The montane cloud forests of South America are some of the most biodiverse habitats in the world, whilst also being especially vulnerable to climate change and human disturbance.
Today much of this landscape has been transformed into a mosaic of secondary forest and agricultural fields. This thesis uses palaeoecological proxies (pollen, non-pollen palynomorphs, charcoal, organic content) to interpret ecosystem dynamics during the late Quaternary, unravelling the vegetation history of the landscape and the relationship between people and the montane cloud forest of the eastern Andean flank of Ecuador. Two new sedimentary records are examined from the montane forest adjacent to the Río Cosanga (Vinillos) and in the Quijos Valley (Huila). These sites characterise the natural dynamics of a pre-human arrival montane forest and reveal how vegetation responded during historical changes in local human populations.
Non-pollen palynomorphs (NPPs) are employed in a novel approach to analyse a forest cover gradient across these sites. The analysis identifies a distinctive NPP assemblage connected to low forest cover and increased regional burning. Investigation into the late Pleistocene Vinillos sediments show volcanic activity to be the primary landscape-scale driver of ecosystem dynamics prior to human arrival, influencing montane forest populations but having little effect on vegetation composition.
Lake sediments at Huila from the last 700 years indicate the presence of pre-Hispanic peoples, managing and cultivating an open landscape. The subsequent colonization of the region by Europeans in the late 1500’s decimated the indigenous population, leading to the abandonment of the region in conjunction with an expansion in forest cover ca. 1588 CE. After approximately 130 years of vegetation recovery, montane cloud forest reached a stage of structural maturity comparable to that seen in the pre-human arrival forest. The following 100 years (1718-1822 CE) of low human population and minimal human impact in the region is proposed as a shifted ecological baseline for future restoration and conservation goals. This ‘cultural ecological baseline’ features a landscape that retains many of the ecosystem service provided by a pristine montane forest, while retaining the cultural history of its indigenous people within the vegetation. Continue Reading
Hayley Keen getting excited about sediments during fieldwork in Ecuador (2012). Photo: J. Malley
Keen, H.F. (2015) Past environmental change on the eastern Andean flank, Ecuador. PhD Thesis, Department of Environment, Earth & Ecosystems, The Open University.
Abstract The eastern Andean flank of Ecuador (EAF) contains some of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems. Andean montane forests are threatened due to anthropogenic pressures and both current and projected climate change. This thesis examines the palaeoecological history of two stratigraphic sequences (Mera Tigre West [MTW] and Mera Tigre East [MTE]) obtained from the Ecuadorian modern lower montane forest. The sediments preserved were analysed using eight analytical techniques, allowing an insight into the ecosystem’s potential response to projected changes derived from their past responses. Palaeoecological studies on the EAF are rare, and those that do exist are debated relating to: i) the inference of robust ecological data from pollen records in floristically diverse locations, and ii) the past source area of sediments preserved in fluvially exposed sequences, potentially leading to contamination with older material.
A statistical sub-sampling tool was developed (debate i), capable of producing statistically robust count sizes for each pollen sample; MTW and MTE count sizes ranged from 196-982 showing the diversity within sequences. The depositional environment of MTE was analysed, investigating sediment provenance throughout (debate ii). Results found that large scale volcanic events were critical in the preservation of the sediments, whereas fluvial influence caused a regional sediment source area in the upper stratigraphy, impacting on the palynological interpretation of MTE. Pollen records demonstrated the presence of a diverse vegetation community with no modern analogue at MTE (abundant taxa (>15 %): Hedyosmum, Wettinia, Ilex) and upper montane forest at MTW (Alnus, Hedyosmum, Podocarpus). Fire was not the main driver for the vegetation reassortment at either site (MTW correlation coefficient: -0.37, MTE: 0.16). The two sites have demonstrated the EAF plays host to floristically dynamic ecosystems, susceptible to drivers of change (fire and landscape) and should be considered when predicting the montane forests’ future response to environmental change.
Valencia Castillo, B.G. (2014) From glacial to modern conditions: Vegetation and climate change under human influence in the Central Andes. PhD Thesis, Department of Environment, Earth & Ecosystems, The Open University.
Conservation, restoration and management strategies are employed to maintain Earth’s biological diversity and physical environment to a near “natural” state. However, the concept of “natural” is generally inexact and may include degraded landscapes. In absence of long-term empirical data of natural baselines, impacted assemblages (human altered baselines) could be falsely assumed to be natural and set as conservation or restoration goals. Therefore, the identification of long-term ecological baselines becomes a pressing requirement especially in threatened biodiversity hotspots such as the tropical Andes that were under human pressure for several millennial.
