Located in the Atlantic Ocean, the Bahamas consists of 700 islands.


  • OFFICIAL NAME: Commonwealth of the Bahamas
  • FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Constitutional parliamentary democracy
  • CAPITAL: Nassau
  • POPULATION: 332,634
  • OFFICIAL LANGUAGES: English, Creole
  • MONEY: Bahamian dollar
  • AREA: 5,382 square miles (13,939 square kilometers)


Located in the Atlantic Ocean, the Bahamas consists of 700 islands. Only about 30 of them are inhabited by people. New Providence—one of the largest islands and the location of the capital—is home to 70 percent of the country’s population.

Humans have lived on the islands of the Bahamas since around the fourth century. In the 1600s the area drew pirates such as Blackbeard and Calico Jack. These bold buccaneers looted cargo ships sailing along trading routes that circled the islands. The territory came under British rule in 1718 and would remain that way until 1973 when the Bahamas gained its independence. Today the spot is a popular destination for tourists—over five million people visit each year to check out the country’s wildlife and culture.

Map created by National Geographic Maps

The Bahamas is home to the world’s largest colony of pink flamingos.PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD CAREY, DREAMSTIME


People in colorful costumes dance through the streets of Nassau (the capital of the Bahamas) to the sounds of horns, drums, and whistles. It’s December 26 and towns across the island nation are holding Junkanoo festivals. This celebration, which may have started as early as the 16th century, honors the country’s history with traditional music and dancing. It’s a time to have fun, Bahamas style.




Turtles, parrots, iguanas, and the world’s largest colony of pink flamingos all thrive in the warm climate of the Bahamas. (The temperature here rarely drops below 60˚F!) The warm waters surrounding the islands boast colorful fish such as blue tang and stoplight parrotfish. And Andros Island features the 140-mile-long Andros Barrier Reef—one of the longest coral reefs in the world. No wonder this tropical country is such a hot spot!


Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean Sea.


  • OFFICIAL NAME: Republic of Cuba
  • FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Socialist republic
  • CAPITAL: Havana
  • POPULATION: 11,116,396
  • MONEY: Peso
  • AREA: 42,802 square miles (110,860 square kilometers)


Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean Sea. Cuba and its neighbors form the Greater Antilles, a chain of islands created millions of years ago when two of Earth’s tectonic plates collided.

Cuba is a long and narrow island. It stretches 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) from east to west, but is only 60 miles (100 kilometers) wide in most places.

High mountains and rolling hills cover about one-third of Cuba. The other two-thirds of the island are lowland plains used mainly for farming.

Map created by National Geographic Maps

of the Vinales Valley, Cuba, at sunset
Traditional agriculture methods have been practiced in Cuba’s Viñales Valley for several centuries.PHOTOGRAPH BY MASSIMO BOCCHI, SHUTTERSTOCK


The mixture of native, African, and European influences in Cuba gives this island a lively culture that is known around the world. The introduction of communism to the country in 1959 has had a big impact on the people, both positive and negative.

Cuba’s history is reflected in its food, language, art, and, most of all, its music. All year round, it seems as if bands are everywhere in Havana. The main musical form is called son, which combines lively rhythms with classical guitar.

Unlike most countries in Latin America, Cuba’s favorite sport is not soccer. It’s baseball! Baseball came to Cuba from the United States in the 1860s. Many international baseball stars have come from Cuba, and the Cuban national team is one of the best in the world.


Cuba has many different habitats, from mountain forests to jungles and grasslands. There are even small deserts. These different ecosystems are home to unique plants and animals found only in Cuba.

Many interesting creatures live in Cuba’s thick forests. Most famous is the bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird. Adult bee hummingbirds grow to only two inches (five centimeters) long. The world’s smallest frog also lives in Cuba.

Cuban flag

LEFT: CUBA FLAG, RIGHT: PESOPhotograph by Wrangel, Dreamstime


Cuba is a socialist state run by the Cuban Communist Party. Cubans vote for their leaders, but the communist party is the only legal party. Fidel Castro was president, prime minister, and commander of the armed forces until February 2008, when he stepped down due to a lengthy illness.

