Forest research objectives

The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Mexico is a huge expanse of tropical forest that is part of the Selva Maya that encompasses Mexico, Guatemala and Belize and spans over 10.6 million hectares, making it the largest section of tropical forest north of the Amazon. This stretch of forest was also home to the Ancient Mayan civilization and the city of Calakmul was one of the largest cities during the pre-classic and classic period of the Mayans (250BC to 900AD). Today the extensive ruined cities lie sprawled through the dense jungle, with some of the taller structures towering above the canopy at 62m in height. In addition, Calakmul contains diverse and abundant wildlife with many endemic species. The forest is one of the few remaining strongholds of large mammals such as jaguar, puma, Baird’s tapir and spider monkey in addition to over 90 species of herpetofauna, 50 species of bat, and 360 resident bird species. For this reason, Calakmul is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of Culture and Nature.

The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is an extremely important wildlife corridor that is crucial for migrating birds and animals with extensive ranging patterns such as jaguar and tapir. Over the last 10 years the reserve has experienced a notable reduction in rainfall. Monitoring data on birds, bats, herpetofauna, butterflies, ungulates, felids and primates are being used to evaluate the impact of climate change and changing rainfall patterns on the abundance, ranging and diversity of fauna to help determine when and where mitigation should be used to restore water sources. Data are also used to assess the efficacy of a range of sustainable development projects with buffer zone communities designed to minimise forest encroachment. In addition, there are specialist studies on jaguar and their preferred prey, behaviour of spider monkeys and population levels of Morelet’s crocodiles.

Marine research objectives

Akumal is a small coastal town located approximately 2 hours’ drive south from the major tourist destination of Cancun. The name Akumal literally means “home of the turtles” in Mayan. It earned this name due to the numerous turtle nesting sites along the beaches and the permanent presence of juvenile turtles in the seagrasses just off shore. Prior to established tourism in the Yucatan, the only real source of income was from fishing. The reefs were so heavily overfished that the entire ecosystem almost collapsed. Moreover, sea turtles and their eggs were a major food source rather than an attraction to be admired, resulting in a serious decline in the turtle population. In an attempt to save the reef ecosystem and provide alternative income for local people, dive and snorkel based tourism was actively encouraged by the Mexican government. Tourism in the area has steadily increased over the last 20 years, but now it has brought problems of its own. More hotels are being built to accommodate tourists leading to loss of important nesting habitat for turtles, loss of mangrove habitat that cleans water and prevents sediment from washing onto the reef, and too many people snorkelling with turtles.

In Akumal, the research is focussed on assessing the efficacy of the newly formed marine protected area on the abundance and health of seagrasses and the impact of snorkel tours on the abundance, health and behaviour of sea turtles. The new protected area also provides the opportunity for recovery of the coral reefs, but as natural coral recovery rates are so slow, we are assisting the process by attaching coral fragments to artificial reefs composed of different substrates of varying structural complexity in order to assess the best methods for coral reef restoration in the region. Combined with mapping and monitoring of the existing reefs we are able to determine the positive impact of the new protected area on the coral reef ecosystem. Another aim of the Akumal project is to monitor the impact of mangrove degradation on the adjacent reefs and to investigate the ecology of the unique mangroves surrounding sink holes (cenotes) connected to the underground river system that runs throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.