in size.
Nephrolepis – Boston Fern
The Boston Fern, also known as the sword fern, is tolerant to high sunlight and heat. This fern is a popular house plant as the sword-shaped fronds grow upwards and gracefully arch. They can grow to be several meters tall and wide. These plants prefer higher humidity and the leaves will begin to brown if there is not enough humidity and will shed its fronds if there is not enough water in the soil.
Hymenophyllaceae – Filmy ferns
There are about 7 genera and approximately 600 species of this plant. They are found in tropical climates around the world and only a few have ventured to the more temperate regions. The filmy ferns have filmy, transparent leaves and are sometimes mistaken for mosses and liverworts. They only live in the wet forest in Puerto Rico as they need high humidity and precipitation to thrive. The filmy fern is a more primitive plant, and was an attempt to make a moss out of a fern.
Sphagnum – Peat Moss
Peat Moss grows in areas of low nutrients with almost no nitrogen content, but has a good water source. Peat moss has been used to treat wounds and burns as it has an antibacterial use. Also if needed, the water that is in peat moss can be consumed safely. Depending on the species of peat moss, they can hold 16-26 times their dry weight of water. Peat moss can help form an environment for other plants such as ericaceous shrubs along with orchids and carnivorous plants. Peat moss has many uses throughout history, including but not limited to: Used for dressing wounding, most famously in World War I. This is due to it being inherently absorptive and acidic, thus inhibiting the growth of bacteria and fungi.
Lycopodium – Spike Moss
Spike moss is a vascular plant that is its own group. They are a flowerless, vascular, terrestrial, and epiphytic group that have wide-branched, upright stems. They are also an asexually reproducing plant that reproduce with sporangia; they are distributed by rhizomes that can be found above or below ground. They came before the reptiles during the Carboniferous time. They have small spiny leaves which appear needle-like but have a soft texture to the touch.
This plant is good for ornamental purposes. The plant has also been used medicinally in a tea and as a compress as treatments for skin disorders. Much like the club moss, the spores can also harvested for lycopodium powder which is used as a flash powder and is used in many different areas: fireworks, pill coatings, fingerprint powders, and even ice cream stabilizer.
A relative of spike moss that is most commonly called a firmoss. They are referred to as a fir moss because of their appearance being similar to that of a fir tree. They have dichotomously-branched stems and grow in clusters. Each leaf of Huperzia contains a sporangium and as a plant needs a lot of humidity.
Selaginella – Club Moss
Club Moss is similar to spike moss, but they have leaves of different sizes. They are a shade plant and like high humidity. The spores of club moss used to be collected to help stop nosebleeds and other hemorrhaging as they are very absorbent. They also were used in pyrotechnics and photography as the spores are flammable and produce a bright flash when lit. Club mosses also were plants that helped produce a lot of the coal that we now mine as they were buried, compressed and then carbonized.
Hepaticae – Liverworts
Liverworts may be the first lineage of plants. They are a very simple plant and also primitive. They have a flat body which is called a thallus and have symbiotes; blue-green algae and cyanobacteria help to improve their photosynthesis. The plants themselves are typically small being 2-20 mm wide and often less than 10 cm long. They can be found globally but are more prominent in high humidity areas, but have arctic and desert species as well. In ancient times it was thought that liverworts helped cure diseases related to the liver, this in turn helped it gain its name. Today there is little use for them, but they help reduce the amount of erosion in riverbeds.
Arthrostylidium – Climbing Bamboo
Climbing bamboo species are distributed in the New World from Mesoamerica to South America and in the Caribbean. Climbing bamboo vines are herbs, growing in clumps. They are perennial, with pachymorph and sympodial rhizomes. Aerial stems (culms) are cylindrical, lignified, hollow, and elongated. Leaves of the culm differ from those of the branches; branches have foliage leaves or food producing organs and culm leaves have a sheath to protect new culms. Inflorescences are spike like and unbranched, flowering along the axis. Climbing bamboos have one or two bracts.
Arthrostylidium belongs to the grass family. Climbing bamboos are unique in that the vine life form is not common to their family of grasses. The vine life form may be an ancestral form of the grass family.
Allamanda – Yellow Bell or Golden Trumpet
Allamanda are native to the Americas; they are distributed from Mexico to Argentina. Plants of this genus are evergreen trees, shrubs, or vines. Some species are ornamental plants cultivated for their large, colorful flowers. Most species produce yellow flowers. They contain a white latex. The leaves are opposite or arranged in whorls of up to five. The blades are usually oval and smooth-edged, but some are leathery or lightly hairy. The inflorescence is a compound cyme. The flower has five lobed sepals and a bell or funnel shaped corolla of five petals.
Allamanda cathartica is notable for its medicinal properties although all parts of the plant contain allamandin, a toxic iridoid lactone. The leaves, roots and flowers are used as a laxative and emetic in traditional medicine in a number of tropical countries. Although the milky sap is known to contain antibacterial and possibly anticancer properties, it is poisonous and ingesting large amounts can be toxic.
Mimosa – Four Valve Mimosa or Sensitive Plant
Mimosa plants are capable of rapid movement. The leaves of the plant close quickly when touched. Some mimosas raise their leaves in day and lower them at night. Leaves are alternate and bipinnate. Mimosa flowers are bisexual and have ten or fewer stamens produced in heads. What appears to be a single globular flower is actually a cluster of many individual ones. Mimosa contains some level of heptanoic acid. One of the notable species is Mimosa pudica, which folds its leaves when touched or exposed to heat. It is native to southern Central and South America, but is widely cultivated elsewhere as a houseplant and outdoors in the tropics. Outdoor cultivation has led to weedy invasion.
Marcgravia – Marcgravia
Marcgravia are native to the Caribbean Islands, Central America, and South America. Plants of this genus are terrestrial, woody, hemi-epiphytic or epiphytic vines or shrubs. Leaves are alternate and simple with dark glandular dots in the blade or the margin. Young growth is reddish colored by anthocyanins. Flowers are bisexual, terminal umbelliform racemes. The central sterile flowers are usually replaced by elongate nectaries with a cavity or pocket where nectar accumulates. There are ten or more stamens. Fruits are capsular with seeds embedded in fleshy pulp. Seeds are few to numerous and hemispherical to kidney-shaped with a shiny coat. Different pollination methods are used in the various taxa. There is a wide range of visitors including insects, lizards, birds, bats and non-flying mammals that visit the elaborate umbrella like inflorescences with the variously shaped bracteal “nectary-containers”.
Family Bromeliaceae – Bromeliads
Bromeliad species are native mainly to the tropical Americas, with a few species found in the American subtropics. Bromeliads are adapted to a number of climates. Approximately half the species are epiphytes. Foliage takes different shapes, from needle-thin to broad and flat, symmetrical to irregular, spiky to soft. The foliage grows in a rosette and is widely patterned and colored. Varieties may have leaves with red, yellow, white and cream variations. Some may be spotted with purple, red, or cream, while others may have different colors on the tops and bottoms of the leaves.
Guzmania bromeliad growing on a tree trunk.
Bromeliad inflorescences are diverse. Upright stalks may be branched or simple with spikes. Epiphytic bromeliads only grow hard, wiry roots to attach themselves to trees and rocks. Bromeliads include terrestrial species, such as the pineapple. Many bromeliads are able to store water in a structure formed by their tightly-overlapping leaf bases. A wide variety of organisms takes advantage of the pools of water trapped by bromeliads including some species of ostracods, small salamanders, and tree frogs.
