Colombian Cloud Forest

Rainforests that grow at higher altitudes on the flanks of the Andes are known as montane rainforests or cloud forests because they are often enveloped in mist that results from the condensation of warm air against chillier mountain currents. Unlike the lowland rainforest, cloud forests only have two layers, the canopy and ground layer. Generally, the vegetation is less dense than the lowland rainforest. However, it is home to many palms, ferns, and epiphytes, particularly orchids.

The type of cloud forest vegetation is dictated by altitude. Selva subandina (sub-Andean forest) vegetation grows between the altitudes of 1,000-2,300 meters (3,300-7,500 feet), where temperature varies 16-23°C (61-73°F). Plant species include the distinctive Dr. Seuss-like white yarumo with its oversized leaves, as well as cedar, oak, and mahogany trees. Many palms grow here, including the svelte wax palm and tagua, which produces a nut that resembles ivory. Ferns include the striking palma boba or tree fern. Colombia’s premier crop, coffee, is grown at this elevation.

At elevations between 2,300-3,600 meters (7,500-12,000 feet), the vegetation is described as selva Andina (Andean forest). This vegetation is even less dense and at higher elevations the trees are smaller. The vegetation bears some resemblance to landscapes in the northern and southern hemispheres. Selva Andina includes many oak, encenillo, sietecuero (glory bush), and pine trees.

A spectacled or Andean bear looks down the hillside.
The spectacled or Andean bear, the only species of bear in South America, calls the Colombian cloud forests and páramos its home. Photo © Derrick Neill/123rf.

Mammals include the spectacled or Andean bear, the only species of bear in South America, the mountain (or woolly) tapir, anteaters, armadillos, sloths, boars, foxes, and olingos, a small arboreal carnivore of the raccoon family. In 2013, the olinguito (small olingo), an incredibly cute-looking animal, was declared a new species. Other unusual animals include the slow-moving guagua loba and guatín, both of which are rodents. In addition, numerous species of monkeys inhabit the cloud forest, including noisy troops of howler monkeys. Birds include many types of barranqueros (motmots), including the spectacular blue-crowned motmot. Other common birds include tángaras (tanagers), woodpeckers, warblers, parrots, owls, and ducks, including the beautiful white and black torrent duck.

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