Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rising temperatures push Andean species skyward

Nathanael Massey in E&E News: The cloud forests of the Andes mountains, bound between the Amazonian lowlands to the west and the peaks of the Andean uplift to the east, harbor worlds upon worlds. Within the mountains' mosaic of high plateaus, deep-cut valleys and steeply climbing slopes, unique ecosystems have flourished side by side for centuries, their equilibrium protected by the rugged terrain and 12,000 years of relatively stable climate. Home to nearly one-sixth of the world's plant species, as well as hundreds of kinds of mammals, birds and amphibians, the Andean cloud forests are one of the most biologically diverse regions on Earth.

They are also among the most vulnerable. Isolation has given rise to a high number of endemic -- or regionally unique -- species with little history of migration, leaving them ill-equipped to respond to the human influences that have crept through the forests in recent decades. Mineral extraction and agricultural deforestation have taken a toll, and incursions into the region show every sign of expanding.

Most alarmingly, warming temperatures have accelerated a process of upslope migration, begun at the close of the last ice age, that threatens to push the region's biodiversity into increased competition, nutrient-poor soil conditions and, finally, thin air, according to forest ecologists working in the region.

Although many South American countries have taken steps to protect Andean ecosystems, their efforts might be insufficient. A new study led by researchers at Duke University has identified and mapped hundreds of endemic plant and animal species across 17,000 miles of east-facing Andean uplift, a section ranging through Bolivia and Peru. It found that only 20 percent of areas with the highest levels of biodiversity are protected by government regulations.

"What our study showed was incredibly scary," said Bruce Young, director of species science at the organization NatureServe and a co-author of the study....

Cloud forest near Mindo, Ecuador, shot by Ayacop, public domain

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