A Pleistocene Cloud Forest

Cloud forests are lush environments unique to high elevations located within tropical latitudes.  Vines cover evergreen trees and ferns carpet the ground.  Cloud forests occur along the Andes Mountains from Central America to Argentina at elevations between 3600-10,800 feet, and most are frost free due to the tropical latitude, though they are cooler than lowland forests.  The low seasonality of cloud forests allows for a diverse assemblage of flora and fauna.  Some common plant species found growing in South American cloud forests are elephant ear, strangler fig, and walking palm.  Over 400 species of birds reside in cloud forests including an astonishing 30 species of hummingbirds.  Mammals such as tapir, peccary, brocket deer, jaguar, cougar, ocelot, and spectacled bear roam cloud forests.  Even more species of reptiles and amphibians abound in the thick vegetation of the understory.  Huge beetles and a butterfly with see-through wings are just some of the countless insects that thrive in cloud forests.

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Location of cloud forests around the world.

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A cloud forest in Ecuador.

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Walking palm trees.

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Invisible wings make this butterfly hard for predatory birds to see.

A site with evidence of a Pleistocene-aged cloud forest was unearthed during the construction of an highway in Ecuador.  Scientists examined pollen, geochemistry, and charcoal excavated from strata here dated to between 45,000 years BP-42,000 years BP. During those 3000 years the site went through 3 successional stages.  Pollen evidence suggests during the initial stage that it was a valley floor swamp dominated by grass, aster flowers, and plants in the nightshade family.  This environment was replaced by a forest of holly and plants in the Melstomataceeae and Weinmannia families.  Melastomataceae is a family of tropical flowering plants, and the Weinmannia family includes 65 tropical plants.  This stage succeeded to an environment dominated by alder, myrtle, and plants in the hedyosum genus which includes 65 tropical species.  The latter 2 stages consisted of plant compositions that don’t occur in present day cloud forests.

The authors of this study also measured the amount of sporormiella in the sediment.  Sporormiella is a dung fungus and is used as a proxy for megafauna abundance when fossil evidence is not available.  The amount of sporormiella suggests megafauna were present but not abundant.  Ground sloths, giant armadillos, and gompotheres (a type of mastodon) compose part of the regional fossil record here.  These species were likely the source of the sporormiella in the 42,000 year old sediment.

Fire is rare in montane cloud forests, but there are plenty of other agents of change that cause the environment to go through successional stages.  Landslides on steep slopes after heavy rains can demolish a forest, opening an opportunity for pioneer plants.  Wind throws and forest dieback from old age, disease, or insect infestation also opens up space for pioneer species.  Megafauna probably had just a minor impact on Pleistocene cloud forests because they were not abundant here and plant growth is rapid.  The authors of this study did find volcanic ash in the sediment.  Volcanic-sparked fires do burn some cloud forests, forcing the environment to regenerate through several successive stages.

Reference:

Loughline, N.; et. al.

“Landscape Scale Drivers of Ecosystem Change in the Montane Forest of the Eastern Andean Flank, Ecuador”

Paleogeography, Paleoclimatology, and Paleoecology 2017

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One Response to “A Pleistocene Cloud Forest”

  1. ina puustinen-westerholm Says:

    The use of the ‘dung’ amts..as a ..stand-in..for measuring the animal ratios.. back 42, thousand years,,interesting. Also..looking at the supporting roots..on the walking trees. I wonder if they have ever been ..selectively removed..and used as a selective building item..as per, ladders with lashings, house supports etc. If I were in the forest..the chance to have some..shelter useful items..pre-grown..Really..grabs moi attention! ;0

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