El Medio Ambiente: Ecoregions of Ecuador
Biodiversity in Ecuador
Last Saturday, I got separated from my hiking group in the middle of El Cajas, a national park about an hour away from where I am living in Cuenca this semester. Why did I get lost? I ditched the path to climb up part of a mountain to take photos a few llamas/alpacas nearby. Was it a stupid idea? Maybe. Was it totally worth it? Absolutely!
Cajas, as well as the rest of Ecuador is home to hundreds of different species of plants and animals. The biodiversity in Ecuador from the Andes to the shores of the Pacific Ocean and everything in between makes it one of the most diverse countries in the world, especially for its size. A couple weeks ago, I went to a presentation about el medio ambiente, or the environment in Ecuador given by an American who has lived and worked in Ecuador for the past 10 years. Catherine Schlogel came to talk with my spring semester study abroad group after classes one day and her lecture has inspired me to learn more about the environment, something that before now, I was barely interested in. Here is some information about the environment in Ecuador specifically, that she shared with us.
Instead of breaking Ecuador into different ecosystems, Ms. Schlogel explained Ecuador in terms of ecoregions, or geographical groups made up of various ecosystems, for lack of a better explanation. The four groups in Ecuador are the “oriente” (Amazon rainforest), Sierra (Andes mountains), la costa (the coast-Pacific) and los Galapagos (the Galapagos Islands off the Pacific coast).
The first, and probably the most widely known region of Ecuador, are the Galapagos Islands. These islands were formed around the same time as Hawaii, with the help of an underwater hotspot and the shifting of tectonic plates. The Galapagos are oceanic volcanic islands about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, and more are continually being formed because one tectonic plate is moving toward South America but the hotspot that created the rest of the islands does not move. The 13 primary islands are known primarily for their endemic species and incredibly diverse marine population. The Galapagos has a mix of cold and warm water current (Humbolt current), coming from Antarctica and Panama, respectively. This is a major cause for some of the species on the island. For example, there are penguins running around on the island. They are a lot smaller than typical penguins you would see at a Zoo in the United States, or actually in Antarctica for that matter. There are many species of bird, and gigantic turtles. The evolution of species found on the islands is independent because they are separated by water. Some species evolve quickly on one island, but might not evolve at the same rate or in the same way on a neighboring island. However, in general, the evolution of plants and animals on the island is quite rapid — a single El Niño (weather pattern that changes the temperature of the currents in the area and can help create hurricanes and other weather issues) or wet/dry season can start to change the beak of finches on the islands. Unfortunately I was not able to visit the Galapagos Islands during my study abroad trip, but I hope to return to Ecuador to see the biodiversity and beauty of the islands someday.
Moving eastward, the coast is the next ecoregion found in Ecuador. If the name didn’t already give its location away, the coast is the beach and the area immediately surrounding it as you move inland. I was able to visit the coast, but for the most part I stayed on the beach because the area I was in was completely sand with not a lot of vegetation until you moved farther inland. This is partially due to the fact that I was in a touristy town, and also because I decided to take advantage of the fact that I could see the beach from my hostel… Regardless of what I saw or didn’t see, the coastal areas of Ecuador are dryer in the southern part of the country than the northern part. The original coastline has also basically disappeared due to other environmental causes. Parts of the Ecuadorean coast still have mangroves, or a special tree species whose roots grow in salt water and that protect the coasts from natural disasters such as hurricanes. The coast is the warmest part of the country, though from personal experience I feel confident in saying that Guayaquil (3 hours by bus away from the part of the coast I visited) is significantly more humid.
The next ecoregion is the Andes mountains, around the middle of the country. I live in Cuenca, one of the largest cities in Ecuador, which is nestled between the cordillera oriental and the cordillera occidental (two mountain chains). Cloud forests cover a significant portion of this ecoregion, and most of them are full of epiphytic plants, or plants that grow on other plants. The temperature in this area varies more than in the other ecoregions of Ecuador — in Cuenca, it can be in the lower 50s (Fahrenheit) at night and in the 80s or higher during the day. Due to the vastness of open space in the mountains and a few other factors, there are probably thousands of unnamed species in the Andes region. Some things don’t have names because scientists in the area haven’t been able to classify them yet. The Andean spectacle bear, which is a small bear that looks like it is wearing glasses, is found in the cloud forests of these mountains, and is the largest carnivore in South America most likely to go extinct.
The final ecoregion that Ms. Schlogel talked about was the Amazon rainforest, or the oriente. The majority of Ecuador’s topography is part of this ecoregion, but only about 2 percent of the Amazon Basin is in Ecuador. The Amazon is a tropical rainforest, and the weather varies very little, mostly depending on the proximity of the area to the mountains. The soil in the majority of this ecoregion is very nutrient-poor, which causes tree roots to grow wide instead of deep, and also leads to the rapid recycling of leaves. There are a lot of animals native to this area, such as the three toed sloth, and there are two types of river in the area: white water and black/dark water. White water rivers are identified by their typically brown color- they come down from the Andes mountains and bring a lot of sediment along with them. Black/dark water rivers originate in the Amazon and have a lot of tannins in the water.
Despite the biodiversity and beauty of this country, there are several factors that could significantly threaten the existence of many species, particular in the Amazon ecoregion: human population change, climate change and consumer demand, to name three. The human population has increased significantly in recent years, by about half a million people per year. Climate change has affected ecosystems across the world, and if some species of trees can’t spread their seeds and move north a couple hundred meters, or if humans don’t move them, the species could die out. Those are both very important changes in Ecuador, but nothing is more influential or vital than the issue of consumer demand, especially when it comes to oil. There is a LOT of oil in the Amazon, and Ecuador has already sold all oil from elsewhere in the country to China through 2019. A few years ago, the government in Ecuador asked other governments around the world to basically pay this government not to drill for oil in the Amazon. They raised a very large sum of money, but unfortunately not enough to make up for what money the Ecuadorean government would lose by not drilling in the jungle. As of now, drilling hasn’t started but there is a significant threat to the plants and animals that could be affected by this should the government decide to take action.