Nevado Sajama queñua woodlands
The highest altitude forests most likely are Nevado Sajama queñua woodlands. While separate trees can be found at a height of 5 200 m, stands of low trees reach the altitude of some 5 000 m.
Dominating tree species
Map of the site
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In a remote, sparsely populated area of Bolivia is located a giant mountain – Nevado Sajama. It belongs to the highest volcanoes in the world – its height is 6 542 m and it rises for some 4 kilometers around its surroundings. Nevado Sajama is the tallest mountain in Bolivia.
The summit of the volcano is covered with snow and ice but further below on its slopes grows a unique forest of queñua de altura (Polylepis tomentella).
The genus Polylepis includes some 28 species of shrubs and trees that grow in the Andes, in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. These plants belong to the enormous rose family.
Scientists are interested in these plants because Polylepis is able to grow in very dry and cold conditions high in the mountains. It happens that around the high-altitude Polylepis plants are no other plants, just stones. These survival abilities of the plant though come with a cost: in warmer and wetter conditions the slow-growing trees are outcompeted by other plants.
Queñua de altura (Polylepis tomentella) is the most extreme of all species in this genus. These trees grow at a height of some 4 – 5.2 kilometers in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. Their age may reach 700 years but due to their extremely slow growth rate the height rarely exceeds 5 m and the diameter of the trunk is below 0.4 m.
The tree grows in soils that have a medium annual temperature of only 5 ° C.
The woodlands of Polylepis tomentella consist mainly of this single species of trees but in this forest live many rare species of insects, birds, and plants.
Highest altitude forest
The uppermost forests in the world are on the northern slopes of Nevado Sajama. The highest seems to be a sparse, low group of trees and shrubs at the height of roughly 5 000 m. These trees are not higher than 3.5 m.
Separate trees and shrubs grow higher, up to the altitude of 5 200 m.
In earlier times queñua forests were much larger and healthier. It is assessed that just some 10% of the original forest remains in Bolivia now.
The area of the forest decreased due to several reasons. One of them was the firewood collection by local people. But another, a lot more negative factor seems to be climate change. It is speculated that due to the temperature rise queñua woodlands are replaced by other plants.
In order to protect these unique forests in 1939 was founded Sajama National Park. This helped to protect queñua from the cutting and processing into charcoal for local mines. Unfortunately, the national park can not protect the forest from the global climate crisis.
- A. Azócar, F. Rada, C. García-Núnez, Functional Characteristics of the Arborescent Genus Polylepis along a latitudinal Gradient in the High Andes (PDF file), Interciencia, 32-10, October 2007. Accessed on 15th April 2022
Nevado Sajama queñua woodlands are included in the following article:
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