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Nature’s Jenga Towers

Across the planet, every continent has its own collection of plants and animals that are specific to each region. So, for example, in Africa we find rhinos, giraffes and hippos; in Australia koalas and kangaroos; in South America jaguars, pumas and llamas. On a smaller scale, these differences also exist, although they are less obvious and sometimes found in areas with much greater rates of biodiversity than others.

By Paula Iturralde-Pólit

Photo: Gustavo Pazmiño

In Ecuador, the Amazon is famous for hosting the greatest diversity in the country. But the forests of the Andes are remarkable too for the number of endemic species — those that are found in just one location and nowhere else. Ecuador’s exuberant biodiversity is only one part of the story. It’s equally, or even more important, for us to understand the value and function of species both individually and collectively.

No matter the exact type of forest, each of Ecuador’s stunning 91 ecosystems possess specific temperature and humidity characteristics. These are the most relevant factors when determining why a species is or is not present in a certain location. In addition, each organism influences another, because in nature everything is connected and every organism, from the most microscopic to the largest mammal, has a function.

An interesting analogy is to think of ecosystems as if they were Jenga towers — the game with the wooden blocks stacked one atop the other over several levels. Each player must, in turn, carefully remove a block from the tower and then place it on the top, so the tower grows higher and higher. As each block is removed from the tower, empty spaces appear which cannot be filled again; the tower becomes less and less stable, to the point where it eventually topples over and collapses.

What happens in nature is very similar. If a species moves from place to place in search of better conditions when environmental changes occur, or when the forest is fragmented by human intervention, it leaves a void of functions in the original space. Many other species with which it lived depend on these functions and are sometimes impossible to recover.

When a species changes its home range, it’s like the block we remove and place at the top of the tower. More sensitive species may not have the ability to adapt to these changes and will cease to exist entirely in that place, a phenomenon known as local extinction. This would be comparable to removing a block and not returning it to the tower at all.

In all forests, organisms coexist, interact and depend on each other to obtain shelter, to control the presence of their potential predators and to obtain energy/food. The connection between species is like a network that maintains the ecological balance in the forests, while facilitating the transfer of energy through the different levels of what is known as the food chain. Plants are the base of this chain because they can make their own food thanks to the sunlight they capture and transform into energy through photosynthesis. At the next level we have the herbivores, followed by omnivores, and then carnivores at the last level.

To look at some concrete examples, let’s travel to Fundación Futuro’s Mashpi and Tayra Reserves in the northwest of Pichincha and talk about some species present there. A fairly common tree is the guarumo or cecropia that provides fruit that feed a large number of birds, including the red-tailed toucanet (Aulacorhynchus haematopygus), which is a great seed disperser. In turn, this tree coexists with ants, to which it offers shelter in exchange for protection against certain voracious insects that attack its leaves.

Another very striking tree species recently discovered is the Mashpi Magnolia (Magnolia mashpi); its flowers are visited by many beetles, and its stem is an ideal habitat for epiphytic plants, especially orchids such as the recently described Lepanthes mashpica, or bromeliads. Rainwater collects on the rosette-shaped leaves of bromeliads and they become the perfect place for the development of larvae of some species of tree frogs, such as the Mashpi Torrenteer frog (Hyloscirtus mashpi), endemic to the reserve.

The avocado tree is another example in the area. Its fruits are sought out by the endangered spectacled bear, Tremarctos ornatus (the only bear in South America), which is mainly vegetarian.

These are a few examples of the thousands or perhaps millions that help us to grasp how organisms depend on each other.

The Mashpi and Tayra Reserves are part of the Chocó Andino Biosphere Reserve, which in turn, is part of Ecuador’s wider biological riches. The rivers born here bring life and sustenance to tens of thousands of people downstream. If we affect the Jenga tower ecosystem in the forests here, we affect the whole ecosystem. That’s why it’s so important for us to conserve them, working hand-in-hand with local communities, who are in turn, key blocks in Nature’s Jenga towers.

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