Botanical glossary, habit vs habitat, ecosystem biodiversity (in Peten, Guatemala)

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Definition of botanical habit (especially for Peten, Guatemala); distinction from plant habitat

As a layperson, a habitat is the kind of ecosystem and location of where you are visiting or studying; habitat for where a certain plant or animal does best. In distinction, a habit for a layperson is things you do automatically without always planning or thinking. But a habit for a botanist is the structure of the flora: botanists working in Belize, Central America, Balick, Nee and Atha (2000: 23), use the terms:

  • Herb
  • Shrub
  • Subshrub
  • Liana
  • Vine
  • Tree

They call palms palms because in botanical classification their structure is not a tree. That said, 100% of the lists of “Trees of Tikal, Trees of Yaxha, or trees of anywhere else” includes palms. Would need to smile when I see how the palms that are clearly vines are classified? This majestic climbing bayal palm vine, Desmoncus species, is very common in Parque Nacional Yaxha Nakum Naranjo. Some botan palms (Sabal species) are taller than most other trees around them (these palms have to reach the sun).

Naranjo landscape

In a savanna or cibal (sibal, sival, cival, sawgrass ecosystem) you will have trees, vines and/or lianas, palms and enough biodiversity that you may also get herb, shrub, and subscrub in different sectors of the same savanna or cibal.

Long distance panorama of Savanna-Cibal parallel to west side of Naranjo ruins, Peten, Guatemala.

Arqla. Vilma Fialko and her staff have assisted our stay and research in the Naranjo sector of PNYNN. Satellite-site mapper Horacio Palacios provided us with suggestions of where to go within the Naranjo sector of the PNYNN to see, experience, and photograph the flora, fauna, and ecosystems we were interested in. We appreciate the hospitality and cooperation of this Naranjo project team: DECORSIAP, Departamento de Conservacion y Rescate de Sitios Arqueologicos Prehispanicos, IDAEH.

PENN Ferns

PENN Ferns

I have discovered an ecosystem west of Yaxha that has so much biodiversity within less than a 1 square kilometer area that it defies most traditional academic botanic descriptions (since neither Standley, Steyermark, Lundell climbed the multiple steep hills, final ravine and long hikes past a row of lagoons). Holdridge was probably never anywhere in Peten. It’s a challenge to be stuck with botanical and ecological descriptions made for other parts of the world, or even for other parts of Mesoamerica. There are plants, and ecosystems, in the Parque Nacional Yaxha Nakum Naranjo that are not yet documented for the adjacent Parque Nacional Tikal. And most of the savanna ecosystems of PNYNN are very different from 80% of the savannas of nearby Belize (no pine trees anywhere in our savannas; only northeast of Tikal (outside that park)). So far no oak trees in savannas in the Yaxha Nakum Naranjo park. Nance, tasiste, and jicaro trees, yes: these savanna indicators are visible present.

The advances in ecology and botanical recording in PNYNN has been possible due to the cooperation and assistance of the park administrators Arqlo. Jose Leonel Ziesse (IDAEH), Ing. Jorge Mario Vasquez CONAP and park Biologist Lorena Lobos, the park rangers of both IDAEH and CONAP, and the friendly and helpful military team (stationed at the entrance to the park, a definite help in reducing illegal tree harvest being hauled out by the truckload).

In the tabulation below, when I cite Balick, Nee and Atha 2000, I abbreviate them as B,N,A 2000.

Annotated List of Plant Habits from United States Department of Agriculture

The USDA has a nice chart. I eliminate the Federal Georgraphic Data Committee (FGDC) column with their comments because my focus is on plants and other aspects of flora of the Neotropical areas of Peten, Guatemala, specifically the diverse flora we are finding in Parque Nacional Yaxha Nakum Naranjo (PNYNN). Most definitions are by botanists or ecologists who have not hiked through the Peten, not to mention the other awesome ecosystems of remarkable plants of Guatemala such as the Cuchumatanes Mountains (Sierra de los Cuchumatanes). But let’s look at a generic list of plant habits. We hope to find comparable lists from botanical research gardens in the future. But let’s start with basics.

