The Neotropic ecozone is one of Earth’s eight ecosystems. This ecozone is also known as the Neotropical ecozone. It is made up of South and Central America, the Mexican lowlands, Caribbean Islands, and southern Florida. The southernmost part of South America is part of the Antarctic ecosystem. Many of the regions included in the Neotropic share the same diversity among plant and animal life. The flora and fauna of the Neotropic are unique and distinct from the Nearctic (which includes most of North America) due to the long separation of the two continents. The formation of the Isthmus of Panama (about 3 million years ago) joined the two continents back together and many species and families interchanged.
The Neotropic includes the most tropical rainforest of any of the other seven ecozones. This massive rainforest extends from southern Mexico through Central America and into northern South America and to Brazil. The vast Amazon Rainforest is part of this larger system. These rainforest ecoregions are among the most important biodiversity reserves on the planet. These rainforests are also home to a diverse culture of indigenous peoples that thrive in this environment. These people who are mostly untouched by the outside world and the influences of modern society continue to decline at an astounding rate due to the expansion of roads, forest industries, urbanization, and farming in and around their natural environment.
The World Wildlife Fund has divided the Neotropic into eight bioregions. These bioregions include Amazonia, Caribbean, Central America, Central Andes, Eastern South America, Northern Andes, Orinoco, and Southern South America.
Amazonia is mainly covered by tropical moist broadleaf forests. The Amazon Rainforest is part of this bioregion. It stretches from the Andes Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, and the lowland forests of the Guianas. Tropical savanna and tropical dry forests also are found here.
Eastern South America includes shrublands (specifically the Caatinga xeric shrublands of northeastern Brazil), Cerrado grasslands and savannas of the Brazilian Plateau, and the Pantanal and Chaco grasslands. The Caatinga and Cerrado separate the bioregions of Amazonia and the Atlantic forests of eastern Brazil.
Southern South America comprised of the Valdivian temperate rain forests and Magellanic sub-polar forests, and the Juan Fernandez Islands and Desventuradas Islands. Southern Beech and other conifers, alerce (evergreen) and Araucaria pines are all found in this region.
South America was originally part of the ancient supercontinent Gondwanaland. Africa, Australia, India, New Zealand, and Antarctica were also parts of this supercontinent. The Neotropic shares many plant and animal families with these other continents. South America drifted north and west and eventually joined with North America through the formation of the Isthmus of Panama. This conjunction allowed species such as opossum and armadillos to move into North America, and animals such as camels and llamas to move south. The effect of this intermixing resulted in the extinction of many South American species, mostly due to out-competition by northern species.
There are 31 bird families endemic to the Neotropic, more than double the number found in any other ecozone. These include rheas, tinamous, curassows, toucans, and others. Hummingbirds and wrens were both birds that were once endemic to the Neotropic. There are many animal species that are nearly or completely restricted to the Neotropic. These animals include New World monkeys, sloths, ovenbirds, antbirds, tanagers, caimans, coral snakes, and poison dart frogs.
Some plant species that were originally endemic and unique to the Neotropic include: Potato, tomato, cacao, maize, lima bean, cassava, sweet potato, cotton, etc. Three plant families that originated in the Neotropic are Bromeliaceae, Cannaceae, and Heliconiaceae.
Image Credit: Wikipedia CC By-SA 3.0 U