Turneffe Atoll Biodiversity

Turneffe Atoll is the largest and most biologically diverse coral atoll in the Western Hempisphere. Located 25 miles east of Belize City and isurrounded by deep oceanic waters, Turneffe is approximately 30 miles long and 10 miles wide.

Biological Significance: 
The islands, some larger than 5,000 acres, are covered by at least 77 different vegetation types. Mangrove forests are interspersed with brackish lagoons, covering most of the low-lying areas. A reef crest and magnificent shallow coral buttresses is followed by reef rim on the outer reef drop-off.
Turneffe Atoll

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Turneffe's healthy reefs support diverse species including the endemic white spotted toadfish and white lined toadfish. The abundant sponges offer rich feeding grounds for the endangered hawksbill sea turtle and atoll beaches serve as nesting sites for loggerhead and green sea turtles. Historically, Blackbird Caye South was known to have the largest sea turtle nesting site on the Atoll, and in recent years, loggerhead turtles have successfully nested at the Blackbird Oceanic Field Station beaches.



What makes Turneffe Atoll so important?

  • It harbors the largest of the American saltwater crocodile population (approximately 200-300 individuals) and highest concentration of nesting activity in Belize.
  • It is the only offshore range for the endangered Antillean manatee. Both single animals and cow-calf pairs have been observed.
  • It's littoral forests and brackish lagoons support amphibians, such as the giant marine toad; reptiles, such as the green tree snake, a sub-species endemic to Turneffe that includes some individuals with a brilliant blue coloration.
  • It is an important feeding and calving ground for bottlenose dolphins (approximately 150-200), which are common to the lagoon and shallow reefs.
  • At least 60 species of birds are found at Turneffe during the height of the migratory season, including 18 species of nesting birds. Endangered and threatened nesting species include the Least Tern, Roseate Tern and the White Crowned Pigeon, which also feeds in the littoral forest.
  • The large expanses of intact mangrove and seagrass habitat and shallows serve as a huge nursery area for a wide array of fish species, crocodiles, manatees, dolphins and invertebrates. In addition to rich nursery areas, Turneffe has at least three known important fish spawning aggregation sites.

Many of the species found on and around Turneffe are listed as endangered. Some are unique (endemic). The atolls ecosystems are largely intact, although pressure for development is escalating; overfishing has become a problem, and coral bleaching and diseases remain constant threats.


Until 2000, commercial development at Turneffe consisted of small-scale dive resorts and a fishing resort. However in recent years, transfer of land from public to private ownership has escalated deforestation of prime natural habitats. Lack of protection for the largely in-tact natural forest and clearing for developments presents the greatest threat to the survival of all terrestrial wildlife on Turneffe. Click here for Threat Map.

Rainbow parrotfish the largest herbivorous fish in the Atlantic Ocean are totally dependent on mangrove nursery areas and are becoming locally extinct in some locations due to mangrove clearance, which also threaterns reef health through algal overgrowth.

Illegal fishing is a growing problem, exacerbated by the lack of any enforcement presence on the atoll. In particular, it involves the harvesting of undersized and out of season marine species. Illegal fishing gear can harm nontarget species such as manatees and sea turtles.


In spite of the escalating development pressure, Turneffe is finally on the verge of realizing actual habitat protection and on-site conservation management:

  • Development guidelines have already been produced for Turneffe Atoll and are awaiting formal adoption by the Belize government.
  • The National Protected Areas Policy and System Plan and recent scientific studies recognize the unique value of Turneffe and call for real protection of critical areas.
  • Turneffe is one of Belizes most important centers for marine research. University of Belizes Institute of Marine Studies on Calabash Caye has been providing basic laboratory and field research support for Belizean and foreign students and researchers. The Oceanic Society at Blackbird Caye, has been conducting research on dolphins, manatees, coral reefs and other marine life on Turneffe since 1992. A recent Geographic Information Systems (GIS) project is integrating the complex data derived from past and current research efforts, producing maps as a source for conservation decision-making.
  • Two fish spawning sites were recently designated as seasonal marine reserves. Dog Flea Caye Marine Reserve one of the largest spawning sites for Nassau grouper in Belize, and Caye Bokel Marine Reserve features spawning aggregations of mutton, cubera and yellowtail snappers, and other species.
  • Although there is currently no protection of any terrestrial habitats on Turneffe, the Cockroach Bay crocodile nesting beach was granted a temporary emergency reserve designation, in part based on information from the Oceanic Society scientists.

However, these seasonal and temporary protections are not enought to preserve the biodiversity of Turneffe Atoll. Additional areas need protetion. Local organizations and stakeholders including Oceanic Society are encouraging the Belizean government to declare more protection for the Turneffe Atoll, possibly including its nomination as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, ensuring only ecologically sustainable development.

Until the legal instruments for future marine protected areas and land reserves are in place, the following actions can help curtail the real estate development and encourage the establishment of protected areas:

Please Help Make a Difference: 
  • Land Purchase - Oceanic Society has identified key nesting beaches for crocodiles and sea turtles, intact samples of littoral forest sites, manatee habitats, and important nesting and roosting sites for seabirds that require protection.
  • Conservation Research - resource protection require scientific data to justify conservation planning and legislative action. Adaptive management and long-term monitoring of protected areas need continual input of research of the regions flora and fauna.
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  • Thank you for considering becoming a Friend of Turneffe Atoll.



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