by Steven Heathcote
As our ageing bus swings rounds another sharp corner perched on the steep pot-holed roads of the Eastern Andes, a view of never-ending green forest stretches off into the distance. Falling for 3000m before stretching off into the distance, it is amazing to think this ocean of green is one of the most species rich environments on earth.
Unlike most of the people on the bus, returning to the lowland towns with their monthly shopping from Cuzco, the nearest major city, we disembark at the Wayqecha Research Station (http://www.acca.org.pe/), and unload our equipment. The research station is located in the border zone of Manu National Park in Southern Peru, providing a unique place to study the forests at 3000m. These forests are bathed in cloud for much of the year.
I am here to look for bromeliads, plants in the pineapple family (Bromeliaceae, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pineapple) which grow up in the tree canopy. The plants are unique, using overlapping leaf bases to form tanks which retain water and fallen leaves, allowing the plants to get water and nutrients without needing any roots.
About 60 species of bromeliads grow at this end of Manu from 3000m down to the warmer forests at 600m. We are trying to understand which physiological adaptations are important for the distribution of these species. For example, plants in the forests at about 2000-3000m have very upright leaves to help intercept water from the clouds, but as we descend through the forest, leaves become more curved, helping intercept more rainfall. These may help to explain their high diversity in this hotspot region.
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