Belize Wildlife Glossary

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Caribbean Critters

a column on the beasties of Belize

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AnimalZ of the Reef

A-Z, animals of the Belize reef

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Belize Dive/Fish ID Cards

Wonderful detailed imagery of Belize Reef and Sea Life

By definition there is no true rainforest in Belize or Guatemala; however, the quantity of rainfall is only slightly insufficient. Instead, these countries are decorated with broadleaf jungle and cohune forest termed "moist tropical forest". This forest, savanna wetlands and the Mayan Mountain areas of both countries are habitat for an incredible variety of fauna. A short list of some of the more unique mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects is represented here in this glossary. The scientific names follow the local name in italic and a few creo names have been added to help understand the local guides. This page contains information on each species, for just a list of the animals and fish of Belize, CLICK HERE!

Agouti Paca - quatusa : Locally known as a gibnut. A 20- inch tail-less rodent with small ears and a large muzzle. Its redish brown on Guatemalans pacific side, more tawny orange on the Belize Caribbean slope. Sits on haunches to eat large seeds and fruit. Nocturnal by habit and highly prized as food item by many Belizeans, the gibnut is more apt to be seen by the visitor on an occasional restaurant menu than in the wild. Also known as ėThe Royal Rat' as it was served to Queen Elizabeth on her last visit to Belize.

Anteater - oso hormiquero : Three species area found here, the giant Myermecophaga tridactyla, silky Cyclopes didactylus and collared, or vested Tamandya mexicana; only the latter is commonly seen (and too often as a road kill). This medium-size anteater (30 inches long with 18 inch tail) is seen lapping up ants and termites with long sticky tongue; has long sharp claws for ripping into insects nests.

Aracaris - cusingo : Slender toucans, with a trademark bill, travel in groups of six or more and eat ripe fruit. Collared aracaris Pteeroglossus torquatus on Caribbean has chalky upper mandible.

Armadillo - cusuco; Dasypus novemcinctus: Same species as in southern U.S. Mostly nocturnal and solitary, this edentate roots in soil with long muzzle for varied diet of insects, small animals, and plant material.

Booby Bird - Sula sula : This approachable red-footed bird became easy prey for hungry sailors landing on Half Moon Caye. Belize's first national park Half Moon Caye Natural Monument is now the protected home for over 4000 red-footed booby birds.

Caiman - cocodrilo : see Crocodile

Coati - pizote : A long nosed member of the raccoon family. The Coati- also known as Quash-has a long, ringed tail, masked face, and lengthy snout. Omnivorous, the Coati also relishes jungle fruits. Usually seen in small troops traveling in single file with the tail pointed strait up. The occasional solitary male is referred to as a coati-mundi.

Cougar - puma ; Felis concolor : Mountain lions are the largest unspotted cats. A large feline predator. (to 5 ft, with 3 [1//2]-inch tail) Widespread in Belize and Guatemala but rare, they occur in essentially all wild habitats and feed on vertebrates ranging from snakes to deer. Belizean and Guatemalan cultures refer to any wild cat as a Tiger.

Crocodile - laqarto ; Crocodylus acutus : Mayan word ėLamanai' means submerged crocodile. Though often referred to as alligators, Belize have only crocodiles, the American (up to 20 feet) and Morelet's (to 8 feet) - Crocodylus moreleti. Fussie about their cuisine, preferring fish, dogs, and other small mammals to people. The territories of both species overlap in estuaries and brackish coastal waters. Able to filter excess salt from its system, only the American crocodile ventures to the more distant cayes. Endangered throughout their ranges, both crocs are protected by international law.

Cards of the sharks, rays and coral reef creatures of Belize. Click images for larger versions

Spanish version

Ctenosaur - garrobo ; Ctenosaura similis : A.k.a. black, or spiny, iguana. Large (to 18 inches long with 18-inch tail), tan lizard with four dark bands on body and a tail ringed with rows of sharp, curved spines. Terrestrial and arboreal, it sleeps in burrows or tree hollows. Though mostly vegetarian, it consumes small creatures. Seen along both coasts and cayes. Creo name is ėWish Willy' and is eaten by locals.

Dolphin - delfin : Several species, including bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus, frolic in Belizean and Guatemalan waters. Frequently observed off Pacific shores of Guatemala are spotted dolphins Stenella attenuata, which are small (to 6 ft.), with pale spots on posterior half of body; they often travel in groups of 20 or more and play in bow wakes and around vessels.

Eagle Ray - Aetobatus narinari : The Spotted Eagle Ray , One of the Caribbean's most graceful swimmers. Common throughout the range. Sizes range from 6 to 8 ft., White underside. Numerous white spots and circular markings over dark back. Pronounced head with flattened, tapered snout. Long thin black tail with one to five venomous spines at base. Swims at depths of 6 to 80 ft. Cruising sandy areas occasionally stopping to dig for mollusks, upon which they feed.

Frigatebird - Fregat magnificens: Large, black, soaring bird with slender wings and forked tail; one of the most effortless and agile fliers of the avian world. Doesn't dive or swim instead swoops to pluck food from surface, or more commonly steals catch from the mouths of other birds.

Frog - rana : Belize and Guatemala have numerous frogs and also toads, but the most dazzling is the red-eyed tree frog,< insert sic. name> whose ruby gelatinous eyes are like night beacons in the jungle. This frog attaches firmly to green leafs with rubbery, neon-orange hands and feet, its eyes bulge out from its metallic green body, which is splashed with white dots and blue patches.

Fer-de-Lance - Bothrops asper : This, one of the largest, commonest, and by far the most dangerous of all pit vipers, has a host of names in Belize and Guatemala. Known as ėTommygoff' in Belize and ėTomagasse' in Guatemala . This aggressive snake can grow to 8ft. in length and has bright yellow sides to its head.

Gibnut : see Agouti Paca

Howler Monkeys - mono congo ; Alouatta palliata : These dark, chunky-bodied monkeys (to 22 inches long and 24-inch tail) with black faces travel in troops of 20 or more. Lethargic mammals, they eat leaves, fruits, and flowers. The deep, resounding howls by males serve as communication among and between troops. These Monkeys(erroneously termed Baboons by Belizeans) travel only from tree to tree limiting there presence to dense jungle canopy.

Iguana - iguana : Largest lizard in Belize and Guatemala; males can grow to 10 feet, including tail. They are mostly arboreal and good swimmers. Only young green iguanas Iguana iguana are bright green; adults are much duller; females dark grayish; males olive (with orangish to red heads in breeding season). All have characteristic round cheek scale and smooth tails. A delicacy with the locals who call it ėBamboo Chicken'. Also Ctenosaura similis a.k.a. black or spiny, iguana. Large (18-inch tail), tan lizard with four dark bands on body and a tail ringed with rows of sharp curved spines. Terrestrial and arboreal, it sleeps in burrows of tree hollows. Though mostly vegetarian, it consumes small creatures. Seen along both coasts in the dry north and in wetter areas farther south.

Northern Jacana - gallito de aqua ; Jacana spinosa : These birds are sometimes refereed to as "Lilly trotters" because there long toes allow them to walk on floating vegetation. They eat aquatic organisms and plants and are found at any body of water. Expose yellow wing feathers in flight. ėLiberated' females lay eggs in several nests built by the multiple male mates who tend, hatch and raise chicks.

Jaguar - tigre ; panthera onca: Largest New World feline (to 6 ft, with 2-ft. tail), The male can weigh 145-255 pounds. This nocturnal, top of the chain predator is exceedingly rare, but lives in a wide variety of habitats. Belize has designated approximately 155 square miles as Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve.

Jesus Christ Lizard - gallego : Flaps of skin on long toes enable this spectacular lizard to run across water. Lineated Basilisk Basiliscus basiliscus

Kinkajou - martilla ; Potos flavus : a nocturnal, arboreal relative of raccoon with light brown fur (to 20 inches, with 20-inch prehensile tail). Actively and often noisily forages for fruit, insects, and some nectar. Has yellow-green eyeshine. Its image appears on the Belizean twenty dollar note.

Leaf-Cutter Ant - zompopas ; Atta : In creo its refereed to as ėWee Wee Ant'. Most commonly noticed neotropical ants, found in all lowland habitats. Columns, sometimes extending for several hundred yards from underground nest to plants being harvested, leave a distinct path though the jungle. The clipped leaves are fed to cultivated fungus that they eat.

Macaw - lapas - Ara macao Only one species of Macaw is found in Belize and Guatemala, the Scarlet Macaw. The population is severely threatened and listed endangered. Huge, raucous parrots with long scarlet tails; immense bills used to rip apart fruits to get to seeds. Nest in hollow trees. Victims of pet trade poachers and deforestation.

Magpie Jay - urraca ; Calocitta formosa : This southern relative of the blue jay, with long tail and distinctive topknot (crest of forwardly curved feathers) , does not occur in Belize and only along Guatemalans pacific slope. Omnivorous, bold and inquisitive, with amazingly varied vocalizations, these birds travel in noisy groups of four or more.

Manatee - Tricherus manatus: The manatee is an elephantine creature of immense proportions with gentle manners and the curiosity of a kitten. This enormous animal, often called the sea cow, is scarce today. The manatee is said to be the basis of myths and old seamen's references to mermaids. In South America certain indigenous tribes revere this particular mammal. The Maya hunted the manatee for its flesh, and its image frequently appears in ancient Mayan art.

Margay - caucel ; Felis wiedii : Fairly small, spotted nocturnal cat (22 inches long, with 18 inch tail) , mobile ankle joints allow it to climb down trunks head first. Eats small vertebrates.

Morpho - morfo: Spectacular big butterfly. Three species have brilliant-blue wing upper surface, one of which Morpho peleides is common in moister areas; one has intense ultraviolet upper surface; one is white above and below; and one is white and brown. Adults feed on rotting fallen fruit (Never visit flowers).

For a great photo collection of Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths) by Coleen Creeden on North Ambergris Caye, Belize, click here. This is my attempt to document the various species of Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths) I encounter. These are all shot in their natural habitat. Coleen Creeden

Motmot - pajaro bobo: Handsome bird of forest understory, most characteristic "racquet tripped" tails, sits patiently while scanning for large insect prey or small vertebrates. Nests in burrows.

Ocelot - manigordo; felis pardalis: Medium-size spotted cat (33 inches long, with 16-inch tail) with shorter tail than margay ; is active night or day, mostly terrestrial. Feeds on rodents but also eats other vertebrates. Forepaws are rather large in relation to body, hence local name that translates as "fat hand"

Oropendola - oropendola; Psarocolius: Crow-sized bird in oriole family with bright yellow tail. Nests in colonies in isolated trees in pendulous nests (up to 6 ft. long) built by females. Males make unmistakable, loud, gurgling liquid call. They are fairly omnivorous, eating much fruit, and much more numerous on Caribbean side.

Parakeet and Parrot - Pericos; parakeets; loros; parrots: Prerequisites of any tropical setting. All are clad in green (virtually disappearing upon landing in trees), and most with a splash a of a primary color or two on head or wings. They travel in a boisterous flocks, prey or immature seeds, and nest in cavities.

Peccary - Piglike animals with thin legs and thick necks, they travel in small groups (larger where populations still numerous); root in soil for fruit, seeds, and small creatures; and have strong musk odor. Belize and Guatemala collared peccary, most commonly encountered; white-lipped peccary chancho del monte, Tayassu pecari, hunted for food.

Pelican - pelicano: Large size, big bill, and throat pouch make pelicans unmistakable inhabitants of coastal zones. two species, Pelicano Blanco Americano and Pelicano Cafe, The white Pelican prefers fresher waters and the brown prefers salt.

Quetzal - quetzal: One of the world's most exquisite birds. Resplendent quetzals Pharomachrus mocinno were revered as sacred by Mayas. Glittering green plumage and long tail coverts of male quetzal where used in ceremonial costume and headdress The national bird of Guatemala. Now extinct in Belize but can be found in the Guatemala Government Quetzal sanctuary near the city of Coban.

Roseate Spoonbill - garza rosada; Ajaia ajaja: Pink plumage and spatulate bill set this wader apart from all other wetland birds; feeds by swishing back and forth in water while using feet to stir up bottom-dwelling creatures.

Sea Turtle - Sea turtles come in three varieties: green, Chelonia mydas, hawksbill - Eretmochelys imbricata, and loggerhead - Staurotypus triporcatus. All have paddle like flippers instead of feet. As well adapted to the oceans as they are still have to surface to breathe. Click here for a report on the impact of climate change on sea turtles.

Sloth - perezoso: Two species brown throated, three-toed sloth Bradypus variegatus and Hoffman's two-toed sloth Choloepus hoffmanni; both grow to 2 ft, but two-toed (check forelegs) often looks bigger due to longer fur, and is only on in the highlands. Completely vegetarian; marvelously adapted to low-energy diet; well camouflaged.

Spider Monkey - mono colorado, mono arana; Ateles geoffroyi: Lanky long-tailed. Hang our in groups of two to four. Diet consists of ripe fruit, leaves and flowers. These incredible aerialists can swing effortlessly through branches using long arms and legs and prehensile tails. Caribbean and southern Pacific populations are dark reddish brown; northwestern individuals blond.

Tapir - danta; Tapirus bairdii: The national animal of Belize. It is stout-bodied, with short legs, a short tail, and small eyes. Know in creo as the mountain cow, has adapted to a wide range of habitats but is nocturnal and seldom seen. Completely vegetarian; prehensile snout used for harvesting vegetation. They bathe daily and lives near streams and lakes in forest.

Toucan - Tucan, tucancillo: recognizable to all who've ever seen a box of Fruit Loops. Belize and Guatemala have several species including the aracaris. Keel-billed Ramphastos sulfuratus and chesnut-mandibled toucans Rampahstos swainsonii are the largest (18 inches and 22 inches respectively), black with bright yellow "bibs" and multihued bills. The much smaller and stouter emerald toucanet Aulacorhynchus prasinus and yellows-eared toucanet Selenidera spectabilis are aptly named. All eat fruit, but also some animal matter, and nest in cavities.

Whale - ballenas: Humback whale Megaptera novaenglia most likely seen off Pacific coast between November and February; migrates from California and as far as Hawaii.

White-Faced Capuchin Monkey - mono carablanca; Cebus capuchinus: Medium-sized omnivorous monkey (to 18 inches, with 20-inch tail) with black fur and pink face surrounded by whitish fur extending to chest. Found singly or in groups of up to 20. Extremely active foragers; examines environment closely and even comes to ground.

Vampire Bat - Desmodus rotundus - Bats are the only mammal capable of true flight. The body is furry and mouse like. The Vampire Bat feeds on the blood of living animals chiefly other mammals. In Creole its known as the ėRat Bat'.

