The HOCC utilizes a broad classification scheme to simplify the bewilderingly complex array of Mesoamerican ecosystems for the purposes of designing integrated research, conservation, and development projects. Within these broad categories are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of habitats and ecotones in all states of human modification. (Note: We are not currently working in coastal or marine environments, though we do not exclude the possibility. )
DRY FORESTS (Bosque Seco)
Tropical dry forests in Mesoamerica range from rain forest-like gallery woods along rivers (vegas) to isolated patches of endemic-rich thorn forest and scrub dominated by tree cacti. Highest endemism rates occur in the headwaters of the Choluteca River on the Pacific Slope, and in remote basins such as Agalta and Aguán on the Caribbean Slope. Though no old-growth forests are known, patches of diverse second-growth dry forests exist throughout the region. Probably the best-publicized species is the Honduran Emerald (Amazilia luciae), an iconic endangered hummingbird endemic to dry forest remnants on Honduras's Caribbean slope.
CLOUD FORESTS (Bosque Nublado)
Over 100 Tropical Montane Cloud Forest "islands" are found on isolated mountaintops across the Chortis Highlands section of Mesoamerica (brown dots on map at right), and range from as low as 1000 meters to almost 3000 meters above sea level. Habitats include “classic” epiphyte-laden, old-growth forest and areas of second-growth as well as mossy woods, elfin forests, and high-altitude fir and spruce forests. While 75% of TMCFs in Honduras receive some degree of protection, less than 20% are adequately known in biological terms. There is an extremely high degree of endemism in cloud forests, peaking in the bosques nublados of Honduras, which are the richest in this respect anywhere in Mesoamerica.
(Serrania or Bosque de Pino y Roble)
Relatively few species of pines and oaks cover half of the entire Chortis Highlands section of Mesoamerica. Though comparatively poor in biodiversity and almost completely modified by human activity (primarily logging and cattle ranching), this vast ecosystem is critically important for Neotropical migrant songbirds, especially the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler (a majority of the entire world population appears to winter in Honduras). Several threatened breeding species are also found, notably Red-throated Caracara, Ocellated Quail, Mountain Lion, White-tailed Deer (Honduras’s national animal) and the Teocinte (or tiusinte) tree cycad (Dioon mejiae; also found in other ecosystems--see photo at right, below). Old-growth pine forest still occurs in some remote areas of Olancho and Yoro departments. In the Moskitia of Honduras and Nicaragua, lowland pine savannas contain rich biodiversity and substantial endemism distinct in important ways from that of the highlands.
(Selva or Bosque Humedo Tropical)
Several million hectares of lowland and mid-level humid tropical forest, mostly old-growth but with substantial areas of second-growth, are found from sea level to 1000 meters along the entire Caribbean Coast of Honduras, in the Lake Yojoa Basin (where it is nearly eradicated), and across parts of interior eastern Honduras and northern Nicaragua. Species diversity is the highest for any ecosystem in Mesoamerica, but in eastern Honduras, endemism rates are low, because the vast majority of species therein are found widely across Central and South America, a result of the Great American Biotic Interchange.
However, data emerging from the rain forests facing the Caribbean Sea along the Sierra de Omoa and Cordillera Nombre de Dios mountain ranges (the geologically oldest parts of Mesoamerica), and in the volcanic Yojoa Basin, indicate not only very high degrees of endemism but a probable evolutionary center for northern Central America. This has already been shown for a cluster of seven cycad species--primitive, palm-like gymnosperms of which only 300 species occur worldwide, the single most-endangered group of biota on Earth--all endemic to Honduras and most to the interior of these forests. Each cycad species possesses an endemic and, presumably, also endangered beetle pollinator.
Neglected and isolated terrestrial habitats in the region include limestone cave systems, natural wetlands, rock outcroppings, native savannas, and barrens. Such habitats often contain relict species and range isolates, and endemism is high. Wetlands are also critically important for migrant waterbirds that wander inland from vast coastal wetlands. Unfortunately, because they are not located within intact forest environments and are often on private land, they have been overwhelmingly excluded from protected areas and neglected by researchers. The area at right is a quaking bog growing at the source of a spring in the Agalta Valley, surrounded on all sides by privately-owned thorn forest and protected by cattle ranchers whose stock depend on its waters.
Geographers, anthropologists, and other social scientists involved in the HOCC are interested in understanding the dynamics of environmental change and resilience through at least 10,000 years of human activity in Mesoamerica. This social research element is incorporated into all HOCC expeditions and ranges from ethnobotany and ethno-ornithology to environmental history and archaeology. Specific concerns involve the long-term effects of human management and modification of ecosystems on the distributional patterns of flora and fauna, for example through deforestation, afforestation, and fire, as well as the connection between TLEK (traditional and local ecological knowledge) and conservation.
Community-based research into TLEK provides an important bridge between the data generated by biologists and the knowledge base of local people. Both sources of information are important for their contribution to effective conservation and development strategies. For example, several HOCC members, led by Mark Bonta, served as catalysts for the world's only cycad festival, in the municipality of Gualaco, the culmination of several years of collaborative research and conservation planning with HOCC members Isidro Zuniga, Rafael Ulloa, Jody Haynes, Maria Teresa Pulido, Onan Reyes, Eduardo Rico, and others. The cycad festival uses the celebration of a local natural and cultural heritage item (cycads are important for food as well as decoration) to generate income, rescue old traditions, improve diets, and foment local and regional pride.