This thesis aims to identify ecological baselines for tropical Andean ecosystems based on multi-proxy palaeoecological reconstructions from three Andean lakes. Trends of vegetation change are used to identify when landscapes became anthropogenic in the Andes. Because vegetation assemblages at c. 10 ka experienced negligible anthropogenic impacts and had modern-like climate condition, this time was considered the most recent period likely to provide insight into natural ecological baseline conditions.
Changes in vegetation assemblages were evaluated over time departing from 10 ka around Miski and Huamanmarca, two sites that remained virtually impervious to human impacts. Baselines in Miski and Huamanmarca drifted continuously over time and showed that baselines are dynamic entities. The vegetation assemblages derived from Miski and Huamanmarca suggest that that human impact was not homogeneous throughout the Andean landscape.
Once baselines were defined it was possible to evaluate if the spatial distribution of Andean woodlands represented by Polylepis was a product of human impacts. A MaxEnt model generated based on 22 modern environmental variables and 13 palaeoecological vegetation reconstructions showed that Polylepis woodlands were naturally fragmented before humans arrived in South America (14 ka). However, the influence of humans during the mid and late Holocene enhanced the patchiness of the forest generating a hyper-fragmented landscape.
Cárdenas, M.L. (2011) The response of western Amazonian vegetation to fire and climate change: A palaeoecological study. PhD Thesis, Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, The Open University.
MLC Ecuador (2008)
Amazonia is one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, a reputation largely earned by the floristic richness of western Amazonia, namely the Ecuadorian Andes. In particular, montane cloud forest in western Amazonia on the Andean flank has been identified as of high ecological value because of its large floristic diversity. Unfortunately, montane forests’ biodiversity have suffered a strong detrimental impact due the ongoing human activity and climate change. Consequently, understanding the dynamics of montane forest and identifying the main factors that control them is fundamental to manage and protect these ecosystems.
This thesis focuses upon paleoecological data obtained from organic sediments from Erazo (Ecuador), located today within the lower montane forest. Examination of modern vegetation and pollen rain close to Erazo revealed florist variation at the kilometer scale related to human disturbance. Modern data provided the basis for interpreting the fossil record. Radiometric dating of interbedded volcanic ash indicates the sediments were deposited c. 324,000-193,000 years ago, well before the arrival of humans in America. Fossil pollen and wood preserved within organic sediments suggest that the composition of the forest was different to modern and changed significantly during the middle Pleistocene. Taxonomic changes in the fossil pollen assemblage, coupled with the presence of Podocarpus spp. macrofossils within the sediments, indicate that temperatures reached c. 5oC cooler than modern. Given the timing and magnitude of vegetation cha
nge observed in the Erazo sediments it therefore seems likely that the variations were instigated by global temperature changes associated with Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 9 and the MIS 7-6 transition from interglacial-glacial conditions.
The palaeoecological data from Erazo indicate that far from being a relatively stable ‘museums’ tropical forests are in fact dynamic systems undergoing long term floristic re-assortment as well as being susceptible to abrupt short term floristic reorganization.
Williams, J.J. (2011) Human and climate impacts on tropical Andean ecosystems. PhD Thesis, Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, The Open University.
JJW Bolivia (2007)
Population growth and predicted global climate change are applying new, and increasing, pressure to mountain environments, but the consequences of these changes upon the biodiverse and vulnerable Tropical Andean ecosystems are poorly understood. This thesis explores past human-climate-ecosystem interactions using multi-proxy palaeolimnological investigations (fossil pollen, spore, charcoal and Chironomidae (midges); elemental abundance, colour spectra and magnetic susceptibility) of two sites in the eastern Bolivian Andes (Lake Challacaba and Laguna Khomer Kocha Upper) over the last c. 18,000 years. During the deglaciation and Holocene ecosystems were exposed to varying climatic stress levels, and pressures imposed by the development of human cultures.
Examination of preserved ecological assemblages, including the first assessment of subfossil central Andean Chironomidae, reveals ecosystem sensitivity to changes in temperature, moisture, fire regime, lake level and salinity. Charcoal analysis from Laguna Khomer Kotcha Upper reveals changes in burning at c. 14,500, 10,100 and 6,400 cal yr BP. Concomitant palynological shifts shows this climatically controlled fire regime was a transformative agent of Andean vegetation, particularly for the threatened, high elevation, Polylepis woodlands. Pollen and geochemical data from Lake Challacaba indicate two periods of aridity (c. 4000−3370 and 2190−1020 cal yr BP), these broadly correlated to El Niño/Southern Oscillation variations. Increased Sporormiella abundance after c. 1,340 cal yr BP indicate changes in trade routes and agricultural practices; demonstrating human adaption to environmental change and interconnectivity to Tiwanaku and Inca civilizations.