The United States had been hostile toward Cuba since the communists took power in 1959, but in 2015 the United States reopened its embassy in Cuba—where American diplomats live to work with the Cuban government. Soon after, Cuba did the same in the United States.


Guatemala is a country of volcanoes, mountains, and beaches on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.


  • OFFICIAL NAME: Republic of Guatemala
  • FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Democratic Republic
  • CAPITAL: Guatemala City
  • POPULATION: 16,581,273
  • MONEY: Quetzal
  • AREA: 42,043 square miles (108,890 square kilometers)


Guatemala is a country of volcanoes, mountains, and beaches on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. From the Cuchamatán Mountains in the western highlands, to the coastlines on the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, this small country is marked by contrasts. Three of Guatemala’s 30 volcanoes are still active.

Pacaya volcano located near Guatemala City is the most active volcano. Lake Atitlan formed when a volcano exploded over 84,000 years ago and collapsed to form a caldera. The lake is the deepest lake in Central America and is believed to be 900 feet (300 meters) deep and covers 48 square miles (125 square kilometers).

Only slightly larger than the U.S. state of Tennessee, Guatemala is a mountainous country with one-third of the population living in cool highland villages. The coastal lowlands are warm and humid. The country is bordered by MexicoHondurasEl Salvador, and Belize.

Map created by National Geographic Maps


The Maya civilization was very advanced in math and astronomy. The Maya probably developed the concept of zero and left written records using hieroglyphics and whole words.

While historians are not sure why the Maya Empire collapsed, the Maya society began to shrink in the 10th century and split into separate groups. They may have suffered from overpopulation and the effects of drought.

Maya women continue to weave brightly colored cloth and fashion the same traje, or suit, that their ancestors wore. More than half of the population is indigenous. The largest of the 20 Maya groups, the Quiché, live near the city of Quetzaltenango, called Xela (SHEH-la) by the locals.

Many believe that the name Guatemala comes from the Maya word Guhatezmalh, that described the volcano near the old capital in Antigua, the “Mountain That Vomits Water.” Today the volcano is simply called the Volcan de Agua, “Volcano of Water.”

women wearing Maya clothing in Guatemala
Mayan traditional dress in Guatemala includes brightly woven clothing.PHOTOGRAPH BY BRUNO MORANDI


High in the mountains in the misty cloud forests lives the colorful quetzal bird. In the bright sunshine, both the male and female quetzal bird have vibrant green, white, and red feathers, but only the male has the fabulous long tail that can measure 3 feet (1 meter) long.

The ancient Maya people believed that the quetzal bird was the living form of the god Quetzalcoatl. Today the rare bird is listed as endangered due to destruction of tropical rain forests.

The cloud forest mist provides a water source to air plants known as bromeliads which cling to tree trunks. The forest floor is also home to orchids, ferns, and mosses.

The lowland Petén region in the northeastern part of the country is home to many plants and animals including jaguars, tapirs, monkeys, mule deer, and the ocelot.


Guatemala’s economy boomed in the 1870s thanks to coffee exports. Wealthy landowners pushed Maya communities off their land to make way for more coffee plantations.

Decades of civil war and repression of the indigenous people killed hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans in the 20th century. In 1996, a new president, Alvaro Arzu, signed a peace agreement with rebels and ended the 36-year civil war.

A new constitution in 1986 established three branches of government. The president serves for only one term and is assisted by a vice president and the Council of Ministers. New laws are passed by Congress. President Alvaro Colom Caballeros was sworn in January 2008.

LEFT: GUATEMALAN MAP, RIGHT: QUETZALPhotograph by Danita Delimont, Alamy


Archaeologists believe that the earliest settlers to Guatemala crossed the Bering Strait from Asia 14,000 years ago and evidence of human settlements date to around 9000 B.C. People began to farm and form villages around 1000 B.C. and some of them became the Maya who dominated Guatemala history from A.D. 250 to 900.

The Maya temple at Tikal was built over 1,300 years ago as a tomb to honor the Maya ruler, Ah Cacaw. Tikal, once an expansive city and home to 100,000 people, began to decline in A.D. 850, and was abandoned about 50 years later. The ruins were not discovered until 1695.

