School of GeoSciences

School of GeoSciences

Rapid Vegetation Survey: Turneffe Atoll, Belize


Three members of the Department of Geography were commissioned by Coral Cay Conservation to carry out a rapid survey of the plants and soils found on Turneffe Atoll, Belize. The maps and data produced complement detailed surveys of the reef and marine biology being collected by members of both Coral Cay Conservation and University College Belize. Together, these data will provide the base for a coastal zone management plan, being developed by the Fisheries Department.

An oblique aerial photo of part of Turneffe Atoll This picture shows an oblique aerial photograph of part of Turneffe Atoll.

The land to the right of the picture is covered mostly by mangrove forest. Note the very small area of exposed sandy foreshore, typical of the atoll. The presence of a series of lagoons near to the shore indicates waterlogged conditions inland.

The line of islands to the left form a chain of lesser cays. These are aligned along the edge of the barrier reef. The line of white breakers show where the waves are breaking over exposed coral heads.

The dark colour of the sea at the extreme left of the photograph marks the beginning of the drop-off zone. Water levels around the atoll are much shallower than the surrounding ocean.

The need for maps

Until this work, Turneffe lacked a detailed comprehensive vegetation map. Whilst relatively undeveloped (small areas of the atoll are used as fishing camps, a couple of cays are used as high-end tourist resorts) this low-density of exploitation may be about to change. Local planners are zoning Turneffe with a view to possible development.

A typical tourist resort This oblique aerial view shows how areas of fringing mangrove have been cleared to provide space for tourist cabanas and beach frontage.

Whilst the density of buildings at this resort is low, limitations in the volume of available freshwater and the islands' ability to absorb grey water may pose environmental restrictions preventing further large-scale developments.


Dr Malcolm Murray
Dr Simon Zisman
Mr Christopher Minty

The University of Edinburgh
Drummond Street
Edinburgh EH8 9XP
Scotland UK

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University of Edinburgh Coral Cay Conservation University College Belize