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New Research in the Sarstoon Temash National Park, Toledo District, Belize

Coring for Pollen in the Sphagnum Bog

Jan Meerman - January 2010

The unusual find of a Sphagnum peat bog reported from the coastal lowland tropics of the Sarstoon Temash National Park in the Toledo District, Belize, did raise some eyebrows in the scientific community. Sphagnum is more typical for temperate climates and in the tropics it is generally only found in the highlands where nutrient poor conditions get combined with high rainfall/humidity. Yet, at least one other (potential) example of such a coastal lowland tropical Sphagnum bog has meanwhile surfaced (Humedal de San San-Pond Sak, Provincia de Bocas del Toro: Panama. Description ).

To settle the issue once and for all, Participants of the Darwin Savanna Ecosystem Assessment Project persuaded Bronwen Whitney, Palynologist at the Department of Geography, University of Nottingham (UK) to investigate the swamp. Subsequently, Bronwen managed to secure funds from both the British Ecological Society (BES) small ecological project grant, and a from the Quaternary Research Association (QRA)'s Quaternary research fund - entitled 'Vegetation history of a unique Shagnum ecosystem in southern Belize' and in January 2010 she traveled to Belize to conduct some initial coring.


Pollen Coring Expedition Team

Following initial preparations, the team consisting of:

This team headed into the Sarstoon Temash National Park to find the Sphagnum Bog and retrieve a coring sample. The purpose of this sample being to get a pollen record (see Wikipedia article) which would tell us a lot about the plants that have grown here over

Coring in the Sarstoon Temash National Park

the past millennia, and thereby about the environmental history of the area (was it always a Sphagnum bog? at what stage it became one? and what were the conditions under which it formed?).

After some initial struggles with roots and recalcitrant equipment, one perfect core was finally collected.

Peat Core from Sarstoon
Peat core from Sarstoon detail

To our surprise, we managed to retrieve a peat core from a dept of 6 meters (19 ft). And this was only as far as the equipment allowed us to go! We certainly were not at the bottom of the bog.

Clear too was the variation within this 6 m core sample. The top 2 meters were badly consolidated, possibly meaning that the top of the bog is actually a floating mass (at least during the rainy season) together with the moss, the trees and the "soil" on which you walk. If this is the case, then during the dry season water evaporates and the floating mass probably comes to rest on the accumulated peat below.

At first glance, the lower peat layers give evidence of substantial environmental variation over the ages. Layers with fine peat (Sphagnum?), alternate with layers with coarse sedge fibers and tree roots.

Although it is tempting to speculate about the history of the bog, we really have to wait for the results of the core analysis. An analysis that can easily take a few years.

Meanwhile, one thing is clear. The Sphagnum bog is real, and represents a so far un-reported, undocumented and un-researched ecosystem. The first coring was successful and calls for further investigations, coring deeper and sampling more locations.

Based on the gps points taken during this short survey, it will probably be needed to modify the ecosystems map for the Sarstoon Temash National Park. As it turns out the Sphagnum Bog is much bigger than 1,100 Ha initially calculated, but at least two distinctive types exist.

  1. The open Sphagnum bog with sedges and low shrubs (dominated by Cyrilla racemiflora). Sphagnum is distinctive but also the clubmoss Lycopodiella caroliniana is very prominent. The more open wetter areas have abundant carnivorous plants (see below). This is the area that gives the distinctive signature on the satellite image (see other page).
  2. A closed shrubland (dominated by Purdiae belizensis) with a dense understory of sedges and thick hummocks of Sphagnum moss. The Sphagnum moss is certainly better developed here than in the more open bog variant.

More research will be needed to fine tune these observations.

Utricularia juncea

Distinctive component of the Open Sphagnum Bog were the various carnivorous plants found here.

Specifically in the more open spots, whole mats of Bladderworth (Utricularia spp) were found (picture above). At least two species were recorded during this expedition.

The bladderworths have small leaves that are barely visible above the ground, on their roots they have little trap mechanisms that catch tiny organisms that live in the soil and this is what the plant survives on. The bright yellow flowers are the most visible part of this interesting plant (Picture to the left)

Drosera capillaris

Furthermore a Sundew (Drosera sp.) was found to be very common. It does not fit of the description of the other Cental American Drosera's so maybe it is something new. Sundews traps insects above ground on sticky hairs on its leaves.

None of the carnivorous plant species found are restricted to the STNP, but none the less make an interesting feature in this specialized landscape.

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