Trinidad and Tobago Natural History

Introduction

A giant leatherback turtle emerges from the dark of the Atlantic waves onto Matura beach, and slowly heaves itself up the sloping sand to lay its eggs. Several miles away, in the limestone caves of the Northern Range, a colony of oilbirds is stirring, wheeling through the dark caverns, uttering the sharp, high-pitched clicks of their navigation system. In the Caroni Swamp, flocks of spectacular Scarlet Ibis are quietly roosting in the mangrove where they have returned in the twilight, their brilliant scarlet plumage burning bright in the warm glow of the setting sun.
Leatherback Turtle
Junia Browne
Courtesy of TIDCO
Trinidad and Tobago harbours many such wonders and secrets: the bat caves of Mount Tamana, sightless fish, fishing bats, a unique golden tree frog found on the summit of El Tucuche, the almost extinct bush turkey or pawi. There are over 430 different species of birds, 620 different species of butterflies, 2,300 different flowering shrubs and plants, 700 of them orchids. There are 100 different mammals including a huge variety of bats, and 70 different reptiles.
Scarlet Ibis
Noel Norton
Courtesy of TIDCO
Long ago (the experts still argue over how long), Trinidad was joined to the South American mainland; (so, even earlier, was Tobago). That ancient continental link has left mainland as well as island life forms crowded into a small geographical area. Mountainous rain forests, mangrove swamps and rivers, seashore and tropical savannahs all lie close to each other. The islands are a major crossing point on the migration paths of birds moving both north and south. The savannah lands are an extension of the 'llanos' of central Venezuela; Trinidad's Northern Range is a continuation of one branch of the great South American cordilleras, rising to over 3,000 feet into elfin woodland at El Tucuche (3,072 feet) and El Cierro del Aripo (3,085 feet). All this makes for unique diversity.
Argyle Falls, Tobago
Bruce Anton
Courtesy of TIDCO

Birds

Trinidad and Tobago ranks among the top ten countries of the world in terms of the number of species per square mile. There are 433 recorded species, of which around 200 are known in Tobago. Some are annual visitors, escaping the northern or southern winter. Many others are permanent residents, including a long list of South American species not found elsewhere in the Caribbean. Few other places in the world support such a wide range of species in such a small area.

Blue-crowned Motmot
Connie Toops
Courtesy of TIDCO

Flora

The vivid purple and yellow poui trees and the spectacular orange immortelles that splash colour so vividly along the hillsides are only the beginning. There are more orchid species than you can count, and in the rich, humid air of Trinidad and Tobago tropical trees and flowers abound. The twin islands are a riot of palm, almond, banyon, breadfruit, flamboyant, cassia, African tulip, silk cotton, matchwood and teak, mora and poui; amaryllis lilies and yellow allamanda, hibiscus and Turk's cap, chaconia and bougainvillea, giant anthuriums, and heliconias like a lobster's claw.
Frangipani Flower
Jim Stephens
Courtesy of TIDCO

Marine Life

The waters of the great Orinoco river flood into the Atlantic not far to the south of Trinidad. While they prevent major coral formations in Trinidad, they provide unusually nutrient-rich waters around Tobago, supporting a diversity of marine life unusual even for the prolific Caribbean. Below the surface of Tobago the cliffs form rocky canyons, underwater tunnels, deep and shallow caves; the currents drift past sheer walls and giant rock-faces. One major reef -- Buccoo -- is easily accessible to non-swimmers, while for scuba-divers there are outstanding reef formations along the west and north-east coasts of Tobago.

All the known hard corals and most of the soft ones can be found around Tobago, plus hundreds of different reef fish, giant manta rays included. Turtles -- the endangered leatherback, the green loggerhead and the hawksbill -- all nest on beaches along Tobago's west coast and Trinidad's north and east coasts. Divers have little difficulty sighting barracudas, dolphins, whale sharks and porpoises. Smaller fish abound -- butterfly fish, queen and French angels, damsels, parrotfish and grunts. Rarer species such as tarpon and trigger fish are regular residents.

