Seven Spectacular Endemic Species of Mexico
Mexico is overflowing with diversity and a huge number of species. To appreciate and protect them, we need to know them.
Twelve nations of the world are classified as megadiverse countries. Mexico ranks at number five. Those on this list are characterized by a richness of plant and animal species, and by the habitats that unfold within their territories. It’s no surprise that Mexico should appear on such a list: it has an enormous diversity of ecosystems, both terrestrial and marine. With coastlines on two oceans, it’s home to 70% of all the plant and animal species in the world.
Experts at CONABIO (Mexico’s National Commission on Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity) have counted the species in the country: 23,424 species of plants, 564 mammals, 1,150 birds, 864 reptiles, and 376 amphibians; there’s also a huge variety of fungi and other microorganisms that give the country a tremendous genetic diversity. Unfortunately, because of the excessive exploitation of the natural world at the hands of mankind, many of these living beings are in danger.
In 2019, SEMARNAT (Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources) published an update on threatened species within the Mexican territory. It amounted to 2,678 species in varying degrees of danger. That the data is devastating reflects a global reality and an urgency to rethink how we inhabit our planet. One of the many ways to take care of our own home is to get to know and to keep a close watch on the living beings within these ecosystems. After all, how can we take care of something we don’t know?
Below is a selection of species endemic to Mexico. It’s a short list in which you’ll meet some of the beings who share this lush country.
The ajolote (Ambystoma mexicanum) is an amphibian endemic to the lakes of the Valley of Mexico, specifically in the Xochimilco area. A resident of the very center of the country, the species has become a symbol of the region. One peculiarity is that these animals reach adulthood without going through a process of metamorphosis. Instead of developing lungs and living on earth, they spend their whole lives as aquatic creatures and keep their gills. The charming ajolote is threatened by changes to its ecosystem over the past several decades. It’s a living treasure the protection of which is urgent.
A magnificent tree, the Cupressus guadalupensis is endemic to Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California in the Pacific Ocean. Its leaves are flake-shaped and the tree can reach 20 meters in height. Of the cypress family, the tree has been considered endangered for its unrestricted felling as a timber tree, and for the introduction of invasive animal species to its ecosystem since the late 19th century.
The Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) is one of five sub-species of the gray wolf of North America. The smallest, it’s endemic to the deserts of Sonora and Chihuahua and the southwestern United States. During the 20th century, excessive hunting, reductions in its habitats and its natural prey (especially deer), meant that the species was in danger of disappearing entirely. By 1950, there were no Mexican wolves in the wild. In 1990, it was classified as “extinct in the wild.” Only in 2014, a first wild litter of Mexican wolves was reported in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains.
Few people know that the vanilla plant, famed for its exquisite flavor, is actually an orchid. Vanilla planifolia (one of 110 vanilla species) is native to Mexico. Ancient records show its use by the Totonac culture as part of daily life, ritual, and business relationships. The plant was highly sought and widely used throughout ancient Mesoamerica, a treasure that Mexico has bestowed upon the world.
The blue dragon (Abronia graminea) is a species native to the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains, especially in the Mexican states of Puebla and Veracruz. This reptile is a tree-dwelling lizard which stands out for its prominent colors. These range from a greenish yellow to turquoise, depending on the animal’s diet. Sadly, the species went onto the endangered species list in 2007. This was due to the practice of killing the lizards in the belief that they’re poisonous (they’re not), and because they’re captured and exported as exotic pets.
The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a marine mammal endemic to the Gulf of California. One of the most threatened species in the country, it’s on the very brink of extinction. Researchers report that, today, only 19 specimens of the small porpoise remain in the wild. The vaquita is one of the smallest species of cetaceans. They have pigmentation around their eyes which gives them a “bovine” appearance, and hence the name. (Vaquita is Spanish for “little cow.”) Of the many causes of their overall decline, unregulated fishing is the most important. Vaquitas are often trapped in the nets of fishermen seeking other marine species.
Santa Catalina Rattlesnake
Crotalus catalinensis is the scientific name for a spectacular cream-grey snake. It’s named for the Santa Catalina Island in the Gulf of California. A poisonous reptile, it has a small, thin body, and one its distinguishing features is that, in fact, it has no rattle. This is because the last segment of its tail falls off immediately after it sheds its skin, instead of sticking to the body as is the case with other rattlesnakes. Some experts believe it’s a local evolutionary adaptation allowing the snake to better hunt birds.
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Taking care of anything means knowing it better. Because Mexico needs to protects the invaluable treasure of the species that inhabit it (its biocultural heritage), Sal a Pajarear was created. It’s an initiative of La Vaca Independiente dedicated to the observation of birds in their natural state and the formation of observation groups in the human communities living near them, especially in the regions of the Yucatan Peninsula. The effort supports respect, admiration, and appreciation for a tremendous number of birds, many of them endangered.