Family Araceae – Arum Family
Araceae is best developed in tropical and subtropical regions and is very common in tropical forests and wetland. Araceae is a family of monocotyledonous flowering plants in which flowers are borne on a type of inflorescence called a spadix. Arums can be epiphytic. Species in Araceae are often rhizomatous or tuberous and are often found to contain calcium oxalate crystals or raphides. The leaves can vary from species to species. The inflorescence is composed of a spadix, which is usually surrounded by a modified leaf called a spathe. Aroids may be monoecious or dioecious.
Many plants in this family are heat producing plants, which attracts insects to pollinate the plant. Genera such as Alocasia, Arisaema, Caladium, Colocasia, Dieffenbachia, and Philodendron contain calcium oxalate crystals in the form of raphides. If these crystals are consumed, they may cause edema, vesicle formation, dysphagia and painful stinging and burning to the mouth and throat.
Family Orchidaceae – Orchid family
All orchids are perennial herbs that lack any permanent woody structures and can be monopodial or sympodial. A majority of orchids are perennial epiphytes, which grow anchored to trees or shrubs in the tropics and subtropics. Epiphytic orchids have modified aerial roots that can sometimes be a few meters long. Orchids generally have simple leaves with parallel veins. Leaves may be ovate, lanceolate, or orbiculate, and variable in size. Some orchids have single flowers, but most have a racemose inflorescence, sometimes with a large number of flowers. The flowering stem can be basal, apical or axillary. Flowers are primitively bilaterally symmetrical and have two or three stamens.
The world's richest concentration of orchid varieties is found in the tropics, mostly Asia, South America and Central America. The underground tubers of terrestrial orchids are full of a highly nutritious starch-like substance, called bassorin, which has a sweetish taste and replaces starch as a reserve material used for cooking.
Family Gesneriaceae – African Violet Family
Many species have colorful and showy flowers and are cultivated as ornamental plants. Most species are perennial herbs or subshrubs, but a few are epiphytic vines, woody shrubs or small trees. The leaves are usually arranged opposite and decussate, but leaves in some groups may have a spiral or alternate arrangement. Flowers have a zygomorphic corolla whose petals are fused into a tube. Most gesneriads have an unusual inflorescence structure, the “pair-flowered cyme”. The fruit is a dry or fleshy capsule or a berry. The seeds are small and numerous.
The family name is based on the genus Gesneria, which honors Swiss humanist Conrad Gessner. Several genera in the family have become popular as houseplants. The most familiar members of the family to gardeners are the African Violets in the genus Saintpaulia. Gesneriads are among the easiest plants to propagate. This is one reason for their immense popularity. From even the smallest cutting, it is possible to grow another plant.
Ipomoea – “Morning Glories”
A genus that occurs throughout the tropical and subtropical. Most species have colorful flowers that are often grown as ornamentals. In Puerto Rico this plant was often found on many of the beaches, enjoying the salty environment as many were spread across the beach.
The Allspice (Pimenta dioica) tree is most well-known in Jamaica where it grown in order to sell the wood, leaves and berries. People use these various parts of the Allspice tree for extra flavor to barbequed meats or to make spices by simply adding them. The tree also contains very little bark. In Jamaica, they refer to this tree as “Pimento” in reference to the name Spanish explorers used when they first encountered it in Mexico during the 16th Century. Although it is most well-known in Jamaica, the tree did not originally come from the country. It’s actually native to the West Indies, Southern Mexico and Central America. The English version “allspice” pertains to the smell produced by the berries and leaves because it smells like nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper. The allspice leaves and berries have been used to make perfumes, cosmetics and medicine.
The allspice tree with placard located in the botanical garden
The Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata) tree grows natively in the rainforests ranging from Southeast Asia to Australia. However, it has been cultivated all over the world because its yellow flowers are a key ingredient in the popular “Chanel No 5” perfume. The resulting popularity of the scent puts the demand of this tree towards the top. Since it also grows extremely fast the Ylang Ylang tree has also been used to “regenerate” parts of the rainforest that are dwindling down. While the tree does grow smelly yellow flowers that are important to humans, it also produces clusters of green fruits that ripen into black fruits. The black fruits serve as an important source of food for birds and bats alike.
Ylang Ylang leaves and inflorescence
The Traveler’s (Ravenala madagascariensis) tree is also referred to as the Madagascar tree. It is a fan palm which is easy to remember because the top of the tree looks like a giant fan. This tree is called the Traveler’s tree/palm because in case of an emergency where there’s no water around, a person can puncture the leaves and there is water stored in them that you can purify and drink. This tree, Ravenala madagascariensis is the only member of the genus Ravenala. However, it is in the same family as the banana tree. Although the plant has been widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions, it is native to Madagascar originally.
The great ́“fan” top of the Traveler’s Tree
The Kapok (Ceiba pentandra) tree is a tree that has many uses. These trees can grow to extreme heights, sometimes up to 230 feet. They also have giant roots as well that can be taller than a grown adult. The Kapok tree is the most cultivated and best known tree of this genus. There is a Kapok tree in the southern part of Puerto Rico that is said to be 500 years old and is associated with the founding of the city “Ponce.” These trees live to be quite old and are said to be an important part in the mythologies of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures. The Amazonian tribes of eastern Peru believed deities lived in Ceiba tree species throughout the jungle. Fibers produced by the Kapok tree were formerly used to fill mattresses, pillows, tapestries and dolls; however, they have recently been replaced in all these items by synthetic fibers. The Ceiba tree see is still used to extract oils used to make soap and fertilizers.
The spiny bark of a Ceiba
The cacao (Theobroma cacao) tree is what we like to think of as “the chocolate tree.” It produces pods on the trunk of the tree that are pollinated by ants to make seeds that are filled with fatty matter, caffeine, nitrogen and theobromine. All of these things will later be turned into chocolate. Although the tree is native to tropical regions of Central and South America, the present day biggest producers of this tree include: the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Indonesia. Humans have been eating cacao-based foods produced by the seeds of this tree for at least 3,500 years. This dates all the way back to the time the Olmec people of Mexico first ingested the seeds from this tree. The Aztec people called the seeds cacahuatl and then the Spaniards took those seeds back to Europe in the 16th century and added sugars, cinnamon and milk to make the bitter seeds taste better. After that, chocolate became one of the best things around to eat and still is today.
Chocolate tree pod
The Persea is a genus of about 150 species of evergreen trees that belong to the family Lauraceae. The most well-known member of the genus is the avocado, which also happens to be the tree that we saw, depicted below. Persea trees are not originally grown in Puerto Rico; however, they are cultivated there and other subtropical regions quite frequently because there is a high demand for their large edible fruit. They originally grew in what was known as Gondwana and migrated to South America via Antarctica over ocean landbridges throughout the Palocene time. Nowadays, they have been grown all over the world except in regions where the weather gets incredibly cold (like ND) and regions that do not have a lot of rain. Persea trees are pollinated by birds and the avocados they produce are used in many different foods.
The Achiote (Bixa orellana) tree is cultivated very frequently in Puerto Rico, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru and the Dominican Republic because it is the best known source of the natural pigment annatto. Annatto comes from the fruit this tree bears and contains little red seeds inside each one of them. This dye is then used for many religious and traditional purposes in the above listed countries.
Achiote: inside these fruits are red seeds used for its dye
The breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) tree is a flowering tree that originally grew in Southeast Asia and most Pacific Ocean Islands. Its name comes from the texture of the cooked fruit that has a flavor similar to freshly baked bread. About 3,500 years ago, Polynesian people found the trees growing in New Guinea, gave up the rice cultivating they were doing up until that point and started growing breadfruit trees regardless of their location in the Pacific. Breadfruit trees can produce up to 200 fruits (they look similar to a pineapple) per season making them one of the highest-yielding food plants in that region.
