Vegetation maps are a primary and essential tool in biodiversity science, conservation, management, and monitoring as well as in land-use management planning. In this study a semi-detailed landscape-based vegetation map (scale: 1: 46,000) is presented for the 34 km2 Dutch half of Lesser Antillean island of St. Martin (St. Maarten). A vegetation map is especially critical in biodiversity context as St. Maarten lies in a key biodiversity hot spot and is habitat to more than 100 regional endemic animal and plant species of which 12 are island endemic species found only on St. Maarten. The map is based on a total of 56 vegetation plots that were sampled in 1999 using a stratified random sampling design and analysed using TWINSPAN cluster analysis. Two hundred and twenty (220) plant species, representing 40 % of the total known flora (544 species), were recorded in the sample plots.
A total of four main and eleven different sub-landscape types were distinguished based on geology, geomorphology and the eleven distinguished vegetation types. The most dominant landscape type was the hilly landscape type for which seven sub-landscapes were distinguished. The 11 vegetation units we describe represent an important decline from the 16 vegetation types distinguished by STOFFERS (1956). Large changes have clearly occurred in the coverage and composition of the vegetation types of the island. Between the early 1950s and 1999 the total coverage of vegetated areas in St. Maarten declined from 67% to 42% representing a loss of 25% of the total vegetated surface of St. Maarten. Five of the vegetation units of STOFFERS (1956) have disappeared beyond recognition. These are: Hippomane woodland, Vegetation of the salt flats, Strand scrub community, Littoral woodland and Vegetation of the rock pavement. While Hippomane woodland has in part likely been lost due to hurricane impacts, most vegetation loss and degradation has been due to massive urbanization and touristic development especially in the lower and coastal parts of the island. As a consequence the vegetation types of the higher and steeper sections of the island have remained among the least disturbed and degraded. Some vegetation units described by STOFFERS (1956) have also disappeared due to actual vegetation regeneration and succession to a more diverse state due to the decline in agriculture and livestock grazing. Goat grazing remains especially high in two of the eleven vegetation types we described (50 – 80 % presence of dung in the study plots). The highest goat presence was recorded in a “new” vegetation unit (type 6) that has developed based on the domination of the invasive plants Leucaena leucocephala (jumbie bean, lead tree) and Antigonon leptopus (coral vine).
The main threats to the vegetation of St. Maarten we discern based on this mapping project are 1) the massive scale of urbanization and touristic development the island has undergone, 2) continued uncontrolled livestock grazing, 3) invasive plant species, and 4) hurricane impacts. Unless actions are taken to stem the loss of and help restore natural vegetations, we predict that the island will continue to lose its plant diversity, and along with it the fauna which depends on that vegetation. Continued loss of natural vegetation will further exacerbate erosion, loss of freshwater, soil quality and 5 environmental resilience to climate change, as well as sedimentation in the marine environment and the concomitant loss of shallow marine habitats like seagrass beds and coral reefs.
To help prevent this scenario from developing further, we recommend several practical measures: 1) implement land-use planning and designate protected areas to preserve the native flora and fauna, 2) limit and control roaming livestock, 3) legally protect endangered and ecologically critical plant species, 4) connect protected areas by means of ecological corridors, 5) implement measures to control and limit invasive species and 6) implement long-term vegetation monitoring