9 May 2018

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.

Carolina Tovar
Mauricio Diazgranados Cadelo

By Suzette Flantua, Carolina Tovar, Tom Etherington and Dr Mauricio Diazgranados Cadelo

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.