Motagua Valley thornscrub

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May 15, 2014, 2:09 pm
Content Cover Image

Motagua River during the dry season. Zacapa, Guatemala (By Kymacpherson (Own work) ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Located in the Motagua Valley in Guatemala and surrounded by mountains, this ecoregion receives little rainfall and is substantially different from the neighboring regions. This small ecosystem is severely threatened by human development. With no protected areas within the ecoregion, much of the land has been converted to farmland.

Location and General Description

Screenshot-2014-04-24-15.04.30.png WWF

The Motagua valley thornscrub is one of the driest areas of Central America. Surrounded by mountains that reach up to 3,000 meters (m) on the north side and 2,000 m on the south, the valley receives less than 500 millimeters (mm) of precipitation annually. Most of the rain falls from June to August, when the valley experiences a short, green growing season. The xeric climate, with its extended dry season, contrasts sharply with the bordering mountain-top cloud forests, which receive up to 10 times as much rainfall. The valley has been extensively impacted by development for irrigated agriculture in the broad central valley floor and subsistence agriculture and cattle farming elsewhere, often despite extremely steep slopes. Only about 20-30,000 hectares (ha) (10-15% of the total) remain as relatively intact natural habitat; none of the ecoregion is currently in protected areas.

The Motagua valley is situated in northeastern Guatemala, along the border of Honduras, where it lies on the fracture zone of the North American and Caribbean continental plates which have been moving apart since the Cenozoic. It is among the smallest ecoregions in Mesoamerica, approximately 200,000 ha, and its composition is heavily influenced by a single large river, the Motagua River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The valley is subjected to high temperatures, up to 41 C, and experiences a long dry season.

Biodiversity Features

Vegetation is limited by aridity and sandy soil. The flora of the Motagua valley is dominated by spiny species, particularly Opuntia cacti, Acacia, and thorny Fabaceae shrubs, except in river valleys with permanent water which support rich evergreen, riparian forests. The most abundant species include: Acacia spp., Opuntia spp., Cephalocereus maxonii, Nyctocereus guatemalensis, and Guaiacum santum.

Only 75 bird species occur in the valley, with the Columbidae, Tyrannidae, Icteridae, and Fringillidae families sufficiently abundant in the upper valley to be considered characteristic. This valley is the only location of Russet-crowned Motmot (Momotus mexicanus) in Central America.

Current Status

The integrity of all components of the Motagua valley are seriously threatened by human development. The valley floor has been almost entirely converted to irrigated cropland. Riparian[[habitat]s] of the smaller feeder rivers are largely converted to a mixture of fruit trees and small patches of irrigated annuals (corn and beans). The lower, drier hillsides are used for range animals, cattle goats and sheep, while hillsides higher in the valley are also planted to coffee and cardamom.

Types and Severity of Threats

No protected areas exist within the valley and current land use trends will inevitably eliminate much of the native biodiversity. However, in recognition of this threat, there is an effort by a national conservation group, Defensores de la Naturaleza, to extend the nearby Sierra de las Minas biosphere reserve into the Motagua valley. The success of that effort is critical to the future of this ecoregion.

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation

This thornscrub ecoregion is limited to the Motagua Valley of Guatemala and vicinity, and is host to several endemic species. Linework follows Junio, from which we lumped the following classifications: "natural grasslands in the arid sector of the Motagua River", "natural grasslands", and all enclosed or partially enclosed [../149911/index.html agricultural or cultivated classifications.

Additional information on this ecoregion

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the World Wildlife Fund. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the World Wildlife Fund should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.


Fund, W. (2014). Motagua Valley thornscrub. Retrieved from