The fruit of a breadfruit tree
The citrus (Citrus) trees are believed to have originated from Asia. However, the fruits that citrus trees produce have been cultivated all over the world since ancient times. Citrus fruits and plants are known by the word “agrumes” which literally means “sour fruits.” Lemons are the only citrus fruit that can be commercially grown in cooler-summer/moderate-winter regions like Southern California because sweetness is not expected in the retail of lemons.
Citrus tree and its fruits
The Calabash (Crescentia cujete) tree is native to Southern North America, the Caribbean, Central American and Northern South America. These trees do not grow to be very big, however, they produce large spherical fruits that have a thin but hard shells full of soft pulp. The fruits from the tree can grow up to ten inches in diameter. After harvest, the pulp in the fruits can be used to treat respiratory problems and the shells of the fruits can be used for containers or cups.
The red-fruit bats are also known as the fig-eating bats. These species are only found in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands but haven’t been spotted or recorded in the U.S. Virgin Islands for the last 30 years. They are native to the two islands and prefer a habitat within the tropical or subtropical forests. Their main source of food is fruits from pam trees, bullet-wood, and trumpet trees. These bats can measure relatively small and live on the leaves of forest canopies. Despite their name, there is no evidence that they consume fig fruits. We spotted them multiple times in El Yunque National Forest at night.
Red-Fruit Bat (Sternoderma rufum)
Also known as small Asian Mongoose, these mongooses are a common terrestrial mammal in El Yunque National Forest. We have spotted them multiple times hiking throughout the forest and at the campsite. They are about 9-25 inches in length (including tail) and have grayish brown furs. They are skillful climbers and live in hollow logs or trees or holes in the ground. They can be infected with rabies so there are warning signs throughout the forest area. They are not native to the island. They were first brought to Puerto Rico from Malay Peninsula in 1877 to control the black rat (also immigrants, brought by ships from Europe during the Columbus era) infestation of sugar plantations.
Indian Mongoose, Herpestes javanicus
Great Blue Heron’s are the largest heron in the region. The common name is Garzon blanco and the name originates from its color. They are encountered in almost any salt or fresh water. We spotted a few at the Humacao Swamp Forest where the salt water and fresh water meet. They hunt their resources which are crabs, frogs, scorpions, spiders, snakes, birds, and fish by standing motionless waiting for the meal to come by them. Their cry is similar to a large frog “guarrrr.” These particular herons are also distributed throughout West Indies, North, Central, and South America. About 70% of the newborns die within the first year of life.
Great Blue Heron (White Phase), Ardea herodias
The adult yellow-crowned night heron has a grayish body and a striking black and white head pattern. Give a close enough look, one might be able to see the thin white feathers extending from the crown of its head. Usually seen at dawn or dusk, the night heron can also be seen during the daytime in swamp trees. One might also hear a squawking noise while the bird is in flight.
Yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea)
Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo (Coccyzus vieilloti)
This bird is unique because of its long, quite astonishing looking tail. The bird itself is about 16-19 inches in length and has gray on the chin and breast with a hint of cinnamon on its belly. They are common near the North Coast of the island, coffee plantations, and mountain areas with thick forest. They hunt small lizards just like its name depicts, spiders and insects. The common name in local areas is Pajarode agua, which means the water bird. It has this name because it is believed to have the ability to forecast rain. They are 1 out of the 4 species of lizard cuckoo only found on Caribbean Islands. They have a unique way of hunting, similar to the Herons. They too keep their body completely still and motionless until the prey comes near. Then they strike their prey. We have spotted one of them in the dry forest.
Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo (Coccyzus vieilloti), take note of the bird’s tail as described above
Caribbean Coots are about 15-16 inches in length, have an all black body with white bills and a unique bright red forehead. The difference between the Caribbean coot and the American coot is the distinct red forehead. They are very common in Puerto Rico and uncommon in Virgin Islands, but vice versa for Caribbean coots. They often reside in open fresh water areas and are widespread throughout the Western hemisphere. We have spotted them at the Humacao Swamp Forest.
American Coot (Fulica americana)
Depicted below is the common dove also known as the pigeons in the cities. They are more colorful than the native pigeons and abundant to rural areas of Puerto Rico. They nest on buildings, bridges, and palms of trees. They originated in Europe, North Africa, and West Asia and they are so common that the estimated count is about 17–28 million in Europe alone! They may also harbor a diverse parasite fauna so petting is not recommended. I have seen lots of them in San Juan.
Rock Dove, (Columba livia)
The Puerto Rican Night Jar or as it may also be known, the “prehistoric bird” got its name because it was said to be extinct for many years. They are stable now as long as the predators are controlled such as mongooses, rats, and cats. They live around Southwestern Puerto Rico and are known to be very small, fast and low flying birds. We have spotted them several times at El Yunque National Forest. Unfortunately, about 5% of the population of these birds suffers from accidental death by collision with wind turbines.
Puerto Rican Night Jar (Antrostomus nocititherus)
Merlins, also known as the Pigeon Hawks, these birds range from about 9-12 inches in body length, with a wingspan of 21—27 inches. They have a short, dark colored beak and are a relatively medium sized hawk. The males are more colorful than the females with blue-grey bodies and orange streaks. Conversely, the females have brown-green to dark brown feathers. They are migrating birds who migrate to Central/South America and Caribbean during winter. And during their breeding season, from May-June, they migrate to the U.S and Canada. They are fast flying birds that rely on speed for hunting. They prefer the forestland, grassland, mangrove swamps and seacoasts of Puerto Rico. We spotted a few flying over our heads in the dry forest.
Merlin (Falco columbarius)
The Puerto Rican emerald is a species from the humming bird family that are exclusive to Puerto Rico. They fly in midair by rapidly flapping their wings (like bees) at a beat of 50 times per second. They are the only bird species which are capable of flying backwards! It is hard to spot them because of their relatively small size, 3.5—5 inches in length. They only weigh ~ 0.1 ounce. They are very colorful and females and males are distinguished by the color. Males are green with a black tail and females have a white breast and white tinted tails. They consume nectar by probing the flower stamen using their long bills and tubular tongues. They are very important pollinators for deep throated flowers. These birds eat small insects as well. They reside in northwestern mountains and southwestern coasts of Puerto Rico. We have spotted them once on a tree at a nearby gas station in Parguera near the sea coast.
Puerto Rican Emerald (Chlorostilbon maugalus)
The Puerto Rican Bullfinch was sighted on the first day of excursions in El Yunque National Forest near our campsite. The bullfinch is a thick-billed black bird that resides in the forest. As in the picture below, the bird has large reddish patches above the eyes, on the throat and under the base of the tail. The female is slightly smaller with duller colors compared to the male. Bullfinches have been seen leaning of a branch until it is almost hanging in order to reach a lucrative cache of fruit. These birds are also known for its song.
Puerto Rican Bullfinch (Loxigilla portoricensis)
The Puerto Rican Tody is a tiny bright-colored forest bird with a short tail. This bird has emerald green underparts and a bright red throat and under bill. These birds live in a variety of forest types including dense thickets and vines. Tody’s enjoy feasting on insects, spiders, the occasional small lizard and fruits. The Tody’s compete suffer from nest predation by the introduced mongoose. They also have a unique ability to lower their body temperature as much at 11 degrees Centigrade in order to preserve heat during cold weather.
