From the Sierra Madre to the Northern Deserts: An overview of plant ecology in Mexico

Mexico is famous for being one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet. This amazing biodiversity is owed to the wide-ranging topography of the country – varying from 0 to 5600 metres above sea level – with the most diverse areas being in the southern and south-eastern parts of the country. Approximately 10% of the world’s flora is present in Mexico which itself only covers 1% of the world’s surface.

Mexico is home to many domesticated plants, such as cotton, cacao, maize, tomato, papaya, avocado, chillies, squash, agaves and vanilla. Besides these important food crops, countless ornamental plants also come from Mexico, such as the poinsettia Euphorbia pulcherrima, the ponytail palm (elephant’s foot) Beaucarnea recurvata (the world’s highest selling ornamental plant, whose seed is collected in the wild), the frangipani Plumeria (of Hawaiian lei fame), marigolds, dahlias, and countless ornamental cacti, orchids, and bromeliads. Mexico also has vast numbers of species which are more commonly known to occur in temperate countries – oaks (more than 100 species in Mexico), pines (more than 40 species) and cycads (more than 40 species).


Frangipani, marigolds, poinsettia, orchids are amongst the ornamental plants native to Mexico.

As well as a huge variety of species to work with, Mexico also boasts many beautiful ecosystems to study, including well-conserved areas that require much work to preserve them. Most of Mexico is composed of drylands (approximately 70%), but there are also the tropical rainforests, temperate forests of pine and oak and the mountain cloud forests that attract a lot of interest from ecologists.

Plant ecological research is very active in Mexico with a lot of research dedicated to establishing exactly what plants live in the country. In fact, dozens of new plant species are discovered every year in areas that remain scientifically unexplored such as the enormous ridges and canyons of the Western Sierra Madre and parts of the Northern deserts. There is also a strong focus on conservation, regeneration and restoration, fragmentation and land-use change – levels of which are amongst the highest in the world. Other active areas of basic research include work on invasive species, pollination and seed dispersal, and resistance against pathogens and herbivores.


Large areas of the Sierra Madre (left) and Mexican deserts (right) remain unexplored.

Mexico is a pioneer in research on tropical forest succession, particularly because of the work of José Sarukhán, who is a key driving force for ecological research in the country. Sarukhán has made further key contributions for Mexican ecology with his work for the National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO), which has put together the largest national biodiversity database in the world. Other important work from Mexico includes research in biogeography, in particular the contributions of Jerzy Rzedowski. Widely acknowledged as Mexico’s most eminent botanist, Rzedowski’s work hugely increased the understanding of vegetation in Mexico and he has countless species named after him.

Mexico offers great opportunities for plant ecologists, including through the Mexican Ecological Society which meets every 2 years and helps to facilitate potential collaborations between institutions. There are prestigious research institutions, including the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) which hosts the National Herbarium (~1,300,000 specimens, the largest in Latin America). UNAM is also home to the Institute of Biology (known for taxonomy, systematics, phylogenetics, evolutionary biology, anatomy, ethnobotany) and the Institute of Ecology (plant ecology, plant evolutionary biology, agroecology, forest management, plant evo-devo, climate change). Although there has been a gradual reduction in funding over recent years, there are a good number of postgraduate programs funded by CONACYT across the country.

Additionally, some of our authors and editors with experience working in Mexico have offered some great advice to share with young scientists looking to make it in the field; choose a topic of importance that you are both interested in and which also benefits the country, look to collaborate as much as possible, be patient and persistent, and as always, aim for excellence in your research.

Some Journal of Ecology studies based in Mexico and from Mexican authors:

Induction of two indirect defences benefits Lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus, Fabaceae) in nature, Heil, 2004.

Diversity of gall-inducing insects in a Mexican tropical dry forest: the importance of plant species richness, life-forms, host plant age and plant density, Cuevas-Reyes et al., 2004.

Temporal shifts from facilitation to competition occur between closely related taxa, Valiente-Banuet & Verdú, 2008

The effect of collisions with vegetation elements on the dispersal of winged and plumed seeds, Pounden et al., 2008.

Defoliation and ENSO effects on vital rates of an understorey tropical rain forest palm, Martínez-Ramos et al., 2009.

Phylogenetic signatures of facilitation and competition in successional communities, Verdú et al., 2009.

Variation in arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi colonization modifies the expression of tolerance to above-ground defoliation, Garrido et al., 2009.

Maintenance of tree phylogenetic diversity in a highly fragmented rain forest, Arroyo-Rodríguez et al., 2012.

Resilience to chronic defoliation in a dioecious understorey tropical rain forest palm, Lopez-Toledo et al., 2012.

Strong persistent growth differences govern individual performance and population dynamics in a tropical forest understorey palm, Jansen et al., 2012.

Defoliation and gender effects on fitness components in three congeneric and sympatric understorey palms, Hernández-Barrios et al., 2012.

Let the best one stay: screening of ant defenders by Acacia host plants functions independently of partner choice or host sanctions, Heil, 2013.

Plant β-diversity in fragmented rain forests: testing floristic homogenization and differentiation hypotheses, Arroyo-Rodríguez et al., 2013.

Test of biotic and abiotic correlates of latitudinal variation in defences in the perennial herb Ruellia nudiflora, Abdala-Roberts et al., 2015.

With many thanks to Julieta Rosell, Yessica Rico, Teresa Valverde, Victor Arroyo-Rodriguez, Brigitta van Tussenbroek, Luis Abdala, Ernesto Badano, who all helped a lot in the writing of this article. 

James Ross, Assistant Editor, Journal of Ecology

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