Ecosystems of The Bahamas
coral reef

Coral Reef


A Coral Reef is one of the. natural wonders of the world. Unlike the vegetation of land communities where plants outnumber animals, very few things growing on coral reefs are true plants.. The architects and master builders of the reefs are billions of tiny animals called polyps, some no larger than a pinhead. They secrete a limey skeleton that is the basic structure of the reef. Almost one hundred different species decorate the ocean floor with an infinite variety of patterns that appear; as spires and pinnacles of pillar corals, "trees and shrubs" of stone hard elkhorns, huge boulders that look like giant brains, and delicate flower-like figures of lettuce and leaf corals.
New colonies and new coral structures are constantly being built on top of the dead skeletons of older colonies. But the rate is very slow. Branching coral such as staghorn and elkhorn grow only about three inches a year. Massive corals grow even more slowly: a basketball-size coral may be up to fifty years old. Intermixed-and surrounding the hard corals are plant-like gorgonians, soft corals with graceful shapes or sea fans, sea plumes and sea whips.

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  • Status

    Reef building corals are very particular about their requirements. They occur only off the east coasts of the world's continents, seldom farther north or south of the equator than 22 degrees, in clear water with maximum penetration, and rarely at depths exceeding 200 to 250 feet.

    Threats to the Reefs

    Dredging:The practice of dredging, filling and coastal pollution are all dangerous to coral reefs that often results in the living coral being covered by silt.

    Visitor Damage: Another serious threat to the reefs is damage caused by careless or uninformed visitors. The individual damage from boat anchors, specimen collecting, and other Visitor activates, when multiplied by hundreds or thousands, can be more than the slow growing corals can stand. A common belief is that breaking off a piece of coral does no more damage than pruning a tree or shrub. This may be true in healthy reef environments where conditions are ideal for regrowth. However, regrowth of the broken arts takes a very long time and seemingly insignificant damage such as abrasions, cuts, scrapes, scratches and breakage, invites invasion of algae and other organisms that can spread rapidly and destroy the entire colony. Some of these grow and multiply at astronomical rates, attacking the coral polyps like a disease, stripping the coral of its living tissue until only a bleached white skeleton remains. One of these is caused by blue-green algae.

    Trash: Unfortunately, the pristine nature of many reefs has been destroyed by sea-going litter bugs. These inconsiderate individuals leave behind beverage cans, bottles, and discarded boating supplies that suffocate and harm corals. Trash should always be returned to shore and disposed of properly!

    Bleaching: In recent years, Bahamian fishermen have introduced the use of household bleach for the taking and capture of crawfish and scalefish. Bleach fishing is very destructive. Bleach kills the reefs and the coral becomes overgrown with algae or green moss. Some reefs are taken over by sea urchins. Most fish will leave the area of a bleached reef. One gallon of bleach can poison about 500,000 gallons of sea water!


    Coral reefs are breathtakingly beautiful as well as providing free services vital for the protection and economic welfare of humans. Among these are:

    • Storm Protection: The corals form a natural and self-repairing breakwater that protect against the violence of ocean storms and hurricanes. Their porous structure is ideal for absorbing and dissipating the energy of oncoming waves.

    • Food Production: The reefs-provide food and shelter for much of the marine life that makes. up our commercial and sport fishing industry.
      Tourism: The major industry of The Bahamas is tourism. Our coral reefs attract thousands of divers and sightseers every year; the reefs also support fish that attract fishermen and protect the integrity of the islands that people come to enjoy.

    • Nature's Sand Factory: Corals and calcareous algae are major sources of sand. Fishes alone, browsing on these organisms, contribute an estimated two and one-half tons of sand per acre, every year. This sandy sediment is essential for the growth of the seagrass that are habitats for thousands of organisms. Most of these, including crustaceans (crabs, shrimp), mollusks (clams, conch, helmets),.grazing fishes and similar marine life, cannot exist without a hard sandy bottom. The sand is also washed to shore where it builds and replenishes our white sandy beaches.

    • Scientific Research: It has been said that we know more about the surface of the moon than we know about the world underwater. Reefs serve as a living laboratory attracting scientists from all over the world who study and learn about the strange inhabitants of this wet-world.

    When a Reef Dies

    In a coral community the forces of construction and destruction are constantly at work. Under healthy, natural conditions the constructive forces stay ahead and the reef continues to grow. However, if human damage tips the balance in favor of the forces of destruction, the reef will die. The inhabitants of a coral reef community are dependent on each other for all their needs just as citizens of a modem city are. When corals die, marine life must either migrate or starve. Dead coral structures, like abandoned buildings, will eventually decay and erode into nibble infested by parasites and algae.