PLANTS Description PLANTS Definition My Comments
Forb/herb Vascular plant without significant woody tissue above or at the ground. Forbs and herbs may be annual, biennial, or perennial but always lack significant thickening by secondary woody growth and have perennating buds borne at or below the ground surface. In PLANTS, graminoids are excluded but ferns, horsetails, lycopods, and whisk-ferns are included. Ferns in Alta Verapaz can be higher than a house. And their core is “solid hardwood” (to the point they are used in house construction still today). Ferns in bogs and around swamps near Yaxha are almost 3 meters tall. So a challenge to call these an herb. It’s a challenge in the biodiversity of Guatemala (and adjacent areas) to fit the reality into terms defined in other parts of the world.
Graminoid Grass or grass-like plant, including grasses (Poaceae), sedges (Cyperaceae), rushes (Juncaceae), arrow-grasses (Juncaginaceae), and quillworts (Isoetes). B,N,A 2000 call these grasses. I agree with either name (grasses or graminoid) and the USDA description is nice (it’s inclusive).
Lichenous Organism generally recognized as a single "plant" that consists of a fungus and an alga or cyanobacterium living in symbiotic association. Often attached to solid objects such as rocks or living or dead wood rather than soil. Not in list by B,N,A 2000.

At PNYNN often 80% of trees have flat lichen splotches on trunk; many trees have 3-dimensional lichen on their small branches.
Nonvascular Nonvascular, terrestrial green plant, including mosses, hornworts, and liverworts. Always herbaceous, often attached to solid objects such as rocks or living or dead wood rather than soil. B,N,A 2000 is specifically vascular plants, so it helps to add nonvascular. We are starting to study mosses, and to find, photograph, and identify mosses in the park. Will be easier when funding is available to be able to reach tree tops (without physically climbing the tree). Mechanical lifts are easiest; these trucks are readily available (for changing highway light bulbs, for installing raised signage, etc.). In the meantime we study moss on rocks and on fallen trees (heavy wind storms and rain storms cause trees and limbs to fall; there is not much soil for tree roots to use as support in a limestone karst area).
Shrub Perennial, multi-stemmed woody plant that is usually less than 4 to 5 meters (13 to 16 feet) in height. Shrubs typically have several stems arising from or near the ground, but may be taller than 5 meters or single-stemmed under certain environmental conditions. To a layperson this is a challenging category since in a seasonally wet/seasonally dry Neotropical area rivers and lakes rise and fall over the seasons (and over 5 to 10 year periods). When they recede the shrubs and trees don’t have time to grow very tall before the water rises again and covers the shores and all the immature shrubs and trees die.
Subshrub Low-growing shrub usually under 0.5 m (1.5 feet) tall, never exceeding 1 meter (3 feet) tall at maturity. Lots of these along the shore of Rio Ixtinto.
Tree Perennial, woody plant with a single stem (trunk), normally greater than 4 to 5 meters (13 to 16 feet) in height; under certain environmental conditions, some tree species may develop a multi-stemmed or short growth form (less than 4 meters or 13 feet in height). In seasonally flooded bajo (and thus also seasonally bone dry rest of the year) many trees are stunted. And on hillside and hilltop forests, the Ceiba pentandra can be as high as a 10 story office building (though usually half that height).
Vine Twining/climbing plant with relatively long stems, can be woody or herbaceous. I prefer “vines and lianas”. There are so many sizes, shapes, plant families of vines and lianas in the park it’s a wonderful research topic. for the terms and definitions. Comments are by Hellmuth.


References cited:

  • BALICK, Michael J., NEE, Michael H. and Daniel E. ATHA
  • 2000
  • Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Belize: with common names and uses. New York Botanical Garden. 246 pages.

    Plant family index on-line: But the book format is not on-line whatsoever. Would be a great help if the book format were also a search option.

Plant Glossaries (keeping in mind that a mushroom is “not a plant”)

There must be hundreds of plant glossaries on-line. Most are for
gardeners; others are for botanists. I show here three samples for botanical research.
This page covers habits; there are 8 other pages, each on a different aspect of plants. These are botanical terms for botanists. So no illustrations. But more words related to plant habitat than other glossaries.
As you would expect from one of the top botanical research gardens of the world, this glossary is impressive. And, as you would expect, it is technical.
Has nice short definitions. No illustrations.


First Posted August 2019

PNYNN and Livingston reports

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