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Colombia’s high-elevation biodiversity at risk

Researchers from Kew gather plant specimens and data in the Colombian páramos to model the impact of climate change
9 May 2018
Blog team: 
Suzette Flantua, Carolina Tovar, Tom Etherington & Mauricio Diazgranados

Into the mountains

As the road curves its way up to the mountainous landscape, the temperature drop signals that we are heading to our destination and moving further away from civilisation. The pick-up trucks we have hired, have a testing job following the narrow unpaved roads while scenery becomes increasingly breathtaking as we move beyond the timberline. Soon, we become surrounded by high-reaching steep, rocky slopes and open grasslands with ample valleys where glaciers paved their way through, many thousands of years ago. The numerous small streams make a crispy sound in the silent cold but sunny early morning, while a fresh breeze welcomes our arrival to the Páramo La Rusia. Translated as Páramo The Russia, its name reminds us that this is a land of harsh climate.

Image showing Páramo La Rusia

A view of the high-Andean grasslands with frailejones (Espeletia discoidea Cuatrec., Asteraceae) (RBG Kew/S.Flantua)

Image showing The expedition team in the field

Members of the expedition team in Páramo La Rusia (Boyacá, Colombia) (RBG Kew/S.Flantua)

Image showing the team Preparing for fieldwork, in rain or shine

Early morning preparation at starting point in Páramo La Rusia (RBG Kew/S.Flantua)

The high-Andean ecosystem: The ‘páramos’

Today’s expedition is part of a three-week fieldwork trip to the northern Andes, which hosts a unique ecosystem only found in this part of the world, namely the ‘páramos’. Some experts believe that the páramos might hold the highest diversity of species in a tropical high-elevation ecosystem in the world, with more than 5,000 plant species. This ecosystem is rich in ‘endemic’ species, meaning that they are unique to certain páramo only. Colombia holds the largest extension of páramo habitat at around 29,000 square kilometres, and along with local Colombian partners, Kew Scientists are still reaching areas that have previously lacked exploration and might even host species not yet known to science.

Aa leucantha (Rchb.F.) Schltr., a species of orchid from the Páramo La Rusia (RBG Kew/M.Diazgranados)

Brachyotum strigosum (L. f.) Triana (Melastomataceae), a colourful shrub from the Páramos (RBG Kew/M.Diazgranados)

Flowers of Puya trianae Baker (Bromeliaceae). The leaves of this plant are usually consumed by the spectacled bear (RBG Kew/M.Diazgranados)

Summer and winter on the same day

Our international group of Kew researchers (from the UK, Colombia and many other European countries) prepared well for the unpredictable weather conditions of the páramos. Packed with waterproof clothing, hats and wellies, we hike for hours over rocky and swampy terrains. The weather is as changeable as the topography, where hypothermia is as likely a risk as serious sunburn and dehydration. The páramo can surprise you with summer and winter temperatures within an hour, ranging from freezing temperatures to mid-twenties, depending on the cloudiness.

Image showing 'Climbing through the clouds'

View of the rough topography of the Northern Andes. (Complejo de Páramos La Rusia-Guántiva, Boquerón del Consuelo, Boyacá, Colombia. Elev. 4,100 m) (RBG Kew/M.Diazgranados)

Image showing The journey into the mountains

Sudden dense fogs are common in the high Andes and can quickly reduce visibility out in the field (RBG Kew/M.Diazgranados)

Image showing the beautiful habitat revealed as the fog clears

High stem-rosettes of the frailejones (Espeletia brachyaxiantha S.Díaz, Asteraceae), endemic to these páramos (RBG Kew/M.Diazgranados)

Páramos under future climate conditions

But climate conditions are already changing. In some areas, sunny days are becoming more frequent, with increased risk of fires, water shortages, and new challenges for species survival. Mountain ecosystems around the world are expected to suffer greatly under climate change and it is still uncertain how the páramos will respond. The expectation is that many species will not be able to cope with changing conditions, putting at risk local communities’ livelihoods that depend on the páramos for their subsistence. Many of the plants found in the páramos for instance, currently support local economies – as a source of medicine, food, spices and construction materials. The páramos also act as the water reservoirs for all major cities and watersheds in Colombia, operating as the country’s “water towers”. Changing conditions in the coming decades are expected to affect both water quantity and quality.

Kew researcher Suzette Flantua holding a specimen of Echeveria (Crassulaceae) not previously observed in this region (RBG Kew/M.Diazgranados)

Fieldwork botanist Laura Pinzón documenting the plants on the steep slopes of the Páramo Chiscas (RBG Kew/M.Diazgranados)

Espeletiopsis garciae (Cuatrec.) Cuatrec. at the Páramo El Valle (RBG Kew/M.Diazgranados)

Boyacá Bio – ‘Plants for Life’ project

The data collected during this fieldtrip will contribute to identifying further key páramo plant species. Our field trips during 2017 and 2018 have resulted in the collection of more than 450 specimens from about 200 species, including seven potential new species. Having a better understanding on the geographic distribution of key plant species of the páramos will allow us to improve the modeling of their current habitat and predict the effects of climate change in the near future. 

The next step of our project is assessing the potential consequences of these effects for human livelihoods within the local and regional communities of the páramos.

- Suzette, Carolina, Tom and Mauricio -

(RBG Kew/M.Diazgranados)

Lítamo Real (Draba cocuyana Al-Shehbaz, Brassicaceae), an endangered medicinal plant collected in the Páramo de Chiscas (RBG Kew/M.Diazgranados)

Kew and Colombian researcher fellows collecting samples of the frailejón (Espeletia brachyaxiantha Cuatrec.) in the Páramo La Russia (RBG Kew/S.Flantua)

Local guides and horses are of vital importance for a successful fieldwork expedition (RBG Kew/M.Diazgranados)

We would like to acknowledge the local guides from the different páramos we visited, our partners from the Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt, and our field assistants from Colombia: David Granados, Andrea L. Simbaqueba, Laura Pinzón and Andrés F. Bohórquez.

Find out more

Kew – Colombia Bio Programme

The Colombia Bio programme, established in the country’s National Development Plan (2014–2018), aims to lead the transformation of the Colombian economy into one based on green growth.

Boyacá’s Páramo Plants for Life

This project’s ambition is to research the impact of climate change on important plants for the ecosystem services of the páramos of Boyacá, Colombia.

State of the World's Fungi

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has released the first ever State of the World’s Fungi report. The report outlines the state of the world’s fungi and highlights just how important fungi are to all life on Earth.