Phylum Cnidaria (formerly Phylum Coelenterata)
These seemingly diverse animals all belong to the same biologic phylum and share some common features. The living animals have radial symmetry (a cut through their center produces identical halves), a large hollow body cavity in which they digest their food and a system of stinging cells to capture food. Many of them also have tentacles to draw food into the body cavity for digestion, although many of these tentacles are quite small and not easily seen with the unaided eye, others have large and colourful ones. The tentacles of all of these animals have stinging cells (nematocysts), that contain a poison loaded "harpoon" that shoot out and paralyzes their prey. These stinging cells aid in the capture of food. They lack a hard internal skeleton of any kind.


Corals live in partnership with blue-green algae called zooxanthellae, that aid in skeletal formation and give the coral their colours. (The algae that causes the severe "red tides-fish kills" are also dinoflagellates and related to zooxanthellae.) These algae (dinoflagellates) are very small and provide a biological environment within which the coral can build its calcium carbonate skeleton. The coral polyps, as a respiratory byproduct, release carbon dioxide and ammonia, (of which the major constituent is nitrogen). The algae need the nitrogen to build their own proteins. The following is a simple explanation of the "mutualistic" relationships:

1.carbon dioxide is a waste product of the coral polyps respiration
2. carbon dioxide and water form carbonic acid
3.carbonic acid dissolves or slows the deposition of calcium carbonate by the corals
4.carbon dioxide and water are the main ingredients needed in photosynthesis by the algae
5.the algae (zooxanthellae) remove the excess carbon dioxide and water within the coral polyp
6.this reduces the acidity (lowers the pH) and creates an internal environment inside the coral, allowing the polyp to lay down its calcium carbonate skeleton
7.only corals that harbour the algae can produce enough calcium carbonate to form the reef


(forms of calcium carbonate, limestone, which form the reef and shells)

While nearly all corals, shells, algae and the like are formed of calcium carbonate CaCo , most are in the form of the mineral aragonite, which is stable in the marine environment. After death of the animal, and burial or exposure to fresh water, the mineral aragonite slowly begins to dissolve and the mineral calcite takes its place. Calcite has the same composition as aragonite, but a different crystal structure. Any dead coral, shell, algae and the like will slowly then go from the mineral aragonite to calcite, undetected by the unaided eye. As conch shells, especially# are used by archaeologists to date their ruins, this transformation becomes critical. Dates obtained from the original aragonite are valid, dates from the calcite, a later feature of the shell, are not valid.

(and means of reproduction)

The highest rates of growth are in the Staghorn-Elkhorn coral types, which may be 6 to 10 " a year. Millepora (Fire coral) is the second fastest growing, and Porites (Finger coral) is the third. The massive corals like Montastraea (Star coral) have growth rates of approximately 1 " per year.

Reproduction may be sexual or asexual (budding). The corals have a microscopic sexual larval stage known as the "planula", that is a ciliated, transparent, elongated (like a short hot dog) body. Some corals like Montastraea may take 8 years to reach sexual maturity. Corals require warm water (at least 20 Q for growth and reproduction.

Class Anthozoa


These showy colonial animals are the most noticeable component of the Belize Barrier Reef. Their forms range from large tree like structures and large boulder structures to small fragile looking forms.

Hard corals are colonial animals, each small individual has its own living chamber and feeding tentacles, but digested food is shared throughout the colony by connecting tissues. As each individual builds its own calcium carbonate living chamber, its chamber is joined to adjacent ones to make a rigid solid mass, rather like a large apartment complex. Sometimes the individual living chamber is easily visible, at other times the unaided eye cannot easily distinguish them.

These corals are usually found in clear warm waters and are primarily night feeders. Each individual coral.animal extends its tentacles (6 or multiples thereof) into the water to capture and pull small food particles into its digestive system. While these corals may look lifeless during the day, at night the colony "flowers" with thousands of small polyps waving in the waters seeking passing planktonic food.

Although some of the hard corals form very large structures, only the outermost layer is alive. Growth is in an upward and outward direction with individuals slowly building the walls of their living chambers higher and depositing more floor underneath them, leaving the interior of the coral a lifeless mass of calcium carbonate.

Grazing fish, algae, sponges, urchins, storms and mud in the water affect the living corals. Some fish have teeth designed to rasp away at the hard coral, feeding on the coral animal. Storms can break off or move corals and bury them in sediment. Large amounts of mud brought into the area can cover the coral animal and prevent them from feeding or extracting oxygen from the water. For the most part, after storm damage, a coral colony can recover.

Hard corals are nicely illustrated in several popular guide books so treatment here of the different types will be brief.

Star Corals: Montastraea: (colour red-brown)
In star corals, each coral living chamber forms a distinctive circular pattern with small radiating ridges that make it look like a rayed star. There are several genera, but Montastraea and Siderast with their several species are the most common. Both types are commonly found in all reef environments, but Montastraea can grow in-deeper water oft the front of the reef, down to nearly 300 ft, while Siderastrea goes down only to about 100 ft water depth off the reef front. They are both common in patch reefs and the shallow water 3ust behind a reef.

It is the genus Montastraea that is the main reef builder on the Belize Barrier Reef at Ambergris Caye. It forms very large heads that look like cauliflower, as seen at the popular dive sites of Mexico Rocks and Hol Chan.

These coral masses do not have a uniform surface, but are marked by fissures and blotches where part of the coral colony has died. This coral has been found to grow up to about an inch a year, but destructive processes can overcome this growth rate at times. The dual processes of destruction and new growth in not only Montastraea but other corals makes the reef a dynamic area where things are always changing.

Brain Coral: Diploria: (colour yellow brown)
Like star coral, this general term for cobble to boulder size colonial corals is derived from the convoluted brain- like pattern the living coral chambers make. It includes at least three common genera and several species.

The brain corals live in waters from 1.5 to 240 ft. deep and are found in the lagoon between the island and the reef, patch reefs like Mexico Rocks, just behind the reef and off the front of the reef. The regular growth pattern is often marred by fissures and holes, the result of damage to part of the colony. Colonies of brain coral can be seen at Mexico Rocks, Hol Chan and throughout the reef.

Elkhorn Coral: Acropora palmata: (colour brownish yellow)
This coral is found primarily in turbulent shallow water on the forereef crest and the backreef crest at the cuts in the reef. Isolated colonies survive where large storms and hurricanes have moved them back over the reef. It is found in waters down to about 50 ft, but is most common in very shallow water.

The colony grows in a form resembling a moose antler with the "antlers stretching out into the oncoming wave direction. When diving or snorkeling near these or anything else in the reef, use caution. Branching types of hardi corals have very sharp projections that can deliver a nasty cut that may be slow healing.

Staghorn Coral: Arropora cervicornis: (colour yellow brown)
Staghorn coral forms clumps and patches that resemble bramble thickets. The colonies branch to form a "bush" that is pretty, however, sharp. It is found on the back side of the reef crest and patch reefs like Mexico Rocks. This can be a very fast growing coral with the branches growing from 6 to 10 " in a year under good conditions.

Finger Coral: Porites porites: (colour brown, blue, iridescent purple)
Finger Corals grow in short, stubby clumps up to 4" high. Some authors put this coral into three separate species while others consider it one species with three different growth patterns. Finger Coral and its three different forms (porites, furcata and divaricata) are found on the reef itself, patch reefs and behind the reef. The polyps may often be seen extended in the daytime.

Chenille Coral: Manicina areolata forma areolata): (colour yellow brown)
These oval shaped, rather small corals grow up to only about 3" long. They have a winding central furrow with side furrows off from it to give a very ruffled look to the colony. Colour of the living colony varies from white to yellows, browns and greens. This coral is common in Turtle Grass beds, sands and usually has a short stalk at its base. It can be observed in the outer reef lagoon. One form of the species (mayori) can grow up to 11" across but will not be found on the Belize Barrier reef.


True corals have forms with a relatively soft flexible skeleton as well as the very familiar hard corals with a very rigid skeleton. The soft corals are usually called (Alcyonaria): gorgonians, sea whips and sea fans . The Caribbean is unusually rich in varieties and numbers of soft corals although they occur in other tropical seas. Soft corals are colonial animals and some do have calcium carbonate skeletons of a sort. The polyps have eight tentacles or multiples thereof. Instead of welding and fusing their small pieces of calcium carbonate together as do the hard corals (to form coral heads and tree like forms), the small bits of calcium carbonate material (called spicules) of the soft corals remain separate to give shape and strength to the colony without becoming rigid. In addition to, or sometimes in the place of spicules, the soft corals can have a central axis in each branch composed of a horny (gorgonan) substance to give the colony enough strength to grow upright oft the sea floor and still preserve its flexibility.

As with other related animals, the soft corals exist as small animals (polyps) in colonial units and use tentacles to catch and drag food into its digestive system. These animals often feed during the day resulting in the colony having a soft fuzzy appearance due to all of the small extended polyps. This is typical o t e purple backreef soft coral, Briareum. At Mexico Rocks and throughout the reef it is not unusual to see the colonies feeding during the day.

The soft corals are extremely variable in appearance. They need to have a hard bottom or surface to attach to and do not grow where the sea bottom is sandy or muddy. They do occur in the reef lagoon. Just south of the main part of San Pedro, off the Sun Breeze Hotel and Ramon's Reef Resort, there is some rocky floor (Pleistocene) exposed and isolated clumps of soft coral may be observed there. Most are found associated with the reef and in front of the reef where there are more rocky, available substrates.

Angel Coral: various soft coral species

When dried and polished, these yield beautiful marbled (brown to black) jewelry items.

Black Coral: Antipatharia species (colour black with small yellow polyps)
Although hard Black Coral is classified as a soft coral. It has a thick, dark horny axis as its skeleton. The young coral larvae (negatively phototactic: does not like light) settles in cracks and holes on the ocean side of the reef and then grows outward from the hole. If it lodges on a vertical surface, the colony will grow horizontally out into the water. At one time the black horny skeleton was thought to guard against disease. In some areas of the Caribbean where the animal has been extensively harvested, living Black Coral remains only in very deep water (sometimes deeper than even an experienced SCUBA diver should go). It is now sought for jewelry material. When harvested, the polyps give off a slimy secretion that may be mildly irritating to some divers.

Class Scyphozoa

Jellyfish are floating or poorly swimming pelagic animals that often wash ashore when the winds and currents are right. Nearly all swimming forms move by undulating their bodies to give a flapping motion to propel then through the water. Even then they are usually such poor swimmers that wave and current action may carry them hither and thither. Most jelly fish have a body that is reminiscent of an opened umbrella with tentacles or other similar body parts extending from underneath the umbrella-like portion. A few species are discussed in the following section although there are other jellyfish seasonally found off Ambergris Caye.

Sea Thimbles: Spanish is "deadal" (size of, and the word means sewing thimble) A small jellyfish, it is transparent with rows of brown lines and dots that make it visible. They have very small tentacles and appear in schools numbering millions. They are usually blown ashore in various months of the year due to shifts in open ocean current patterns. Their sting is harmless to most people, but rare individuals are allergic to the sting.

Moon Jellyfish: Aurelia species

A bluish transparent jellyfish, up to 6 " in diameter, it is found seasonally washed up on the beaches. The re-productive organs are pink and resemble a four leaf clover. They are harmless to most people.

Sea Wasps: Carybdea, Chiropsalmus species Transparent small jellyfish, about the size and shape of a small match box. They have one tentacle on each corner of the body which may stretch to over 4 A long. The Caribbean Cubomedusae, as these animals,are called due to their body shape (like a cube), are related to the deadly Cubomedusae off Australia. Fortunately the Caribbean variety is not deadly, but will impart a strong sting. These animals usually live in deep water and rise to the surface in the day time, however they are not very common. The snorkeler or diver is unlikely to encounter these jellyfish.

Upside-Down Jellyfish: Cassiopeia xamachana (mottled yellow brown, local name "sombra pica" which means stinging shade)
This animal, regardless of its local name, has a mild sting. The adult is primarily seen upside down on the bottom, in the semi-stagnant water areas in a few parts of San Pedro Lagoon. The tentacles are pronounced and frilly and contain thousands of zooxanthellae. Sometimes many of these animals will be seen together. Although adults are primarily sedentary, the young may be rarely seen offshore in the outlying atoll lagoons actively swimming about. The adult is up to 8 " in diameter.

Order Siphonophore

Portuguese Man-of War: Physalia physalia. (colour blue to mauve). Local name "agua mala", bad water:
The most distinctive feature of this colonial "jellyfish" (siphonophore) is a bright blue float up to 5" long (pneumatophore) that catches the wind and moves the colony across the water. This float is filled with gasses They can, by crudely contracting the body, turn the gas sack over to keep both sides wet, otherwise the gas will escape through a dried membrane. Underneath the float is a colony of small animals whose digestive cavities are all interconnected. They catch small fish on tentacles that stream out from under the colony. These tentacles are equipped with stinging cells (nematocysts) that paralyze the fish, then the tentacles shorten to bring the food into the digestive system. These feeding tentacles can be very long, up to 33' and trail behind the float as it sails along. There is a small fish associated with the man-of-war, the Banded Man-of War Fish (Nomeus gronoveri). It manages to eat bits of food left over from the jelly fishes meal. The sting of this jellyfish is quite painful to humans (meat tenderizer may help alleviate the pain of the sting). When they wash up on the beach, swimming crabs eat them with impunity. With a world wide distribution, the Man-of-War is seen only seasonally at Ambergris Caye. Distribution depends on the oceanic currents.

Class Anthozoa

Related to the corals and jellyfish, the anemones seldom build living chambers as do the corals, and do not drift freely through the waters as do the jellyfish. While a very few live in tube-like structures, most live on the surface of the sea floor, attaching to hard surfaces. In form they usually have a short thick column that forms the base of the animal. This column is topped by a mass of ciliated tentacles that surround the mouth and "hunt" the surrounding waters for food. Caught food is pulled into the mouth and digested.

Although anemones appear to remain attached in one spot, some actually can move slowly from place to place. They shuffle about slowly on their basal portion. There is one anemone that has a unique solution for the need to move about. The Tricolour Anemone is quite agreeable to letting one species of hermit crab put it upon its back, thus becoming a passenger on the hermit crab. As the Tricolour Anemone has stinging tentacles, it affords some protection for the crab, and the crab constantly carries the anemone to new feeding areas.

At Ambergris Caye anemones can be found just off the a beach in the Turtle Grass beds or on rock piles as well as on the barrier reef. Same of the anemones in the intertidal are burrowing and nocturnal. Beach cambers may best see these at night with a flashlight. The ones in the Turtle Grass are a little difficult to see at first because the thick carpet of grass is usually taller than the anemone.

