The University of the West Indies, at Mona, Jamaica Homepage

The University of the West Indies

at Mona, Jamaica

Jamaica is an internationally recognized “biodiversity hotspot,” because many of the island‘s species are endemic meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. In fact, Jamaica is ranked 5th in the world in terms of endemic plants, and boasts a very impressive list of spectacular animal species that are also found nowhere else on the planet.

Jamaica’s Natural Heritage under Severe Threat

Unfortunately, Jamaica’s natural habitats, and by extension, the plants and animals that inhabit them, are under severe threat. Beginning with massive deforestation dating back to early colonial times, the island has now lost over 90% of its natural forests – home for most of the island’s endemic species. And the destruction continues. Conversion of remaining forests and coastal habitats to agriculture, industry, and tourism, is steadily chipping away at what little habitat is still left.

The island’s unique animals are also under attack. Several bird, reptile, and amphibian species have already gone extinct in recent times; many others are currently threatened with extinction.

Saving our Unique Plants and Animals

Saving the island’s rich collection of unique plant and animal species, and the natural habitats that support them, is a critical undertaking. Future generations should be left with a healthy environment that contains all the ingredients for proper ecosystem functioning. Indeed, we owe it to our children to leave them with all the species that still exist, and must leave them with a Jamaica that can still provide the ecosystem services that all life relies on, for example, clean air and clean water.

Assessment and Prediction

The Department of Life Sciences has been conducting research aimed at assessing the current status of the Cockpit Country and Lower Black River Morass. Both areas have suffered greatly at the hands of man. By using old aerial photographs and satellite images, researchers can examine how the habitat has changed over time. When combined with biodiversity and socioeconomic information, such analyses can allow researchers to predict the ecological outcomes of future land use strategies. For example, it should be possible to predict the extent of biodiversity loss that would result from bauxite mining in the Cockpit Country. Such information should be of great value when weighing the costs and benefits of various development projects, and will be made available to policy makers.

Rehabilitation

Of course, there is also the need to rehabilitate habitats that have been severely degraded. In the Black River area, the non-native plant (Alpinia allughas), a member of the ginger family, has completely altered some areas, and has led to the disappearance of unique patches of swamp habitat. Researchers plan to conduct studies aimed at determining whether this damaging plant can be controlled. Studies focused on the growth rates of various tree species will help with efforts to reforest degraded portions of both the Black River swamp forest and the Cockpit Country. Only through research is it possible to select the very best species of trees to replant the island’s damaged habitats.


The researchers, Dr. Kurt McLaren and Dr. Byron Wilson are members of the Department of Life Sciences, UWI, Mona. Their work is being funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, USA. kurt.mclaren@uwimona.edu.jm and byron.wilson@uwimona.edu.jm