Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics

Sky Islands: a time travel in the Andes Mountains

8 August 2018

In South America you can find a species rich alpine tundra ecosystem called páramos. These ecosystems are restricted to the mountain tops of the Northern Andes, forming isolated ‘sky islands’. During the last 3 million years, these páramos rhythmically shifted up and down the mountain slopes and these dynamics, described by researchers of the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystems Dynamics (IBED), are now visualized in a 3D animation and photography film.

Páramos have the richest diversity in high mountain flora in the world, with many endemic species that have a limited distribution. This remarkable and unique ecosystem has been studied by researchers from IBED for over 60 years.

Páramos, a typical species rich alpine tundra ecosystem in the northern Andes. Picture: Suzette Flantua.

Flickering connectivity system

Based on fossil pollen grain data from deep drill cores, researchers Prof. Henry Hooghiemstra & Dr Suzette Flantua have been able to reconstruct the past distribution of páramos throughout the Northern Andes. Palaeoecological research showed that when climate was warming, páramos moved to the higher parts of the Andes mountains, which led to fragmentation and isolation.

But when climate cooled, the páramos extended downslope, which caused many isolated islands to fuse into larger areas. These dynamics, referred to as the ‘flickering connectivity system’ (Flantua & Hooghiemstra, 2018), have been reconstructed for the last million years and provide important insights into the evolutionary engine of speciation. Especially considering that these páramos have shown extremely fast evolutionary diversification of species during the assessed period of time. 

Visualization of sky islands 

The flickering connectivity system has now been visualized in the form of a 3D animation  and photography film. The visualization wascreated by Catalina Giraldo as student of  Master in Arts in Media Design and Communication at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, and in collaboration with IBED. The film displays scientific information using 3D animation and highlights the importance of these ecosystems for biodiversity and local livelihoods. Curious about páramos? Watch the below standing video and learn more about the remarkable ecosystem and their dynamics!

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This work was financially supported by the Hugo de Vries foundation.

Read more about the flickering connectivity system:

Flantua, S.G.A., Hooghiemstra, H., 2018. Historical connectivity and mountain biodiversity, in: Hoorn, C., Perrigo, A., Antonelli, A. (Eds.), Mountains, Climate and Biodiversity. Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 171–185.

Published by  IBED