Sky islands and tropical alpine sunflowers at risk of disappearing

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Sky islands and tropical alpine sunflowers at risk of disappearing
Páramo with Espeletia plants. Credit: Andrés Cortés, Santiago Madriñán and coauthors

As temperatures rise around the world, many species may escape the heat by migrating to higher elevations. But what will happen to those species that are already as high as there is to go?


A new study in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution is among the first to predict the vulnerability of ecosystems in the Andes to both climate change and human activities. The researchers focused on biodiversity hotspots, called Páramos, and the most diverse plant species of these ecosystems—-relatives of the sunflower in the genus Espeletia. The researchers’ models predict that these habitats will shrink substantially in the next 30 years without conservation efforts. Beyond this potential loss of biodiversity, this is likely to negatively impact the human populations that rely on these ecosystems as well.

“Páramos are one of the fastest evolving biodiversity hotspots on earth and they are one of the most threatened,” says co-leading author Dr. Andrés Cortés, of the Colombian Corporation for Agricultural Research, together with Dr. Santiago Madriñán, who is an expert on Páramos at the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia. “Páramos are also the main water supplier of wetland ecosystems and densely populated areas, hence, disregarding the future of the Páramos may jeopardize overall food and water safety in the northern Andes.”

Sky islands and tropical alpine sunflowers at risk of disappearing
Páramo with Espeletia plants. Credit: Andrés Cortés, Santiago Madriñán and coauthors

Páramos, or “sky islands,” are tropical high elevation ecosystems that are above the tree line, ca. 2,800—5,000 m above sea level, but that are still below the permanently frozen mountaintops. Over a few millions of years, the species that inhabit these areas have adapted to extreme variations in temperature, water availability and sunlight exposure.

As a result of these conditions, there are now over 3,000 plant species throughout