Colonial Anemones: Palythoa: (colour a non descript yellow brown): colony size 3 to 4" diameter, 1/2" high
Found in the immediate forereef and reef crest. Sun Anemone: Stoichactus helianthus. (colour dull green to tannish green), 4 " diameter, I" high
Looking much like a thick living mat, groups of these anemones often cover hard surfaces, sometimes in quite shallow water, but they are found from the shallow reef crest to the shore intertidal. The tentacles are short and thick, up to 1/2" long. The mat-like pattern at the anemone may not be the result at any one animal, but rather a clustering at many individuals in one spot. Same specimens can be seen from time to time on rocks and piers off Ambergris Caye. They are very common in the intertidal at Rocky Point. Immediately in front of the Bottom Time Dive Shop, there are usually some of these anemones in about 3 ft. at water.

Giant Caribbean Anemone, Passion Flower Anemone: Condyiaclis wantea:
In the reef and lagoon (Turtle Grass area) this is a large colourful anemone. The pencil thick tentacles can be 6"-8" long and the tentacle crown and be as much as 6" in diameter. The tentacles are yellowish with shades at purple at the tips. It is one at the most highly visible anemones and is quite harmless. The animal does not attach itself permanently to one spot.

Ringed Anemone: Bartholomea annulata - (semi-transparent with delicate whitermarkings-nematocysts)
In crevasses on the reef, or in dead conch shells, this anemone has long transparent tentacles that can elongate and contract to a very great extent. Often cleaner shrimp are associated with this anemone.

Class Hydrozoa

They build skeletons like hard corals, but they have a different lite cycle. The Fire Corals can give a painful sting it you brush against them. Besides living in the reef environment, Fire Corals can also sometimes grow on pilings and seawalls. In the shallow fore reef, 1 to 6 ft. the abundance of tire coral makes exploring some shipwreck sites almost impossible.

Flat Topped Fire Coral: Millepora complanta; (colours of yellow and tan)
This fire coral grows vertically forming leaf-like structures with the tops flattened off. The broad sides usually face into the wave direction and may be quite pretty. It is most abundant on the high energy reef crests and spurs off the reef front.

Encrusting Fire Coral: Millepora squarrosa (colours of yellow and tan, at times purplish)
Often having a wrinkled or box-like appearance, this one encrusts rocks and corals.

Crenelated Fire Coral: Millepora alcicornis (colours of yellow and tan)
The shape of this fire coral varies. It can encrust dead organisms or other hard surfaces. It can form a bushy clump with thick branches and stubby offshoots, or it can have rather flattened branches with stubby offshoots. It grows mainly on the reef and at times patch reefs behind the main barrier reef, and some good examples can be seen at Mexico Rocks.

Mnemiopsis (Type comonly seen in San Pedro Lagoon.)

Phylum Ctenophora
(formerly Phylum Coelenterata)
At one time included in the same group as the corals, jellyfish and anemones, these transparent animals look like blobs of jelly slowly floating through the water.

The comb jellies are frequently seen by diver and snorkelers. They are usually seen floating around in the water and are quite transparent. They are often confused with jelly fish but they do not have the nematocysts (stinging cells). For some unknown reason, swarms of these comb jellies will be seen in the San Pedro lagoon. Some of these comb jellies live only ouside the reef in the blue water. Varieties of these may at night time be very bioluminescent. giving off a spectacular blue green light

Phylum Porifera

Sponges are very simple animals that have small holes (dermal pores) through the body that take in water, and larger holes (osculum) to let the water out. Small hairlike cells in the holes create currents of sea water bringing in small food particles. The food is caught in a ring of sticky cells, digested and distributed throughout the animal and waste products are released back to the sea. The arrangement of incurrent and outcurrent holes varies widely among the sponge community.

Sponges do have an internal skeleton which gives them shape and strength. Some have small rigid particles called spicules that range from simple forms like a very small toothpick to others that look like a small jack (a child's toy). These spicules are embedded in tissue but are not connected. Other sponges have a tough elastic fibrous network to give them strength.

Sponges range in size from very small microscopic forms that bore into shells and corals to large showy animals that a SCUBA diver could sit in. Sponges provide shelter for other marine animals including brittle stars, fish, shrimp and worms. Many smaller sponges are commonly seen in the reef environment. Most of the larger and showier forms are seen when SCUBA diving off the reef front. Divers also see the big sponges giving off large milky clouds of reproductive material during the months of June, July and August in Belize. As with the corals, sponges are so varied and numerous, only a few are identified in this guide.

Black Chimney Sponge: pellina carbonaria
A lagoon dwelling form, the Black Chimney Sponge can be seen in San Pedro Lagoon to the north and west of the town. Large colonies are about 8" high. It grows somewhat buried in sand, rubble and sea grasses and often is covered by a dusting of mud and sand. They are one of the few larger invertebrates seen in the lagoon.

Loggerhead Sponge: Spheciospong vesparium:
Of little commercial use, the Loggerhead Sponge is large and may grow 2 ft. across and 1 ft. high. It can resemble a barrel or cake with a rather flat top sporting a cluster of black holes (osculum) in the center of the top for outflow of water. It has a rubbery feel and a somewhat lumpy surface. Because of its size it is extremely important in providing shelter tor many smaller animals especially small shrimps and corals. A large Loggerhead Sponge can host several hundred small pistol shrimp. It needs a rocky substrate to grow on and will not grow on a sandy or muddy floor, thus it is seen in the reef lagoon oft the town and for example in front of the High School in 5 to 8 ft. of water.

Boring Sponges:
Not readily visible, this group (usually members of the genus Cliona) actually bores its way into corals and shells to begin the process of reducing them to sand sized material. These very small animals along with many others are very important in destroying old shells and the like to make way for living animals. This is an example of one of the mechanisms by which the sand on the island is formed.

Phylum Mollusca

The term molluscs encompasses a large important group of animals: snails, clams, octopus and the squid-like families.


The favourite of shell collectors worldwide, members of this familiar coiled shelled group are mainly marine, but there are also fresh water and land forms. They contain two groups, those that eat plants (herbivores) and those that eat other animals (carnivores).

Gastropods, like their relatives the pelecypods usually move about by means of a muscular organ called a foot, that, with contractions, pulls them along. Most snails can withdraw completely inside their shell when threatened and close the opening with a lid called an operculum. The operculum may be leathery Whitinous) as in the commercial Queen Conch, or stony as in the star shells.

They have a well developed head that has the eyes, mouth and other sensory organs. The eyes are usually carried on stalks. The mouth contains a radula made of horny small teeth that scrape food (gastropods are sometimes kept in aquariums as their rasping teeth help keep the glass clean of algae). One genus of gastropods, Conus, contains venom in its salivary gland that is toxic to humans, but only those of the Pacific pose any severe threat to man.

As with other groups of marine animals, we cannot begin to illustrate all of the gastropods found off Ambergris Caye and its surrounding waters. Only the more common or interesting ones will be dealt with. We will try to illustrate some of the ditferent types of egg cases that the various gastropods lay to protect their eggs until hatching.

Queen Conch: "konk- local pronunciation, Florida, name is "Pink Roller": Strombus gigas:
A very important herbivorous gastropod found at Ambergris Caye as elsewhere in the Caribbean, it is harvested commercially for food, although others species at conch are also used locally. The animal has a radula and works the sand over, feeding on microscopic algae. It is large, up to 8" long and has a white exterior that is covered by a thin brownish membrane (periostracum) that flakes art when the conch dies. It has a very regular, moderately high stepped spire with blunt spines on each whorl. The lip is large and flares dramatically, the top at the flare reaching as high as the top of the spire where it has a gently swale in it. The outer margin at the flaring lip is smooth on the inside and on the outside may have crenulations in its lower half. The opening (aperture) is a bright pink. These conch inhabit the Turtle Grass beds, however they may be found as deep as 100 ft. in the forereef.

once harvested the problem arises as to how to get the animal out at its shell. The snail has a firm tooting inside the shell and in a tug-of-war, the snail wins. The animal can be extracted by knocking a small hole in the proper spot, and then using a thin knife to sever the muscle attachment. The animal can then be extracted. In cleaning, only the muscular toot is saved.

Local people believe the crystalline style has APHRODISIAC properties. When cleaning a conch, the edible, thin, transparent crystalline style becomes apparent. This straw-sized, crystalline style, part at the digestive tract, contains the enzyme amylase that helps the animal digest starches.

Conch is harvested seasonally, October I to July 1, and is therefore not available all year long. Growing demand for conch has resulted in overharvesting. A pilot project (U.S. AID - Belize Fisheries) just north of San Pedro, by the High school, is examining the feasibility at collecting conch eggs and raising them in captivity thus reducing the larval (veliger) mortality. The young conch, theoretically, can then be returned to the sea with a better chance at survival.

They are a food item for many animals including the rays that cruise the lagoon. The powerful jaws of the rays easily crush the shells at the conch to get at the animal.

When the conch is properly skinned and cleaned, it is called "market clean" and the meat is a pure white muscle. In 1982, Caribena, Ambergris Caye cooperative, exported 11,273 kilograms at conch, at a value of $52,000 U.S.

The conch also produce pearls at economic importance. These may be spherical or baroque (out of round and often in distinctive shapes). Their colours range from light yellow to deep pink, with sizes ranges up to the size at a pea or slightly larger. The pearls are formed in the mantle, the pink-orange fleshy part; which also makes the shell. Some irritant in the mantle starts the pearl forming process. The mantle of the animal coats the irritant with many layers of nacreous material to reduce irritation, until the pearl is formed.

The conch fish, Astrapogon stellatus, lives as a commensal (feeding at the same table) in the mantle cavity of the conch.

Milk Conch: Strombus costatus:
Common in the Caribbean, the Milk Conch is 4 to 5" long with a nice cone shaped spire and thick rounded tubercules on each whorl with the last whorl having large tubercules. The flaring lip is smooth, a creamy white with some pinkish to pale violet in fresh specimens. The outer shell is a yellowish white with some brownish markings. It is common in the Thalassia reef lagoon. Edible although not harvested commercially. It is an herbivore.

Rooster-tail Conch: Strombus gallus
Fairly rare at Ambergris Caye and elsewhere in the Caribbean, the Rooster-tailed Conch is interesting because of its distinctive flaring lip. Moderate in size, 4 to 6", it has a high spire and a long projection on its lip that reaches well above the leveL of the spire, making the flaring lip longer that the shell body. The outer shell is mottled brown and yellow and the opening is yellowish to a pinkish brown. It is found in the Thalassia areas in the reef lagoon.

Hawkswing Conch: Strombus raninus
A rather small conch, 2 to 4", it is grey to brownish white with patches and streaks of brown. The spire is conical and each spire whorl has small spines with 2 spines on the last whorl the largest. The opening is cream coloured with lavender and pink tinges. The outer edge of the lip is very irregular. It grazes in the Turtle Grass beds (2 to 5 ft deep) in areas such as in front of the High School.

West-Indian Fighting Conch: Strombus pugilis
This 3 to 4" long conch is often a orange to brown colour and smooth except for spines on the last two whorls, with the spines on the next to last whorl usually the largest. The lip has no upper flare and is slightly shorter than the main body of the shell. The opening (aperture) is often a salmon pink and there is a dark spot at the end of the canal that is usually blue. Not of ten seen, it lives on sand and grass bottoms.

Atlantic Carrier Shell: Xenophora canchyliophora:
Not common in this area, this species is found throughout the Caribbean. This conically spiraled shell with a flat base cements shell debris and pebbles to its shell as it grows. If the shell fragment or pebble dislodges, it leaves its imprint on the shell. It grows up to 2" in diameter, excluding the debris. Some members of this genus are quite selective about the material they attach to their shells.

West Indian Turban Shell: local name "ci-wa": Cittarium (Livonia) pica:
This genus contains only the one species as shown here. Although the specimen figured here is a juvenile and rather small (5/8"), mature specimens can be 2 to 3 1/2" across. The shell is thick with tine growth lines marking the whorls. It is generally dark, with purplish black splotches on a dirty white background. The inner edge of the lip often has a bluish tinge or mottling.

It lives only on rocky areas and grazes on algae, and is fairly common at Rocky Point, north along the coast from San Pedro. This snail makes an excellent ceviche (raw or cooked seafood marinated in lime juice with vegetables), and the shell polishes to make nice jewelry. The large round operculum is also used in jewelry and is called a cat's eye.

Tulip Shell: Fasciolaria tulipa:
A large shell, 3 to 8" long, it has very graceful lines, a tall pointed spire, smooth convex whorls and a long anterior canal. In colour it can range from pinkish to cream to white with brown blotchy spiral bands. The toot of the animal is red when alive. It lives in the intertidal Thalassia, but prefers the muddy inner lagoon and Chetumal Bay, and is an aggressive carnivore feeding on other snails, clams etc. There is another tulip, the Banded Tulip (Fasciolaria hunteria), that lives in coral areas. It is smaller and usually covered with encrusting organisms and not that easily noticeable.

Horse Conch: (commonly called "mai-mulla"): Pleuroploca gigantea
The large, robust shell, 1 to 2 ft. in length, is one of the largest gastropod shells in the world. Each whorl of the shell is ornamented with axial ribs and spiral cords. The colour is greyish white to a chalky salmon but is covered (while living) with a thick brown "skin" (periostracum) that begins to flake off after death. Young ones are a bright orange red. It lives in muddy sands and is carnivorous.

Although tough, this (MAI-MULLA) is the local favourite ingredient in ceviche. Removing this gastropod from its shell is very difficult and local knowledge should be sought.

Emperor Helmet: (locally called King Conch): Cassis madagascariensis:
It is a large robust shell, highly sought after for its beauty, with three rows of rounded spines, the largest spines on the top row. There is one variex (place where the shell makes a sharp turn in coiling) in each whorl. The varices are at right angles to each other giving a triangular impression when you look down on the apex. The shell opening is rather triangular with a pink to salmon pink colour and rows of "teeth" defining the aperture. The "teeth" are white with the middle three being larger than the others, and a brown colour between the teeth, especially near the siphonal notch.

This animal is primarily nocturnal in the Thalassia flats. There are several other species here. The animal is a carnivore and, although edible, is rarely eaten.

Royal Triton: Charonia variegata:
The tritons and the helmets are the prettiest large collectable shells off Ambergris Caye.

Frequently found in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, this large gastropod ( 8 to 16"), is a very pretty high spired shell. It usually has two varices per whorl with prominent puckered suture cords ( where the whorls meet). The opening has teeth both on the outer rim and the inner margin. The teeth are white with brown between them. In colour it may have a pinkish tinge with a pattern of cream and brown crescent shapes spiraling the shell. It is not too common here and is a carnivorous snail. It is found in both the reef and the Thalassia flats.

