Assessing the amazing ecology of the Andes

Dr Paul Ramsay has spent more than 30 years researching in the Andes. He explains what first sparked his interest and how it continues to inspire his work

Paul Ramsay on the lower slopes of Chimborazo in Ecuador

"I have sat with old men crying their eyes out as they tell me they will cut down the last tree on their land. They know this is bad in the long term, but they can’t see any way to avoid it - and then what will they do when there are no trees left? Finding ways to make their lives better is directly linked to efforts to conserve biodiversity"

A passion for the mountains

In my second year as an undergraduate studying marine biology, I began to realise that my main love was for ecology (and not just marine ecology). I wanted some adventure in the summer vacation, so started to think about what I could do.

Another of my passions was climbing mountains, so I was attracted to the Andes and its incredible biodiversity. I was at university in Bangor then and spent quite a bit of my time in Snowdonia. There were enough parallels between the uplands of Snowdonia and the Andes for me to see all kinds of possibilities in South America and that’s when I began to organise a three-month research trip to the high-altitude grasslands of Ecuador.

I managed to get some money from various organisations, like the Royal Geographical Society, and persuaded some of my fellow students and one of my lecturers to go with me.

It turned out well and we collected some interesting data on grasslands, forests and fish in a beautiful part of the Andes, now known as Cajas National Park, Ecuador.

After I finished my first degree, I was very lucky. One of my former lecturers offered me some money to do a PhD on whatever I wanted. I decided to do it on the ecology of high-altitude grasslands in Ecuador. That gave me the chance to spend more time there, and to develop my research further.

In the beginning, I spent most of my time describing communities of plants and animals in high-altitude forests and grasslands. Some of this work involved collecting and identifying plants species. I have collections in herbaria (museums for plants) around the world, and have been lucky enough to discover some new species from time to time. It is important this kind of material is available locally in the Andes, but some of my collected material is housed in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I have a few animal species named after me, too.

Working in a diversity hotspot

I work mostly in the Tropical Andes. As part of a global biodiversity initiative, the world’s 36 most important biodiversity hotspots have been identified, and the Tropical Andes is the hottest hotspot among them. Although the Amazon Basin gets lots of attention, the ecosystems of the Andes are at least as important for biodiversity and have been called the “global epicentre of biodiversity”.

The Tropical Andes contains about 45,000 plant species which is one-sixth of the world’s total in less than 1% of the land area. There is animal diversity too: around 3,000 vertebrate species (including approximately 1,700 birds, 480 reptiles and 830 amphibians).

Of course, the high-altitude environment has resulted in all kinds of adaptations in the organisms found in the Andes. One of the greatest challenges is a climate that can be summarised as summer every day, winter every night. It is not unusual for organisms to experience temperatures well above 20°C during the day but -10°C at night. That’s a big change over a short period of time. Unlike organisms in Plymouth, these Andean ones cannot easily become dormant through the winter and wake up in the spring. They need to survive the same kinds of fluctuations every day. That makes them special.

"The mountaintops are like islands in the sky, with cooler climates sitting in a warmer 'sea'. Just like islands, these mountaintops have their own unique organisms. Some species are found on just one mountain and nowhere else"

A changing and challenging climate

Land use change has been a major challenge to protecting Andean biodiversity. Conversion of native forests and grasslands into farmland has reduced biodiversity significantly in places where many species are yet to be discovered.

Habitat loss and fragmentation has had a negative impact and this is continuing, despite efforts to save existing habitats and repair some of the damage already done with restoration work. More recently, the mineral wealth of the Andes has attracted plenty of interest from mining companies, and these kinds of activities can be disastrous for local biodiversity if not controlled effectively.

Climate change is a worry too. As the climate warms, species move higher up the mountain slopes. Those species that live at the highest altitudes are in danger of losing suitable habitat altogether and disappearing. There is already quite a bit of evidence of these upslope movements of species. Alongside this, glaciers are melting and rainfall is less reliable than it once was. Some of these changes are driven in part by the loss of forest in the Amazon, because that is where much of the rain comes from.

Some of the world’s highest-altitude woodlands occur where I work. These forests of Polylepis are really special in so many ways. They hold quite a few secrets too. The trees are not good at dispersal and yet some of the species stretch out for thousands of kilometres along the Andes. We are still struggling to understand these patterns and how they came about. The woodlands provide habitat for many species of plants and animals. My wife, Balbina, did her PhD studying the microscopic tardigrades of these woodlands—a painstaking job to collect the samples, extract thousands of animals and mount each one on its own microscope slide. And then the actual biological work begins for her.