Puerto Rican Tody (Todus mexicanus)
Easily one of the most loved and easily identifiable birds in Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican Parrot can be seen not only flying around, but has many statues erected around the island. Famous for its green body with red white and blue accents the bird attracts the eyes of viewers wherever it goes. The bird is said to travel in pairs or small groups. It likes to feed on seed, fruits and the occasional flower. The population of these birds is threatened. Most of the stress comes from other air predators, but also limited food post-hurricane and nesting competition play a role in the decline.
Although not seen on any excursion, you can’t talk about El Yunque National Forest or Puerto Rico without mentioning the Puerto Rican Parrot (Amazona vittata).
The Puerto Rican coqui frog is one amphibian native to Puerto Rico that we encountered while we camped in the El Yunque National Forest. We, more so, encountered its sound then the actual species itself. It makes a “ko-kee” sound that is hard to miss. There are sixteen different species of the coqui frog native to Puerto Rico, which because of this, they make majority of the fauna of amphibians in Puerto Rico. The other amphibian that is common to Puerto Rico is the common toad or Bufo marinus. The genus of Eleutherodactylus is represented of the coqui species. They do not have a tadpole stage, but instead, they have a froglet stage that emerges from the egg resembling a smaller version of the adult. You can identify these species by two different catergories, lowland and highland forms. The frog that we mostly heard while camping in the forest was the Eleutherodactylus coqui. These interesting frogs have a unique reason at the sound they make. Each syllable of their sound co-qui has different functions. The “co” is the vocal interactions with other male frogs and the “qui” is the actual mating call to attract its mate. The sound as a whole “coqui” is the message to both sexes, but based on repetition rate, intensity, and modifications of the sound will carry different messages. In the El Yunque Forest, the average distance for calling males is about 12 feet. Once the female is attracted to one of the male calls, she takes the initiative, and is later followed to lay eggs in a refuge. This refuge could be a bromeliad, branches on a fern, or a nest of small birds.
One of the most primitive species of Anolis that is native to Puerto Rico is the Anolis occultus or commonly known as the dwarf anole. The other primitive species is the giant anoles. These critters weren't discovered by science until 1963 which is the reason for the name “occultus.” They can be found in the Mariacao Reserve, El Yunque, El Verde and the Sierra de Cayey. They are long and slender to a length of 34 mm with a tapered snout and short limbs and tail. They vary in coloration which can be white, gray, olive brown, yellowish green or dirty orange. They are unique to other Anolis species because they are almost identical in both sexes and may be also monogamous. They can be found in the forest canopy, and when there's a break in the canopy they can be found on the forest floors. They sleep on twigs or vines with their tail wrapping around on the perch. The wrapping of the tail makes the identification easy when collecting at night, and when they grasp it may emit a squeaking sound.
The most common anole that is seen most frequently and are found in households in Puerto Rico is the Anolis cristatellus cristatellus, commonly known as the Puerto Rican crested anole. They vary in coloration from brown to greenish gray with some having dark spots on their dorsal side. Their ventral side is primarily white, but can be yellow to yellowish. The crested anole can be found on branches on the forest floor. Mostly at night they can be found under rocks or sleeping on leaves. They eat spiders and small invertebrates, and may eat other anoles if food is scarce. The crested anole mostly spends its time in trees for protection, and if threatened by predators, they extend their dewlap and run away.
Anolis cristatellus cristatellus – Puerto Rican crested anole
The Puerto Rican sharp mouthed lizard is found abundantly in Puerto Rico in grassland areas. They belong to the genus Anolis and their scientific name is Anolis pulchellus. They are also named as the garden lizard and can be identified by their yellowish brown or brownish gray color. An interesting fact in a space of 10,000 square meters there may be 20,000–25,000 lizards. They can be known for their large numbers and when the grass is trampled they will scurry in hordes. These lizards almost always prefer grasses, but can be found in low brushes and plants. They cannot be found on trees. They sleep on twigs and blades of grass with their body perched, head close to the perch, forelimbs flexed, and hind limbs extended posteriorly. When they are disturbed, they will move to the other side of the twig, but still maintaining the sleeping position. They can swim by undulation of their body and can stop midway without their body penetrating the water’s surface.
Anolis cuvieri – Puerto Rican giant anole
The Anolis cuvieri is the only lizard of the Anolis genus to be the largest found in Puerto Rico. They are commonly known as the Puerto Rican giant anole. This species has two color phases. The most common color phase is more vibrant than the other phase. The common color phase is described with its body, tail, and extremities to be emerald green or yellowish green with its head blue in color. The other color phase is gray or greenish gray with dark brown spots. Both phases consist of the eyes, dewlap, and tongue with a yellow coloration. Both sexes have dewlaps, but the males have larger dewlaps and can be identified also with a higher tail crest. They are about five inches from snout to vent. Apart from length, they can be identified by their large bony head, uniformity of head scales, and fringed dorsal scales. This species, also known as the “lagarto verde,” has a superstition that if bitten by one it won't release its hold until it thunders or until a black cow moos. After being bitten, they also say that to escape from poisoning, that person must cross three rivers immediately. The truth is the teeth are only long enough to penetrate the skin, but its bite clings to the skin and its jaws may need to be pried to dislodge the lizard's mouth.
The most recent addition to the genus Sphaerodactylus is the Spaerodactylus micropithecus only living on the island of Monito and the archipelago of Puerto Rico. They are commonly referred to as the Monito gecko. They average in size of 28-36 mm with a grayish color, scaling skin on throat, irregular markings, and brown tail. They are closely related to S. macrolepis, but they share a similar head pattern to S. levinsi. The genus Sphaerodactylus are ground dwellers found under rocks, logs, leaves, or even trash. They are secretive in their habits and are voiceless. They only lay one egg at a time which are as large as the head of the adult and have hard shells. This feature contrasts many lizards. They have an incubation period of two to three months. These geckos are considered to be on the endangered species list.
Another species of the Sphaerodactylus genus is Sphaerodactylus klauberi commonly known as the Puerto Rican Upland gecko. This species is the darkest in color of all Sphaerodactylus and most altitudinal in which they have been found at altitudes of 3,800 feet. The Upland gecko is dark brown with black to dark color flecks. Flecks are more abundant towards the hind end and tail of the species. Usually, there is a black spot on the nape and pale lines on the side. On the ventral side, they are usually orange or reddish pink with the throat typically gray. They can be found under rocks, leaves, logs, and trash. Like the other genus Sphaerodactylus, these geckos are voiceless, females lay only one large hard shelled egg, and are insectivores. They are secretive and mostly active at night.
The Green iguana (Iguana iguana) is very common to Puerto Rico. They are also common to South and Central America. They were first introduced to Puerto Rico as escaped pets from importation by pet stores. They are commonly and abundantly found on the island of Culebra, some coastal areas , and the interior part of the the island. Its scientific name is Iguana iguana and they can reach up to a size of six feet. They vary in coloration from green to grayish green with gray following towards a yellowish orange in the flanks. Their back and flanks have dark bar markings. They are agile swimmers and can be found in trees and on the ground. They are mostly vegetarians, but have been known to eat eggs, young birds, and carrion. They are known in some areas to be a nuisance to plantations and crops. The eggs of the iguana require high incubation temperatures, so the females look for clearings in the forest and sand beaches that are well exposed to the sun. They lay 17-68 eggs and they return to their birth site for nesting. Their nesting is a complex tunneling system that is one meter deep and 20 meters in length used for communication. In attracting a mate or other social interactions, iguanas use a “head bob” and dewlap. Iguanas thrive at temperatures between 79–95 degrees Fahrenheit. Their bodies need UVA and UVB lighting and if deprived results in metabolic bone disease, a lacking of vitamin D.