In the 16th century, the Spanish invaded and fought the largest remaining group called the Quiché. The Quiché were overpowered and forced to work on vast estates in the newly established colony of New Spain. In 1821, Guatemala claimed independence from Spain.


Jamaica is a mountainous island in the Caribbean Sea about 600 miles (965 kilometers) south of Miami, Florida.


  • OFFICIAL NAME: Jamaica
  • FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Parliamentary democracy
  • CAPITAL: Kingston
  • POPULATION: 2,812,090
  • MONEY: Jamaican dollar
  • AREA: 4,411 square miles (10,992 square kilometers)
  • MAJOR MOUNTAIN RANGES: Blue Mountains, John Crow Mountains, Don Figuero Mountains, Cockpit Country
  • MAJOR RIVERS: Black River, Rio Cobre, Rio Grande


Jamaica is a mountainous island in the Caribbean Sea about 600 miles (965 kilometers) south of Miami, Florida. It is part of the chain of Caribbean islands called the Greater Antilles, along with Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico. Jamaica was formed when the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates collided about 25 million years ago.

Jamaica is the tip of a mountain rising from the sea floor. Nearly half of the island is more than 1,000 feet (330 meters) above sea level. There are lush rolling hills that are ideal for agriculture and coastal beach regions that are popular with tourists.

Map created by National Geographic Maps

man on a raft in the Martha Brae River, Jamaica
A man steers a raft down the Martha Brae River in Jamaica.PHOTOGRAPH BY SCOTT GRIESSEL, DREAMSTIME


Most of the population lives in the city and one third of all Jamaicans live in the capital of Kingston. More than 90 percent of the population is of African descent, but many other people have come from China, India, Germany, and Syria to find work on the island. Jamaica’s motto is “Out of Many, One People.”

When most people think of Jamaica they think of Reggae, or “Ragged Music.” The music was born in the 1950s and ’60s from the musical styles of mento, ska, and rocksteady. The most famous reggae star was Bob Marley, who was backed by his group the Wailers. Other famous reggae stars include Desmond Dekkar, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, and Burning Spear.

Jamaicans are spiritual people and follow many religions, including Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. Many are Rastafarians, followers of a Christian-based faith, which grew out of a civil rights movement in the 1930s.

Rastafarians believe that Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1916 to 1974, was their savior. Rasta men wear their hair in dreadlocks, believing that hair should not be cut, and wear clothing in red, gold, and green—the colors of the Ethiopian flag.


The island is home to the endangered Homerus swallowtail, the largest butterfly in the Western Hemisphere. Its wingspan is 6 inches (25 cm), which makes this insect larger than many of the island’s birds.

Bird watchers enjoy the 250 bird species that can be seen on the island, including 26 birds that are found nowhere else. The vervain, the world’s second smallest bird is found here. This tiny hummingbird is only 2.5 inches (8 cm) long. Jamaica’s national bird is the streamertail hummingbird, or “doctor bird.” It has long tail feathers and a scarlet bill.

Jamaica boasts more than 200 orchids and 550 different ferns. One quarter of the 3,000 plant species are endemic, or native species. Years of development have decreased the habitats for wildlife on the island. The American crocodile, manatee, and iguana are rare now because they were hunted for meat and hides.



The Taino people arrived from South America in the seventh century and called the island Xaymaca, “land of wood and water,” because of the green dense forest and the hundreds of fast-flowing streams that once covered the landscape.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to visit Jamaica in 1494 and called it “the fairest island that eyes have beheld.” The Taino people were enslaved and by 1600 were wiped out by disease or harsh treatment. The Spanish brought in slaves from Africa and ruled the island until 1655 when the British seized it.

African slaves worked on the sugar plantations and were treated very cruelly by the owners. By the late 1700s, Jamaica became one of the largest slave markets for the Western Hemisphere. There were many slave uprisings and slavery was finally abolished in Jamaica in 1838. The island became independent in 1962.


Located on the western one-third of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea, Haiti shares the island with the Dominican Republic.