The seashore is an area filled with an interesting mix of unique plants and animals that have adaptated to cope with this environment. Living on the edge of the sea is not easy. The soil is infertile, and it is often windy, dry and salty.

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  • The Sandy Seashore

    Along a sandy shore there are no large rocks, algae or tidal pools. The sandy seashore can be divided into four general zones: Intertidal, Pioneer, Fixed Dune and Scrub Woodland.

    1.Intertidal Zone: Between the low tide and the high tide mark is the intertidal zone. When the tide goes out the creatures living in this zone are left stranded. They have to endure the heat of the sun and the higher salinity of the water resulting from evaporation. Notice the many small holes on a sandy beach; they are the doorways to the homes -of many animals which burrow under the sand where it is cooler. Some of the creatures living in this zone are sea worms, sand fleas and sand crabs.

    2.Pioneer Zone: So named because it is where the first plants to try to grow over sand. These plants must adapt to loose, shifting sand and poor soil. There is no protection from wind or salt, spray. Plants here are usually low growing vines with waxy leaves. Some plants found in the pioneer zone are Purple seaside bean (Canavalia obtusifolia), Saltwort (Batis maritima), Goat's foot (Ipomea pes-Caprae), and Sea purslane (Sesuvium portulacastrum).

    3. Fixed Dune Zone: The next zone is the fixed dune, so named because as the. plants in the pioneer zone grip the sand around their roots and make the beach more stable, the sand mounds u into small hum s or dunes. Plants in this area-must cope with dry infertile soil and sea spray. Some plants in this zone are Sea Oats grass (Uniola paniculta), Gale of Wind (Phyllanthus niruri), Spider Lily (Crinum zeylancium), and Bay Geranium (Ambrosia hispida).
    4. Scrub Woodland Zone: This zone is high up the shore. The sand is stable and more varieties of plants are found, gradually taking on the appearance of a broad-leaved coppice. Problems here are high salinity and lack of water. Some of the flora of this zone are Cocoplum (Chrysobalamus icaco), Buttonwood (Conocarpus erecta), Silver Top Palm (Cocothrinax argentata) and Seagrape (Coccoloba uvifera).

    Most animals found in this zone are dead, having been washed ashore by the tide their shells remain as a reminder of the creatures that once were.

    The Rock Seashore

    Many shores in The Bahamas are made of limestone rock that has worn away to form ridges and crevices. They form ideal habitat for a variety of marine plants. (algae) and creatures., The ridges and crevices provide protection -from the waves and provides a safe haven for creatures to hide from predators. The plants and animals of the rocky shore face problems similar to those found in the sandy shore. They are tossed about. by the waves with the movement of the tide, they face intense heat and high salinity, extreme variations in oxygen availability and high vulnerability to predators' when stranded in pools at low tide.

    The creatures of the rocky shore belong to many different families: Molluscs, Crustacea, Echinderms, Annelida and Fish. These creatures have adapted to their living conditions by having special equipment. Some have strong glue-like Barnacles that sticks them firmly down Others, like sea urchins (sea egg) and crabs hide under rock ledges. Chitons, Limpets and Sea Anemones have a large fleshy foot which sucks onto the rock. Some of the molluscs stop themselves from drying out at. low tide by drawing back into their thick shells and closing the lid. Some creatures use camouflage to prevent predators from eating them. Others, like sea anemone have stinging cells for defense. The sea plants, or algae are grouped into three headings according to their colour: red, brown and green. They are fixed firmly to the rocks so that they ate not washed away by the tides. Some of the creatures found along the rocky shore are Peacock worms (Sebellidae sp.), Limpets (Acmaea sp.) Rock Oyster (Osttra sp.), Chitons (Curbes), Sergeant major, Rock Beauty, Blenny, Sea Urchins (Iytechinus), Common blue crab (Collinectes aspidussp.), Common hermit crab (Pargarus longicarpus sp.), and Clubbed finger coral (Porites porites).

    From' anywhere in The Bahamas, a seashore is close by. On some islands access to the seashore is limited due to the sale and consequent ownership of beach front property. Whereas the approach from land is sometimes prevented, beach ownership ends at the high tide mark.



