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Entomological Survey of Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, Belize

Peter Kovarik, John Shuey, and Chris Carlton

Introduction

During the mid-late 1990's, lepidopterist John Shuey became interested in testing the widely touted concept that insect communities are useful in evaluating impacts to ecological integrity in tropical forest communities. At that time the literature had been advocating insects, especially butterflies, as appropriate indicators for assessing the impacts of specific management activities on tropical forests. People were already using insects as indicators, despite the fact that this simple premise had yet to be tested. John enlisted coleopterist Peter Kovarik as a partner in this study. The two decided that in addition to butterflies, scarabaeine scarabs and hister beetles would become part of the study. The taxa that were selected were chosen in part because of their susceptibility to bait and or passive trapping techniques. In fact the beauty of this study was that we envisioned relatively little active collecting. This way we could quasi enjoy ourselves while our traps were filling with insects!

The site chosen for our study was Rio Bravo Conservation Area located in Orange Walk Province, Belize. Rio Bravo is a 230,000 acre nature preserve in the northwestern corner of the country near the corner where Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico meet. Rio Bravo is a beautiful mosaic of semitropical moist forest, savanna, and wetland habitats with over 230 species of trees, 70 species of mammals, and approximately 400 species of birds. Among large animals, the area has healthy populations of jaguar, puma, Baird's tapir, and two species of monkeys. There are also significant Mayan archeological sites, and the area has a colorful recent history of mahogany logging, chicl? extraction, and marijuana farming. This preserve is ministered by Programme For Belize (PfB), a private conservation organization that holds Rio Bravo in trust for the people of Belize. PfB integrates elements of sustainable forestry and natural product harvesting, ecotourism, and education into a single comprehensive long-term management plan. For a location map of Rio Bravo click on the PfB logo above. For additional information about The Nature Conservancy's role, click on that logo.

Rio Bravo turned out to be an ideal setting for our study. In addition to extensive areas of oak-pine savanna, there were huge expanses of contiguous limestone rainforest without excessive topographic variability. Within this expanse of fairly homogenous habitat, there were areas along trails or roads through the forest that had been fairly recently logged. We sought to imbed our sample sites within areas that were both recently disturbed by man and others which had been relatively untouched for quite some time. Because Rio Bravo is a preserve and PfB encourages research activities, we felt confidant that human impact on both the ecosystem and our sampling devices would be minimal. Thus, it seemed probable that any potential differences we observed in insect communities between our sample sites would be primarily due to forest integrity rather than extraneous factors.

Our core studies were conducted once during the dry season and twice during the rainy season. They were completed in 1996. Since neither John nor Pete knew much about scarabaeine scarabs, expert Bill Warner was coaxed into participating by promising him many scarabs with no strings attached. In fact Bill eventually joined us in Rio Bravo in July 1996. We are still awaiting some of our quantitative insect data, but we have botanical assessments of each forest tract, and data from the sample events for butterflies and hister beetles in hand. As soon as the last of our insect data is cleaned up, we will finish off the ecological end of this work.

Like many studies, this one began small and focused and eventually expanded into a full blown entomological survey. Coleopterist Chris Carlton became the third major player in our survey. Chris has made several trips to Rio Bravo and done some intensive leaf litter work and set up many a flight intercept trap in search of tiny pselaphid beetles. We collected massive amounts of insects and have spent the last several years processing our samples and farming specimens out to various specialists who have generously provided us with identifications. We have learned, with little surprise that many of the insects that inhabit the forests and savannas of Rio Bravo are new to science. Many others are new country records. This is not surprising either since the entomofauna of Belize is poorly known. What is perhaps a bit of a surprise are the many unusual range extensions for some of the described insect species. This indicates that knowing the insect fauna of Belize will improve our understanding of the zoogeography of Mexico and Central America.

The following checklists and are now available and more will be added as they mature. Available images may be accessed through links within the checklists.

Coleoptera

For questions and comments contact Peter Kovarik.