  • OFFICIAL NAME: Republic of Haiti
  • FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Semi-presidential republic
  • CAPITAL: Port-au-Prince
  • POPULATION: 11,562,675
  • OFFICIAL LANGUAGES: French, Haitian Creole
  • MONEY: Gourde
  • AREA: 10,714 square miles (27,750 square kilometers)
  • MAJOR MOUNTAIN RANGES: Massif de la Selle, Massif du Nord


Located between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, Haiti occupies the western one-third of the island of Hispaniola. The Dominican Republic borders Haiti on the eastern side of the island. Haiti’s closest neighbors include Jamaica to the west and Cuba to the northwest.

Hayti means “land of the mountains” in the Indigenous, or native, Taíno language. The country’s highest peak, Pic la Selle, is part of the Massif de la Selle range located in southeastern Haiti and reaches nearly 9,000 feet (2,715 meters).

The island sits at the edge of a huge geological slab of rock just below the Earth’s surface, called a tectonic plate; when the plate shifts, it can cause an earthquake. (This article explains more about earthquakes.) Because of Haiti’s position on the edge of the plate, the country has a long history of very strong earthquakes that cause major damage. A massive magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck the country in August 2021. Experts estimate that over 2,000 people were killed and nearly 150,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.


Haiti is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with 1,000 people for every square mile (or 380 people for every square kilometer). Much of the population lives in rural areas working as farmers or laborers, but city population numbers are increasing. Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, is its most populous city, with nearly three million residents.

Most Haitians are of African origin, but a small number are of European descent. Haitian Creole, a mixture of French and African languages, is one of the country’s official languages and is spoken by the majority of the population. Though French is also an official language, only about 10 percent of Haitians speak it fluently.

Many Haitians practice voodoo, which combines West African spiritualism with the worship of Roman Catholic saints. A common saying in the country is that Haitians are 70 percent Catholic, 30 percent Protestant, and a hundred percent voodoo. In 2003, voodoo was declared an official religion. Today, marriages and other ceremonies held in the voodoo tradition are recognized by the government.

The traditional Haitian diet includes locally grown vegetables and fruits like cabbage, mango, and guava, as well as spicy meat dishes. Popular meals include griot (spiced, marinated cubes of pork), black rice made from mushrooms called djon-djon, and Haitian patties (savory pies filled with chicken, beef, or fish).

La Citadelle Laferrière in Haiti
La Citadelle Laferrière, a fortress, was built in northern Haiti in the 1800s.PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES P. BLAIR


Haiti’s tropical climate means warm temperatures for most of the year. While much of the country is mountainous, the coastline is flat and dotted with coconut trees. Royal palm trees are common here, too, and can reach up to 60 feet (18.3 meters) tall. But as Haiti’s population has grown, many of these trees have been cut down to make way for development. Wood is also frequently burned for fuel.

Because much of its forest coverage has been stripped, Haiti’s surface cannot stop floodwaters caused by strong storms and hurricanes from reaching most of the country. This causes massive damage often, because hurricanes are common in the warm ocean waters surrounding the island. Recent storms include Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, both of which caused flooding and landslides, leading to the loss of homes for thousands of people.

Haiti is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Maryland, but it has several diverse climate zones, including dry forests where several species of cacti grow and coastal mangrove forests where American flamingos can be spotted. The country’s two national parks—La Visite and Pic Macaya—each contain tropical and pine forests, which are home to a variety of species, including the rhinoceros iguana, the Haitian boa, and Haiti’s national bird: the Hispaniolan trogon.

Divers off the coast of Haiti can see West Indian manateesbottlenose dolphins, and Caribbean reef sharks.


Haiti’s government is a semi-presidential republic, with a president acting as the country’s leader and a prime minister reporting to the president. A president is elected to office every five years by a majority vote from the people of Haiti. The president appoints the country’s prime minister.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Caribbean and among the poorest countries in the world, with some 60 percent of the population living in poverty. The government relies on foreign aid from countries like the United States and Canada, which includes money for food, healthcare, and reconstruction efforts after major weather disasters.

