By Rob Wallace
[Note: this is the third in a series of reports from WCS on the Identidad Madidi expedition currently taking place in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park]
Three in One! The dramatic and breathtaking mountains of the Apolobamba range provided the backdrop for our third, fourth, and fifth Identidad Madidi expedition study sites.
Expected to take two years to complete, Identidad Madidi is a scientific expedition intended to draw attention to the wonders of Bolivia’s Madidi National Park. Our team of conservationists is investigating fourteen different habitats spanning 6,000 meters – from the Andes down to the Amazon – in what is the most biodiverse protected area on the planet.
The most recent leg of the trip was planned to document the biodiversity at three of the four highest sites on our transect.
We set up camp in the Quechua community of Puina at 3,800 meters above sea level. From here our aim was to visit three different habitats on the eastern side of the Andes: the rugged and barren puna habitats just below the snow line between 5,250 meters and 4250 meters; the paramo humid montane grasslands between 4,250 and 3,500 meters; and a thin strip of elfin or treeline forest at around 3,500 meters.
Although these high montane habitats are much less diverse than the tropical montane and Amazonian forests and grasslands further down, the Identidad Madidi team was excited to study the area as this mountainous region has been notoriously overlooked by previous research efforts.
Preliminary results justify this anticipation. Twenty new butterfly species were added to the official park list, along with an impressive 44 new vertebrate records – including two fish, three amphibians, three reptiles, and sixteen birds such as the giant coot (Fulica gigantea), the Andean flicker (Colaptes rupicola), and the gray-breasted seedsnape (Thinocorus dorbignyianus).
But with twenty new records for the park, mammals clinched the title on this trip – largely because knowledge of small mammals such as bats and mice native to the region was virtually zero previously.
Working in a community was a new experience for Identidad Madidi, since our teams had previously visited isolated sites far from any human settlements, and afforded several opportunities to share our growing knowledge with residents and work with a more diverse group of local guides. Our staff made presentations about Madidi´s record-breaking biodiversity at local schools in Puina and Keara.
Nuria Bernal, a Bolivian mammalogist with 25 years’ experience working on bats, marsupials and especially rodents, worked for three weeks with two sisters, Justa and Maria Justina Toro. Together the team registered fourteen small mammals – all new records for the park, including the striking hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus) with incredibly soft fur adapted for the mountain cold and the delightfully named and rather congenial ornate soft-haired mouse (Abrothrix jelskii).
“I instantly connected with Justa and Maria Justina,” said Bernal. “Working with local people is always crucial, as they introduce us to their landscape and generously provide extra hands. It has been especially interesting teaming up for the first time with two amazing Quechua women as guides. They shared their knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm through their perspective as women from a small rural community.”
For local people and biodiversity in tropical montane ecosystems, climate change is an acute challenge. One traditional meal in Puina, the classic Andean staple of freeze-dried potatoes, or chuño and tunta, has already been impacted. It is no longer possible to prepare this staple in the village itself. Residents have gradually been forced up the mountain valleys in search of the severe nocturnal frosts necessary for the freeze drying.
Indeed, potato agriculture is moving up the mountainside too. As potatoes displace native plant species, threatened fauna such as the Andean deer (Hippocamelus antisensis) begin eating the potato plants instead, creating conflict with farmers. Managing this conflict is one of many growing climate change-related challenges for the protected area and the communities.
As ambient temperatures have increased, montane flora and fauna have begun moving to higher altitudes, but biodiversity already at the peak of these areas may simply have no place to go. Increasing Andean glacial melt also threatens the long-term survival of mountain wetlands.
In the face of these growing threats, basic knowledge about ecosystems and their components is a key starting point for designing appropriate mitigation responses.
Freddy Zenteno of the National Herbarium of Bolivia collected data in the Puina valley on indicator plants such as lichens. He tells me, “In the High Andes climate change models predict temperature increases and decreases in rainfall over time. Of course, the magnitude of those changes will depend on how the world responds to international goals to mitigate climate change.”
Freddy notes that it is therefore very difficult for scientists to predict exactly how different species of flora and fauna will respond to those changes, especially in mega-diverse regions where we are only just describing biodiversity and have little data on distribution, biology, and ecology.
As the most recent leg of our expedition draws to a close, Freddy, Nuria, and the Identidad Madidi team take pride in knowing they are generating crucial altitudinal data for flora and fauna distribution knowledge in Madidi and the broader southern Tropical Andes region.
Dr. Rob Wallace is a Bolivia-based conservationist in the Latin America and Caribbean Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).