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The Jewel of the Jungle

Regarded by some as the most beautiful bird in the world, the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) is found in the cloud forests of Central America. Quetzal is taken from the Aztec word ‘quetzalli’ meaning precious, and the bird was indeed precious to the great civilizations of the Aztecs and Mayans.

These splendid birds are specialized fruit eaters and rely on large dead or dying trees to carve their nests out of. The males boast tail feathers double the length of their body, coupled with their amazing array of colours it’s not hard to see why they are considered so special.

The species is endemic to cloud forests, these special ecosystems are typically found on the saddles of mountains in tropical regions. Their close proximity to the clouds allows plants to strip the moisture otherwise unavailable to habitats at lower elevations. This unique feature has allowed vast species radiation in the habitat, meaning many of the species are found nowhere else.

Unfortunately the Quetzal and the habitat which it calls home is under threat. Much of the forest habitat is been chopped down to make way for coffee plantations, livestock pastures and other farming procedures. This leads to a vast reduction in habitat for species and leaves the areas left extremely fragmented making it harder for populations to sustain themselves.

However, the main threat to the animal species in this unique habitat is climate change. Temperatures are rising but more importantly the rainfall patterns are changing. The amount of rainfall is becoming more variable leading to periods of drought and flooding. The change in climate means that low-zone species are extending their ranges upward into the cloud forests.

This introduction of species adds competition and the more adaptable species will push the endemic cloud forest species to extinction. For example toucan species are moving from the lowland areas into the cloud forests and predating on the Quetzals eggs. Living on a mountain means that there is a limit to how far species can shift their ranges out of danger.

Reserves can be put into place and species conservation practices by local authorities, to help the endemic species of this rare habitat, however the main threat of climate change is on the conscience of the world. As the governments of the world battle to stop the changing climate, each of us have a great impact, and by our consumption patterns we have a great power to enact changes ourselves. I was lucky enough to encounter this species in Honduras and it would be a shame if in my life time not only the Quetzal but its habitat was lost.

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