Most of the Haitian population works in farming. Clothing factories also employ thousands of Haitians, mainly women, to manufacture products that are exported, or sent, around the world. Haiti’s other major exports include coffee, mangoes, sugarcane, rice, corn, and wood. 

Haiti currency




Hispaniola has been inhabited since around 5000 B.C., when groups of Native Americans likely arrived from Central and South America. Some of these early settlers included the Taíno, whose cave paintings scattered throughout the country have become national symbols of Haiti and popular tourist attractions.

Explorer Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492 and claimed it as a Spanish colony. Soon hundreds of Spanish settlers arrived. They killed most of the island natives and brought over enslaved Africans to work in the colony.

By the 1600s, the French had taken over much of the colony, which they called Saint Domingue. They increased production of many crops such as coffee, cotton, and sugarcane. But the enslaved people of Saint Domingue revolted against French rule in 1791. After what many historians refer to as the largest and most successful rebellion by enslaved people, the islanders finally declared their independence from France in 1804 and changed the name of the country to Haiti.

These Haitians had created the first independent nation in the Caribbean. (The others were colonized, or ruled, by countries like Spain and France.) Haiti was also the second democracy in the Western Hemisphere (after the United States), and the first Black republic—or a government not led by a monarch—in the world. But because the population had been ruled by outsiders for so long, the revolution left them without a system for governing, and years of struggle followed. By 1809, the eastern two-thirds of the island—the part that would eventually become the Dominican Republic—was returned to Spain.

Presidents did not remain in power very long in Haiti—by 1915, multiple revolutions had overthrown the government many times. From 1915 until 1934, the country was occupied by U.S. Marines who were establishing a base to protect the entrances to the Panama Canal, a waterway in the Central American country of Panama that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Starting in 1957, the Duvalier family began its rule of Haiti. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected president that year but became a dictator, refusing to give up his leadership role until his death in 1971. Haitians voted to approve his 19-year-old son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, as his successor. The younger Duvalier ruled Haiti from 1971 to 1986.

Like his father’s rule, the younger Duvalier’s term was marked by extreme poverty. People who didn’t agree with his actions were often killed, and many Haitians fled the country to escape the harsh living conditions. Finally, Duvalier’s government was overthrown in 1986.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president in 1990 during Haiti’s first free and peaceful election. His presidency lasted until 1995, when Rene Preval was elected as his successor. Aristide was re-elected president in 2000. For the next four years, the country experienced violence, political corruption, and food shortages. In 2004, Aristide was forced out of the country by protesters who were hoping for new leadership. A series of new presidents followed, but most were controversial leaders like Aristide.

In 2017, Jovenel Moïse, a former banana exporter, was elected president. During his time in office, he was also accused of being a corrupt ruler by some of his fellow Haitians. In February 2021, protestors held demonstrations demanding that Moïse step down from the presidency. He refused. On July 7 of the same year, Moïse was assassinated in his home.

Two days before his assassination, Moïse had appointed Ariel Henry, a doctor who went to school in the United States, to be Haiti’s prime minister. Henry will oversee the government until the country holds an election for its next president on November 7, 2021.


This Central American country is bordered by Costa Rica and Colombia, and is situated between the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean.


  • OFFICIAL NAME: Republic of Panama
  • FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Constitutional democracy
  • CAPITAL: Panama City
  • POPULATION: 3,800,644
  • OFFICIAL LANGUAGE: Spanish, English
  • AREA: 29,118 square miles (75,416 square kilometers)
  • MONEY: Balboa, U.S. dollar


This Central American country is bordered by Costa Rica and Colombia, and is situated between the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean. Panama is a narrow land bridge, or isthmus, connecting North and South America. Panama is slightly smaller than South Carolina.

Map created by National Geographic Maps

woman at market
An indigenous Kuna woman sells molas, which make up traditional dress, at a market in Panama.PHOTOGRAPH BY IVAN_SABO, SHUTTERSTOCK


Most Panamanians are descended from indigenous, or native, people, Europeans, Afro-Caribbeans, and immigrants from all over the world.

The three largest indigenous groups in Panama are the Kunas, Emberás, and Ngöbe-Buglés and they still live in the remote areas of the country.

