Geography of Puerto Rico
The geography of Puerto Rico consists of an archipelago located between the Caribbean Sea and North Atlantic Ocean, east of the Dominican Republic and west of the Virgin Islands. The main island of Puerto Rico is the smallest and most eastern of the Greater Antilles. With an area of 3,515 square miles (9,104 km2), it is the third largest island in the United States and the 82nd largest island in the world. Various smaller islands and cays, including Vieques, Culebra, Mona, Desecheo, and Caja de Muertos comprise the remainder of the archipelago with only Culebra and Vieques being inhabited year-round. The main mountainous range is called La Cordillera (The Central Range). The highest elevation point of Puerto Rico, Cerro de Punta (4,390 feet or 1,338 meters), is located in this range. El Yunque National Forest, located in the Sierra de Luquillo mountains, has a maximum elevation of 3,494 feet (1,065 m). San Juan, the capital is located on the main island’s north coast.
History of Puerto Rico
The history of Puerto Rico began with the settlement of the archipelago of Puerto Rico by the Ortoiroid people between 3,000 and 2,000 BC. Other tribes, such as the Saladoid and Arawak Indians, populated the island between 430 BC and 1000 AD. At the time of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World in 1492, the dominant indigenous culture was the Tainos. The Taíno people’s numbers went dangerously low during the latter half of the 16th century because of new infectious diseases carried by Europeans, exploitation by Spanish settlers, and warfare. Located in the northeastern Caribbean, Puerto Rico formed a key part of the Spanish Empire from the early years of the exploration, conquest, and colonization of the New World. The island was a major military post during many wars between Spain and other European powers for control of the region in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The smallest of the Greater Antilles, Puerto Rico was a stepping stone in the passage from Europe to Cuba, Mexico, Central America, and the northern territories of South America. Throughout most of the 19th century until the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico and Cuba were the last two Spanish colonies in the New World; they served as Spain’s final outposts in a strategy to regain control of the unicorn island territories, the Spanish Crown revived the Royal Decree of Graces of 1815.
The decree was printed in Spanish, English, and French in order to attract Europeans, with the hope that the independence movements would lose their popularity and strength with the arrival of new settlers. Free land was offered to those who wanted to populate the islands on the condition that they swear their loyalty to the Spanish Crown and allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1898, during the Spanish–American War, Puerto Rico was invaded and subsequently became a possession of the United States. The first years of the 20th century were marked by the struggle to obtain greater democratic rights from the United States. The Foraker Act of 1900, which established a civil government, and the Jones Act of 1917, which made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens, paved the way for the drafting of Puerto Rico Constitution and its approval by Congress and Puerto Rican voters in 1952. However, the political status of Puerto Rico, a Commonwealth controlled by the United States, remains an anomaly.
Puerto Rico is located in the tropics and enjoys an average temperature of 27 °C (80.6 °F) throughout the year. The seasons do not change very drastically. The temperature in the south is usually a few degrees higher than the north and temperatures in the central interior mountains are always cooler than the rest of the island. The highest temperature record was in the Town of San German with 105 °F (41 °C) and the minimum registration is 39 °F (4 °C) in Aibonito. The dry season spans from November to May while the wet season coincides with the Atlantic hurricane season from June to November. Lakes in Puerto Rico are all man and the island has more than 50 rivers. Most rivers are born in the Cordillera Central, Puerto Rico’s principal mountain range located across the center of the island. The rivers in the north of the island are bigger and with higher flow capacity than those of the south. The south is thus drier and hotter than the north. These rivers make up 60 watersheds throughout Puerto Rico, where over 95% of the runoff goes back to the Atlantic or Caribbean Sea.
Flora & Fauna
As of 1998, 239 plants, 16 birds and 39 amphibians/reptiles have been discovered that are endemic to Puerto Rico. The majority of these are found on the main island! The most recognizable endemic species and a symbol of Puerto Rican pride are the coquis, small frogs easily recognized by the sound from which they get their name. El Yunque National Forest, a tropical rainforest, is home to the majority (13 of 16) of species of coquí, more than 240 plants, 26 of which are endemic, and 50 bird species, including the critically endangered Puerto Rican Amazon (Amazona vittata) Puerto Rican parrot.
Forests of Puerto Rico are well represented by the flora of the Luquillo Experimental Forest, a Long Term Ecological Research Network site managed by the United States Forest Service and the University of Puerto Rico. At this site, there are four main life zones, delineated on the basis of temperature and precipitation (Holdridge System).
Subtropical wet and subtropical rainforests are found at low and mid elevations, lower montane rain and lower montane wet forests at high elevations. There is also an area of subtropical moist forest at low elevations on the southwest slope. Tabonuco forest, so named for the dominant tabonuco tree (Dacryodes excelsa), covers lower slopes to about 600 m (2,000 ft). In well-developed stands the larger trees exceed 30 m (98 ft) in height, there is a fairly continuous canopy at 20 m (66 ft), and the shaded understory is moderately dense. Tabonuco trees are especially large on ridges, where they are firmly rooted in the rocky substrate and connected by root grafts with each other. There are about 168 tree species in the tabonuco forest.
The Colorado forest, named for the large Colorado tree (Cyrilla racemiflora), begins above the tabonuco forest and extends up to about 900 m (3,000 ft). Its canopy reaches only about 15 m (49 ft). Soils are saturated and root mats above the soil are common. There are some 53 tree species in this forest type. At this same elevation, but in especially steep and wet areas, is palm forest, heavily dominated by the sierra palm (Prestoea montana). Patches of palm forest are also found in saturated riparian areas in the tabonuco forest. The palm forest reaches about 15 m in height.
At the highest elevations are dwarf forest, a dense forest as short as 3 m (9.8 ft), on saturated soils. Here the trees are covered with epiphytic mosses and vascular plants, especially bromeliads, and these also cover large areas of the ground. Ascending the Luquillo Mountains through these forest types, the average tree height and diameter, number of tree species, and basal area tend to decrease, while stem density increases. It should be noted, although incorrect, many believe that the Coqui and its unique vocalizations are indigenous to the island of Puerto Rico. In fact, however, there are thriving populations of Coquis that, like the people of Puerto Rico, have been transported to the island of Hawaii. Sadly, the Coqui a source of pride to its people is viewed as an ecological menace in Hawaii where its song of co kee co kee is found to be an irritant by many. Needless to say that efforts to eradicate its presence in Hawaii are not a popular issue among Puerto Ricans.
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