Museums of biodiversity in the Andes

Scientists have discovered that the seasonally dry tropical forests in valleys of the Andes are millions of years old and in need of protection.

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09 May 2011

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Cyathostegia mathewsii

Cyathostegia mathewsii, an ancient species from Andean dry valleys (Image: Gwilym Lewis).

The drier valleys of the Andes mountains are museums of biodiversity, harbouring species more ancient than neighbouring wetter neotropical cloud forests and high elevation grasslands. This is the conclusion of scientists from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Oxford University and Montana State University, USA, following a study of diversification in the shrubby legume Cyathostegia mathewsii that is endemic to the inter-Andean seasonally dry tropical forests (SDTFs). These forests are separated by high mountain ridges and have a 4- to 6-month dry season that excludes plant species requiring high rainfall.

By studying DNA sequence divergence, the team discovered that northern and southern populations of C. mathewsii (these only 600 km apart) found in four separate valleys in Ecuador and Peru have been isolated from each other for 5 million years. Together with fossil evidence, the data suggest that small valley pockets of inter-Andean SDTF have persisted over the past 10 million years, during which period dynamic mountain uplift events and historical climate changes have taken place in the Andes.

These forests are rich in endemic species but massively impacted and merit better representation in future plans for science and conservation in Andean countries.

Item from Dr Gwilym Lewis (Head of Legumes, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)
Originally published in Kew Scientist, issue 38


Article Reference:

Pennington, R.T., Lavin, M., Särkinen, T., Lewis, G.P., Klitgaard, B.B. & Hughes, C.E. (2010). Contrasting plant diversification histories within the Andean biodiversity hotspot. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 107: 13783–13787.


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