Thursday, September 20, 2012

Adventures in Ecuador Middle-Earth: I have found where the elves live.

"The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began."

Ecuador is magical. Epic. Enchanted. In fact, Rafael Correa (the president) should just change the name of the country to Middle-Earth (bonus for him: if he did this, maybe everyone would actually like him - except maybe New Zealanders). It would not only be appropriate due to the fact that it's actually located in the middle of the earth, but also because all of the scenery here could very easily have been designed by J.R.R. Tolkien himself (Tolkreationism?). Among the many landscapes here in the Sierra (the Andes mountain region in central Ecuador) there are enchanted forests, misty mountains, and fiery volcanoes - during the past few weeks, I have explored a lot of it, and just about the only things that were missing were some hobbits to follow me around, and the LOTR movie soundtrack (the real trouble with reality is that there's no background music).

When most people imagine what the climate is like along the equator, they would probably come up with hot and sunny beaches along the coast, and an endless expanse of tropical rainforest inland. In Ecuador though (and probably most other places along the equator) this is almost completely false. Continentality (the Andes being the prime factor here) have way too big of an effect on climate for it to be as simple as "it's on the equator, so it must be hot". Yes, there are indeed sunny beaches and tropical rainforets, but their climate is also intimately connected to the presence of the Andes. The Andes are the longest mountain range in the world, and stretch the entire length of the western edge of South America. In altitude, they are second only to the Himalayas. The fact that they are so high means that there are some really marked zonation patterns as you go up in altitude, ranging from tropical rainforest at the base, to a vast expanse of tundra at the peak (and of course, intermediate regions in between). This means that in a single day, you could have a snowball fight up in the Andes, then go down to the coast and drink some Piña Coladas while lying in a Hammock (this is on my bucket list, btw).

Also note: Since the equator recieves much more heat and sunlight than in more temperate regions at higher latitudes (like the European Alps pictured here), all of the zone boundaries like the tree line and the snow line are found at much higher altitudes.

A few weeks ago, during our first expedition with the Ecology program, we took a day trip along the gradient of elevations among the Ecuadorian Andes. We had our very own magic school bus to travel in, and were joined by our Professor, Kelly Swing, and our TF Jaime. We made a lot of stops on the way, each on with something special to look at - but even just the bus ride was brilliant with all of the beautiful scenery visible right outside our bus windows.

To the bus! We're going on a field trip! (props if you get the reference, that means you had a normal 90s kid childhood)

It was really amazing how you could go up a few hundred feet and find yourself in a completely different environment, with completely different climates and plant life. One of our stops was in the Andean forest biome, which is located at elevations of 2000-3500 meters.

Andean forest. I suspect there are Ents and Wood Eleves hiding somewhere in this picture. 

I go back to the LOTR reference here when I say that Andean forest really is enchanted. If Legolas had popped out of from behind a trunk and shot me with an arrow, I would have died thinking "this is totally normal". This particular Andean Forest is dominated by essentially pure stands of a single species of tree belonging to the genus Polylepis; locally, it is called Queñua, a Quichua word.

The trunks are covered with many thin layers of paper-like bark, resulting in a really textured and interesting looking surface. In fact, Polylepis derives from the greek words poly and letis, meaning 'many' and 'layers'.

The really elaborate surface creates excellent opportunites for epiphytes like mosses and lichens to fill up those empty spaces between the layers.

Polylepis trees grow with gnarled and mangled trunks, and give the Elvish Andean forest an enchanted feel. Actually, an alternative name that is often used to refer to Andean forest is Elfin forest. The trees are small but their branches spread everywhere in really interesting shapes.

Polylepis with a somewhat facultatively arboreal Homo sapiens (AKA, Nate) perched on a branch. This photo gives good perspective so you can judge the relative sizes of these trees.

Besides the Polylepis trees, there are a multitude of smaller species of plants, mostly ferns and mosses. I never particularly liked ferns, they seem rather boring as houseplants - seeing them growing in the wild like this is a different story. I love them now because they look really primitive and  make me feel like there could be dinosaurs roaming around.

A fern. Note the fiddlehead (a young, uncurled leaf) in the middle. This is a somewhat strange fern, as it doesn't have the typical large compound leaf.

Alas, the sori (spores) on the ventral side of the leaf reveal that it is indeed a fern.

A perch of moss, with a leaf plant belonging to the Melastomataceae family growing on top.

Between the trunks and underneath the canopy of all those Polylepis trees, there was a narrow but powerful little stream running through the forest, which just added to the fantasy feeling.

Give me a Canoe. I think I can float to The Shire from here.

Our TF Jaime, rockin' the BU sweater.

Unfortunately, Andean forests are slowly disappearing due to the cutting of these trees for firewood, and because of introduced species like Eucalyptus outcompeting the native andean forest trees. I hope they'll eventually get the protection they deserve. Being among all of those fascinating trees and plants, even for few minutes, can change or bolster your perspective on conservation. You realize just how magical nature can really be, and how much of a tragedy it would be to lose a place like the Andean forest.

Thank you, mother earth.

That wasn't the end of our day however! Next post, I'll tell you about our climb past the tree line (3,500m) into the Misty Mountains Páramo.

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