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Venezuela´s Eco Regions

Catatumbo

The Catatumbo moist forests are among the richest in floral diversity in humid tropical areas of Venezuela. These forests flank the lower slopes and lowlands between the Cordillera de Mérida and the Cordillera Oriental of the northern Andes, and occur as several outliers in the vicinity of Lake Maracaibo. 

Location and General Description 

The Catatumbo moist forests exist as four distinct enclaves within the Catatumbo Valley, in both northwestern Venezuela and northeastern Colombia. In Venezuela the ecoregion is found in the states of Zulia , and Lara, and in Colombia it is found in the Norte de Santander department. The forests are primarily lowland and premontane formations, and exist within a matrix of xeric and montane
habitats. The largest, or "core" block, spans the premontane and inter-Andean valley region in a "V" shape between the divergence of the Cordillera de Merida (to the east) and the northern extension of the Andes (Cordillera Oriental). The largest outlier, ranging from 100 and 300 masl, is separated from the core region by a transverse dry belt surrounding the lake. The two remaining outliers are located on the eastern side of the lake on Cerro Cerrón
(1900 masl), and a hill on the south (1578 masl) along the foothills of Cordillera de Mérida.

The ecoregion comprises mountains and valleys. Some of the rivers that traverse the south and
western areas are the Catatumbo, Bravo, Santa Ana, and Onia. The Palmar, Apón y Santa Ana
rivers come from the Serrania de Perijá. The highest rainfall occurs in the southwestern edge of
the Maracaibo basin due to the prevailing winds, bringing clouds, which are then trapped, in
the "V" shaped cordilleras. The annual precipitation in this area may reach 4,300 mm (Huber and
D. Frame 1988). 

Considering the richness of the area, the existing botanical knowledge is very poor. The most
common families are Bombacaceae, Combretaceae, Lecythidaceae, Leguminoseae, Sapotacea,
Tiliaceae, and Vochysiaceae. Some of the flora in the upper canopy (40 m) include Anacardium
excelsum, Carapa guianensis, Ceiba pentandra, Coumarouna punctata, Couroupita
guianenesis, Escheweilera sp., and Sterculia apetala; in the middle canopy (approx. 20 m):
Calophllum brasiliense, Guarea thichioides, Parkia pendula, Pentaclethra macrobola, and
Swartzia sp.; and in the lower canopy (approx. 10 m): Grislea sp., Inga sp., Luehea sp., Protium
sp., Trichilia pleeana, and T. maynasiana (UNESCO 1981) (UNESCO 1981). The region also
includes Gustavia hexapetala, Cariniana pyriformis, Faramea capillipes, Ochoterenaea
colombiana, Miconia mocquerysii and Vochysia lehmannii (Huber & Alarcon 1988).

Some areas in the western and southern part of the ecoregion have anthropogenic impacts.
Logging, agriculture, and extension of grazing have degraded the area resulting in secondary
vegetation including the following genera: Casearia, Cecropia, Croton, Inga, Isertia,
Jacaranda, Trema, and Vismia.

Biodiversity Features

The Catatumbo moist forest located south and west of Lake Maracaibo is
considered a Pleistocene Refuge for woody plant families (Prance 1982). This forest
is the only area on the northern side of the Andes that still contains remnants of the
Amazonian flora of Brazil and Colombia (Steyermark 1982). Various relict species
are particularly found on the lower forested slopes along the Rio Onia located south
of Lake Maracaibo. Faramea capillipes is an example of an isolated species found
along the Rio Onia. Other species of lowland tropical forests that are associated with
the Faramea are Tapirira guianensis (Anacardiaceae); Diplasis karataefolia
(Cyperaceae); Maprounea guianensi (Euphorbiaceae); Olyra micrantha
(Gramineae); Leandra solenifera, Miconia barbinervis, M. nervosa, and Mouriri
myrtifolia (Melastomataceae); Abuta pahni (Menispermaceae); and Psychotria
capitata inudata (Rubiaceae). Some of the relict plant species found in Catatumbo
and in eastern Colombia are Ochoterineae colombiana (Anacardiaceae); Miconia
mocquerysii (Melastomataceae); Palicourea buntingii (Rubiaceae); and Vochysia
lehmannii (Vochysiaceae) (Steyermark 1982).

Endemic flora of the Catatumbo forests include species in the Araceae family- Anthurium
praemontanum, Philodendron mesae, Rodospatha perezii, and Spanthiphyllum perezii, and
the gesneriaceous Besleria ornata, which is related to B. immitis of the Colombian and
Peruvian Amazon.

Little is known about the fauna in the Catatumbo moist forest. The brown hairy dwarf porcupine
(Coendu vestitus), an extremely rare mammal, inhabits warm lowlands to higher elevations of
about 2,600 m. Few specimens of this porcupine have been collected (Emmons 1997).
Information about endemic animals found in the ecoregion is not available.

Current Status 

Substantial areas of natural vegetation have been destroyed around Lake Maracaibo,
affecting moist and dry forests. The extensive network of roads surrounding Lake
Maracaibo has fragmented the area. Some areas of the ecoregion have been
severely altered by livestock grazing, agriculture, and oil exploration. Deforestation
for shifting cultivation has destroyed the forests in mountain slopes. The most
degraded areas are in the southwestern side of the region, which is the area
proposed as a forest refuge by Steyermark (1982). 

The only protected area in the ecoregion is Catatumbo Bari National Park (IUCN category II),
located in the eastern section. However, most of the 158,125-hectare Park is located in the
Cordillera Oriental montane forests, and little of the moist forests are protected.

Types and Severity of Threats 

This ecoregion has an endangered to critical degree of threat. Some of the major
threats include

Progressive deforestation due to increasing colonization 
Oil exploration

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation

The delineation’s for this ecoregion were derived from vegetation maps of Huber
(1988), who classified this regions as "Lowland Evergreen Ombrophilous Forests",
with elements of seasonally inundated wetlands. The UNESCO (1980) map
confirms this, and their classification as Tropical Ombrophilous Swamp Forest and
Tropical Tall Flooded Grasslands confirms the basic habitat type – but linework
between these two maps are dissimilar. Our linework however, was derived from
Robert F. Smith (pers. comm.), who has extensive experience in the area and was
better able to separate out the original forest cover. This ecoregion is distinct due to
its isolation from similar forests, and its enclosure in this northernmost fork of the
Andes – which has led to moderate levels of species endemism and acts as a refuge
for many moist forest species in an otherwise arid landscape.                     


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