They have their own dialects, languages, and customs and most of them also speak Spanish.

The national traditional dress for women is a long, full white cotton dress decorated with colorful embroidery called a pollera. Men wear a traditional montuno, which is a white cotton shirt with embroidery and short pants.

Family is very important in Panama. Children attend school from ages 7 to 15. Most of Panama’s national holidays are religious occasions.

Panamanians eat rice with most of their meals. They also eat corn tortillas with meat and vegetables.


The country is very diverse with mountains, rain forests, beautiful white-sand beaches, and 1,500 islands. Darién Gap, from Panama City to Colombia, has about 12 million acres of rain forest, yet few Panamanians or tourists ever visit the area, which is only accessible by boat.

This remote nature preserve is threatened by development and the proposed extension of the Pan-American Highway through this region.

The national flower is a white orchid called the Flor del Espiritu Santo, or Flower of the Holy Spirit. There are over 1,400 tree species, including the square tree, which has a square shaped trunk and is found in the mountains west of Panama City.

Panama is home to many unique animals that are found only in Panama. The mysterious golden frogs have gleaming, shimmering skin and are thought to bring people good luck. The numbers of golden frogs is declining and so are the numbers of sea turtles.


Under the constitution, there are three branches of government, including the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Panamanians elect a president and a vice president every five years. The president picks a cabinet of ministers.

After years of government corruption, Panama instituted many laws to focus on human rights, and to make the government more transparent to its citizens.

Panama’s agricultural products are bananas, rice, corn, beans, and coffee.

LEFT: PANAMANIAN FLAG, RIGHT: BALBOAPhotograph by Peter Scott, Dreamstime


Explored and settled by the Spanish in the 16th century, Panama broke with Spain in 1821 and joined with ColombiaEcuador, and Venezuela to form the Republic of Gran Colombia. When this republic dissolved in 1830, Panama remained part of Colombia.

With U.S. backing, Panama split from Colombia in 1903 and signed a treaty, which allowed the U.S. to control a strip of land on either side of a new canal.

The Panama Canal, built by the United States after Panama’s independence from Colombia in 1903, joins the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The canal was built by 75,000 workers between 1904 and 1914 and allows boats to sail between the two oceans without having to go all the way around the South American continent.

In 1999, Panama assumed full control of the Panama Canal.

In 1989 U.S. troops overthrew the country’s leader Gen. Manuel Noriega after he was found to be involved in drug trafficking. Panama’s first woman president, Mireya Moscoso, was elected a few years later.


West Indian Manatee

Reaching up to 13 feet (4 meters) long and weighing as many as 1,300 pounds (600 kilograms), West Indian manatees look more like small cars than people.

  • COMMON NAME: Manatees
  • SCIENTIFIC NAME: Trichechus
  • TYPE: Mammals
  • DIET: Herbivore
  • SIZE: 8 to 13 feet
  • WEIGHT: 440 to 1,300 pounds

Despite their large size, West Indian manatees are graceful swimmers. Although they usually move along in slow motion, they can also cruise, or swim at a steady pace, at five miles (eight kilometers) an hour. In short bursts they can even top 15 miles (24 kilometers) an hour!

While cruising, manatees push themselves forward by moving their strong tails up and down. They steer with the help of their flexible flippers. When in shallow water, manatees use their flippers to walk, slowly placing one in front of the other. Like whales and dolphins, manatees are mammals. Although they live in water, they have to surface frequently to breathe air. While swimming, manatees take in air every three or four minutes. When they are resting, they can stay underwater for up to 15 minutes.

Manatees are gentle animals. They rarely fight, and they have no natural enemies.

Subsisting on water plants and plants that grow at the water’s edge, a manatee takes in up to 1 pound (0.5 kilogram) of food for every 10 pounds (5 kilograms) it weighs.

Smalltooth Sawfish

Seaweed sways quietly on the ocean floor off Florida. Suddenly something cuts through the water, disrupting the calm. It looks like a chainsaw. But the object isn’t a tool that’s come to life—it’s a smalltooth sawfish.