In the last ten years, I have focussed much more on microclimate. The tropical sun can make such a difference that soil surface measurements just 10–15 cm apart can differ by more than 30°C. The fine-scale patterns of these temperatures is key to understanding how species survive amongst the vegetation and on the soil. Clearly, altitude affects temperature too, and so taking microclimatic measurements along altitudinal gradients and looking at how organisms respond is fascinating—as well as useful to predict the impacts of a changing climate.

Fires in the mountain grasslands can benefit biodiversity overall. Espeletia pycnophylla, the giant rosette plant burning here, is helped by the fire which removes tussock grasses, allowing its seeds to germinate

Are grassland fires all bad?

The relationship between grassland fires and biodiversity is also a major interest for me. Many people automatically assume fire must be bad for diversity but, in many circumstances, fire increases diversity. I have been studying the impact of fire on biodiversity since my PhD and this strand has stayed with me throughout my career. I find the complexity of the relationships an interesting challenge.

Another constant has been the biology of giant rosette plants. These kinds of plants are flagship species of the Andes, as well as other tropical mountains around the world. I am intrigued by their adaptations, growth rates, survival and interactions with other species (like hummingbirds). The same environments in different parts of the world have produced giant rosette plants, so understanding them is partly a way of understanding the place itself.

The rate of habitat loss has been astonishing around some of my field sites. It can be depressing. On the other hand, there has been an awakening of attitudes in Andean countries to the value of biodiversity. That gives me much more hope. Even poor people in the mountains are likely to want to talk about how they can manage their lands better for biodiversity. To be honest, although I am supposed to be an expert, those farmers usually know much more about it than I do.

Working with local communities

Conservation is partly about science and partly about people. I can do my science without needing to talk to local people at all. But I try to involve local people whenever I can. That means I invite local university students to join our field trips, and also involve local farmers in the work, when that makes sense. In fact, the farmers can be very useful. They know all kinds of things and work hard. It’s also an opportunity to talk about their lives and concerns, which helps me appreciate what is important to them (and to me).

Working in the Andes has given me so many memories.

I played in a football match in a remote Peruvian village at 4,100 m above sea level. I quite like playing football, but my opposing player was making lots of bad tackles on me. At one point, I lost my control and made quite a bad tackle on him too, then ran on and scored a goal. The tackle (not the goal) earned me so much respect from the local farmers and transformed the conversations I had with them.

I have been dribbled on by a sleeping Minster of Sport, challenged to a “ninja fight” by a young lad half my size (who was definitely not a ninja), danced in the middle of a potato field with a lorry-full of villagers, been chased by nuns , and threatened to kiss quite a few men while wearing a tight black dress and full make-up (look up Quito’s “viuda” tradition on New Year’s Eve).

Research on location

I don’t visit as much as I once did. I have more commitments now at the university. These days, I tend to go out there once a year. I have worked in quite a few Andean countries: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Perú and Chile. Sometimes, I head off into the mountains with my South American colleagues and our students to do fieldwork.

I love camping in the mountains. It’s not for everyone, but I like to wake up in the middle of such spectacular scenery, often far away from other people, and wander out of the tent into my natural laboratory. I also get to fall asleep listening to Andean snipe flying around and even occasionally lie with my head outside the tent looking at the myriad stars of the Milky Way. What a privilege! It is more than worth the price of waking up with your hat frozen to your head.

Creating opportunities for students

Several of my PhD students have worked on Andean research projects. Paola García-Meneses spent a long time in the mountains collecting data on the life cycle of Puya hamata, one of the giant rosette species. We used a computer model to show it does better when there are fires and to predict the genetic diversity of the plant according to its interactions with fires and hummingbird pollinators. I have recently confirmed these predictions with some genetic work with colleagues in Ecuador.

My current PhD student, Nicola Steer, has been developing a way to make sense of seed germination of giant rosette plants at various temperatures. One of our papers was published this week, with another planned for submission in the next few weeks.

Over the years, more than 100 undergraduate students have worked with me on projects in the Andes. Some of these students gave up their summer vacations to do this, others took placement years before completing their degrees, and others did the work for their final-year dissertations. Their contributions have been hugely important. Some got a species named after them, others went on to do PhDs and develop careers as researchers in their own right. Everyone has the memories of the fieldwork in the mountains.

I am currently putting together an opportunity for quite a few undergraduates to work in high-altitude ecosystems in northern Chile for 2020.

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