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Being a most valuable natural reservoir that stands out nationally, regionally and worldwide, Ciénaga de Zapata National Park is the main core area of the Biosphere Reserve and the Ramsar site that have the same name. Natural and socio-economic characteristics of this territory make it be a priority area due to the ecological fragility of its ecosystems, its values for the conservation of biodiversity and other natural resources. It is an extensive ecosystem made up of mangrove forests, keys, seagrass beds, coral reef barriers and deep reefs, including the Cazones Gulf, a deep underwater canyon that is the main recruitment site of important commercial species such as porgies and groupers. The conservation status of coral reefs in the area is most remarkable. It comprises an important system of gyre-like currents.
This territory is characterized by both the presence of considerable peat depth and the fact that it is a low, flat area from the viewpoint of relief. Top height above sea level is only about 10 meters, while top depth in below-sea-level coastal zones is as follows: 2 meters in the salt-marsh area and from 1-600 meters in the sea coastal zone.
Climatic characteristics are very marked by local physical-geographical conditions. Annual average temperature is warmer inland, with a warm thermical regime almost all year long. In the warmest month, average temperature is 30° C and in the coldest one is 20° C. The warmest season begins in May and ends in October, while the coldest one (winter) stretches from November-April.
Rainfall has a marked seasonal behavior, with values oscillating from 1,200 and 1,300 mm during the rainy season and 250 and 300 mm during the dry season. The humidity regime is due to the air relative humidity - 85% -- and the predominating wind is that from the East.
The overall relief is formed of marine surfaces conditioned by carbonated rocks and neotectonic evolution in the territory, with cumulative-biogenic coasts.
Soils have an E - W spatial distribution in four strips: red and yellowish ferrous, peaty and loam soils - peaty, red and black rendsines, coastal swampy, and mangrove solonchak.
There is an extensive variety of ecosystems, mainly in zones where the saltwaterfreshwater inter-phase conditions predominate and in lowlands where salty lagoons, mangrove vegetation and elevated-karst zones with typical semideciduous vegetation forest combine.
As to flora, there are outstanding species valuable as a genetic stock and different insectivorous plant species belonging to the genus Utricularia and Oxipalis. Likewise, remarkable to this area are the so-called "petenes", which have been recognized as a new plant complex for Cuba: the Plant Complex of Swamp Spring. There are diverse ecosystems, with plant formations such as: the semideciduous forest, the mangrove forest, the grama-grass savannah, grasslands and the swamp scrub, all of them being in an excellent conservation status.
Mangrove forests stand for one of the largest and best preserved stretches in Cuba. This is an only-one-forest-canopy perennial-foliate forest where we can find the four mangrove species existing in Cuba: Rhizophora mangle (Red mangrove), Avicenia germinans (Black mangrove), Laguncularia racemosa (White buttonwood) and Conocarpus erecta (Buttonwood). These plant formations act as coastal-line protectors and contribute to soil formation. They provide important shelter to a great deal of animal species of which many breed here. It is one of the most productive ecosystems contributing with many nutrients used by highly-commercially valuable species that develop part of their life cycle in this habitat.
Around 900 autochthonous plant species have been reported; they have been grouped into 110 families, with 115 Cuban endemics, of which 5 are local endemics. From the fauna point of view, the largest wild populations of the Cuban crocodile (Cocodrilus rhombifer) and the American crocodile (C. acutus) stand out. Here too are important populations of the Conga hutia (C. pilorides) as well as birds such as the Cuban sandhill crane (Gnus canadensis nesiotes). Remarkable is the presence of three endemic birds threatened due to their scarce distribution: the Zapata rail (Cyanolimnas cervarai), the Zapata wren (Ferminia cerverai) and the Zapata sparrow (Torreornis inexpectata inexpectata).
Species such as Amazona leucocephala (Parrot), Priotelus temnurus (Cuban trogon), Todus multicolor (Cuban tody), Mellisuga helenae (Bee hummingbird), Chlorostilbon ricordi (Cuban emerald) and Aratinga euops (Cuban parakeet) nestle in this Park. There are other birds such as: Butoegallus anthracinus (Common black hawk), Teretristis fernandinae (Yellow-headed warbler), Dendroica petechia (Yellow warbler), Starnoenas cyanocephala (Blue-headed quail-dove), Glaucidium siju (Cuban pygmy-owl).
There is a local endemic reptile subspecies, Anolis lueteogularis calceus, in the Park forests. Other fauna species are frequently found: Epicrates angulipher (Cuban boa), Capromys pilorides and Mysateles prehensilis (hutias), Trichechus manatus manatus (Manatee).
Furthermore, there are over 175 bird species, with 18 of the 22 Cuban endemic birds, 3 of them being local. Over 65 migratory birds visit this site. Reptiles stand out too, with 31 species, and there are over 1,000 invertebrate species.
Also, this zone is the only region in Cuba where the three Cuban genera of hutias (Capromys, Mesocapromys and Mysateles) co-exist.
There are abundant concentrations of highly commercially valuable fish and crustaceans in their larva and juvenile status as well as other highly conservation-valuable species, thus constituting an important site for these species spawning, sheltering and feeding.