The Puerto Rican ground lizard (Ameiva exsul) is the most common and has the widest distribution. They can found on the coasts of Puerto Rico, Culebra, and the Virgin Islands. In Puerto Rico, their distribution extends inland from Utuado, at an elevation of 1,100 feet between Patillas and San Lorenzo and near an elevation of 1,200 feet by Caguas. Its scientific name is Ameiva exsul. Its coloration on its dorsal side is olive to olive brown with scattered dots or spots. Its flanks are marked either dark brown or black with longitudinal white spots. Their color pattern changes with age. There are variations of this species on the island of Puerto Rico. The femoral pores are greater in specimens from west to east along the north coast. While, the pre-anal scales are more numerous in specimens in the southern part. Reproduction is not fully known with this particular species, but the males are larger and more dominate and pursue the smaller ones sometimes even consuming them. The females lay no more than two eggs and they are pinkish white in color.
This species is actually a semi-slug, called a so because it is halfway between a snail and a slug as its normal snail shell exists, but is reduced or diminished. We saw a lot of these slugs while we were sitting around our campfire, on bamboo and under palm fronds. This semi-slug’s shell is actually covered by its mantle, or the dorsal body wall covering the top of body as well as the reduced shell. The overlay of the mantle on the reduced shell is a characteristic of four semi-slug families in the neotropics: Amphibulimidae (contains genus Gaeotis), Xanthonychidae, Pleurodontidae, and Camaenidae. This feature explains the strange appearance of its back that we noticed while we were observing them by the fire. These semi-slugs are nocturnal, hermaphroditic, and can eat up to half their own weight in a single night.
Gaeotis flavolineata up close with back, mantle, and face detail.
Galeotis flavolineata making its way down a long leaf frond.
Galeotis flavolineata enjoying itself on a dead leaf.
Tree Snail, Caracolus, e.g. Caracolus caracolla, Caracolus marginella
This snail genus has a flat (non-conical), helical shell and two pairs of tentacles. The larger pair on top is for their eyes and the smaller pair on the bottom is for smelling and feeling. We saw them all over the El Yunque national forest. They like a moist climate so they stay undercover when it is dryer than they like, such as under tree leaves and fallen bamboo. When it rains these snails crawl all over the forest floor and many could be found around camp while raining. They are fairly large snails, too, given the average size is 3"-4" shell diameter. Holding one takes up most of the palm of the hand, and if they are not trying to hide in their shells, you can feel a strange scraping sensation from the snails trying to feed on your dead skin. It won’t hurt, though, and feels somewhat like being licked by a cat.
Most often these snails seem to hide out on the underside of the leaves to hide from predation.
Large light-colored Caracolus caracolla on the leaf of a small tree.
Underside of the shell, where the foot of the snail can be seen holed up in the interior when hiding (Caracolus marginella).
Coenobita clypeatus – hermit crab
The Caribbean tree crab, or more commonly known as a hermit crab. Hermit crabs only have an exoskeleton on the front half of their body. The back half of their body is soft and vulnerable, and even different in color to the rest of the body. This is why they wear the shells of other animals, usually those of dead mollusks or other hermit crabs. Hermit crabs are social animals and often live in large groups, and during times of shell-shedding, it has been documented that some groups will participate in a mass exchange of shells. They recede into their shell fully if it fits correctly, and they are always on a hunt for a better shell to call their home. We found a couple of these small crabs in the Humacao nature reserve in a wet pile of fallen leaves and wood, which surprised a few of us walking by. The ones we found were using spent shells of the tree snail, Caracolus, which were also very common in the Humacao reserve.
This Coenobita clypeatus was found using the leftover shell of a Caracolus marginella snail as its home.
Front detail of Coenibita clypeatus, showing its different claw sizes. The left claw is much larger than the right.
Pepsis (Pompilidae) – spider wasp
This wasp can curl and uncurl its antennae, a feature not all wasps have. It is a shiny metallic blue and it has bright, copper-colored antennae. They will find spiders, sting them to paralyze them, bring them back to their nests and lay eggs in them via ovipositor injection. The larvae will eventually hatch and eat the spider. Unfortunately we did not see these wasps during the 2016 excursion.
Pepsis, likely hunting for small spiders.
Pepsis with its dinner, a small brown spider.
Pepsis walking among fallen leaves on the forest floor.
Apis mellifera – honey bee
This bee is very common almost everywhere. These bees live in hives and collect nectar from flowers to make honey. As a consequence, the bees also pollinate the flowers, taking pollen with them both for their own purposes (given its high protein content) as well as to cross-pollinate with other flowers. Bees like these live in hives maintained by a hierarchy: a queen, many female workers, and numerous male drones. Each plays a role in keeping the colony functional. Many of these bees were spotted along the hiking trails of El Yunque, feeding on any flowers they could possibly find, including the poisonous golden trumpet (Allamanda cathartica) flower, a member of the dogbane family, Apocynaceae, as seen below.
Apis mellifera inspecting a golden trumpet flower (Allamanda cathartica) in El Yunque.
Apis mellifera worker on a small composite flower.
Apis mellifera worker finding some interesting small white flowers on the Mt. Britton trail in El Yunque.
Pyrophorus pellucens – click beetle
Click beetles get their name from the sharp clicking sound made when attempting to right themselves if they end up on their backs. This clicking sound comes from the thorax and abdomen bending and snapping back very quickly, which flings them into the air and gives them the chance to land on their ventral side. This genus is also bioluminescent, similar to fireflies. The difference is, however, that firefly light is used in pulses in an attempt to attract a mate while this click beetle's light stays on steadily as it flies. The beetle’s light also comes from both the thorax and abdomen (even independently) rather than just the abdomen like with fireflies. We saw many of these at night, but we thought they were lightning bugs. Then we noticed that the light stayed on continuously so we weren't sure what they were. During the 2016 trip it was too rainy to see many of these beetles, but at least two were spotted around camp, either by one of the tents or in a clearing near the fire pit. Not many of these beetles can be found in more urban areas as they prefer locations of less development, like mountain towns and rural areas.
Pyrophorus pellucens showing its characteristic thorax lights while its abdomen light remains off.
Family Scarabaeidae – scarab beetles
Scarabs feed on a variety of roots and foliage. In Egypt scarabs were buried with mummies. In some species the males have horns for fighting. This is a very general type of beetle. There are many different species in this genera. We had one visit our campsite twice in the night attracted to our lamp light.
Scarabs are a very broad family of beetle, mainly known for their characteristic round body shape and six heavily-spurred legs. One of the most common scarabidae beetles is the common may or june beetle, genus Phyllophaga. This genus is still quite prevalent in Puerto Rico, and during a bathroom trip in El Yunque one was actually found on some leaves. Picking them up and handling them is entirely safe as these beetles do not have mandibles thus, they cannot bite. During the 2016 trip, a type of dung beetle was found outside the hotel in Salinas, but the genus of the beetle is not currently known given the diversity of the family.
Phyllophaga beetle, common in the Americas and elsewhere with many different colors, patterns, and markings.
Scarabaeidae dung beetle found outside the Salinas hotel while observing red mangrove trees, just before leaving Salinas.
