The Elements of Evolution (48-14) Páramo


Páramo is an ecosystem in the northern Andes mountains, covering 21,700 km2, at an altitude of 2,800–4,500 meters above sea level. Over 3,400 species of vascular plants live there. Most of them are found nowhere else. A certain Frailejón – a daisy – grows as tall as trees.

Páramo climates vary by elevation. The soil is typically young, with relatively low pH, owing to an abundance of moisture and organic content which holds water.

The Andes began its ascent tens of millions of years ago, but it wasn’t until 2.5 MYA that the northern Andes rose above the elevation where trees can survive. Only then did the biodiversity of the páramo emerge, and rapidly. Páramo is one of the most vivacious evolutionary hotspots on Earth. The reason is opportunity with encumbrances.

Páramo is near the equator, bathing the land in sunshine year-round. To take advantage of that ample energy, plants must contend with cold temperatures and the harsh ultraviolet rays that come with altitude. The weather is a tough taskmaster: changing from thick mist to full sun within a few minutes.

Páramo plants evolved a vast variety of defenses against the elements. Frailejón thrive via innovations: white hairs on its flowers to thwart UV damage and a thick overcoat of dead leaves for warmth.

Páramo has been devastated by human deforestation, and its demise furthered by warming, which is desiccating the region. Many fauna and flora species are moving to higher ground prior to their inevitable extinction.