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Description of ecosystems.   Paramo Regions

 

 

 
 

 

This high altitude mountain region of mostly wide open grassland is only found in the Andes, possessing a distinct flora and fauna, which differentiates it from other elevated mountain regions of the world. Paramo is the word used for the more humid northern regions of the Andes extending from northern Peru to Venezuela whereas the drier and colder alpine regions of southern Peru to Chile are commonly known as Puna. It is a region mostly devoid of trees, having dark peat soils, which support hardy grasses, cushion plants, shrubs and flowers, which grow close to the ground. Water logged areas are intermingled  The mean temperature is around 10 C with a range of 24C at day and 0C at night. The climate is occasionally harsh with cold winds, foggy conditions, occasional snowfall and frequent light frosts at night. Annual precipitations reach from 600mm to 1800mm, with the paramo regions located in the northern part of the country and in the Eastern Cordillera being generally more humid. As it is situated so high and right around the equator, it also receives high levels of ultraviolet light, to which the native flora and fauna had to adapt accordingly.



 

Paramo is a wide open grass steppe with some sheltered pockets of shrubs and small trees thrown in. Low lying areas are often water logged. The dominant grass specie is Ichu stipu intermingled with cushion plants.



 

In Ecuador, this ecosystem starts right at the edge of the glacier at around 5000m and drops down to the upper edge of the mountain forests at approximately 3600m. It covers 10% of the land of the country and is home to thousands of mostly indigenous people, who dedicate themselves to agriculture and living in small hamlets. Potatoes and onions are still grown that high up and the paramo grass serves as pastures for cattle and sheep. Originally, this area was home to large herds of wild llamas but at the beginning of the last century the llamas were all but eradicated by man and replaced by imported cattle, which are not really well adapted to that area, destroying the fragile soils with their hooves. Another detrimental effect of human use, is the burning of the grass in the dry season to promote new growth of more nutritious grass shoots. That however changes the flora by depleting plants, which need more years to establish themselves. Large cattle ranches also take away habitat from wild animals, which are further threatened by hunting.



 

In some paramo regions, especially in the Chimborazo province, native indigenous farmers still live like centuries ago. Their houses are made by cutting dirt bricks out of the dark peat soils and air drying them. Some trunks are used as beams and the roof is thatched with the tall grasses. Burning is used to promote new and more nutrtious grass shoots for animal grazing. This practice changes the flora by depleting plants which need longer to establish themselves.



 

This nature area is of course not uniform in the whole country and divided in various paramo sub-ecosystems, differentiated mostly in dry and wet areas and the plants they support. The majority of the country's paramo regions are wide open grass steppes, supporting woody shrubs in sheltered areas, like the one around Cotopaxi (see photo above). Some paramos however are water saturated swamps, which are called locally patonales and the least disturbed by human intervention. One of the most interesting humid paramo area is that of El Angel close to the Colombian border, which boasts of the famous giant frailejones plants. Some of those high altitude areas even still support forests of polylepis trees, special habitat for some animals. The farther south you travel in the country the drier the region becomes and a very dry paramo area can be found around Mount Chimborazo. As already mentioned mountain lakes or ponds play a major role in this environment and one region known for its many water holes is El Cajas, a national park just west of Cuenca.



 

This high Andes are also important as a water source for irrigation purposes and drinking water. The grass paramo serves as a natural filter to provide clean water and many small lakes, dotting the landscape, gather the rain water and the melt off from glaciers and serve as reservoirs to provide the precious liquid for the people living in the valleys.

Global warming
also rears its disruptive head here. Ecuador's high peaks lose their glaciers at an alarming rate and will not be able to provide future storage of water. Quito, the capital of 2 million inhabitants, which till now draws its water directly from the paramo is already starting building a pipeline into the Amazon basin to ensure future water supply.



 

All of those factors play a big role in the evolution of the specific plants of the paramo, which adapted to this habitat. The most common characteristics are small and thick leaves, sometimes hairy, flowers growing close to the ground, a deep soil-penetrating root system and very distinct compact cushion plants. Most paramo flowers belong to the aster family or composites but also species from the gentian family are widespread. A species of the ranunculus family is locally called the "Rose of the Andes" for their big, beautiful red and yellow flowers. Some other flowers belong to the legume family with various species of wild lupines, valerians and even orchids are still found in those high paramo regions. Other plants found that high up are the hardy grass species, ichu stipa or locally named pajonal or paja, which grows in bunches and was and still is used as thatching material by the local inhabitants. Lycopsids, also falsely known as club mosses, an old plant order, which survived from dinosaur times has an interesting representative in that altitude, a dark red elongated, fingerlike plant, growing also in bunches. Other well-known plants are the puyas, which belong to the bromeliad family and produce meter high flower spikes, which stand out in the open areas. Also still growing there are lichens, ferns and mosses. Shrubs and small trees still dot the more sheltered areas with many composites bushes, like the chuquiragua, which stands out with its bright orange flowers and has medicinal values and species of the valerian family. The Polylepis tree, locally called arbol de papel because of its papery bark, is considered one of the world's highest growing tree specie, growing sometimes over 4000m in the country.



 

Water-logged Paramo

Frailejones

Polylepis Forest

Vicunas in Dry Paramo



 

The fauna of the paramo has an affinity to the fauna of the Patagonian grass steppes of the southern part of the continent.  This natural vegetation serves as habitat for some mammals. The Andean Fox also called "Lobo del Paramo" or "Paramo Wolf", White-tailed Deer and other members of the deer family, rabbits and various rodents inhabit the regions. The rare Spectacled Bear  although living in high mountain forests, ventures into the high paramo for its most treasured food treat, the Puya bromeliads. The paramo is also home to a wide range of birds. The most famous but unfortunately already rarely seen, is the mighty Condor also called "King of the Andes" because of its wide wingspan and majestic flight. Other important birds found are eagles, the caracara falcons, owls and one specie of gull which with other water- and shorebirds are found on the paramo ponds. The most successful bird families to establish themselves there are the hummingbirds, funariids, finches and flycatchers. Adaptations to survive that high up by going into a kind of nightly hibernation. Insects are also still found, although in smaller numbers, pollinating the small flowers along with hummingbirds and even a few amphibians and reptiles can be encountered in the high Andes paramo region. Amazingly, altogether more than 2000 species of plants and animals call their home in this cold and high ecosystem.

 
 

 

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