    Native beach vegetation prevents beach erosion by holding the sand in place. They also act as a natural wind break.. The seashore provides, habitat for many unique creatures. The Bahamas is signatory to the Biodiversity Convention. This means that we have pledged to, the world to preserve the biodiversity of The Bahamas. The seashore is a fine example of a unique ecosystem with a great variety of flora and fauna.

Whiteland Coppice


By far the most diverse and interesting group of native trees and plants can be found in our Bahamian forest known as Coppice. Jack Patterson, author of Native Trees of the Bahamas estimates that there are probably 100 species of trees and shrubs per square mile in our Bahamian forest. There are different types of coppice throughout The Bahamas. On the islands where coppice occurs, each forest is slightly different depending on its location, the amount of rainfall and if people have used the area in the past. This fact sheet will describe generally the Whiteland Coppice.


The places we see as we walk along the road and drive in our cars that have many trees growing close together and look "thick" and "dark" with heavy shade are special places called coppice. There are basically two types of coppice in The Bahamas - Blackland Coppice and Whiteland Coppice.

There are areas on our islands where plant life has been less intense due to salt spray and other natural factors. The soils in these areas often contain more lime and rock and support a hardier community of forest plants. These impoverished areas of forest that often run along the coasts of islands are called Whiteland Coppice.

The trees and shrubs of the Whiteland Coppice are rugged and durable. Brasiletto grows here as do several species of Acasia, which are shrubs and small trees with large bipinnate leaves. The aptly named Haulback, a shrub armed with sharp spines curved like a cats claw, trail through this forest. There are some large shade trees that grow, such as the mahogany sea grape and manchineel as well as the Balsam and the Clusia or Autograph tree.

Cacti are the most enduring plant life of the Whiteland Coppice, better adapted to stand the extremes in rainfall, storm and roaming goats than most plants. The largest is the Dildo Cactus, which can grow to heights of 20 feet. A much shorter nonbranching column-like cactus is the Turks Cap named for the red inflorescence that crowns the column. The Prickly Pear Cactus also grows wild in many disturbed areas. The most spectacular is the Queen of the Night, which spends most of the and year as a scraggly vine that climbs over trees and walls. With the arrival of the spring rains, the cactus develops massive swelling buds which open to reveal six inch white flowers and fill the evening air with the faint scent of vanilla. Attracted by the aroma, the night pollinating Sphinx moths flicker from flower to flower like nocturnal hummingbirds.

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  • Importance

    The Whiteland Coppice is often in close proximity to the sea, and this makes it the preferred habitat of land crabs. The crabs dig roomy burrows in the limey soil. Four species of land crab (in addition to the land hermit crab) are encountered in The Bahamas. Two of the species (the Giant White land crab and the Black crab) are important economically as they are caught and sold as food.


    Fire: This is an ancient enemy of forests. Slash and bum agriculture practiced in The Bahamas and other tropical countries often leads to out of control fires with many acres of good timber destroyed for no useful purpose.
    Development: Man's need for cleared land is truly a threat to our forests and it is a challenge to all Bahamians to set aside areas of Bahamian forest for wildlife and as a tribute to the historical debt we owe this ecosystem.

Blackland Coppice


By far the most diverse and interesting group of native trees and plants can be found in our Bahamian forest -known as Coppice. Jack Patterson, author of Native Trees of the Bahamas, estimates that there are probably I 00 species of trees and shrubs per square mile in our Bahamian forest. There are different types of coppice throughout the Bahamas. On the islands where coppice occurs, each forest is slightly different depending on its location, the amount of rainfall and if people have used the area in the past. This fact sheet will describe generally the Blackland Coppice.


The places we see as we walk along the road and drive in our cars that have many trees growing close together and look "thick" and "dark" with heavy shade are special places called coppice There are basically two types of coppice in The Bahamas - Blackland Coppice and Whiteland Coppice.

The Blackland Coppice is made of the same trees that greeted Columbus: mahogany, horseflesh, mastic and cedar. These original forests with canopies of over 50, feet in height have long vanished and modern day coppice is secondary, or even tertiary growth. Only on Little Inagua might one still find ancient primeval trees.

In the interior of our islands the coppice is tall and once entered, one discovers that the understory is starved of light by the canopy and it is often gloomy and relatively sterile. There is a stillness in the Blackland forest, for the sun heats the canopy like a tin roof and the wind never penetrates the understory except during a storm. Plants of this forest community have adapted to the environmental stresses placed upon them either internally or in conjunction, with other plants in the community. Some shrubs of the forest will only exhibit their best growth if shaded by a canopy. An excellent example of adaptation is the Pigeon Plum (Cocoloba diversifolia) an adaptable tree which thrives in sunlight or shade. When the tree is young the leaves are large, to gather light in the shaded forest floor. When it matures and can reach the sunlight, its normal leaves are just a fraction of the size of when the tree was small.