These animals belong to a family of fish that have long, flat rostrums—or snouts—with sharp teeth sticking out around the edges. Related to sharks and rays, sawfish use their rostrums to dig under the ocean floor for crustaceans such as shrimp. They also snag other fish like herring by swiping at the prey with their spiky snouts.

Smalltooth sawfish mostly live in warm, shallow waters off the coast of the southeastern United States and in parts of the Caribbean Sea. (Some also live off the west coast of Africa.) They can grow 18 feet long and weigh more than 700 pounds. Despite its big size and fearsome nose, the fish is usually gentle unless provoked. And the animal has few predators. But young, smaller sawfish must watch out for enemies such as large sharks and even dolphins.


If a sawfish chips a tooth while defending itself, or if its chompers get worn down, it’s no big deal. The animal’s teeth continue to grow throughout its life. This amazing fish has one jaw-dropping snout!


These colorful fish live in and around the tropical reefs of all the world’s oceans.


A bright flash of blue, pink, and green glides through the water. A three-feet-long parrotfish swims through a Caribbean coral reef searching for food. With its super-strong teeth, the fish tears off a hunk of coral, biting down to get at the nutrient-rich algae inside. Once the fish is full, it continues swimming through the reef, leaving a puff of fine white sand trailing behind it.

  • COMMON NAME: Parrotfish
  • TYPE: FishDIET: Omnivore
  • GROUP NAME: School
  • SIZE: 1 to 4 feet

Champion chompers

Parrotfish nibble on algae growing on dead coral, but sometimes they accidentally swallow coral, too. Luckily, their powerful teeth are well equipped to grind up the crunchy coral in their tropical ocean habitat.

Each fish has about a thousand teeth lined up in 15 continuously growing rows. All those teeth are fused together to form a strong, beak-like structure. (The parrot-like “beak” is how the fish got its name.) Another set of teeth, called pharyngeal teeth, further breaks down the coral bits even more in the fish’s throat. Scientists analyzing the structure of these chompers discovered that they’re harder than a penny. They can also withstand 530 tons of pressure—that’s the same as the weight of about 88 elephants!

If a parrotfish does accidentally digest coral, they poop it out as sand. Since these swimmers spend about 90 percent of their time snacking on algae, they create a lot of sandy waste. One large parrotfish can grind up enough coral to create up to 800 pounds of soft, white sand a year. In fact, up to 70 percent of the white sand found on some beaches in Hawaii and the Caribbean is made of the ground-up coral that these fish leave behind.

Reef relief

Healthy coral reefs need space to grow and low levels of harmful algae. Luckily, parrotfish are common around tropical reefs all over the world, and their eating habits can help coral reefs stay healthy.

When the algae-eaters chomp down on coral, they create gaps in the reef that are filled in by new coral growth. The tropical fish also clear away excess algae, which can smother the coral and prevent it from growing. Without parrotfish, the whole coral ecosystem would collapse.

About 80 identified species of parrotfish live throughout in the world. Two types—the greenback and bumphead—are declining in population because of overfishing and habitat destruction.

But thanks in part to new marine protected areas, where it’s against the law to catch parrotfish, scientists expect these numbers to rise. These protected regions include the Gulf of Mexico; the Atlantic Ocean around the Bahamas; and the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, an island nation near Sri Lanka.

Snotty sleeping bags

Every night, certain species of parrotfish spend about an hour creating a near-invisible bubble of mucus to sleep in. (The mucus comes from glands behind their gills.) Scientists think these bubbles likely act as sort of protective sleeping bags to shield the fish from blood-sucking parasites and predators like moray eels and sharks.


  • Some species of parrotfish have scales strong enough to stop a spear.
  • Parrotfish are social and often swim in schools of several hundred fish. 
  • Many species of parrotfish can change both gender and color. The process of changing from female to male can take between two to three years and is controlled by hormones, which are chemical messengers in the fish’s blood. 
  • Divers can tell when these fish are nearby because of the loud noises they make scraping, biting, and crunching coral. 
  • Parrotfish teeth are always growing to replace the ones that get worn down when they eat.

Source : National Geographic

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