Trinidad and Tobago: A Biodiversity Hotspot Overlooked
The two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean (just off the coast of Venezuela) may be smaller than Delaware, but it has had an outsized role in the history of rainforest conservation as well as our understanding of tropical ecology. Home to an astounding number of tropical ecosystems and over 3,000 species and counting (including 470 bird species in just 2,000 square miles), Trinidad and Tobago is an often overlooked gem in the world's biodiversity.
"In the last 100 years, work in these forests was instrumental in deciphering principles we now take for granted. For example: echolocation in bats, animal chemical defenses and mimicry," Nigel Noriega, the director of Sustainable Innovation Initiatives (SSI) told mongabay.com adding that the "Tobago Main Ridge Forest Reserve is under consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is on record as the world's oldest legally protected forest reserve geared specifically towards a conservation purpose. It was recognized as early as 1776 that the forests were crucial to maintaining the rainfall on these islands."
A part of the reason for the island's impressive biodiversity (including 85 endemic species so far) is that Trinidad and Tobago are islands that act as evolutionary laboratories, but still containing heavy influences from the South American mainland to which the islands were likely connected in the recent past.
"[Trinidad and Tobago]'s swirling stew of biogeography takes on characteristics of a giant ecotone (ecotones are transition zones between ecosystems). Each of its habitat is large enough to be legitimate, but small enough to be a buffer zone in the more massive mainland systems. Blending and adaptation are being observed at closer ranges and higher speeds than we might be accustomed to thinking about," Noriega says.
This is no-where better observed than in the guppies of Trinidad, which have become the focal point of numerous studies across multiple disciplines. The guppy populations on this small island are unlocked new visions of how species evolve, according to Noriega.
"It is the first time we have had such a detailed look at evolution in the very first stages of population adaptation. Such a new perspective is exposing a lot of details we previously did not know we needed to examine, or were simply unable to measure. Guppy studies in Trinidad have created a conceptual toolbox that is compelling us to explore hypotheses that were not previously imagined. The impact on science is tremendous!"
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Tobago Beach image via Shutterstock.