Polistes major major – paper wasp, or horse’s paper wasp
These wasps are yellow and vibrant brown with brown wings, similar in appearance to the golden paper wasp of the Great Plains and other regions of the United States (Polistes exclamans). Typical of wasps, they fold their wings behind them when not in use and these wasps can reach lengths of up to 22 millimeters with a wingspan of up to 45 millimeters. By consuming cellulose from woody plants, they turn the cellulose into a paper-like material (hence the name) and use this material to construct their nests. These wasps can live in colonies or on their own, though P. major major is a social wasp which does in fact live as a colony in small, umbrella-shaped nests, which the queens are responsible in creating. Colonies tend to be primarily female, with a queen, 4 – 19 female workers, 1 – 4 drones, and many underdeveloped wasps (eggs, larvae, and pupae).
Order Isoptera – termites
The termite nests in the Caribbean are large, generally round or football-shaped, and are elevated high off the ground, stuck directly on a dying/decaying host tree. These nests will often get so large that parts of the nest will fall apart or part of the host tree (or even the whole tree if it’s small enough) will topple from the weight of the nest. Termites dislike sunlight, so they make these nests heavy, closed, and full of tunnels in the nests and host tree as to not be exposed to sunlight. Termite colonies are similar to bee or ant colonies, but instead of a solitary queen the colony has a king and queen— a fertile pair of termites which propagate the rest of the colony with workers and drones. Other termites in the colony are similar to ants, with worker and soldier castes, consisting of sterile males and females. Most males of worker and soldier castes are completely blind, lacking eyes entirely. Termites are considered insects of great ecological importance, given their roles as detritivores and participation in the recycling of organic, plant-based matter. This matter is broken down from cellulose into glucose by utilizing intestinal protozoa.
We saw many of these huge termite nests and found some of the discarded pieces on the ground in places like the Humacao nature reserve, but the fallen pieces were empty, as one might expect from insects which dislike the sun. We did not get to see any actual living termites, and because their nests are so far off the ground, it was unlikely we would be able to open the nests to see for ourselves during the 2016 excursion.
Queen Conch (Strombus gigas)
The queen conch is a large gastropod mollusk. They have spiral shaped shells, which have glossy pink or orange interiors. The large foot that can be seen at the lip of the shell. Conch move by thrusting their foot against the bottom; this causes their shell to rise and then be thrown forward which appears like hopping. The gastropod’s head has two pairs of tentacles. The larger ones carry eyes while the smaller pair is used for sense of smell and touch. They can grow to 1 foot in length, weigh up to 5 pounds. These animals reach their full size in 5 years. They have an average lifespan of 7 years but can live up to 40 years. They live in warm shallow water in sand, sea grass beds, and coral reefs. Their main predators are eagle rays, spiny lobsters, blue crabs, loggerhead turtles and nurse sharks. There range is from the Gulf of Mexico to the Western Atlantic from Bermuda to Brazil. They primarily feed on algae and detritus. They reproduce through internal fertilization. Females lay long egg masses that contain hundreds of thousands of eggs. Eggs will hatch after 5 days and larvae spend up to 40 days floating and feeding on plankton before metamorphosing into adults. Their population is an increasing concern as they are frequently harvested for food and their shells.
Staghorn Coral (Acropora cervicornis)
This coral is found in the Caribbean Sea, Western Gulf of Mexico, and the Western Altantic Ocean from Florida to Venezuela. It has been designated as critically endangered in Florida, Puerto Rico, St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix. Its common name comes from its resemblance to male deer antlers. Staghorn coral is known for its remarkable growth rate. It is known to grow 4-8 inches a year, which is faster than any other western Atlantic coral. Its branches sometimes grow over 6.5 feet long. It has been one of the three most important Caribbean corals considering its contribution to fish habitat. The primary mode of reproduction is asexual fragmentation which means new colonies form when branches break off and colonies reattach to another substrate. Sexual reproduction can occur with the spawning of gametes into the water column once a year. The larvae live for several days until finding an area to settle and then metamorphose into new colonies. Asexual fragmentation allows for rapid population recovery and gives this coral a huge advantage when recovering physical disturbances such as storms. But, primarily relying on asexual fragmentation also has a downside. Due to their asexual nature, staghorn corals have low genetic diversity. This causes problems because it makes them less robust to disease as a population. White band disease is the main factor for this coral being critically endangered. This disease causes the tissue from the colonies to peel, exposing the white skeleton. This bare skeleton is quickly colonized by filamentous algae. The exact cause of this disease is unknown but it is thought that algae overgrowth may be the culprit. Staghorn coral is sensitive to temperature and salt levels and more vulnerable to damage from sedimentation. Some other reasons for endangerment include increased predation, bleaching and human impacts. Like most coral, they have symbiotic organisms called zooxanthellae. They obtain their energy mostly from photosynthesis with these symbionts, but can catch small fish and zooplankton with tentacles. The age of this coral can be measured by counting its rings like a tree.
Blunt-Spined Brittle Star (Ophiocoma echinata)
This brittle star is found in the Western Atlantic from Florida to Brazil and the Caribbean Sea. They have five-segment radial symmetry, which means 5 arms jointed to a central body disk. An unusual feature of brittle sea stars is their central disk which contains their entire digestive system, gonads and all other organs. To move they use a water vascular system and tube feet attached to each of their arms. Sea stars have no brain; they operate with only a simple ring-shaped nervous system. Despite this, they have a coordinated pattern of movement where one of their arms leads the way while the others act in synchrony to propel it forward. When changing direction another arm simply becomes the lead arm. The blunt-spined brittle star has a calcium carbonate skeleton and does gas exchange for respiration through the bursae near their arm joints. They mostly feed on plankton and detritus. They are found living in dark spaces under coral, rubble, inside sponges. Many will live in association with other animals and in large numbers. Reproduction occurs through external fertilization. Separate sexes shoot streams of gametes to mix and form zygotes. The fertilized eggs develop into larvae and metamorphosis is complete after a few weeks. Brittle stars have a lifespan of about 5 years. To defend themselves they have the ability to purposefully shed an arm which confuses predators. These lost arms or lost arm segments can be regenerated unless all arms are lost.
Upside Down Jelly, Mangrove Jelly (Cassiopea xamachana):
The mangrove jelly is sedentary for the majority of its lifecycle, although it can move via the typical jelly undulation style of locomotion. Their bell is flat and saucer shaped with a well-defined central depression. They are called upside down because they use their bell as a sucker to keep them locked onto the bottom as their tentacles float upward. They can appear green or blue in color because of their symbiotic zooxanthellae. They occur in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean Sea. They are commonly found on the bottom of inshore bays, sandy mudflats, and inshore shallow mangroves. To reproduce males release gametes into the water and females will collect them for fertilization. Like other jellyfish, they have a complex reproductive cycle consisting of sessile polyp stages, mobile medusa, alteration between asexual budding of polyps, immature ephyra, and fully mature reproducing medusa. Nutrients are mostly provided by symbiotic algae which live on their tentacles. The jelly must remain inverted and close to the surface so that the algae will be able to photosynthesize and produce their food. Their tentacles have the ability to sting which allows them to feed on plankton and zooplankton for additional nutrition. Upside-down jelly fish don’t have central mouths. Instead, the frills at the edges of their eight oral arms contain hundreds of tiny mouth openings. These mouth openings connect to the stomach by channels, so when the jellyfish pulses its bell it forces zooplankton into the nematocysts on its mouth openings.