Scotch Bonnet: Phalium granulatum:
Found not only from North Carolina to Brazil, but also on the Pacific Coast of Central America, this shell takes different forms (subspecies) depending upon where it is found. It can get up to 3" long and the one figured here has a smooth outer shell. The spire is uniform. and smooth with impressed sutures. The outer lip flares more at the base than the top and is thickened with small but distinct teeth on the inner margin. The parietal shield is rather thin and has small bumps toward the base. The siphonal canal is slightly upturned and short. In live specimens, the shell colour is a creamy white with spiral bands of yellowish brown blotches.

Atlantic Partridge Tun: Tonna maculosa:
Common in the Caribbean, Tonna maculosa is usually from 2" to 5" long, and rather elongate globular in shape. The shell is thin for its size, but deceptively strong. It has numerous spiral grooves circling down the shell. The spire is regular with distinctly impressed sutures. The outer lip is not thickened at all and there is a siphonal notch at the base of the lip. The umbilicus is a distinct hole when viewed from the bottom. In colour the shell is brown to yellowish brown with small blotches of darker brown and white.

Long-spined Star-shell: Eyestone Shell: Astraea phoebia:

A flat heavy shell up to 1" to 2" in diameter, each whorl has a keel (edge) that carries a row of sharp, flat, triangular spines. These spines are often worn away on the early volutions. The whorls are ornamented with spiral rows of very short spines. This snail can be found when snorkeling in the Thalassia- flats off most of the piers.

Interestingly, the operculum (the lid that the animal used to cover the shell opening when threatened) was thought by some to have curative powers for some eye disorders. Called an "Eyestone", it was placed in the eye, sometimes overnight, to help remove foreign particles. Many people believed in the old days that these "Eyestones" were separate living animals apart from the shell.

Cerithium, and Batillaria:
Small high spired shells that inhabit shallow intertidal waters, members of these genera are very common just off the beach at Ambergris Caye and in the shallow muddy areas in San Pedro lagoon. They are small, members of the genus Cerithium, can get up to 1" long and inhabit the waters just of the beaches in front of Ambergris Caye. They are generally black. The genus Batillaria is smaller, around 1/2". It usually has more of a striped pattern in blacks, whites and browns. Quite often these shells are occupied by small hermit crabs, and in the shallow intertidal the beach comber may often see these "Occupied" shells swarming together in large clusters.

Moon Snail: Polinices species
Small, globular, 1/2", white to grey snail, that lay their sandy donut shaped egg cases (1" in diameter) in the shallow intertidal. Beach combing will usually reveal many of these egg cases.

Common Atlantic Bubble: Bulla striata (formerly B. occidentalis)
Not a very large shell, 1" long at most, the Atlantic Bubble is a moderately inflated ellipsoidal shell and comes in shades of white to mottled greyish white, often with brownish mottled stripes. The apex is marked by an indentation as new shell growth nearly covers up the apical area of the previous whorl. The outer lip is thin and has a rather straight side at the top 1/3 of the shell. The aperature widens slightly at the base of the shell. These snails actually live on the backside of the island, but land fill material from there has been used to build up the beach behind sea walls, so some empty shells can be found in front of some of the beach front buildings.

Flamingo Tongue: local name "lucky shell": Cyphoma gibbosum:
Around ln to 1 1/2" long, this attractive snail lives exclusively on soft corals and feeds on the coral polyps When living, part of the snail's body ( the fleshy mantle) covers nearly all of the shell. The mantle is a pinkish tan colour with striking black rings (it looks much like the patterns on a jaguar's pelt). The shell is an orangish tan to brownish orange colour. The aperture extends the length of the shell, and the outer lip is thickened. There is a prominent ridge running around the middle of the shell. It is a favourite of collectors, and these human predators are severely reducing its numbers.

Caribbean Vase: Vasum muricatum :
An extremely heavy, thick shell, it has a pointed spire, often eroded off or covered by other organisms, and heavy thick, blunt spines on the shoulders and in 4 rows at the bottom of the shell. There are also 4 strong folds on the columella. The aperture is a glossy white with purplish tinges and blotches. It lives in rocky intertidal and Thalassia sand flats. It is 3 to 4" high.

West Indian Crown Conch, Mud Conch: Melongena melongena:
Mature specimens range from 3" to 6", but the smaller ones are the most common. It is a very heavy shell in large specimens, but the smaller ones appear more fragile. The spire in young specimens is regular and sharply pointed with heavy bumps on the shoulders. As the shell grows, the new volution tends to grow up and over the preceding one, so that the spire appears to sit in a depressed area. The shoulders are rounded (which distinguishes it from the Common Crown Conch) with various degrees of spine development. The spines are heavy and blunt, occurring on the shoulders and in rows toward the bottom of the shell. They live in the Thalassia intertidal and in San Pedro lagoon and the shells vary widely in degree of spine development, indeed some have almost no spines at all in the smaller specimens. In colour they are shades of greys, browns and dirty whites often marked by bands of alternating colours. Beach combers can often see these, especially at night or in the early morning, just oft the beach. They are usually moving, partially buried, with the periscope like black siphon extended.

Marginella species , (subgenus Prunum):
Rather small, heavy shells from 1/4" to 1" long, they have a smooth porcelainous outer surface. The spire is very short and looks just like a bump on the top of the shell. The aperture runs the length of the shell and the thickened outer lip parallels the coiled shell. Several species are present in these waters, but the specimen figured is probably close to Marginella carnea. They live in the outer reef lagoon.

Nerites: Nerita species
Three species of nerites are found in the intertidal rocky areas of f Ambergris Caye, the Bleeding Tooth, Four- toothed Nerite and the Tesselate Nerite. All are rather small, heavy globular shells up to about 1" in size and have a very similar appearance from the outside except for the colours. They are primarily distinguished by the number and size of bumps or teeth on the inside of the aperature. In the Thalassia flats other smaller nerites graze on the grass beds.

Tessellate Nerite: Nerita tessellata:
It has heavy spiral cords and black mottlings on an off white background, at times appearing more black than white- The aperature is a bluish white with two very small weak teeth on the inner margin and very weak bumps on the inside of the lip. The operculum. is black and slightly granular looking.

Four-toothed Nerite: Nerita versicolor:
In colour it is a dirty white with zig-zag rows of black and red spots. The inside of the aperature is a bluish to yellowish white with tour very pronounced teeth. The operculum is a greyish brown and slightly granular looking.

Bleeding Tooth: Nertia peloronta
The colour of this one is variable, but it has zig-zag darker bands on a lighter background. Its most striking feature is a orange colouration around the teeth (one tooth is conspicuously larger than the other), hence its name.

Cayenne Keyhole Limpet: Diodora cayensis:
This conical snail looks like an oriental hat attached to the rocks. It is 1" to 2" long with a small oval hole in the top just in front ot, and a little lower than the apex. It has strong radial ribs and every fourth rib is much larger than the others. On the inside of the shell there is a thick rim (callus) around the hole and this callus is squared off toward the front with a little depression in it. This snail looks very similar to the genus Fissurella, but the callus in Fissurella is uniform around the hole when viewed from underneath. In the Tropics the limpets are small.

Spotted Sea Hare: locally "tinta": Aplysia dactylomela:
At first glance this looks like anything but a member of the snail family, but it is surely a gastropod. Its body is 4 to 5" long and is a drab olive with prominent black rings. It has two structures on its head that look like rabbit ears, hence its name. When disturbed it emits a purplish to reddish ink to distract its enemies. The shell of the Sea Hare is small and located inside the body. The Sea Hare lives in the Turtle Grass beds, grazing on algae, and appear seasonally.

(Squid Family)

Squid are not often seen behind the reef, but on some occasions are encountered while snorkeling. They have no hard external skeleton. Some squids have a fairly hard internal skeleton, the cuttlebone familiar to parakeet owners, while others have a much smaller structure called a pen. The appearance of a squid is familiar to most people, arms and head at one end and a body with swimming vanes at the other. The animal uses its vanes to maneuver and to swim, often head first. When startled or wary, it can jet backwards, sometimes leaving the water, by expelling water through a special siphon.

Octopi between the reef and the island are small retiring individuals that hide in old shells and crevasses. They also line the entrance to their holes with coral rubble. They usually have no skeleton at all, but do have highly developed eyes and a complex nervous system, and indeed in laboratory experiments are capable of learning to some extent. Octopi are carnivorous scavengers, and search for food by crawling along the bottom at night. When startled they emit an ink-like substance to distract their enemies and can jet away much like the squid.

Internal Skeleton of SPIRULA (Deep Sea Squid)
Spirula spirula: This white, fragile coiled shell, found washed up on the beach, is the internal skeleton of a short-armed deep sea squid. It is unlikely that one will ever see this squid while SIT diving, but when the squid dies the small shell floats to the surface where waves and currents can bring it to shore.


(Clams and Oysters)

Also known as bivalves (two valves), the clam family contributes a lot of shell material to the sea floor and beaches. Most of the pelecypod shells of Ambergris Caye are small to moderate in size.

Most of the members of the clam family are bottom dwellers, usually shallow water, and with some exceptions, move slowly across or under the sea floor surface while a few are fixed in one place. Tb move, a clam extends a muscular part of its body (foot) forward to get a grip on the sediment, and then contracts the muscles in the foot to pull its main body and shell forward. Those living in one position may either burrow in soft sediment or at times in rock. These burrowing forms then extend long tubes called siphons out into the water to draw in water and food particles through one tube and expel waste water through another. The second type of fixed clam can cement its shell to a hard surface like some oysters or extrude a tough fibrous material (byssal thread) that attaches it to a hard surface.

Most of the clam shells of Ambergris Caye are not the large showy types favoured by collectors, but they do display good diversity and are interesting in themselves. They are not used as a commercial food source here, but are sometimes used locally in ceviche.

Chione cancellata: Cross-barred venus:
This is the most common shell found on the leeward side of the island. At times, in the shallow mud flats immediately encountered after leaving San Pedro Lagoon, one will find one of the more ornate smaller murexes spawning, probably Cabrit's Murex (Murex cabritii).

A sturdy shell, usually an inch or so long, it is marked by very prominent elevated concentric ribs (growth lines). There are noticeable but less pronounced radial ribs extending from the beak to the outer margin of the shell. On the inside of the shell, the teeth (they help join the two valves together) are very pronounced and the interior surface of the shell is a deep purplish colour.

Lucine pelecypods: local name "almeja": Codakia species;
The more common large clam seen washed up on the beaches. These type clams are edible, but live in the Thalassia, and are hard to dig up. The one pictured is representative of the group that has 5 different genera belonging to it.

Flat Tree Oyster: Mangrove Oyster: Isognomon alatus:
Found in one local area on the southern tip of Ambergris Caye, it attaches to the roots of the red mangrove. Although the shell is large and flat, the oyster itself is edible but quite small and is of little commercial use. The shell of these oysters is iridescent (mother of pearl) on the inside and the Mayas of Ambergris Caye made circlets of them for jewelry.

(Jointed Feet)
When walking on the beach looking at the windrows of washed up seaweed, one will see thousands of jumping sand fleas. These are harmless and belong to the group "Amphipods" (crustaceans). These animals feed on the detritus in the dead seaweed. When one goes swimming or wading in the inter island lagoon or Chetumal Bay, one may seasonally (rarely) encounter a small (3/8") bitting sea roach. These belong to the group "Isopods" (crustaceans)p locally called "x-carib". The bite is sharp, but there is no toxicity associated with this bite. In the mud flats by the small river north of the town, in the rainy season, one will see small Fiddler Crabs (Uca). These are noticeable in that one claw is significantly larger than the other.

(Shrimps, Lobster, Crabs and Barnacles)

Members of this group of marine animals are just as widespread as their land counterparts (and relatives) the insects. They live in a hard shell that is jointed to permit movement and have several pairs of legs. Leg pairs are often modified for specific purposes. To grow, they must periodically shed their old shell and grow a new one. Complex hormonal changes govern shell shedding and growth. While the crustaceans most easily seen are the larger forms, like the commercial lobster, myriads of small ones live in the marine waters feeding on debris and microscopic marine life.

Although there are limited amounts of shrimp and Blue crab in Chetumal Bay, this area apparently does not support a large biomass of shrimps and crabs in significant commercial quantities. This area superficially reminds one of the bayous in Louisiana, however parts of the bottom are often free of extensive mud and silt.

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Some of the larger crustaceans, there are three species at Ambergris Caye. The most important is the Spiny Lobster, Panulirus argus, but there are two other species of lobster off Ambergris Caye not as likely to be seen by visitors. One is the Spotted Spiney Lobster, Panulirus guttatus, and the other is the Slipper Lobster, Scyllarides nodifer. In 1982, the co-op on Ambergris Caye exported 69,162 kilograms ot lobster at a value of $1,255,650 U.S.

Spiny Lobster: Panulirus argus
The commercial lobster from Brazil to North Carolina, and extremely important to the economy of Belize, the Spiny Lobster does not have the large claws of the Maine lobster. While the Maine lobster has a smooth shell, that of the Spiny lobster is covered by strong sharp spines and has a prominent spine over each eye. The carapace (shell) is a reddish brown and becomes redder as the lobster gets older. They have long spiny antennae that rotate extensively. The socket in which the antennae articulates, is designed so that the lobster, by moving the antennae, can make a grating sound.

Lobsters, essentially scavengers, are nocturnal (nighttime) feeders, and during the day hide in crevasses and under ledges.

It is not recommended from a conservation aspect, that divers try to catch a lobster by grabbing the antennae. The antennae break off fairly easily and divers who try to catch a lobster by the antennae often find themselves with a pair of broken antennae and the lobster is left without a very necessary piece of defensive equipment.

Lobster season opens July 15 and closes March 15 locally to allow most of the animals to reproduce unharassed by fishermen. Breeding starts in April and most of the individuals have reproduced before July. The male deposits a sperm sac, called a tar spot, under the tail of the female and a short time later the females lays her bright orange eggs and attaches them to her tail. She scratches the sperm sac to break its covering and fertilize the eggs. A 9" female can lay in the neighborhood of a half million eggs 1/35' across. While the eggs are developing, the female usually moves to deeper water to release the developed eggs, then she moves back into shallow water.