Some of the most common understory vegetation in the coppice are a six species of Stoppers (Eugenia spp.) that are used widely in Bahamian Bush Medicine as a constipant. Also abundant in the coppice are Bahamas Strongbark, a butterfly attracting tree, three species of Wild coffee (Psychotria spp.), which have a flavour and caffeine potency similar to the domestic variety coffee and the lovely Satinleaf or Saffron (Chrysophyllum oliviforme) which may be the loveliest tree of the understory. When the breeze blows, the Satinleaf shimmers for the underside of the leaves are covered with a rust colored down with much less reflectancy than the smooth green topside. Often it is only when the large canopy trees have fallen or the forest has been cleared that these smaller understory trees have their moment of glory.

The shade and humidity of the Blackland Coppice provides the ideal habitat for orchids and bromeliads, which cling to the bark of trees with tenacious roots. These epiphytes derive their nourishment from windblown dust and debris. Nine species of orchids are of the genus Epidendrum including the endemic E. inaguensis, with linear leaves and purple-yellow flowers on Inagua and Little Inagua. The three native species of vanilla are climbing orchids with fleshy leaves found in the northern and central Bahamas. The bromeliads are represented by the pineapple and numerous species of Tillandsia, which include Spanish Moss and the so-called wild pines. The wild pines are still common in most forest areas. Most of them resemble pineapples with a rosette of long, green leaves which send out an elaborate stalked inflorescence once. a year.

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  • Importance

    The Coppice forest is an important habitat for Bahamian wildlife. Birdlife abounds in the coppice forest. Smooth Billed Anis forage for insects and lizards. The Great Lizard Cuckoo hides in the low branches of trees looking for lizards and large insects, the White-crowned Pigeon feeds on Pi eon plum, Seagrape, Blolly and Poisonwood, and the shy Key West Quail Dove rustles through the-leaf litter on the forest floor. As one journeys through the forest it is also possible to see our Bahamian Boa Constrictor stretched out along the branch of tree in a shaft of sunlight.

    The forest has for hundreds of years ensured man's survival on these islands. It provided land to be cultivated for crops, timber for homes and boats, timber to be sold for foreign exchange and fuel to cook his food. Historically the Bahamian forest provided wood for boat building. Most of the boats used in wrecking were Bahamian built. Stem and sternposts were made of Mahogany although -Horseflesh was preferred and deck beams were made of Cedar. Thousands of boats of various descriptions were cut from the Bahamian forest. Lignum Vitae was cut as a commercial enterprise until the present century. An extremely hard wood, it was used for many different mechanical uses.


    Fire: This is an ancient enemy of forests. Slash and bum agriculture practiced in The Bahamas and other tropical countries often leads to out of control fires with many acres of good timber destroyed for no useful purpose.
    Development: Man's need for cleared land for development is truly a threat to our forests and it is a challenge to all Bahamians to set aside areas of Bahamian forest for wildlife and as a tribute to the historical debt we owe this ecosystem.


    pine forest

Pine Forrest

Scientific Names

The Caribbean Pine (Caribaea vs bahamensis) also known as Yellow Pine. Other flora which can be found in the Bahamian Pine forest are Bletia purpurea, purple-flowered orchids, Andorpogon glomeratus, also known as Bushy Beard Grass, and Pteridium aquilinum, Southern bracken fern. Shrubs which populate the area are Wild guava (Tetrazygia . a bicolor), Five-finger, or Chicken's foot (Tabebuia bahamense), and Snowberry (Chiococca alba). The Scale leafed. love vine (Cassytha filiformis) winds its way through the understory and around Poisonwood (Metopium toxiferum). The Sabal palmetto (Cocothrinax argenta) may dominate ground flora in certain pine forest areas.


Fire Climax Community

The Caribbean Pine is a light-demanding species that requires open areas with no competition from shading broad-leafed plants. Caribbean pinelands are called "fire climax communities": by botanists, for if periodic fires do not occur to remove the shading broad-leafed understory, juvenile pines cannot get sufficient light to take hold and replace the adult trees as they die off. Without, fires the pinelands would be succeeded by the broadleafed coppice, a hardwood forest.