The long-term response of the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, reconstructed from these lakes, has provided insights into how Tropical Andean ecosystems may respond to future changes in temperature, precipitation and human interference. The palaeoenvironmental data has implications for conservation management; it indicates that spatial and temporal variations in site sensitivity, exposure and resilience should be assessed, and that planting strategies should mimic the present day natural patchy distribution of Polylepis woodlands.
Montoya, E. (2011) Paleocology of the southern Gran Sabana (SE Venezuela) since the Late Glacial to the present. PhD Thesis, Department of Animal Biology, Plant Biology and Ecology, Unitersitat Autonoma de Barcelona.
EM Venezuela (2007)
This thesis is aimed to study the paleoecology of the southern Gran Sabana region (GS; SE Venezuela) since the Late Glacial to the present. This region is characterized nowadays by the occurrence of large extent of savannas in a climate suitable for rainforests. For this purpose, three sequences (two from peat bogs and one from lake sediments) have been analyzed for pollen and spores, non-pollen palynomorphs (NPP), and microscopic charcoal particles. Among the sequences analyzed, two of them are located currently within treeless savannas (Lakes Chonita and Encantada); whereas the third one is placed in the boundary between GS savannas and Amazon forests (El Paují). The Late Glacial interval of Lake Chonita was characterized by a shrubland that was replaced by a treeless savanna at the end of Younger Dryas (YD) and the onset of the Holocene, linked to the occurrence of regional fires since ca. 12.4 cal kyr BP. The beginning of local fires was dated synchronous with the vegetation replacement, ca. 11.7 cal kyr BP. A similar shrubland, though not identical, is located nowadays around 200 m elevation above the lake, so the replacement by surrounding savannas was interpreted as a probably upward displacement of the former vegetation and an increase in average temperatures of approximately 0.7 ‐1.5ºC. This section represents the oldest interval analyzed for GS so far, and the presence of fires during the Late Pleistocene is among the oldest fire records documented for northern South America. The peat bog records of Lake Encantada and El Paují showed the main vegetation trends of the last 8 cal kyr BP, which were characterized by the continuous occurrence of regional fires. In Lake Encantada, the presence of treeless savannas was reported during the whole interval analyzed as the dominant vegetation type, despite variations in forest abundance and composition taxa of the community also occurred. The vegetation changes in this record were interpreted as mainly due to climatic shifts until the Late Holocene. At El Paují, the occurrence of forests and savanna/forest mosaics was reported during the same interval, and fire was postulated to have been the major driver of the vegetation shifts. In this sequence, a treeless savanna was not recorded as the dominant vegetation of the landscape until the last millennia, and the presence of two different indigenous cultures was postulated as responsible of the shifts in fire regime registered, with an interval of human land abandonment between them. This interval was characterized by the cessation of fires, and the establishment of a secondary dry forest. The Late Holocene was characterized, in the three sequences studied, by a sudden increase of fires, which likely favored the expansion of savannas and the establishment of the present GS landscape.
The join interpretation of the records presented in this thesis, together with previous analyses in the region, highlighted some key aspects for understanding the main trends of GS landscape and vegetation, e.g., the appearance and establishment of morichales (Mauritia palm stands typical of current southern GS landscapes) has been restricted to the last two millennia, synchronous with the increase in fire incidence. Moreover, it has been possible to gather empirical evidence for testing some previous hypothesis regarding GS. For example, the proposal of an extended aridity prior the Holocene has been rejected, whereas the hypothesis about the postglacial expansion of morichales has been supported. In this sense, with all the available information to date, some suggestions have been proposed: (i) Climate and fire have been the major forcing factors operating in the GS; (ii) During the Late Glacial and the beginning of the Early Holocene, the landscape of southern GS was likely formed by a mosaic of forests, shrubs, and savannas, without the current supremacy of the last vegetation type, which only established during the last 2 cal kyr BP onwards; (iii) Some general climatic trends have been inferred for the study area, as for example an increase in average temperatures around the Late Glacial/Early Holocene transition, a dry interval from 8 to 5 cal kyr BP, and a wetter phase during the Mid-Holocene centered around 4 cal kyr BP; (iv) The establishment of Mauritia in the region has been likely driven by a synergism between biogeographical, climatic and anthropogenic factors, as well as the likely pyrophilous nature of this palm given its synchronous appearance with the increase of fires; (v) The settlement of the modern indigenous culture (Pemón) occurred at least since around ca. 2000 cal yr BP onwards, 1500 yr earlier than previously thought, but previous human presence in the region has been also documented; and (vi) The fire activity observed in the long-term has caused a huge impact on GS landscape.