When the eggs hatch they do not resemble a lobster at ail, but look more like transparent spiders. For about a month, the young lobster larvae float about in the currents. Called phyllosoma larva or "glass" shrimp, they are transparent and very hard to see. These juveniles pass through many different stages for 6 months before they finally look like adults. By this time they are about 1/2" long and the greater number of their broodmates have become food tor other animals. The young lobster then settle down in the Turtle Grass or mangrove root environments to continue growth. Most females do not reproduce until they are about 8" long. During growth the lobster molts the old, smaller carapace. It splits and the lobster crawls out with the new shell in place but not yet hard. It quickly absorbs water and swells up so that when the new pliable shell hardens it is larger than the old one. The process usually takes about two weeks. One a lobster is about a year old, the growth rate is approximately 1" per year. Lobster and some other invertebrates, for example the conch, have a copper based blood system instead of an iron based system as in mammals.

In the past, 30 years or so ago, lobster have been observed migrating, usually after large storms, from north to south in large groups. They form lines of 10 to 20 lobster, each lobster maintaining contact, antennae to tail, along the coast of Belize. Fishing pressure has reduced the lobster population in recent years and these spectacular migrations are rare.

Phyllosoma larva of common spiny lobster: Panilirus argus
This is what our commercial lobster looks like when it is young. This larva can only be seen with a dissecting microscope and it drifts in the open ocean for about four weeks before it changes into a young lobster looking like animal.

Lobster are traditionally harvested at Ambergris Caye by catching them with a hooked stick (gancho) or by setting out traps. Traps are 21 x 41 x 1 1/21, are made with palmetto slats and with mahogany frames and need to be soaked for two to four weeks before use to reduce their tendency to float. They are weighted with 10 to 15 lbs. of ballast and placed individually on the sea floor in water from 51 to 25' deep, usually around the southern tip of Ambergris Caye. Unlike New England lobster traps, they are not put on lines, but are pulled individually with long hooked poles. Silt and mud settle on the trap framework when it is put out and a lobster crawling about the trap disturbs these sediments. Simple inspection ( peering into the water through the bottom of a water glass for example) will tell a fisherman whether or not he needs to pull the trap. After the trap is pulled it is carefully cleaned of old silt and mud. Today traps are pulled about once a week, but in the recent past when lobster were more plentiful, pulling every 3 or 4 days was usual.

There is one marine mammal that will frequently disturb the traps. The inshore porpoise (Tursiops truncatus) Will move the traps considerable distances and overturn them. An overturned trap will not catch lobster, and for this reason local fisherman consider the porpoise to be a detriment.

The other method of lobster fishing entails divers going out daily close to Ambergris Caye in small boats, or out in 25 to 28 ft boats for a week or so at a time to the offshore reefs. In either case, the diver tows a small dory behind him and uses a diving mask and a three foot long hooked pole (qancho) to work waters from 51 to 401 deep. The lobster are hooked individually, and to preserve the freshness, the tails are dipped in a preservative solution of sodium bisultite that prevents the copper based blood system from turning the flesh dark. They are then put on ice.

Ten years ago, a lobster catch of 100 pounds (of tails) in 3 hours was not unusual, now 2 to 10 pounds may represent a full day's work.

Slipper Lobster: Scyllarides species
The antennae of this lobster are modified to resemble a shovel or spade like apparatus, and are used to shuffle through the sand. The meat of this animal is edible, but it is not common.

Spotted Spiney Lobster: Panulirus guttatus
This small lobster can often be seen in the shallow reef way back in the crevasses in the coral. At nighttime, divers will see a fair number of these lobsters.


There are no commercial shrimp populations as such off Ambergris Caye. Commercial shrimp populations are south of Dangriga (Stann Creek) to the Bay of Honduras. Inside the reef, off Dangriga, going to Placencia, there are water depths of 50 to 80 ft with muddy bottom. These are the shrimp fishing grounds. Several different species of shrimp are caught.

Ammerican Pink Shrimp (commercial): Panaeus duorarum
This is the main commercial shrimp. The young spend their juvenile stages in brackish water and the adults migrate into the marine environment.

White Shrimp (commercial): Panaeus species
This is a large shrimp and is caught primarily in estuarine (river mouth, bays) environments.

Ghost Shrimp, Callianassia Shrimp
Extremely common in the reef lagoon, these make the very noticeable volcano shaped mounds, that every snorkeler and wader will notice. The mounds can be up to 6" high and a toot in diameter. The shrimp is a mottled white- grey. They build an extensive underground tunnel system about Callinassia burrow showing sand and mud mound. 1 to 2 ft. deep. There is usually a small gobie fish, about 2" long, living in the tunnel system (the shrimp and the fish live in a mutualistic relationship).

Mantis Shrimps: Squilla species or Gonodactylus species (in Creole called "poisonous crayfish" even though it is edible)
Named after the familiar Praying Mantis, these shrimps (60+ species), have a jointed head with the part carrying its eyes and antennae being able to move separately from the rest of the head, unlike other shrimps. Their second set of legs are enlarged with sharp edges to seize and cut prey (including fingers if one should hold them). The individual species are difficult to identify, but some can grow up to 4" long. This group of shrimps has 8 sets of legs. They feed by either waiting for prey close to their burrows, or sneaking about looking for an unwary victim. These are very common in conch shells, under coral rubble and the like in the reef lagoon.

Common Watchman Shrimp: Patonia mexicana
Usually 1 to 1 1/4" long, it has claw legs as long as its body with one claw usually larger than the other. It normally lives in pairs in a symbiotic relationship (providing mutual needs) with molluscs, especially pen shells. It is hard to see as it is colourless and therefore fades into the background.

Pistol Shrimps, Snapping Shrimps: Alpheus species
This group of shrimps is 1 to 2" long and is named for a noise they can make with one claw. One claw is much larger than the other and can be held open under great muscle tension. When the tension is quickly released, the claw snaps shut with a sharp crack like a pistol shot, which can be faintly heard by the human ear. This sharp report can either warn off other shrimps or can stun small nearby fish that are then seized and eaten. These are common in Loggerhead sponges.

Sponge Shrimps: Synalpheus species
Very similar to the Pistol shrimps, some of these live inside sponges. A large Loggerhead sponge can host hundreds of these small shrimps (they grow up to 3/4" long).

Red Banded Shrimp, Common Cleaner Shrimp: Stenopus hispidus
A larger shrimp, up to 2", it is marked by red bands on a white background. It and other species perch on corals to clean the corals and passing fish. They have one pair of pincers that are very large to help them pluck larger pieces of debris and food.


Blue Crab: (in Spanish is "jaiba" , in creole ra-ti) Callinectes species
Marine blue crabs are up to 3 1/2 inches wide, being much wider than they are long. Each side bears a sharp protruding spine as well as spines on part of the pincer legs. Their last pair of legs are swimmeretts and propel them quickly through the water. Not a shy type at all, individuals will stand their ground, rear up and threaten when approached. They usually live in muddy areas, primarily is estuarine environments. They will be found in the muddy intertidal areas in front of San Pedro, and in San Pedro lagoon, but the larger species live primarily in the Chetumal Bay and river mouths. During the north wind months, Nov. and Dec., large numbers of the large species will move into the Ambergris Caye area from Chetumal Bay. As these animals are spawning limited commercial (local use) populations are caught in the beach fish traps.

Coral Crab: Carpilius corallinus
A rather large crab, up to 5 inches long, it has a smooth shell that is red with some white to yellow spots and lines on it. It has large pincer legs with the pincers themselves being short and small for the size of the legs. They live on the reef and in small caves in the Turtle Grass beds, but being a very good eating crab, they have been significantly reduced in numbers.

Stone Crab: Menippe mercenaria
A crab of limited commercial use, it is dark blue when young and becomes spotted grey and white when adult. It has very large claws with dark brown of black tips. They live in small caves and fissures in the Thalassia flats, but primarily in Chetumal Bay environments. There are no special trapping methods in Belize for Stone crab, but they are often caught in the lobster traps and beach fish traps.

Large Reef Spider Crab: Mithrax species
While snorkeling on the reef one may see this large, spindly, spiny and red crab, which is very edible. There have been mariculture experiments on this crab.

Shamefaced or Box Crab: Calappa species A rectangularly shaped crab with short flattened claws. Found commonly in the sandy areas off the piers.

Spotted Porcelain Crab: Porcellana sayana
Often found associated with the Queen Conch (Strombus gigas) and with marine hermit crabs occupying vacant shells, the Spotted Porcelain Crab is small, about 1 inch wider is an orangish red punctuated by white and purplish spots outlined in red. The underside is white with red blotches while the large claws are white with some yellowish hairs on the edges.

Arrow Crab: Stenorhynchus seticornis
An unusual looking crab, its shell is long, narrow and distinctly pointed. It really looks like it has a pointed head with the eyes set on each side of the pointed head. It's spidery looking legs are long and slender and are shades of red and yellow with small bluish violet claws. The main body of the shell is boldly striped.

While snorkeling look tor these ungainly looking crabs around the pilings of the piers. It looks more like a spider than a crab, and they will clean parasites from fish.

Giant Decorator Crab: Stenocionopus turcata
Primarily seen in the muddy areas of the lagoon, for example as seen behind the fisheries co-op, the Giant Decorator Crab is large, up to 6" and has long spiderlike legs. The main pincer bearing legs are longer and somewhat larger than the others; the pincers themselves are small and slender. There are two prominent horns that project out near the eyes. This crab is covered with other organisms that live on its back and is so well camouflaged that it can be hard to see at times.

Sally Lightfoot Crab: Graspus species
About 2" across, the Sally Lightfoot is yellowish brown with dark brown mottling and has two bright red spots on its back. The pincer legs are about the same size as the walking legs and the pincers themselves are fairly robust and a dark reddish brown. These very speedy crabs are strictly intertidal and are seen on pilings and rocks. The sea wall in front of the Sun Breeze is a good location to observe them early in the morning.

Crab larvae

Red Hermit Crab: "soya" locally, Soldier crab: Petrochirus diogenes
A snorkeler or diver turning over a Queen Conch shell may find one of these large crabs staring back instead of the conch. They inhabit shells vacated by their former owners and change to larger shells as they grow. They are usually a striking rusty red with large bumpy claws, the right claw being a little larger than the left one. This crab, as do all hermit crabs, have a large somewhat coiled abdomen that they insert in an abandoned shell, leaving only the head and legs visible.

There are other hermit crabs here and throughout the Caribbean, not all of which are marine. At Marco Gonzalas and throughout the island, there are numerous crabs (Coenibita species) that inhabit the shells of gastropods once discarded by the Maya and now unearthed by archaeologists.

Large Land Crab: Cardisoma guanhumi
During spawning, visitors may see thousands of these going into the water at night.

These hole dwelling sand coloured crabs may be 6 to 7" across, and the males (Creole "bo crab") have an unusually large claw. They are omnivorous, eating about anything, There are significant populations at Marco Gonzalas. During the breeding season, July and August, large groups (in the old days hundreds of thousands) can be seen in less populated areas moving into the ocean to spawn. This is a phenomena that occurs when the moon is full (lunar periodicity). Mating takes place in the burrows on land, so all of the migrating crabs are "berried" females. The larvae hatch in the sea and go through a complicated series of shape changes (molts), see diagram of zooea larval stages. They spend about 25 days in the sea and eventually the young crabs return to land.

Ghost Crab: Ocypode species
Watch for this tiny, brownish to yellowish, 1/2" to 2" diameter crab with pale yellow claws that live in the small holes in the beach area. They are very active at night.


Encrusting barnacles attach themselves to any substrate available. Some whales, turtle shells (carapace) are heavily encrusted with large barnacles. The pilings and rocks in the intertidal are also usually heavily colonized by barnacles. Once attached, they make a hard living chamber that may resemble a small volcano. The barnacle lives in its shell and extends its modified legs out into the water to draw in food. (the adult spends its lite sitting on its head with its legs on top). Probably because of the shortage of a food supply, the barnacle population is not as abundant in Belize as it is in the Gulf of Mexico.

Large barnacles

Goose Barnacle: Lepas anatifera:
The Goose Barnacle looks rather like a clam or resting butterfly. The larvae attaches itself to floating bits of material, wood, styrofoam and even tar. The external shell is a light grey with a red stripe along one edge. It feeds by using its legs to sweep food into its mouth. Once it floats to shore it is doomed as it cannot move to another object to get away from shore.

Phylum Echinodermata
(leather skin)

Starfish, Urchins, Sea Cucumbers Brittle Stars

This group of animals is characterized by generally having a body divided into 5 told symmetry. In the starfish, brittle stars and urchins this symmetry is clearly visible, while in the sea cucumbers it is barely visible.


The five fold symmetry (pentamerous) is seen easiest in the starfish as they usually have five identical arms. Very common in the Turtle Grass beds and on sandy bottoms, they also live on the reef. Although apparently rigid when dead, living starfish are pliable and move about the sea floor on numerous small tube feet located in the grooves on their underside (they also breathe through these feet). The mouth is also on the underside in the center. Starfish feed on molluscs (snails and clams) either by swallowing small prey whole or by everting their stomach over the food animal and digesting it while the prey is in it's own shell. Like many other marine animals, the young go through several larval stages. Two starfish are most common off San Pedro.

Larval Stages of the Starfish

Reticulated Sea Star: Oreaster reticulatus:
This is the most common large starfish seen in the outer reef lagoon.

Up to 20" across, but usually smaller, it lives in the Thalassia beds. The body is thick and inflated in the center and not very flexible except at the ends of the arms where it often curls up slightly. In colour the adults are tan to yellowish brown to rust with red or dark brown bumps and a network of raised lines. Juvenile individuals are usually a light green. They are popular with souvenir hunters and may be rare in places.

Beaded Sea Star: Astropecten articulates:
Less commonly seen than the Reticulated Sea Star, the Beaded Sea Star prefers a soft bottom. It can get up to 6 inches across, but smaller ones are more common. It is usually a light brown or a light yellowish brown with raised thick beads on the outer edges of its 5 arms. There are small spines fringing the under margins of the arms. Members of this genus tend to swallow their prey whole and discard the shell debris.


Retiring animals that prefer dark areas, these are similar to the starfish in appearance, usually with 5 thin arms, but sometimes 6 or 7. The starfish however has its five arms linked inseparably with the main body and in fact its arms contain body organs. The brittle stars on the other hand, have arms that are somewhat separate from the central disk-iike main body. These arms may break off when one is caught by a human or other predator. Shunning the light, they more commonly feed at night on algae, newly hatched fish or minute animals that float by in the currents.

Brittle stars are the most common "starfish" on the reef. They inhabit holes and cracks in the reef, can live inside the central body cavity of large sponges or tuck themselves away inside an abandoned snail shell. Turning over a rock or shell may result in many of these animals quickly swimming away. The loss of an arm does little harm to the animal, as it, like the starfish can regenerate a new one. It is a little startling however, to end up with one wriggling arm in your hand while the now 4 armed brittle star swims off! Its long, rather snake-like arms can move rapidly to give it a swimming motion or let it writhe quickly across a surface.

