Nicaragua’s Forest Ecosystems

Part of a biological corridor that for millions of years has allowed plant and animal species from two continents to mingle, Nicaragua boasts an extraordinary blend of flora and fauna.

Of the world’s known 250,000 species of flowering plants, an estimated 15,000-17,000 are found in Central America. Nicaragua is home to 9,000 species of vascular plants, many of medicinal value. But outside a few protected areas, conservation efforts are half-hearted or underfunded, and even protected areas are under intense pressure from the agricultural frontier and the scattered human settlements grandfathered within the confines of the reserves.

The view from La Garnacha's mirador. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.
The view from La Garnacha’s mirador. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.

The madroño (Calycophyllum candidissimum) is Nicaragua’s national tree. The hills south of Sébaco form the southern limit of the pine family found on the continent; south of Nicaragua, the pines are out-competed by other species. At the turn of the millennium, Nicaragua’s forest area measured 5.5 million hectares, the majority of which is broadleaf forest, followed by pine (Pinus caribea and P. oocarpa). At altitudes greater than 1,200 meters, the forests also include the conifers P. maximinoi and P. tecunumanii. A full 2.5 million hectares of forest are classified as commercial timber forest. Though often privately owned, the Nicaraguan government regulates exploitation of forest products (and not infrequently simply sells the forests for its own profit).

Principal Ecosystems

Nicaragua’s varied topography and uneven rainfall distribution, not to mention the presence of tropical reefs, volcanoes, and volcanic crater lakes, result in a phenomenal diversity of terrain and ecosystems. You can burn your feet on an active volcano’s peak and cool your heels in ocean surf the same day. Nicaragua’s higher peaks are isolated ecosystems in their own right and home to several endangered as well as endemic species. The streams, rivers, and two very different coastlines furnish myriad other distinct ecosystems. In general, the land is comprised of the following ecological zones:

Pacific Dry Forest: The lowlands of the Pacific coast, specifically the broad, flat strip that borders the Pacific Ocean from sea level to approximately 800 meters in altitude, are a rain-stressed region dominated by thorny, rubbery species. The region typically receives less than 2,000 millimeters of rain per year. Both trees and non-cactuslike plants in this ecosystem shed their leaves in the middle of the dry season, and burst into flower in April or May.

This tree's conical spikes store water. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.
This tree’s conical spikes store water. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.

Upland Pine Forest: With the exception of the slopes of several Pacific mountains, namely San Cristóbal and Las Casitas in Chinandega and Güisisíl in Matagalpa, the majority of Nicaragua’s pine forests are found in the north near Jalapa and Ocotal. Pines particularly thrive on poor, acidic soils, which erode easily if the area is logged.

Lower Mountainous Broadleaf Forest: Nicaragua’s higher peaks are cloud covered for most of the year and home to a cool, moist biosphere, rich in flora and fauna. Most of these areas are the more remote peaks of Matagalpa and Jinotega, like Kilambé, Peñas Blancas, Saslaya, and Musún. It’s easier to enjoy this ecosystem on the beautiful and easily visited peaks of Volcán Mombacho near Granada, and Volcán Maderas on Ometepe.

Caribbean Rainy Zone: The Atlantic coast receives rain throughout nearly 10 months of the year and the humidity hovers around 90 percent year-round. Most of the Atlantic coast is covered with tropical forest or even lowland rainforest, with trees that often reach 30 or 40 meters. In the north along the Río Coco are the remains of Nicaragua’s last extensive pine forests (Pinus caribaea), presently subject to intensive logging by national and international concessions.

Maps - Nicaragua 6e - Nicaragua regional

Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.