A Face of el Cajas you Haven’t Imagined. The secrets of adaptation.

Story and Photos By Caty Frenkel

A Face of el Cajas you Haven’t Imagined. The secrets of adaptation.

Imagine yourself living in a place with extreme environmental conditions, where you can dehydrate very easily during the day or freeze because of low temperatures are very cold

nights. Add tons of water in the soil, strong winds, and high Uv rays…did you already picture yourself there? what would you do to adapt to these difficult conditions to survive? can you

imagine how the plants and animals adapt to live in such an ecosystem? You have placed yourself in a páramo!


But, what is a páramo? It is a very unique ecosystem located above the continuous forest line and below the permanent snowline. in fact, the term páramo refers specifically to its

regional placement in the northern Andes of South America going until southern Central America. To do a comparison, the páramo is equivalent to the tundra in North America, which you probably know about.

The páramos are characterized by having adverse conditions, including big ranges of temperature change (which can produce the common frosts or “heladas”), high concentration of water, and lack of heat.

The páramo is one of the most interesting ecosystems of Ecuador. with high-temperature fluctuations during the day, cold climate, and extreme environmental conditions. Plants and

animals inhabiting there adapted to survive and flourish in such high altitudes.

In Ecuador, the páramo covers around 6% of the total area of the country, and can be found above 3700 m in the eastern Andes cordillera and above 3400 m in the western Andes

Cordillera, but in Southern Ecuador, it starts at 2800 m.

The páramos have less species than tropical forests because few have adapted to such difficult conditions, but this is the reason why species present here are endemic, which means that they are not present anywhere else.

A Face of el Cajas you Haven’t Imagined. The secrets of adaptation.

The páramo soil can absorb and retain huge quantities of water, and is very rich in nutrients because the low temperatures slow down leaf litter decomposition, producing a thick layer of

nutrients and giving the soil this unique black coloration.


In Cuenca we have a wonderful example of a páramo ecosystem, The Cajas. It was created as a National Park in 1977, and is one of the most amazing páramo ecosystems of southern ecuador. in 2013 the Unesco declared the macizo El Cajas a Biosphere Reserve, which includes Azuay, Cañar, El Oro, and Guayas provinces in an area of 974206 hectacres of interandean valleys, mountain canyons, u-shaped valleys, Andean plateaus, coastal plains and mangroves. Its elevation varies from 0 m to 4520 m, involving many ecosystem types,

and a natural, cultural, and productive richness. 


The Cajas National Park is now part of this Biosphere Reserve, and its páramo ecosystem represents a big area of it (29000 Ha). Among the 3150 m and 4440 m of páramo elevation

range of El Cajas, there are almost 800 water spots or lagoons which are connected through many small rivers that join into bigger ones. The páramo works as a sponge capturing, storing and liberating water, giving to the city of Cuenca all of its potable water.

A Face of el Cajas you Haven’t Imagined. The secrets of adaptation.

So, if you remember the beginning of this story, placing yourself in a venue with harsh conditions, now place yourself in the Cajas páramo. Are you cold yet? Are you wearing a hat to avoid the sun, and a jacket and gloves not to freeze? Are you drinking water not to dehydrate? Or getting close to your loved ones to get warm? 


Having read until here, can you better imagine how do plants and animals adapt to live in such an ecosystem, not only to survive, but flourish? 

Any idea? Here are some examples…

Plants in the páramos adapted themselves tolerating or evading extreme conditions, avoiding heat loss and therefore dehydration, and avoiding freezing.


By reducing leaf size, the surface exposed to the harsh conditions is also reduced, and dehydration is avoided. Some plants have elongated, linear thin leaves, such as grasses, while others have small thick leaves that retain the water captured inside the plant

due to the difficult access of water in the soil. To deal with freezing, some plants remain their dead leaves attached to the plant to protect the new leaves and the stem from the cold. Others have shiny leaves and many tiny “hairs” which reflect the strong Uv ray and protect the plant from the cold.


Many plant species grow at ground level, like small shrubs, or in dense individual plants or groups to protect from the wind, heat and cold. Others have leaves with spiny tips or edges to protect them from herbivorous. Plants such as ferns have leaves with tips rolled-up to protect the weak growing structure.

In plants living at ground level, where could be less conspicuous and therefore less seen by pollinators, flowers are produced as few big colored flowers or many little ones to attract insects. other plant species have colorful bracts (which are modified leaves) with small no colorful flowers.


Rosette plants are also very common in this ecosystem, where a rosette-shape helps rise the inner plant temperature, producing a more tolerable microclimate inside the plant and protecting the inner parts of the plant where new leaves and flowers are produced.


Rosettes and cushion-shaped plants have very small leaves, which grow very close to one another to keep a more stable temperature, and also retain dead leaves to generate umidity

and heat.

An interesting fact about cushion plants is that they are soil producers, because they promote decomposition as a strategy to warm up, where the organic material in the soil liberates energy during decomposition. This strategy works best in swampy areas, this is the reason why cushions are found in waterlogged páramo areas.

A Face of el Cajas you Haven’t Imagined. The secrets of adaptation.

So, what about animals? How are they adapted to the páramo? Animals adapted in some amazing ways. Many use burrows, shelters under rocks or dense groups of plants to protect

themselves from the cold and from predators. Some species have development stages underground taking advantage of the abiotic stable conditions. for example, you can find frog and lizard eggs underground or under a bunch of leaf litter.


While mammals have dense fur which helps conserve their body heat, lizards sun-bathe to rise their body temperature. Hummingbirds slow down their metabolism at night (a behavior

called “torpor”) to conserve energy, but makes them susceptible to predators. Insects tend to have dark colors (usually brown or black), which helps absorb the sun to warm their bodies.


Common mammals of the páramo are rabbits, mice, shrewmice, the Andean fox, and sometimes the spectacled bear and mountain tapirs, which sporadically use the páramo

to feed. Birds as Andean seagulls, swifts, Andean lapwing, and caracaras are well adapted to fly in strong winds and some as the condor, and rapacious birds use air currents to save energy while flying. aquatic birds like ducks, grebes, and gallinules are commonly seen at the páramo wetlands and lagoons.

A Face of el Cajas you Haven’t Imagined. The secrets of adaptation.

Even the páramo is an extreme ecosystem, there are many species of plants and animals inhabiting there because they had the evolutionary ability to adapt, survive, and flourish in this amazing and cold ecosystem.


So next time you visit El Cajas you will also adapt yourself to avoid freezing and dehydration, like animals and plants do … and see this wonderful place with very different eyes! The Biologist Caty Frenkel. M.Sc. is the coordinator of PassifloraCourses, an educational initiative of nature, culture, and health courses in Cuenca. PassifloraCourses is directed to anybody who wants to learn and experience while learning, have fun, and meet new friends. If you want to learn more about these courses you can contact Caty at catyfrenkel@gmail.com, her cell phone: 0992520103 or go to: https://www.facebook.com/PassifloraCourses/timeline

A Face of el Cajas you Haven’t Imagined. The secrets of adaptation.

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