One larval Stage of a Brittle Star


These include both sea floor dwellers (regular) and some that burrow under the sea Koor (irregular). When viewing an echinoid from the top, a regular echinoid has radial symmetry about its centre and looks rather like a squashed ball to some degree or other. An irregular echinoid has a modified bilateral symmetry (like the Heart Urchin, the left halt being an mirror image of the right half), and look oval shaped when viewed from the top. The most noticeable feature of urchins is the large number of spines that cover the outside of the shell. These spines serve both as protection and as a means of movement. With close observation of a living specimen, you can see the spines move, especially when disturbed. If one pokes the large black spiny Diademia on the reet, one will be amazed at how fast they can move.

It is often the vacant shell of an urchin that is most visible (it bleaches white after death), rather than the living animal.

Four of the urchins that are found in the lagoon off Ambergris Caye are described in the following section. There are of course others to be found in different areas, especially on the reef and on rocky areas.

When snorkeling in front of the town, be sure to look for the following two urchins in the Thalassia.

Sea Egg: Tripneustes ventricosus:
A large urchin, it can get up to at least 4" across and is very spherical. While alive is has 1/2 " long white spines and a dark brownish black test (shell). It lives in the Thalassia. areas and hides by covering itself with fallen grass blades or other loose material and can be very hard to see. The urchin moves slowly through the Thalassia by moving its spines to let it "walk". It feeds on algae and the blades of Thalassia. When dead, the spines tall off and the test bleaches out to leave a pretty white subrounded "shell", ornamented with radial rows of bumps. These bumps were the attachment plates where the spines fastened to the test.

Green Sea Urchin: Lytechinus variegatus
Smaller than the Sea Egg, the green urchin seldom gets more that 3" across. It has a greenish coloured test and greenish white to white spines about 1/2" long. Like the larger Sea Egg, it lives in the Turtle Grass beds and covers itself with fallen material for camouflage. During the mating season they form large groups and are easier to find. When dead, the bare "shell" is a little flatter than the sea egg, but also has the pretty radial patterns out from its center.

Long Spined Black Urchin: Diadema antillarum
In colour a striking black, the test of this urchin is small, only up to 3" in large ones, but as its name implies, the slender black spines are quite long, usually 3 times as long as the diameter of the test. It feeds on algae and Thalassia in the lagoon primarily at night. During the day it prefers to hide in cracks or holes in coral or on rock bottoms. Sometimes when spawning they cluster in the open lagoon floor during the day and make an unusual triangular shaped grouping. Sometimes these urchins have an uncommon white colour phase. Several years ago, a protozoan parasite swept through the Diadema population and severely reduced their numbers throughout the Caribbean, but they are staging a slow comeback.

While other urchins can be handled with relative safety, this one should be lett strictly alone unless heavy gloves are worn. The spines are slender and break off easily and can lodge securely under the skin. Being very difficult or impossible to remove, days of discomfort can be the result of careless contact with these urchins. The body will slowly dissolve these spines. The spines are best left embedded in the afflicted area.

Sea Pussy, Heart Urchin, Pincushion Urchin: Meoma ventricosa:
A large irregular urchin that can attain a length of 5", but lives buried in the soft sandy sediment. It is elongate and flattened and has short spines up to 1/2" long that are usually a reddish brown in colour. It has 5 pronounced grooves on its upper surface with one groove (parallel to its longest dimension) less distinct than the other 4. Its mouth is on the underside and is designed to always be open. As it bulldozes through the sand, it scoops in sediment which passes through the digestive system from which nutrients are extracted.

During the day they can sometimes be spotted by looking for small sand mounds in the open lagoon floor (some shrimps also make mounds but they make a clearly visible entrance Which the urchin mounds lack). At night they come up out of the sand to take advantage of the higher oxygen levels in the water.


At first glance these really don,t look like they are related to the urchins, starfish or brittle stars at all. Their five told symmetry is apparent mainly in the arrangement of some internal organs. Instead they have developed a modified bilateral symmetry with distinct front and rear ends. Sometimes they have a top and bottom side as well. They lack true eyes, but are able to sense light levels and have tentacles on their front end associated with their mouth. Like their cousins the brittle stars, the sea cucumbers have a well developed defensive mechanism, but having no arms to break oft, the sea cucumbers instead eject internal organs onto the sea floor when threatened. The predator may be distracted while eating the internal organs and the sea cucumber can crawl away to hide and re-grow a new set of "innards".

In appearance, they look like tubes with a tough skin that is rough to the touch. Many are rather dull shades of brown or grey. They can move both over the seafloor or burrow along underneath the soft sediment. They usually feed by ingesting large amounts of sand and running it through their digestive system to extract the nutrients. They have no external gills, but pump water in and out of their body cavity to extract oxygen.

Analysis of the sea cucumber fishery in Belize
An analysis of the sea cucumber fishery in Belize was conducted from observations and surveys. While sea cucumbers have been fished in Belizean waters for 20 years for trade through Guatemala and the local Asian market in Belize, harvesting for export to international markets only started with the establishment of the sea cucumber fishery regulations in 2009. The fishery included two main species, Holothuria mexicana and Isostichopus badionotus but only the former was legally managed by the Belize Fisheries Department through a closed season and catch reporting. By 2016, H. mexicana was considered overfished and in 2017, the entire fishery was closed.

Three sea cucumbers are described in the following section. The large Donkey Dung is the more common in the outer reef lagoon.

The Beaded Sea Cucumber can be found in the immediate reef crest.

Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber, Beche de Mere (spade of the sea): Holothuria mexicana:
A large animal, it ranges for 10" to 16" in length and prefers to live in waters closer to the back side of the reef, associated with Turtle Grass. It is dull in colour, browns to greys to sometimes a muddy yellow brown, with splotches of mauve on the sides. It has a distinct top and bottom, with the top looking coarsely wrinkled and at times a little warty. The bottom side is smoother, lighter in colour and has small "feet" for propulsion across the lagoon floor. It is primarily nocturnal.

Burrowing Sea Cucumber: Holothuria arenicola
Smaller than the Donkey Dung, it is usually about 4" long, but can get larger. Mostly a non-descript brown, it can also be tan to pale grey to a dull yellow with blotches on the top. As its name implies, it lives in deep burrows in soft sediment and can make large sand mounds around the entrance. It is the most common sea cucumber oft the beaches of Ambergris Caye.

Beaded Sea Cucumber: Euapta lappa
A long, thin cucumber, it can get up to 3 feet long, but 14" is more common. For all of its length, it is only about 1" wide. It is distinctly segmented and transparent with yellow, brown and black stripes. It is strictly nocturnal and lives under flat rocks or coral fragments in shallow water. Because of its nocturnal habit, it is not commonly seen. It's body is very limp and tends to stick to one's hands. The mouth tentacles are very frilly and pretty.

Phylum ANNELIDA (with rings)

If one turns over the dead seaweed on the beach, and digs 3 to 4" in the sand, one may find a thin, bright red earthworm. These are harmless and are much like the larger earthworms. They feed on the rich decaying detritus. These are not used for fishing, but make excellent food for aquarium fish.


Worms exist in marvelous varieties in the marine environment, but are often hard to identify without close study. Because of the complexities, this section mentions' only a few species.

Sedentary Tube Dwelling Worms

Many of the marine worms construct a tube either in soft sediment, or on hard surfaces including coral heads. Those living in the sediment of the lagoon floor are often hard to see due to their non descript colours and the presence of other organisms, especially Thalassia.

Snorkelers look for these. One sedentary worm (Cirratulidae) lives in the reef and the Turtle Grass flats. It builds a fragile tube about 6" deep in the sand. It feeds by extending long, thin white harmless tentacles along the bottom to catch passing food particles. The tentacles can be up to 41 long and very thin, looking more like thread than anything else. then disturbed it can withdraw its tentacles very fast.

The most magnificent of the tube worms are the feather and tan worms that inhabit the coral heads and hard surfaces throughout the barrier reef, patch reef environment. They construct a calcareous tube on a hard surface for protection, and then feed and breath by extending brightly coloured feathery tentacles into the water. then disturbed, they quickly zip their tentacles back into the tube, only to hesitantly poke them out again.

One of the prettiest is the Feathered Christmas Tree Worm, Spirobranchus giganteus, whose tentacles come out spiraled to make a conical tree like shape. Colours of yellow, red and blue are most common. The fan worms, members of the genus Sabella and others, send out an open circle of tentacles and look more like an open flower than anything else. Colours of red, orange and yellow are most common. These are very common in the shallow intertidal and snorklers around the piers will quite often see these. Close examination of the blades of Thalassia will reveal small spiraled shells growing upon them. Looking like very tiny snails, these are actually worm tubes belonging to the serpulid worms. Hundreds of thousands of these worms make the Thalassia beds their homes.

Free Living Worms

There is one of these types of worms that roams the sand, grass flats,and reefs that is of note, the Fireworm, Bristieworm, Stingingworm or Glassworm, Hermodice carunculata. It looks rather like a 2" to 3" orange and red furry caterpillar. Beware of handling, as its bristles are very delicate, easily broken glass spines that can lodge firmly in and under the skin. Not even gloves offer protection from these spines --leave these strictly alone! A nightime carnivore, the results of its feeding are more often seen than the worm itself. It digests the coral polyps on the tips of the coral branches which die and turn white.

Another group of free swimming worms is notable for its bioluminescence (ability to produce light like a firetly). There is one very small one, the Luminescent Threadworm, Odontosyllis enopla, that is seen best during spawning season when they are very actively bioluminescing. The Atlantic Palolo Worm, Eunice schemacephala , is a larger form that spawns at times related to the lunar cycles. The animals swim to the surface where they break in halt, with the front half falling back to the sea floor. The back half breaks open to release the reproductive material and at this point they become bioluminescent. These spectacular bursts of blue-green light may be seen off the piers in January and August.


Made of chicken wire and small bush sticks:
about 100 yds long

Fish Traps

The heart shaped structures one sees extending from parts of the beaches at Ambergris Caye and on other cayes are beach fish traps. These traps dot the coast of Ambergris Caye ail the way to the Mexican border on both the reef side and Chetumal Bay side. They are usually family owned and are responsible for most of the commercial scale fish production on Ambergris. Each trap is usually removed for several months each year when the fish are not running, this extends the lite of the galvanized chicken wire used in their construction. The fish are removed from the heart of the trap with a small draw seine. Almost every type of fish found inside the reef will at one time or another be caught in these traps. If one wants to go inside a fish trap, snorkel around the outside first and check, large rays and sharks are sometimes caught inside.

Major Fish Types Caught

In the months of northers, (Nov, Dec) large "swims" of the black or mangrove snapper (Lutjanus griseus) average 1 to 3 lb) move from Chetumal Bay southward towards the reef. These fish, as they swim along the beach, are taken by the traps in commercial quantities. In 1982, Caribena exported 2,500 kg of fish fillets with a U.S. value of $10,321 and whole fish was 7,477 kg at a value of $12, 337 U.S. The following are the most common fish caught in these traps: mutton snapper (Lutjanus analis), jacks (Family Caringideae), barracuda (especially the young ones, Family Sphyraenidae) which are salted and dried, grunts (Family Pomadasyidae), and the "Mojarras" (local name) or slipmouth (Family Gerreideae).

The "mojarra" are a small, 6 to 12" silver fish that are very common in Chetumal Bay and are caught in large numbers in the beach traps. These are salted and dried for the local market. Sometimes large rays and sharks enter these traps. Porpoises do at times jump in and out of the traps. When lobster were more plentiful in the area, their migratory "walks" would at times intersect the entrance to a fish trap. Due to the nature of the lobster walk, hundreds of lobster would be caught in these heart traps.



There are a marvelous variety of fishes that inhabit the waters oft Ambergris Caye in both shallow and deeper waters. Many of these are illustrated in other publications readily available in hotels and shops, and this section will deal with only a few aspects of the fish life of the area.

Click here for photos of underwater life in the waters around the island.

The hog snapper (Lachnolainus maximus), local name "buckinete", is one of the most prized food fishes on Ambergris Caye. They are a type of wrasse (Family Labridae) and can weigh as much as 20 pounds. These fish teed on molluscs and crustaceans and are very rarely taken on hook and line. They are usually speared.

The grouper spawn at Rocky Point in the winter (Dec. to Jan.). Their spawning is related to the lunar cycles and during the full moons, they will bite voraciously on a hook and line.


The most common stark the snorkeler will see on the reef proper is the nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cerratum), local name "gato". I know of sightings of the following:

There are no "good" spots to see them. You just get lucky, or you don't. This ain't SeaWorld.

Most sharks are not territorial, so they tend to move around, making sightings irregular.

When snorkeling one will usually see the back one-third of the animal sticking out of a little cave in the reef. The teeth of the nurse shark are designed primarily for crushing molluscs. The sudden appearance of a nurse shark on the reef can be very startling and like all sharks, should be left alone. It provoked, it has been known to attack man.

Sharks do not have a boney skeleton, but have instead a cartilaginous skeleton, as do the rays, skates and sawfish. The only true bone structure is found in the scales and the teeth. The first sharks appeared in the Devonian age some 280 million years ago. The modern sharks developed in the Jurassic some 180 million years ago and present day sharks resemble their Jurassic ancestors.

Due to their kidney arrangement, they excrete urine back into their own blood system. This contributes to the strong taste of shark meat. If the shark is bled properly, and the meat boiled, the strong flavour will be removed. A common food on the island is "empenadas", which is shark meat fried in a tortilla. The smaller sharks are preferred and are called "cazon" locally.

Other sharks commonly seen will be the bull sharks (outer reef and estuarine environments), the lemon, hammerhead, tiger and silky sharks. The Family Carcharhinidae (requiem sharks) is the largest family inhabiting tropical waters. Sharks are often identified by tooth shape. Although the great white sharks are circum polar, they are very unlikely to be seen and have not been reported in the waters off Ambergris Caye.

Uses of Sharks

The skin makes a durable leather and in the old days, it made a good sandpaper. The fins are skinned and bleached and then boiled to make a thick gelatinous soup. Shark oil made from the livers is rich in vitamin A and other vitamins. Before vitamins were widely synthesized around WW II, there was a shark factory on the leeward side of Caye Caulker. On Ambergris Caye, people still use shark oil to partially alleviate respiratory ailments.

The Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus) is the largest shark, and may grow to a length of 50 ft. This animal may periodically be seen off Ambergris in the Rocky Point area. It is strictly a deep water shark and is a plankton feeder. Its diet consists of small fish, crustaceans and squid. When seen, the animal is usually associated with schools of bonito and blue water pelagic fish. Its grey back is noticeable spotted. The local Creole name is "sapodilla tom", and they are totally harmless.