Common Sea Fan (Gorgonia ventalina)
The common sea fan is a unique coral that grows in the shape of a fan. They can be up to 180 cm tall and 150 cm wide. They are found in many different environments and depths throughout the Western Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The Sea Fan is a colonial coral with a latticework of linking branches. The skeleton is composed of calcite and a collagen-like compound called gorgonion. They defend off predators and diseases with surface sclerites and chamical compounds. Each of their polyps extend eight tentacles to catch plankton. Like other corals, the sea fan is symbiotic with a dinoflagellate called zooxanthellae. This symbiont is photosynthetic and provides organic compounds to the fan. This provides a higher surface area to volume which favors light capture and also prey capture. Reproduction occurs externally with egg and sperm being released in large quantities into the water. This increases the distance of their distribution, although asexual reproduction is also possible. They are usually seen in pale purple occur in white, yellow, and brown also. Because the colors vary, they have to be identified using the shape of their spicules. They grow at right angles to the current to assist in filter feeding.
Social Feather Duster (Bispira brunnea)
This is an aquatic worm that lives in clusters. The portion of the animal you see is the crown which consists of ciliated feather shaped radioles that trap particles. The largest they can grow is up to 6 cm with their crown only growing to 3 cm. Their food consists of bacteria, detritus, particulate organic matter, phytoplankton, and other microorganisms. Their feeding is assisted by water currents and this species is common in the Caribbean Sea. They live in depths from 5m to 20 m down. Their color will vary from colony to colony, but generally all individuals in a colony are the same color. This is explained by the fact that all members of the colony are produced asexually, while separate colonies originate from sexual reproduction. This species sexually reproduces externally and free swimming larvae settle and produce their calcareous tube for protection. Their radioles are sensitive to water movement. When they feel threatened they retract into their tubes closing it with an operculum which resembles a trap door. These worms can occur in a spiral shape and were the inspiration for some of the plants in the movie Avatar.
Furry Sea Cucumber (Astichopus multifidus)
The only species in its genus, the Furry Sea Cucumber is native to the Caribbean Sea. It ranges from the southern tip of Florida southwards to Venezuela in the Western Atlantic Ocean. The fury sea cucumber prefers soft bottoms with sandy or muddy patches. It can be found around coral reefs and seagrass beds. They prefer deeper, calmer reef environments at depths between 10m and 30m. It is colored brown or dark grey and sometimes mottled with paler patches or speckled with many small white spots. This soft bodied sea cucumber is fast growing with a maximum length of 16 inches and a maximum width of 4 inches. The tube feet on its dorsal surface extend into fleshy conical projections about 1 cm in length. It spends most of the day buried in the sand. It is a scavenger that feeds at night on large quantities of sediment that it extracts organic matter from as it passes through its gut. It can move very quickly in relation to other sea cucumbers at 6 feet per minute. Its locomotion can be crawling, rolling, and a quicker bounding movement. Its entire dorsal and ventral sides are covered in hundreds of these tube feet giving it a “furry” feel to the touch.
Giant Caribbean Sea Anemone (Condylactis gigantean)
The Giant Anemone is found in the Caribbean Sea and the Western Atlantic Ocean. This anemone is usually found in shallow water in crevices of rocks, shells, or corals. It has a commensal relationship with several fish and shrimp species by providing them shelter. They can be observed as stations for fish cleaning activity. They occur in varying colors such as yellow and purple. Reproduction is sexually external with eggs and sperm synchronously being released into the water. This produces a larval stage which derives nutrients from a yolk and allows for longer dispersal and survival of the larva. When the larva settle they morph into a pedal disc which grows into mature adults. They are mostly solitary and do not occur in close proximity to other anemones. Like most anemone they have nematocysts which contain a toxin that is painful and causes paralysis. This anemone is a microphagous carnivore and commonly feeds on fish, mussels, and shrimp. After the anemone stings its prey, it becomes paralyzed, then it is carried to the mouth, swallowed whole, and digested. The nematocysts help in capturing food as well as defense against predators like hermit crabs. Another defense mechanism used by this sea anemone is to greatly reduce its size by drawing its tentacles into its gastric cavity. This is done by forcing almost all of the water out of the gastric cavity. When the surface area of the anemone is reduced so much it becomes a more difficult target for the predator. This animal is primarily sessile, but compared to other species of anemone it is quite mobile. It can crawl on its pedal disk by releasing a substrate and contracting its ectoderm. Once it has found a desirable place it will adhere itself once more.
Three-rowed Sea cucumber, Cookie Dough Sea Cucumber (Isostichopus badionotus)
This sea cucumber can be found in the Western Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It is a large species; average adults grow to be about 21 cm but it is known to be able to grow up to 45 centimeters long. Their bodies will vary from white to shades of orange to brown. They have dark colored bumps on their dorsal surface. Its mouth is ventrally located and surrounded with about 20 tentacles. It can be found in reefs, sandy rubble, and grass beds from around 3-25 meters in depth. It does not conceal itself during the day and remains exposed at all times. The three-rowed sea cucumber is an essentially lone creature. It spends the majority of its life feeding. They feed by taking in sediment, digesting the organic matter, detritus, and also grind sediment into smaller particles. Since these sediments are typically low in concentration of nutrients, sea cucumbers need to ingest enormous amounts of it in order to ensure proper nourishment. It has been estimated that one sea cucumber will ingest between 1 and 2.3 tons of sediment in a year. This sea cucumber is better adapted to feed on the finest grain of sediment. Fish will prey on them; however, predation is low due to the toxins found in their body walls. Their biggest threat is humans. The ecosystems that these animals thrive in are threatened by contaminated substrates left behind by boats. They sexually reproduce externally during spawning events which occur throughout the year, but more commonly during warmer times. Some species of sea cucumbers are commonly produced in fisheries for Asian food markets. It is used as both a tonic and celebratory food in these cultures. This species is not commonly differentiated in trade reports so increased fishery management was started in 2002.
Long-Spined Sea urchin, Lime Urchin, Black Sea Urchin (Diadema antillarum)
This sea urchin occurs in the Western Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. They occur at depths of 3-30 feet on coral reefs. They have a lifespan of 4-8 years. Their lifespan is related to temperature and food availability. Sea urchins that live in warmer temperatures will develop more quickly and will not live as long as those who live in a colder climate. The black sea urchin will commonly lodge themselves in crevices with only their spines protruding. The spines of this species are usually 10-12 centimeters but can be as long as 30. They are covered in a mucus that carries a mild poison. The large spines deter bigger predators while the mucus covering them aids in keeping small predators away. They have branched tentacles at their base called tube feet. These help in mucous production, locomotion, respiration and gathering food. This species is the most abundant, widespread, and important of the shallow water sea urchins. The importance of this herbivore comes from its main food source, algae, which can otherwise overgrow and smother coral. They are nocturnal animals that hide during the day and feed at night. These urchins reproduce externally in spawning events which have been observed to be synchronized by the lunar cycle.
Dinoflagellates of Bio Bay (Pyrodinium bahamense)
Bioluminescence is a light that is produced by a chemical reaction in a living organism. These bioluminescent dinoflagellates are a type of phytoplankton that occur in tropical waters across the world. Dense blooms of the highly bioluminescent organisms occur under specific conditions. A unique combination of salt in the water, local climate, depth of the water, as well as air and water pollution allows for varying densities of this single celled organism. The chemical reaction that results in the emittance of light involves two chemicals: luciferin and either luciferase or photoprotein. The compound that actually produces the light is luciferin. These dinoflagellates can synthesize luciferin on their own. Other organisms have to absorb it through other sources. Dinoflagellate densities in La Parguera Bay can be upwards of 720,000 single-celled bioluminescent dinoflagellates per gallon of water. They are not the only bioluminescent organisms in Puerto Rican waters, but they are the main source. Although they are less than 1/500th of an inch, the brief illumination caused by agitation may make them appear larger to their predators, zooplankton. These organisms are capable of movement but have chloroplasts and undergo photosynthesis. They occur in several locations around Puerto Rico and across the world, however, research has shown a decrease in their occurrence in Puerto Rico by up to 80%.
