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Finding the Lost World: ruminations on the past and (bleak) future of a fascinating ecosystem

Written by Patricia Salerno, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Biology, CSU.

I kept staring down, impatiently waiting for the clouds to clear and the wondrous Auyan to appear. Well, it did. And there we were, flying right on top of billions-year-old erosive ruins, staring down on this gigantic King of the Great Savannah. Now, under the full moon, it stares down on me to remind me who is the ruler of these lands.”*

Towering over the vast lowlands, flattop mountains such as Auyan rise taller than the highest skyscrapers in the world. Dozens of these mountains dot the expansive shrublands and tropical forests of northeastern South America, yet the looming threats forecast a bleak and uncertain future for their conservation. These mountains known as tepuis, or "houses of the gods" in the local Pemon language, are hard to describe in words or portray in pictures, but their magnificent presence leaves no doubt as to why they are sacred lands to the indigenous. This majestic world full of cliff-dwelling gods and truly unique ecosystems – and one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites – runs the risk of being lost for good if we don’t change the way these lands are being managed.

Though you may not be aware, you have probably been exposed to the grandeur of this region before; perhaps by learning about the tallest waterfall on earth, Angel Falls, or by watching Disney’s movie Up, or from reading or watching remakes of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. The Lost World is a perfect description of the tepui ecosystem; not because of the existence of dinosaurs lost in time as the novel portrays, but because these islands are lost in our collective knowledge, frozen in time in the advancement of research and science, forgotten and ignored by policy and conservation management, and highly threatened because of illegal mining and global climate change. But before I touch on these issues, let me describe to you what makes this Lost World so fascinating.

Unlike a mountain chain uplift – such as the Rockies and the Alps – caused by the collision of tectonic plates, tepuis were formed by hundreds of millions of years of erosive cycles that slowly yet persistently broke apart a once enormous high-altitude plateau known as the Guiana Shield. Located in Northern South America, the summits are one of the most ancient exposed surfaces on earth and harbor hundreds of unique species found nowhere else. Most unique species are often found on a single summit…. and in some cases, these summits can be as small as 2 square miles!

Many interesting ecological and evolutionary phenomena are directly related to distinctive summit climate and ecology. For example, although rains are very frequent, water never accumulates because it quickly escapes to the lowlands through billion-year-old erosive canals. Thus, permanent bodies of water like rivers and ponds are scarce if not absent. This affects animals such as amphibians, which are in constant need of water to avoid desiccation through their permeable skins. As a consequence, most summit frog species have adapted to seek shelter in pitcher plants, which keep standing water for much longer than the rockface.

Another unique evolutionary phenomenon on these flattop summits is the occurrence of carnivory in many different plant groups. Because soils are constantly eroding, and no new soil depositions occur – other than the slow decomposition of organic material – nitrogen, an essential compound for life, is in short supply. Normally, plants obtain nitrogen from the soil through their root systems. However, on the soil-scarce tepuis, many plants have independently evolved the ability to digest insects and other small animals in order to obtain enough nitrogen to survive. This adaptation appears to be a common evolutionary solution to nutrient-poor soils on the summits, and has resulted in an accumulation of unique species in these ecosystems.

Animals and plants unique to the tepuis are highly threatened by rising global temperatures and climate change. One overall trend that scientists have observed so far is that temperatures are increasing faster than most organisms can adapt, thus resulting in either shifts of distributions or extinction of species rather than adaptation to new climates. As an example, butterflies in the Alps have been shown to move upwards in altitude, maintaining their preferred climatic tolerances as temperatures rise. Moreover, as temperate regions become warmer, tropical species expand their ranges, which for example has resulted in an increase in tropical diseases in North America.

The species that are adapted to the summits of the flattop mountains are faced with a very bleak future. They, unlike lowland species, cannot move to higher elevations, so changing climate will force them to adapt to warmer and drier conditions at an implausibly fast rate. Futhermore, they will also face competition from historically lowland-dwellers that will now seek cooler temperatures as the lowlands also become too warm and too dry for their taste. In short, all these unique summit species have one of two choices: adapt or die, though most likely the latter.

The uniqueness of this ecosystem is not restricted to the summits. The lowlands and foothills also have plant and animal species, as well as human cultures found nowhere else on earth. The Pemon people, who inhabit these lands, currently represent some of the most isolated and pristine indigenous cultures left on earth. Most tribes still retain ancient traditions, languages, and religious beliefs. They believe the mountains are the houses of gods, and the keepers of the souls of the dead, the mawari. They believe people that mistreat dogs cannot enter heaven, and that jaguars are the dogs of the mawari, making them sacred and never a hunting target, unless you wish the spirits of the dead to be against you.

The respectful practices and beliefs of the Pemon people towards their natural environment have allowed this populated yet isolated area to remain largely pristine and untouched. In fact, the Pemon people never ascended to the mountain summits until tourism breached the area. They never hunted except as a means of survival, and they never killed any top predators such as large cats. However, in recent years, excessive and uncontrolled tourism to summits of the most accessible mountains, and more importantly an exponential increase in illegal gold mining in their territories, have generated an imbalance and a delicate situation for the tribes and the ecosystem alike. The Pemon are now being exploited by the miners, and the ecosystem is rapidly and permanently being destroyed by highly destructive mining practices, destroying both the Pemon’s possibilities for subsisting in this now contaminated and depleted environment, as well as threatening all the unique species found there.

Even though these areas are all “protected” by national park or reserve status, negligence of local authorities as well as almost complete lack of funding for parks have resulted in extreme mismanagement and exploitation of both the environment and the communities. The lost world has rarely been a prominent component of collective or scientific knowledge, or a priority for conservation. But unless we make this effort now, it will be too late to save the ecosystem from rising temperatures, hunting, and uncontrolled tourism, or to protect the people and their culture from the abuse associated with illegal mining. The cultural and environmental uniqueness of this region is rapidly disappearing before we actually know what’s there, and before we can rightly appreciate it. Unless efficient conservation policies, climate change research, and indigenous tribe protection is immediately and effectively implemented for the preservation of biodiversity and culture, Conan Doyle’s Lost World will be truly lost for future generations.

*Excerpt from one of my journal entries from my first expedition to this region, 2009.

Photo captions:

1. Angel Falls, Venezuela.

2. Example of a barren summit landscape, Auyan, Venezuela.

3. Summit frog, Tepuihyla edelcae, inside a pitcher plant, Brocchinia.

4. Alexander, local guide and native Pemon, Venezuela.

5. "Great Savannah" mountains and lowlands, Venezuela.

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