For more on sharks and rays, click here for our shark and ray section in our "Caribbean Critters" area.


Small stingrays are often observed off the docks and piers, either lying on the sea floor, or gliding along the shallow bottom. Like most other marine life, they will quickly move away at the presence of humans. Stingrays do carry a spine on their tail that may carry a painful venom, but there is little danger from this animal unless one steps on it or foolishly antagonizes it. Flight is its preferred defensive mechanism.

The spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari) is a common inhabitant of the outer reef lagoon. It is large, up to 8 feet, has a very long tail and moves through the water with a graceful flying motion. When in the lagoon they feed on conchs and other large snails, crushing the shells in their mouth to get to the animal and spitting the shell fragments out. They are not aggressive toward humans, but their large size can be startling.

When flying in from Belize City, one may sometimes see some of the large (5 ft. in diameter) grey skates (Dasytis americana) in the waters between Ambergris and Caye Caulker. The small ray commonly seen off the piers at Ambergris is the yellow stingray (Urolophus Jamaicensis, x-tun-"sh-tun" in Maya). The large manta rays (Manta birostris) will only be found in the blue water off the reef and are plankton feeders like the whale shark. Only rarely will one come inside the reef.

Included in the skate and ray family (Ragjiformes) are the peculiar looking sawfish (Pristis species, page These shark-like rays are found from the brackish waters to the deep drop oft, but they are not common. The teeth are modified to crush small crustaceans and molluscs.


There are of course other fishes. Snapper and bonefish provide a recreation to sport fishermen, and the deeper waters oft the reef, especially to the south, provide a challenge to those seeking billed fish like marlin. In the lagoon between the reef and the island, small barracuda, jacks, grunts, flounder, wrasse, puffer type fishes and eels live amidst schools of small minnows.

Eels, are indeed fish in spite of their snake like appearance. They tend to inhabit holes and crevasses in rocky areas like the reef proper and rocks around piers and docks. They tend to have their head protruding from their lair while watching for passing prey, usually small fishes. When a snorkeler, or diver approaches, or even someone peering over the side of a pier, the eel will withdraw into his lair until the threat passes. They will defend their chosen home and attack if one gets too close or foolishly puts a hand into his hole. Eels range in size from small to very large and a bite, from even a small one is cause for concern. Their sharp needle like teeth penetrate quite deeply, and can contaminate the puncture with bacteria laden slime that coats the eels mouth. OBSERVE THESE ANIMALS FROM A SAFE DISTANCE.

Needlefish can be seen lazing close to the surface, their long slim bodies looking rather like fat arrows. One interesting fellow is the sand tile fish. They actually make a burrow in the sand of the lagoon floor and pave the entrance with small stones excavated from the burrow. One fish, the razor fish , will actually dive into the soft sand of the lagoon floor when disturbed.

At patch reefs like Mexico Rocks, or at shallow cuts in the reef, angel fish and trigger fishes can be seen along with many small fish associated with corals.

The Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley are the most popular diving/snorkeling sites in all of Belize. This is due to the close proximity of San Pedro, the large amount of fish life found with the Hol Chan "cut" accessible by snorkelers and beginning divers, the diversity of marine life encountered throughout the 4 zones of the park and the exitement and novelty of swimming with large numbers of nurse sharks and sting rays.

Over 160 species of fish have been identified in the reserve, along with nearly 40 species of corals, 5 sponges, 8 algaes, 2 seagrasses, 3 marine mammals and 3 species of sea turtle.

Below is the most current census of the marine life found within the Hol Chan Marine Reserves boundaries:

Sergeant Major - Abudefduf saxatilis Ocean Surgeonfish - Acanthuirus bahianus
Doctorfish - Acanthurus chirurgus Blue Tang - Acanthurus coeruleus
Reef Squirrelfish - Adioryx coruscus Spotted Eagle Ray - Aetoboatus narinari
Bonefish - Albula vulpes Scrawled Filefish - Aluterus scriptus
Hawkfish - Amblycirritus pinos Black Margate - Anisotremus surinamensis
Porkfish - Anisotremus virginicus Bridled Cardinalfish - Apogon aurolineatus
Flamefish - Apogon maculatus Sea Bream - Archosargus rhomboidals
Bronze Cardinalfish - Astropagon alutus Conchfish - Astrapogon stellatus
Silverside - Athermomorus stipes Trumpetfish - Aulostomus maculatus
Queen Trigger - Balistes vetula Spanish Hogfish - Bodianus rufus
Peacock Flounder - Bothus lunatus Saucereye Porgy - Calamus calamus
Orangespotted Filefish - Cantherhinus pullus Sharpnose Puffer - Canthigaster rostrata
Blue Runner - Caranx crysos Crevalle Jack - Caranx hippos
Horse-eye Jack - Caranx latus Bar Jack - Caranx ruber
Bull Shark - Carcharhinus leucas Black Tip Shark - Carcharhinus limbatus
Nurse Shark - Ginglymostoma cirratum Snook - Centropomus undecimalis
Spadefish - Chaetodipterus faber Four-eye Butterflyfish - Chaetodon capistratus
Spotfin Butterflyfish - Chaetodon ocellatus Banded Butterflyfish - Chaetodon striatus
Striped Burrfish - Chilomycterus schoepfi Blue Chromis - Chromis cyaneus
Dolphin - Coryphaena hippurus Bridled Goby - Coryphopterus glaucofraenum
Masked Goby - Coryphopterus personatus Sheepshead Minnow - Cyprinodon variegatus
Atlantic Flyingfish - Cypselurus heterurus Flying Grunard - Dactylopterus volitans
Southern Stingray - Dasyatis americana Balloonfish - Diodon holocanthus
Porcupinefish - Diodon hystrix Shark Sucker - Echeneis naucrates
Rock Hind - Epinephalus adscensionis Graysby - Epinephalus cruentatus
Red Hind Grouper - Epinephalus gattatus Coney - Epinephalus fulvus
Jewfish - Epinephalus itajara Red Grouper - Epinephalus mario
Nassau Grouper - Epinephalus striatus Jackknife Fish - Equetus lanceolatus
Majarra - Eucinostomas sp. Cornetfish - Fistularia tabacaria
Longspine Squirrelfish - falmmeo marianus Tiger Shark - Galeocerdo cuvieri
Yellowfin mojarra - Gerres cinereus Neon Goby - Gobiosoma oceanops
Fairy Basslet - Gramma loreto Green Moray - Gymnothorax funebris
Spotted Moray - Gymnothorax moringa Purple Mouth Moray - Gymnothorax vicinus
Margate - Haemulon album Tomate - Haemulon aurolineatum
Small Mouth Grunt - Haemulon chrysargyreum French Grunt - Haemulon flavolineatum
Cottonwick - Haemulon melanurum White Grunt - Haemulon plumieri
Blue-Striped Grunt - Haemulon sciurus Slippery Dick - Halichoeres bivittatus
Yellowhead Wrasse - Halichoeres garnotti Clown Wrasse - Halichoeres maculipinna
Rainbow Wrasse - Halichoeres pictus Puddingwife - Halichoeres radiatus
Scaled Sardine - Harengula jaguana Ballyhoo - Hemiramphus brasiliensis
Seahorse - Hippocampus sp. Squirrelfish - Holocentrus sp.
Long jaw Squirrelfish - Holocentrus ascensionis Longspine Squirrelfish - Holocentrus rufus
Queen Angelfish - Holacanthus ciliaris Rock Beauty - Holacanthus tricolor
Hamlet - Hypoplectus sp. Indego Hamlet - Hypoplectus indego
Dwarf Herring - Jenkensia lamprotaenia Chub - Kyphosus sp.
Bermuda Chub - Kyphosus sectatrix Hogfish - Lachnolaimus maximus
Honeycomb Cowfish - Lactophrys polygonia Scrawled Cowfish - Lactophrys quadricornis
Trunkfish - Lactophrys trigonus Perpermint Bass - Liopropoma rubre
Candy Bass - Liopropoma carmabi Triple-tail - Loliotes surinamensis
Crested Goby - Lophogobius eyprinoides Mutton Snapper - Lutjanus analis
School Master - Lutjanus apodus Cubera Snapper - Lutjanus cyanopterus
Grey Snapper - Lutjanus griseus Dog Snapper - Lutjanus jocu
Rock Hind - Epinephalus adscensionis Graysby - Epinephalus cruentatus
Red Hind Grouper - Epinephalus gattatus Coney - Epinephalus fulvus
Jewfish - Epinephalus itajara Red Grouper - Epinephalus mario
Nassau Grouper - Epinephalus striatus Jackknife Fish - Equetus lanceolatus
Mahogany Snapper - Lutjanus mahogoni Lane Snapper - Lutjanus synagris
Sand Tilefish - Malacanthus plumieri Atlantic Manta - Manta birostris
Tarpon - Megalops atlanticus Black Durgon - Melichthys niger
Yellowtail damselfish - Microspathodon chrysurus White Mullet - Mugil curema
Yellow Goatfish - Mulloidichthys martinicus Goldentail Moray - Muraena miliaris
Rockfish Grouper - Mycteroperca bonaci Tiger Grouper - Mycteroperca tigris
Yellowfin Grouper - Mycteroperca venenosa Lemon Shark - Negaprion brevirostris
Yellowtail Snapper - Ocyurus chrysurus Shortnose Batfish - Ogcocephalus nasutus
Yellowhead Jawfish - Opistognathus aurifrons Creole Fish - Paranthias fucifer
Glassy Sweeper - Pempheris schomburgki Freckled Cardinalfish - Phaeoptyx conklini
Sailfin Molly - Poecilia latipinna Gray Angelfish - Pomacanthus arcuatus
French Angelfish - Pomacanthus paru Dusky Damselfish - Pomacentrus fuscus
Beaugregory - Pomacentrus leucostictus Bicolor Damselfish - Pomascentrus partitus
Three Spot Damselfish - Pomacentrus planifrons Cocoa Damselfish - Pomacentrus variabilis
Spotted Goatfish - Pseudopeneus maculatus Southern Guitarfish - Rhinoboutos percellens
Soapfish - Rypticus sp. Midnight Parrotfish - Scarus coelestinus
Blue Parrotfish - Scarus coeruleus Striped Parrotfish - Scarus croicensis
Rainbow Parrotfish - Scarus guacamaia Princess Parrotfish - Scarus taeniopterus
Queen Parrotfish - Scarus vetula Cero - Scomberomorus regalis
Reef Scorpionfish - Scorpaena caribbaeus Plumed Scorpionfish - Scorpaena grandicornis
Look Down - Selene vomer Greater Amberjack - Seriola dumerili
Harlequin Bass - Serranus tigrinus Redband Parrotfish - Sparisoma aurofrenatum
Red-tailed Parrotfish - Sparisoma chrysopterum Bucktooth Parrotfish - Sparisoma radians
Redfin Parrotfish - Sparisoma rubripinne Stoplight Parrotfish - Sparisoma viride
Southern Puffer - Sphoeroides nephelus Bandtail Puffer - Sphoeroides spengleri
Checkered Puffer - Sphoeroides testudineus Great Barracuda - Sphyraena barracuda
Great Hammerhead Shark - Sphyrna mokarran Redfin Needlefish - Strongylura notata
Pipefish - Syngnathus sp. Lizardfish - Synodus sp.
Red Lizardfish - Synodus synodus Bluehead Wrasse - Thalassoma bifasciatum
Permit - Trachinotus falcatus Houndfish - Tylosurus crocodilus
Yellow Stingray - Urolophus jamaicensis    
Hawksbill Turtle - Eretmochelys imbricata Loggerhead Turtle - Caretta caretta
Green Turtle - Chelomia mydas    
Common Dolphin - Delphinus delphis Spotted Dolphin - Stenella attenuata
West Indian Manatee - Trichechus manatus    

Staghorn Coral - Acropora cervicornis Elkhorn Coral - Acropora palmata
Leaf Coral - Agaricia agaricites Sheet Coral - Agaricia lamarcki
Ribbon Coral - Agaricia tenuifolia Giant Brain Coral - Colpophyllia natans
Elliptical Star Coral - Dichocoenia stokesii Smooth Brain Coral - Diploria strigosa
Grooved Brain Coral - Diploria labyrinthiformis Pencil Coral - Madracis sp.
Rose Coral - Manicina areolata Mountainous Star Coral - Montastrea annularis
Cavernous Star Coral - Montastrea cavernosa Club Finger Coral - Porites porites
Mustard Hill Coral - Porites asteroides Rough Starlet Coral - Siderastrea radians
Smooth Starlet Coral - Siderastrea siderea Corky Sea Fingers - Briareum asbestinum
Knobby Candelabra - Eunicea sp. Common Sea Fan - Gorgonia ventalina
Venus Sea Fan - Gorgonia flabellum Spiny muricea - Muricea muricata
Sea Rod - Plexaurella sp. Sea Plume - Pseudopterogorgia sp.
Sea Whip - Pterogorgia sp.    
Red Boring Sponge - Cliona sp. Cake Sponge - Ircinia strobilina
Sprawling Sponge - Neopetrosia longleyi Candle Sponge - Verongia sp.
Basket Sponge - Xestospongia sp.    
Sergeant Major - Abudefduf saxatilis Ocean Surgeonfish - Acanthuirus bahianus
Manatee Grass - Syringodium filiforme Turtle Grass - Thalassia testudinum

Marine Mammals

The marine mammal most often seen around Ambergris Caye is the Atlantic Bottle-nosed Dolphin, (local name "bufeo") Tursiops truncatus, the same species as Flipper of television fame.--It can appear singly or gather in pods of 6 to 8 animals. At times these animals jump into the fish pens that dot the coastline, feed, then jump back out again. They also sometimes move the lobster traps and turn them over, much to the consternation of the fishermen. At times they seem to play, by tossing conch shells about. There are other dolphins, Stenella species, that are offshore dolphins, and are smaller than Tursiops and are spotted. They live in large pods of 100 to 400 animals, and stay mostly in the open ocean, but divers may see these in the drop off at Ambergris Caye, especially if diving off Rocky Point. In southern Belize, due to the deeper breaks in the reef, divers may see Stenella in the channels in the reef .

