As the largest and perhaps most biologically diverse coral atoll in the Caribbean,
Turneffe is home to an extensive variety of wildlife.



The marine environment of Turneffe Atoll sparkles with exuberant life with coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass being closely connected and supporting a rich array of wildlife.

The terrestrial environment of the Atoll, however, can be harsh for wildlife. Storm surges have swept the Atoll many times during its history, leading to the removal of plant, mammal, reptile and amphibian species.  This has been followed by gradual re-establishment of plants and animals, either as natural recolonization by coastal vegetation carried by wind or water, or from plants and animals carried on rafts of floating vegetation from the mainland. Accidental and deliberate introductions by people have also occurred. A more diverse mammal fauna may therefore have existed before the most recent severe storm surge in 1961 from Hurricane Hattie.

Despite being 50 km from the mainland, Turneffe Atoll is home to a number of terrestrial mammals, including the Northern raccoon, common possum, and nine-banded armadillo. Historical records indicate that white tailed deer once inhabited the atoll, They were introduced by the fishermen to supplement their diet, but are thought to have been eliminated by the 1961 storm surge. Many of the resorts and fishing camps keep domesticated dogs, and semi-feral pigs are also still thought to be present in some areas. 

Marine Mammals

The waters in and around the Turneffe Atoll provide a marine environment for a number of marine mammal species including a healthy population of the Antillean manatee (a sub-species of the West Indian manatee) and four species of dolphin.

Belize is well known for its population of Antillean manatees – one of the highest in the region. Of the 800 to 1,000 individuals estimated to live in Belizean waters, 25 to 30 spend extensive amounts of time at Turneffe, which provides sheltered waters for calving and nursing mothers, and extensive seagrass beds critical food for these large, gentle marine mammals. Manatees are known to move regularly between the Atoll and the Drowned Cayes, near Belize City. 

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are frequently seen at Turneffe along with the less commonly encountered spotted dolphins. Whilst bottlenose dolphins are found both inside and outside the Atoll waters, the spotted dolphins are more commonly seen in the deeper waters outside the Atoll hunting along the productive reef wall along the Atoll edge. As with manatees, the sheltered waters of the Atoll provide an ideal site for the significant seasonal population of nursing bottlenose dolphins with calves. An additional three species, the spinner, rough-toothed and Clymenes’ dolphins have also been encountered in the deeper waters around Turneffe.


As with the mammals, the land based reptiles were heavily depleted by Hurricane Hattie. However, there are still a number of species that either survived the storm surge or have managed to recolonize in more recent years. Of conservation importance is a bright turquoise blue colour morph of the parrot snake, a sub species that is endemic to Turneffe Atoll.  Also found at Turneffe are the Mexican tree snake, green tree snake, boa constrictor and cat eye tree snake. Black iguanas are present as is a more recent colonizer, Maslin’s whiptail lizard.

The American Crocodile is the largest reptilian predator at Turneffe and can be found throughout the atoll. Turneffe is considered a critical area for this crocodile in Belize, and a key site for maintenance of this species in the wild.  An area of Northern Caye, Cockroach Bay or the Crocodile Lagoon, is thought to be one of the most prolific breeding areas for this species in the Caribbean.

All four species of sea turtle found in Belize (hawksbill, green, loggerhead, and leatherback turtles inhabit Turneffe.  All were once heavily fished in Belize, and were in danger of extinction. However, they are now protected in Belize, and are making a come-back. All four have been reported nesting on the sand beaches of cayes on the Atoll.


The reef at Turneffe Atoll is part of the Meso-American reef system, and more specifically, the Belize reef system.  It is one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth with more than 260 fish species having been recorded at Turneffe. 

Each species has a specific role within the reef community. Barracuda swim at the top of the food chain and keep the balance, as do blacktip, lemon, Caribbean reef and hammerheads sharks. Herbivorous fish, such as the parrotfish, angelfish and surgeonfish are the dominant grazers of the reef ecosystem and are considered very important for the health of the reef. 

The reefs of the Atoll provide important habitat for the majority of the aquatic species at Turneffe while the sheltered lagoons, extensive seagrasses and mangroves provide ideal nursery functionality for several shark species, including great hammerheads, lemon and blacktip sharks, as well as numerous other species including commercial species such as snapper and grouper. 


The wider Turneffe area, with its deep water passages, provides important habitat for marlin, sailfish, mackerel, jacks, kingfish and sharks.  These species inhabit waters surround Turneffe that reach depths of 5000 feet. 

Four spawning aggregation sites are located at Turneffe - Mauger Caye, Dog Flea Caye, Soldier Caye and the Elbow. These sites are in areas where the Atoll drops off into the deep sea and currents converge to provide ideal conditions for spawning fish such as Nassau, tiger black and yellowfin grouper, cubera, black , dog, mutton and yellowtail snapper, as well as horse eye-jack, creole wrasse, Spanish mackerel, ocean triggerfish and permit. The fish gather in huge numbers, spiraling upwards through the water column, then dropping back down into the depths.

Species of international concern at Turneffe Atoll include the critically endangered goliath grouper, the endangered Nassau grouper, the great hammerhead and the scalloped hammerhead sharks, the queen triggerfishmarbled grouper, white grouper, snowy grouper and yellowmouth grouper, the northern seahorse, hogfishmutton snapper, cubera snapper, rainbow parrotfish, whale sharks and several varieties of toadfish including the endemic white-spotted toadfish.

The most commerciallyl important species at Turneffe are spiny lobster (Panulirus argus), a crustacean, and queen conch (Strombus gigas), a mollusk, along with several species of finfish including snapper and grouper.

Turneffe Atoll is a world-renown sport fishing destination with the most important sport fishing species being bonefish, permit and tarpon.  Sport fishing at Turneffe is principally shallow water sport fishing known as flats fishing, and all fish are released after being caught.  Bonefish, permit and tarpon have been protected as "catch & release" only species throughout Belize since 2009. Snook is another key sport fishing species but this species remains unprotected.


A number of coastal and sea birds inhabit the atoll.  Additionally, Turneffe sees a number of migratory species as they transit north or south.  Local species include osprey  brown pelicans , brown boobies , the great frigate, royal tern, herons (little blue, great blue heron, tricolored and yellow-crowned heron as well as snowy egrets.   The endangered roseate tern has been documented to nest at Soldier Caye and the white crowned pigeon has also been documented to nest on the atoll.

Migratory species reported include the Yucatan vireo , the red-eyed vireo , the northern waterthrush, the barn swallow , the common yellowthroat , the bay breasted warbler , the palm warbler , the Cape May warbler, the eastern wood pewee, the summer tanager, the American redstart, the merlin falcon and the peregrine falcon.

Other Birds commonly seen at Turneffe include the great tailed grackle, the golden-fronted woodpecker, the cinnamon hummingbird, the green breasted mango, and the hooded oriole.