Extremely well adapted to fire, the Caribbean Pine adults are rarely killed by the flames. Their fire resistance is due to volatile resins in the bark which explode when heated, putting out any small fires which start at the bark. Juvenile pines are not as resistant as the adults and are generally killed, but reseeding takes place around the base of the adult trees rapidly.

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  • History

    The Caribbean Pine has been used by Bahamians for hundreds of years. Large-scale commercial exploitation of the resource did not begin until the early 1900’s. In 1905, a sawmill was constructed near Wilson City, Abaco where it ran for. twelve years, As local pinelands were utilized, the mill was moved to other areas,. By 1943, all of the virgin pine of Abaco had been cut except for an area north of Crossing Rocks and a forest between Norman's Castle and Marsh Harbour.

    In 1944 the Abaco mill was moved to Grand Bahama, where large. scale logging operations, continued until the 1970's. Meanwhile, commercial harvesting of pine started in Andros in 1906. and in New Providence in 1923. In New Providence, few people can remember the sawmill that was constructed near Jack Pond, south of Gambier. As trees of sufficient diameter for lumber-making became. scarce, the industry turned its attention to harvesting immature secondary trees which were ground into pulp for paper making.


    Pine forest only occurs on the northern islands of the Bahamas: Grand Bahama, Andros, Abaco and New Providence. Reports indicate that it was once found on the Berry Islands and is also known to grow in the Caicos Islands. Areas of pine forest which are protected are the Rand Nature Centre and the Lucayan National Park, Grand Bahama and the Abaco National Park in southern Abaco.


    Commercial: Research completed in the 1960's has indicated that the Caribbean pine may be one of the most commercially useful pines species in the world. It is fast growing, has considerable girth (some trees in the virgin forest measure over thirty inches in diameter), makes excellent pulpwood, and is rich in turpentines and resins. Forest biologists have grown it in many environments and it is like that Caribbean pine Will be grown commercially all over the world in years to come.
    Recreation .(Hunting): The pine forests of the Bahamas are also home to Wild Boar which is popular game species on the island of Abaco. There are also populations of feral cats and Raccoons. Quail, Wood doves and White-crowned pigeon which feed on Poisonwood may also frequent the pine forest and several migratory species of duck, such as the Blue-winged Teal utilize the ponds and lakes of. this ecosystem.

    Haven for Wildlife: The pine forests of the Bahamas are a bird watcher's paradise. Above the pines can be seen the Turkey vulture (Carthus aura), slowly searching for food. Commonly: seen on Andros, Abaco and Grand Bahama, scientists are stumped as to why it is so rarely seen on New Providence. During the winter months, numerous birds flock around the A gave or Century plants which are often found in open spaces between the pines. The Century plant blooms infrequently, or some say every hundred years. The tall asparagus-like flower head bears many clusters of yellow nectar-rich flowers attracting nectar sipping birds, the Bananaquit, Bahama Woodstar hummingbird, Cuban emerald hummingbird and the showy Red-legged Thrush. Over, thirty different warblers may frequent the Bahamian pine forest. Two are residents, the endemic Bahama Yellowthroat (Geothlypis, rostrata), and the Pine Warbler (Dendroica pinus). The rest are winter visitors or migrants, such as the Cape May warbler (Dendroica tigrina) or Black and White Warbler (Mniotilta varia) who may return year after year to the same wintering grounds. One of the rarest birds sought by bird watchers is the Kirtland's warbler, (Dendroica kirtlandii). Scientists estimate the total population at approximately 1500. Migrating from Michigan to The Bahamas this endangered. species is the subject of a joint Bahamas National Trust and the Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries monitoring program (part of the Nature Conservancy's Wings over the Americas Program). Recent sightings of this bird in The Bahamas have been at the Rand Nature Centre in Grand Bahama and in the Abaco National Park. Another rare occupant of the pinelands is the Atala hairstreak (Eumaeus atala) a one-inch-butterfly found on Abaco, Grand Bahama and New Providence. The atala caterpillar feeds exclusively on the Saga palm (Zamia integrifolia.), also known as Coontie, which is not really a palm at all but a member of an ancient order of plants known as cycads. These living "fossils" are slow growing and their unprotected seeds make them poor competitors in the changing environment. Human harvesting of the rootstock for sago flour and destruction of the natural habitat are making the future dim for the survival of both the sago palm and the atala hairstreak.

Information Courtesy of the Bahamas National Trust

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