Mexico’s Most Abundant Ecosystem: Xeric Shrublands

More than 58% of the population lives within this economically and environmentally valuable ecosystem.

The xeric shrublands ecosystem (from the Greek xero: dry) is made up of shrubs (plant communities of bushes less than 4 m high) in zones with scarce precipitation (less than 700 mm). They are found in arid climates, from coastal plains to higher elevations with average temperatures of between 12 and 26° C.

 

The ecosystem contains a large variety of shrub species, including legumes, cacti, agaves, spurges, and grasses (CONABIO, 2012). Among fauna, there are many mammals, birds, and reptiles, including coyotes, black tailed jackrabbits, pumas, raccoons, bighorn sheep, macaws, great horned owls, prairie falcons, gray-headed kites, golden eagles, rattle snakes, colubrid snakes, and turtles. 

 

 

Xeric vegetation is adapted to life in dry conditions, which is why it generally has specific characteristics that allow it to survive, such as: long and extensive root systems that form superficial networks or can reach water tables or underground moisture; they have thick stalks that can store water; they are deciduous, meaning that they lose their leaves during long periods of drought; their leaves have stomata, or have modified into spines, or sometimes they simply do not have leaves; and lastly, they have photosynthetic metabolisms specially adapted to water efficiency (Crassulacean acid metabolism). For these reasons, xeric scrubland vegetation is spiny and results in stumpy bushes, deciduous trees, grasslands, and geophyte plants. 

 

These characteristics allow this type of vegetation to maximize its use of water when there is access to it. During the rainy season, it is common to observe changes in the color of the vegetation and there are even some species that flower and produce fruit.

 

In Mexico, the xeric shrublands are the most abundant ecosystem, occupying around 28% of the country’s surface area, which represents more than 56 million hectares (INEGI, 2015). They can be found principally in the north, from Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Durango, Zacatecas, and even down to parts of San Luis Potosí, Durango, Guanajuato, Oaxaca, and Puebla (CONABIO, 2021). 

 

In comparison to other ecosystems present in Mexico, the xeric shrubland presents an elevated number of endemic species (species naturally limited to one specific geographic region) (CONAFOR, 2019). in addition, given its abundance within Mexican territory, more than 58% of the population lives within this ecosystem (up to 2010); this represents 65.4 million people (CONAFOR, 2019). 

 

 

Unfortunately, uncontrolled livestock grazing and the excessive exploitation of species has resulted in great losses of vegetation and the considerable diminishment of animal species. Also, these unrestrained activities have caused the compaction and erosion of the soil, which is very difficult to reverse.

 

This makes the conservation of this ecosystem and its sustainable exploitation crucial for conserving its biodiversity and maintaining the varied ecosystem services that it provides. In parallel, this ecosystem is socially and economically valuable because many products that can be consumed and commercialized are obtained from it. The species from which materials and products are most commonly extracted are the following (CONAFOR, 2019):

Mesquite. Flour used in many food preparations is made from this tree, its flower is commonly used by bees to make a soft and light honey, and its wood is used to produce furniture and high-quality carbon.

Cortadillo. This plant’s resistant fibers are used to make brooms (Mexican brooms are world-renowned for their quality and are one of the most exported products), brushes, and other products.

Sotol. An evergreen plant from which an alcoholic spirit can be produced, commonly consumed in the north of the country.

Candelilla. Exclusive to the American continent, it is a unique plant that produces high-quality wax that is used as a natural conservative for fruits and vegetables, in addition to other uses in the automotive, pharmaceutical, mechanical, aeronautic, and other industries. 

Yucca filifera. A plant that can grow up to 20 meters. Its flower is consumed as food in northern Mexico. In addition, it serves as forage for livestock, oil can be produced from its seed, and its fibers are extracted to make paper.

Oregano. An important species in Mexican and world cuisine. Ointments, emulsions, soaps, creams, and skin masks are also produced using oregano.

Damiana. An aromatic plant that is used to make tea (herbal infusion). Used to a lesser degree as an ingredient for energizing beverages, and also used to produce a liquor. Its striking yellow flower is frequented by bees and other pollinating insects.

Pequin pepper. Known as chile piquín in Mexico, it is a unique chile that has not been industrially domesticated; almost 100% is harvested from the wild. 

Lechuguilla. Belonging to the agave family, it produces a resistant fiber that is also used to make brushes and brooms. 

Pitaya. This plant (Stenocereus spp.) produces a striking, often red, fruit during a short annual season, from which delicious cookies, marmalades, and desserts are made. 

 

Despite the high ecological, social, and economic value that the plant species growing in this ecosystem provide, it is one of the most undervalued ecosystems and one of the most vulnerable to climate change and wildfires. This is why the Mexican government, through the National Forestry Commission or CONAFOR, has developed programs so that the rural and indigenous communities can strengthen their social networks and economic security by promoting the sustainable exploitation of this ecosystem. It is essential that we recognize its value, because it provides great natural diversity, a multitud of product, and a scenic beauty that is unique in the world. 



 

References

CONABIO. (2021, July 8). Matorrales. Consultado 18/08/2021, desde: https://www.biodiversidad.gob.mx/ecosistemas/Matorral

Comisión Nacional Forestal (2019, septiembre 19). Después de la tormenta, llegan las hojas (Primera parte). Gobierno de México. Consultado 18/08/2021, desde: https://www.gob.mx/conafor/es/articulos/despues-de-la-tormenta-llegan-las-hojas-primera-parte?idiom=es 

Comisión Nacional Forestal (2019, septiembre 23). Después de la tormenta, llegan las hojas (Segunda parte). Gobierno de México. Consultado 18/08/2021, desde: https://www.gob.mx/conafor/es/articulos/despues-de-la-tormenta-llegan-las-hojas-segunda-parte?idiom=es 

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