Tropical Fish
Courtesy of TIDCO
Baby Leatherbacks
Noel Norton
Courtesy of TIDCO

Wildlife

Forest covers much of Trinidad and Tobago, and is the home of a surprising number of wild animals: the agouti, paca (known locally as the lappe), armadillo (tatoo), opossum (manicou), deer, peccary or wild pig (quenk), tayra (wild dog or chien bois), ocelot (tiger cat) and ant-eater. Other species easily found include the Amazon parrot, iguana, manatees, capuchin and howler monkeys. Frogs and toads abound, and you will hear their raucous calls all over the islands during the wet season. The butterflies include the wonderful iridescent Blue Emperor, while the freshwater fish include the cascadura -- legend insists that once you have tasted it you will return to Trinidad to end your days -- and the guppy, first identified and named in Trinidad over a century ago.
Orange-winged Parrot
Connie Toops
Courtesy of TIDCO
The Asa Wright Nature Centre lies 1,200 feet up the Northern Range, an old estate house that has become a conservation and study centre for naturalists and bird-watchers.

The Pointe-à-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust on the grounds of the Pointe-à-Pierre oil refinery breeds endangered birds and waterfowl for return to natural wildlife areas. It has trails and a learning centre.

There are 13 official wildlife sanctuaries on Trinidad, ranging from the Caroni Swamp and El Tucuche to the offshore Soldado Rock and Saut d'Eau, Trinidad's only pelican breeding ground. Other prime attractions include the Nariva Swamp, the Botanic Gardens and Emperor Valley Zoo in Port of Spain, the La Vega Garden Centre at Grand Couva, and turtle watching at Grande Rivière. The Aripo Savannahs support ancient species like bladder-wort and sundew as well as unique ground orchids. In addition to the Scarlet Ibis, the Caroni Bird Sanctuary has over 130 bird species including pelicans, egrets, herons, plovers, ducks, sandpipers and spoonbills. The Nariva Swamp supports red howler monkeys, alligators and anacondas, four-eyed fish, parrots and macaws, manatee, and the rare Suriname toad and paradox frog.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Connie Toops
Courtesy of TIDCO
In Tobago visits are recommended to the Buccoo Reef and Nylon Pool, the Grafton Caledonia Wildlife Sanctuary, Adventure Farm and Nature Reserve, the Botanic Gardens in Scarborough, and the wetlands of Bon Accord lagoon. The rainforest of Tobago's Main Ridge is the oldest forest reserve in the western hemisphere (1776); the offshore islands of Little Tobago and St. Giles are important seabird sanctuaries.

Dive Sites
Charlotteville - From here it is a short trip to the St. Giles islands, where there are natural formations like the London Bridge (a natural rock bridge), Marble Island and Fishbowl. Speyside - This is the base for meeting the mantas. But there are also exciting sites like Batteaux Reef, Angel Reef, Bookends (where two large rocks break the surface -- good for seeing big tarpon), Japanese Gardens (plentiful sponges) and Blackjack Hole. Crown Point - Situated on the south-west tip of Tobago, is a good base for exploring The Shallows (a sub-marine plateau favoured by large pelagics, like turtles, dolphins, angelfish, nurse sharks and sometimes larger oceanic sharks like tigers) and the fast drift called Flying Reef, good for rays and morays. West Coast - This is a coast of beach-lined bays, with fringing reefs extending from nearly all the rocky points that lie between them. Mount Irvine Wall is one of the most popular dives; another is The Sisters, a dramatic group of rocks off Bloody Bay. Eagle rays have been spotted at Mount Irvine Wall, and at night you can see octopus, morays, lobsters, short-nosed batfish and orange ball anemones. Arnos Vale Reef consists of several reef lines parallel to the shore; moray eels, southern stingrays and even the Atlantic torpedo ray can be spotted here.

Diving Tobago (Brain Coral)
Lawson Wood
Courtesy of TIDCO
Yellow-throated Frog
Connie Toops
Courtesy of TIDCO
Flambeau (Julie) Butterfly
Connie Toops
Courtesy of TIDCO
Text courtesy: Trinidad and Tobago Department of Tourism (TIDCO)
Adapted from: 'Rich & Rare: Eco-Vacations'; 'Beautiful & Blue: Scuba-Diving'