Monk Seal (Extinct in Caribbean)

At one time the Monk seal (Monarchus tropicalis) reportedly lived in Belizean waters. At Chinchorro, the atoll immediately north of Ambergris Caye in Mexico, there is an island called Cayo Lobos. Lobos in Spanish means wolf, and unsubstantiated rumours indicate that Cayo Lobos (Wolf Caye) was a seal rookery. In southern Belize, in the outer reef lagoon, there are several islands called the Seal Cayes. Verbal communication with old-timers, 70 years old, has indicated no evidence of Monk seal sightings in the area. Once in a while in the past, beach strandings of "blackfish" (assumed to be pilot whales) were evidenced. After hurricane "Fifi", which hit northern Honduras and southern Belize, fishermen from Ambergris Caye diving in the Glover's reef area, reported "hundreds of whales, twenty to thirty ft long" moving between Glover's Atoll and the southern main barrier reef. As identification was not possible, it may be assumed that these were pilot whales. The last pilot whale stranding was on the eastern side of Turneffe in about the mid 701s. In 1986, a large "Sei" whale entered the outer reef lagoon near Placencia and was stranded there in the outer reef lagoon. This whale lived for several months, but finally died despite many rescue efforts.

Mermaids (Trichechus manatus) Order Sirenia
Other Names: Sea cow, dugongs, manatee, sirens

These are primarily brackish water animals. They are large, up to 8 ft. long and teed on aquatic plants (herbivorous). These harmless mammals have been seen in the Siete Canales off San Pedro. In the recent past, sightings of manatees in the Hol Chan reef environment have been reported, and RLW has seen one manatee in the 50 to 60 ft. deep St. Georges Caye channel. Manatee bones have been reported from the Mayan settlement at Rope Walk, Turneffe.

(Manatees are on the endangered species list). Manatees are related to elephants (pachyderms - "thick skin"). The ribs of an adult are 2 to 2 1/2" in thick and about 15 to 20" long. The bones are so dense that these ribs almost resemble ivory. It one leaves the municipal airstrip in Belize City, the island immediately off shore (where Sail Belize is located) is called Moho Caye. Twenty to thirty years ago, beachcombing in the intertidal, one would find dozens of manatee ribs. Since Moho Caye was an important Mayan trading site one can assume that the Mayas harvested the manatee. The gestation period of the manatee is 13 months and one, sometimes two young are born. Manatees have been seen mating in the shallow river mouths. They must drink fresh water. Two good areas to see them are in Corozol Bay, the New River lagoon area and in the southern lagoon about 20 miles south of Belize City near Gales Point. The river leading from the southern lagoon to the sea is called the Manatee River.



The most noticeable bird is the Frigate bird that soars high over the beach, catching the onshore winds. The Frigate bird, Frigata magnificens, is about 40" long and has a wingspan of 6 to 7 1/2'. The female is brownish black with white or pale colourings on her underside. The male is black and is marked with an orange to red throat pouch that is inflated in courtship displays. They lay one egg that takes 55 days to hatch. The young remain in the nest for 5 months, and the young birds have a white head. They eat seafood snatched from the ocean surface, or steal food from other birds.

Sea gulls are one bird that the visitor may or may not see in any number. There are no year round populations of gulls on Ambergris Caye, but some gull species do winter here. There are other, smaller birds that can be seen, including terns and plovers, usually in small numbers at any one time.

One of the larger birds that appear is the Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, "alcatraz" in Spanish, that is very common along the coastlines of the New World. This bird feeds by scooping small fish out of the water and swallowing them whole. As with all young birds, the adults are responsible for feeding them until the young can fly. A Brown Pelican baby will require about 150 pounds of fish in its first nine weeks of life until it can fly for itself.

The Roseate Spoonbill, Ajaia ajaia, lives and nests on a small island , Cayo Pajaros (Bird Caye) in Chetumal Bay. noted for its gorgeous pink plumage, it was at one time sought out for feather decorations on ladies clothing. The shade of pink depends on not only the age of the bird, but it will intensity during the breeding season. They have large flattened bills that are quite effective in finding and capturing small animals along the bottom in shallow water.

There is a large heron, the Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias, that resides on Ambergris Caye. It is a large bird with a wingspan of 72" and a body length of 42". It is slate blue with a white head bearing a black stripe on its forehead. These birds wade in the shallow intertidal catching fish. There is also a night heron (Nycticorax species) that is more common in the winters. It teeds on the crabs and is easy to approach. It is common on the beach at night and when startled it makes a unconventional barking sound.

Cormorants (Phalacrocorax species), commonly seen oft the piers, fish the waters off the island diving for small fish. This black bird, the double crested cormorant is an efficient diver and feeds on small fish in the shallow Thalassia. Frequently they can be seen feeding on a small struggling moray eel.

The Jabiru Stork, Jabiru mycteria, is huge with a wingspan of 90", and is native to Central and South America. It has A white body, black legs, head and bill, and a red throat patch. Its bill is heavy and slightly upturned. Its habitat is wetlands and coastal shallows, and can be very rarely seen in isolated places like Cayo Francas lagoon on Ambergris.

There is a sanctuary for boobies at Lighthouse Reef about 40 to 50 miles from Ambergris Caye and at times a few find their way to the caye. They are unafraid of humans and can easily be approached. The local name for the booby on Ambergris is "bo-bo".

In the wooded areas north of San Pedro, there is Ortalis vetula, known as Cha-cha-la-ca. These game birds flock together and make a tremendous amount of noise. Deep in the bush, there is a parrot type bird locally called the "chen" that makes a huge racket when disturbed. Caribbean doves are hunted in the wooded areas.

The osprey, Pandion halaetus, the Sea Eagle, nests on Ambergris Caye sometimes.

The Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus or Cassidix mexicalis) is a common sight and easily recognized by its dark colour (black in the male and brown in the female), and large full tail.

In addition to these large birds that are associated with the beach and marshy areas, there are woodpeckers, owls and others. Native humming birds drink the nectar of the :lowers and Belize lies on the migratory path of the Ruby Throated Humming Bird, the Chimney Swift, swallows (locally called "golondrina" and most often seen in August) and other North American birds. In the winter months, especially in November, small yellow warblers ("animas" locally) come through Ambergris.

Click here for more photos of local birds...

Click here for more on birding on Ambergris Caye and in Belize.

Click here for Elbert Greer's Birding column...


Turtles (in Creole "tuckle")

Ambergris Caye is a part of the turtle nesting grounds, and they come to nest in the Robles area. With the expansion of human settlement and activity in the area, turtle populations have declined. At one time turtles were fished for, but no longer although one will occasionally be caught in a beach fish trap. The Leatherback is caught at times in shrimp nets in southern Belize.

The Loggerhead ("cahumo" locally), is the most commonly seen turtle, but there are also the Green or White turtle (called the "carey"), the Hawksbill ("oxbill" in Creole), the Leatherback, Dermochelys species (called the "chalupa" in San Pedro), and perhaps the Ridley, which resembles the green turtle.

Sea turtles belong to a group of animals known as Reptilia, which includes snakes, lizards, crocodiles and alligators, even dinosaurs.

Reptiles are cold-blooded vertebrates, usually laying white, "leathery" eggs. They have an external covering of scales or horny plates. They breathe by means of lungs; the heart has three chambers, though crocodiles have four. Sea turtles have existed for more than 175 million years. Today, there are seven species of sea turtles in the world, belonging to five genera. Each has particular dietary and habitat requirements, as well as behavioral patterns.

Loggerhead, Caretta caretta
The common name is derived from the massive, block-like head and broad, short neck of the animal. It is the only turtle in the genus Caretta and is listed as a threatened species; international trade is completely banned and the turtle is considered to be vulnerable worldwide.

Loggerhead turtles are the most frequently observed turtles in Caribbean waters. They are one of the largest of the hard-shell turtles, with adults measuring 36 to 38 inches in length, and a weight range of 200 to 350 pounds, but larger specimens have been reported. The upper shell or carapace is widest near the front, just behind the front flippers and then tapers toward the rear. It is colored reddish-brown with some yellowish touches; underneath, the plastron is creamy yellow. There are five pairs of costal shields or plates on each side of the central row of plates on the carapace. The shell margin of young loggerheads has a somewhat serrated appearance, which disappears as the turtle matures. The limbs are paddle-shaped and each bears two claws. As with all sea turtles, the adult male has a long tail; the tail of the female is short.

Hawksbill, Eretmochelys imbricata
The hooked, beak-like jaws give this turtle its common name. The generic name, Eretmochplys, means, "oar turtle," from the way it swims, and the specific name, imbricata, means "overlapping" because the shields on the carapace overlap like tiles on a roof.

Hawksbills usually range from 30 to 36 inches in length and weigh 100 to 200 pounds. The record is 280 pounds. The thin shields overlaying the bones of the carapace, also known as "tortoise shell," are beautifully marked with amber and reddish tones with shadings to yellow, white, black and green. The plastron is whitish-yellow, occasionally with a few black splotches. The young tend to be black to brownish-black, with touches of light brown. The body has an elongated oval shape; the head is quite narrow.

As with green turtles, there are four pairs of costal shields on each side of the central plates on the carapace. The shields overlap, with the exposed edges rough and serrated. The limbs usually bear two claws.

Survival Problems
Problems of survival begin when the eggs are deposited in the nest. If the nest site is not carefully chosen, it may be flooded by the tides and the eggs will "drown" in the salt water. Obstructions such as seawalls may cause the turtle to select an unfavorable nesting site; beach erosion can also destroy nests.

When the eggs hatch, the journey from the nest to the sea can be hazardous. Hatching occurs over a period of a day or two. The young sense the heat of the surface sand and lie quietly until the temperature cools, so they usually leave the nest at night or on a cloudy day after a rain. Crabs and birds stand by to feed on the young turtles and, once in the water, various fishes await the vulnerable young prey.

Another hazard to turtle eggs and hatchlings is normal beach traffic - people and beach- cleaning equipment. Such traffic may crush the eggs in the nest or compact the sand so the hatchlings cannot emerge.

Hatchlings head for the sea under natural conditions, the light reflected from the surf being a beacon they readily follow. However, beachfront development has flooded the coastline with streetlamps, security lighting and building illumination, all of which distract the hatchlings so they never reach their goal. They become tangled in vegetation, lost among the dunes or in peril on the highways. Most die from desiccation.

The mortality rate of juveniles at sea is undoubtedly high for they are food for a wide variety of fish. It has been estimated that of the 100 eggs originally deposited in a nest, perhaps only one or two will survive to maturity.

To help protect sea turtles, there are several things we can do, besides participating with a permitted group. Do not harass or disturb a nesting turtle. Be alert for hatchling turtles that may become disoriented; turn off or shield beach lighting during the nesting season. When boating, be alert for sea turtles and avoid colliding with them.

Crocodiles and Snakes

San Pedro lagoon and the other lagoons are the home of some crocodiles (Crocydylius, probably c. moreleti). They are mainly nocturnal and avoid contact with humans. They are rarely seen, but it one goes into the swamps at night with a light, their eyes will reflect light and appear red. Too much noise or activity will cause them to leave the area. There are no alligators in Belize, they are all crocodiles.

Local knowledge relates that there are no poisonous snakes on the island. However, due to the close geographic connection with Yucatan (it is separated by only a small narrow creek), one could expect to find some varieties of poisonous snakes in the heavily wooded areas. The most common snake is the boa constrictor ("wowla" in Creole, and Capt Uring in the 1700's called it "ouler"), which is harmless, and feeds on rats, young birds and the like. There are several kinds of small harmless snakes.


Small brownish lizards locally called "la gartos" or little alligator, are quite noticeable in and around San Pedro. The garden lizard, Anolis sagrei, is most common, especially around trash piles. They can also be seen around wooden porches, popping up and down the spaces and cracks. The Spiny-tailed Iguana, Ctenosaura similis, or "wish-wiliy" is common on the island, especially away from the populated areas. They are rather large, up to 4 ft. long including the tail, and although edible, are not eaten on Ambergris. It is brown-black in colour and has a row of flexible spines down its back and tail. The juvenile, a startling green colour can sometimes can be seen scurrying about the beach area. They are herbivorous and are often garden pests. There are also representatives of geckos, "mut-can" locally. The geckos' tail curves upward like that of the scorpion. They are nocturnal, harmless and make a distinctive sound before a rain.

Jesus Lizard

There is a basilisk lizard, Basiliscus vittatus, locally called "cock malalla" or" tul-luk" in Maya, that has the ability to run across the surface of the water without sinking. Also known as the Jesus Christ Lizard, for obvious reasons, slow motion photography has shown that it rears up on its hind legs and moves its legs in a free wheeling manner so quickly, that its feet are not in contact with the water surface long enough to break its surface tension.


Ambergris Caye, as any other locality, has its share of insects , but there are some that are worth a note or two. There are tarantulas, but they are not poisonous although the puncture can become infected. Indeed the worst thing about these tarantulas are their size, large spiders, even if not venomous, are unnerving. Tarantulas do not live on the beach area but can be see at times at Marco Gonzalas. Termites are native to the island and build nests in the tops of trees. They make their mud tunnels along the branches and trunks to provide a sate passage to the soil.

One of the most unusual insects is seldom seen. Locally called the po-po-xium (po-po schlum), this insect looks like a cross between and green cricket and a green flightless wasp. It evidently is active mostly at night and burrows along beneath loose sand in search of food and water as their tunnel is seen on and close to the beach, and wet areas There are scorpions on the island that do have.a poisonous sting, but they are not deadly. There are also large centipedes and millipedes.


In the northern wooded areas one will find the deer (Odocoileus virginiana, White tail) and the wild pig or peccary (Dicotyles tajacu). The deer are small, about 2 1/2 ft. tail and very hardy.

There are insectivorous bats, raccoons, coatimundis (quash), rats and field mice, paca (Agouti paca, locally the gib nut).

Cats belong to the family Felidae, and three species may be found on Ambergris. The small marguay, the jaguarundi, and perhaps the oscelot. The large jaguar will probably not be found here.

Much of this information courtesy of R. L. Wood, S. T. Reid, and A. M. Reid, and their book
"The Field Guide to Ambergris Caye"

The first section which is the Wildlife Glossary is from Elbert Greer.


A guide to the birds of Mexico and Northern Central America (Oxford University Press) , by Steve N. G. Howell and Sophie Webb, 1995, is by far the most current and complete field guide for birds in Belize and Guatemala.

A field guide to snakes of Belize(The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center) , by Tony Garel and Sharon Matola, 1996, is a compressive guide illustrated with color photography and includes habitat maps.

The makeing of Belize Globalization in the margins (Bergin and Garvey), by Anne Southerland, 1998, An anthropological point of view of the development of Belize and ethnographic history of the region.

For a list of the animals and fish of Belize, CLICK HERE!

Click here for a illustrated guide to the reef species of Belize.

For an incredible resource of Belizean Beasties, visit the Belize Biodiversity Information System by CLICKING HERE!

Belize Wildlife Resources:

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