The park is part of the Central American pine-oak forests ecoregion (Dinerstein et al., 1995). Conifers dominate the highest elevations, although occasionally there are patches of vegetation with characteristics of high grasslands. In lower elevations, towards the south, the forest is a mix of conifer and broadleaf trees, which is typical vegetation found in areas of altitudinal change throughout the tropics.
The lower elevations of Totonicapán Forest are heavily impacted by human activity and as a result, the forest in that area is slowly changing to a pine-dominated system because pines are more tolerant of these human pressures. In higher elevations, the conifer forest still maintains full coverage and is in good condition, yet activities associated with human presence could provoke slow genetic erosion in some of the rare pines and firs. Dense fog throughout the year promotes thick epiphyte growth on the older trees (conifer and broadleaf).
The area in Guatemala's altiplano is rich with endemic flora species (Castañeda et al., 1995). In Totonicapán forest, seven regionally endemic species are found: Ayacahuite pine (Pinus ayacahuite), rough-barked Mexican pine (P. montezumae), smooth-barked Mexican pine (P. pseudostrobus), Endlicher pine (P. rudis), ocote pine (P. oocarpa), Guatemalan fir (Abies guatemalensis) and Mexican cypress (Cupressus lusitanica) (Probosques, 1997). The Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) is a regionally endemic bush included on IUCN's red list (2002)1. The Guatemalan fir is included on the red list maintained by CONAP as an endangered species (2001a), and IUCN's red list considers this species in a "vulnerable" situation. Totonicapán forest harbors the largest and best-conserved stands of Pinus ayacahuite, P. rudis (Elías, 1997) and Abies guatemalensis in Guatemala (CONAP/INAB, 1999).
The mixed forest is where floristic elements of the northern forests mix with elements from the neotropics. The mixed forest grows primarily where warmer temperatures prevail, on the southern slopes of the protected area up to approximately 2,900 meters. Usually, they are found on steep inclines growing in well-drained volcanic soils. The canopy does not surpass 25 meters and the trees have medium diameters and no buttresses. Because of severe human intervention, the mixed forest is hard to characterize. Nonetheless, in pristine areas, the mixed forest resembles higher elevation forests where Abies guatemalensis and pines of the conifer forests are common.
In slightly altered areas, species include oaks (Quercus sp.), Endlicher pines (Pinus rudis), and ocote pine (P. oocarpa), with presence of smooth-barked Mexican pine (P. pseudostrobus), rough-barked Mexican pine (P. montezumae), and the evergreen laurel (Persea sp.). In moderately altered areas, the oaks start giving way to the pines. In severely altered areas, ocote pine (P. oocarpa) is dominant and no oaks remain or are just beginning to regenerate.
The understory of the pristine mixed forest is dense, dominated by alders (Alnus sp.) and in humid areas by Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) and prickly heath (Pernettya mucronata).
The lowest portion of the protected area is heavily influenced by human action. Plants from the Lauracea family have been planted and are changing the composition of this sector of the park.
Texas madrone (Arbustus xalapensis) mixed with oaks
The conifer forest is predominant at 2,900 meters and above (CONAP/INAB, 1999). It grows in hilly terrain on volcanic soils with good surface drainage. This forest type is found in areas with frequent frosts and where there is persistent fog and relative humidity is high, even during the "dry" season. Because the conditions are relatively harsh at this elevation, there are few tree species.
In pristine areas of conifer forest, the moderately closed canopy reaches 35 meters, there are many trees 100+ years old with enourmous diameters (they do not have buttresses). Here, the mix of floristic elements originating in northern forests and those originating in the neotropics is evident because of abundant bromeliads. It is also the most southern habitat in the world for firs; the Guatemalan fir (Abies guatemalensis) coexists almost exclusively with the Ayacahuite pine (Pinus ayacahuite). Depending on the orientation and the humidity, the Guatemalan fir can be dominant; dominance up to 73% has been recorded (CONAP/INAB, 1999). The older trees are covered in mosses, ferns, bromeliads, and other epiphytes. On occasion, there are small groves of smooth-barked Mexican pine (Pinus pseudostrobus) and Mexican cypress (Cupressus lusitanica). The understory is made up of species from the Rosaceae and Lamiaceae families, and ferns.
In the higher elevations, there are occasional small groves of smooth-barked Mexican pine (Pinus pseudostrobus) and Mexican cypress (Cupressus lusitanica). This photo shows the Mexican cypress on a steep slope in Totonicapan forest.
Detail of a pure stand of cuperssus lusitanica
Meadows can be found sporadically above 3,300 meters in areas exposed to harsh climate and strong winds. In these grasslands, the occasional shrub or bush survives, but does not grow more than 0.5 meters. In some parts, because the intensity of incoming solar radiation is high and natural erosion is high, small meadow patches are found interspersed with the forest.
There is not sufficient research regarding the fauna populations in the regional forest, however, some research suggests that the forest does harbor important fauna species. Five regionally endemic birds can be found in the forest: white-eared hummingbird (Basilinna leucotis), green-throated mountain-gem hummingbird (Lampornis viridipallens), pine flycatcher (Empidonax affinis), yellowish flycatcher (E. flavescens) and the black-capped swallow (Notiochelidon pileata) (Probosques, 1997). More likely than not, additional endemic bird species reside in this forest; additional research will certainly increase number of birds on the list. During ParksWatch field visits, we recorded the presence of another regional endemic, the rufous-collared robin (Turdus rufitorques), which seemed to be common in open areas. Outside of the park, we also documented the illegal sale of a regionally endemic owl, Fulvous Owl (Strix fulvescens), listed on CONAP's red list as an endangered species (2001b). We assume that this owl was poached from Totonicapán forest.
Information about park mammals is scarce, although there are reports of 10 small, regionally endemic mammals in the area. These include Goodwin's small-eared shrew (Cryptotis goodwini), six mice species (Microtus guatemalensis, Habromys lophurus, Scotinomys teguina, Reithrodontomys sumichrasti, Peromyscus aztecus and P. Levipes), a squirrel (Sciurus aureogaster), and Gray's long-tongued bat (Glossophaga leachii) (Barrios, 2002, personal communication). Locals claim that coyotes (Canis latrans) and long-tailed weasels (Mustela frenata) are also in the area, although there is no information regarding their population sizes or range within the regional forest.