Bushy Sea Whip (Plexaurella nutans)
The bushy sea whip is a species of soft coral. It is in the family Plexauridae. Since it is a soft coral, it is flexible and it does not have the true hard skeleton usually associated with corals. It is a relatively uncommon species that can be found in the Caribbean Sea. Its thick cylindrical branches will grow to up to 1.3m long. These branches have a diameter of 10 to 15 cm and are often slightly clubbed at the tips. Their polyps which protrude from slit shaped groves allow them to feed on zooplankton and other small invertebrates floating past. This is shared with neighboring polyps via the gastrovascular cavity. Their color is pale yellow to brown. It has symbiotic dinoflagellates that provide nourishment to the coral while they benefit from the corals waste products.
Scarus guacamaia – Rainbow Parrot fish
This fish is considered near threatened by The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They live in coral reefs, mangroves and sea grass beds in the Caribbean, Bahamas, Bermuda and Florida. These fish can live up to a depth of between 10 and 80 feet. They are considered one of the largest of the Scaridae family reaching between 1.5 to 5 feet long
Sparisoma aurofrenatum – Redband Parrot fish
These fish inhabit the areas of the Caribbean, Bahamas, Florida, Bermuda and Gulf of Mexico. They can grow between 6 to 10 inches in length. They are solitary or found in small groups and may be found resting on the bottom of the ocean floor. They are herbivores, feeding on algae and polyps that they scrape from rocks and coral using their “beak”. When swimming through the reefs it will only use its pectoral fins but when it wants to move quickly and suddenly it will then utilize its tail.
Scarus coeruleus – Blue Parrot fish
In summer, blue parrotfish gather in spawning groups. Fertilization takes place and the females deposit their eggs into the water column after which they sink to the seabed. The eggs hatch after about twenty-five hours. They are uniformly blue with a yellow spot on their heads that fades as they age. They average 30–75 cm in length with a maximum length of 1.2 m. They develop a large "beak" like other parrotfish that is used for scraping algae and small organisms from rocks. They have pharyngeal teeth that grind ingested rocks into sand. No other species has this uniform blue color as adults. The blue parrotfish is a member of the parrotfish genus Scarus. Blue parrotfish are found on coral reefs at depths of 3–25 m (9–82 ft.) in the western Atlantic from Maryland in the United States to Bermuda, the Bahamas, and south to Brazil. They are also found throughout the West Indies but are absent from the northern part of the Gulf of Mexico. Juveniles are found in beds of turtle grass.
Myripristis jacobus – Blackbar Soldierfish
These fish inhabit the regions of the Western Atlantic, Bahamas, Northern Gulf of Mexico, West Indies, the Caribbean Sea, Cape Verde, Principe, Ascension, and St. Helena islands. They are a smaller fish; there maximum length is 8 inches. They prefer deeper waters and are a nocturnal species. Their red color is more common among nocturnal fish. They are named after the dark bar shape present at the rear of the gill cover, but their most striking feature is their large eyes, which of course help them see in the dark. Their main source of food is plankton.
Thalassoma bifasciatum – Bluehead wrasse
Native to the coral reefs of the of the western Atlantic Ocean, these individuals are small (less than 110 mm) and rarely live longer than two years. Their range includes the Caribbean Sea and the southeast area of the Gulf of Mexico. They form large schools over the reef and are important cleaner fish. They can rapidly alter the presence or intensity of their yellow color, stripes, and bars, and these color changes appear to correspond to behavioral changes. The bluehead wrasse forages for zooplankton, mollusks, and other small crustaceans, as well as parasites on other fish. This fish is widespread in the northwestern Atlantic region and is one of the most abundant species in coral reefs near Puerto Rico.
Chaetodon capistratus – Four-eyed butterfly fish
This species is found in the Western Atlantic from Massachusetts, USA and Bermuda to the West Indies and northern South America. Chaetodon capistratus is the type species of Chaetodon. Four-eyed butterflyfish usually frequent shallow inshore waters, where they feed on a variety of invertebrates, mainly zoantharians, polychaete worms, gorgonians and tunicates. The black circle on their back is used to distract predators. They mate for life.
Paracanthurus hepatus – Regal Blue Tang
One of over 70 species of surgeonfish, the blue tang lives in coastal waters, coral reefs and inshore rocky or grassy areas between 6–13 feet deep. Adults average 12 inches in length and live singly, in pairs – or sometimes in groups as large as 10–12 inches. The blue tang feeds on algae. These fish reach sexual maturity at 9–12 months of age. This Blue Tang is often confused with the Atlantic Blue Tang, which is slightly less exotic in color pattern. See next description for example.
Acanthurus coeruleus – Caribbean/Atlantic blue tang
Found commonly off the coast of Florida, the Bahamas, and most of the Caribbean. It can grow up to 16 inches (41 cm) long. Although the body can vary in shade from light to dark blue, the dorsal, anal and caudal fins are golden blue. As juveniles, the edges on their dorsal and anal fins and the rings around their eyes are purple-blue, blue or blue-green. Their colors change during growth from a yellow juvenile, yellow tailed blue sub-adult and the blue adult phase. They eat the algae from the reefs in which they reside, as well as off the bodies of surrounding fish. By eating the algae off of other fish, the blue tang serve as cleaners for them.
Heteropriacanthus cruentatus – Glass eye snapper
These fish reach 7 to 10 in. in length and live in areas that are 15–50 ft. deep. They are a member of the Bigeye or Priacanthidae Family; The Glasseye Snappers reside over and within rocky bottoms at depths up to 1,000 feet. They reach a maximum length of 50 cm (20 inches). They are reported to be nocturnal feeders. They are a poorly studied species and as such there is very limited information available about their behavioral patterns. They are one of the very few fish found in Mexican waters of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Hypoplectrus gemma – Blue hamlet
The blue hamlet is a tropical fish native to the Western Central Atlantic, including southern Florida, the Florida Keys, the Bahamas and the Arrecife Alacranes of Mexico. It is not found outside of this region. They are typically a shy species, preferring to hide among rocks or hover near the substrate. They can grow to 13 cm in length.
Hypoplectrus indigo – Indigo hamlet
An indigo hamlet is a fish of the genus Hypoplectrus that is found mainly in coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, particularly around Florida and the Bahamas. They are a popular choice for hobbyist saltwater aquariums, and come in a variety of colors. There are eleven described species. They have both male and female sexual organs at the same time as an adult.
Holacanthus ciliaris – Queen Angelfish
Found near coral reefs in warmer waters. The queen angelfish feeds primarily on sponges, but also feeds on tunicates, jellyfish, and corals as well as plankton and algae Queen Angelfish inhabit reefs and are common near Florida especially the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, and the Gulf of Mexico. The adults are found in pairs year round, indicating that they are a monogamous fish.
Fistularia petimba – Red cornetfish
Widespread throughout the tropical and temperate Atlantic Ocean, in the Indo-West Pacific, and in the waters of Australia and Hawaii along coastal areas. It occurs between 10-200 m depth but most often between 18-57 m. Adults from this species are usually found at depths of 30 m or deeper. While they are mainly subtropical, this species is only found deep where there are cold upwellings in tropical regions. It is commonly found at depths over 10 m along coastal areas with soft bottoms. Feeds on small fishes and shrimps. Maximum length reported is 200 cm.