Nestled in a biodiversity hotspot, these cloud forests boast thousands of species
By Milo Putnam on March 23, 2022
Talk to any biologist familiar with Ecuador’s Intag Valley and they will not be able to help but list off all of the new species they know have been discovered there--usually a handful on every expedition. This is also home to some of the most spectacular orchids in the world, and one of the world’s orchid hotspots.
Intag Valley is a part of the Tropical Andes, a biodiversity hotspot that harbors a special classification of tropical forests called cloud forests. Fewer than 2.5 percent of the world’s tropical forests are cloud forests, which sit high in the mountains and “drink” the fog all around them before releasing the water into small creeks. Each cloud forest is home to its own communities of wildlife, often including species found nowhere else in the world.
Here we profile 10 of some of the most interesting or iconic species that call Ecuador’s Intag Valley home--or that live close enough that the threat of mining in the region could have serious consequences for their survival.
These wide-eyed beauties come in shades of red or brown and are smooth or textured depending on their sex (the females are smooth). They have long spindly fingers and their calls are especially loud. They also experience direct development, which means that they hatch out of their eggs as mini adults, instead of tadpoles. The group of frog species that belong to the Pristimantis genus is the most diverse of all vertebrates, with more than 530 known species so far.
Donning cream-colored markings around their face and eyes, Spectacled Bears do in fact have superb eyesight, no glasses needed. As the only bear native to all of South America, this charismatic species is an icon of the tropical Andes. Spectacled Bears spend a large amount of time in the trees, more than any other bear species. In fact, this species is known to craft their own leafy platforms high off the ground for sleeping and reaching foods. As omnivores, Spectacled Bears eat a variety of animals and plants, especially palms and fruits, and even bromelias.
Forget needle in a haystack, more like hummingbird on a jungle ridge. Black-breasted Pufflegs are small hummingbirds that are known for moving up and down the tropical Andes slopes in search of blossoms to feed on. Size aside, this Endangered species is a challenge to observe in the wild considering their population consists of no more than 250 individuals. As an endemic species to Ecuador, they have been proudly adopted as the official emblem of the capital city of Quito. Several records of this species have been made in the Toisán mountain range, in the upper area of the Intag Valley, where its total area of distribution and population is still unknown.
Brown-headed Spider Monkeys swing through the canopies of Ecuador’s Andean cloud forests, using their prehensile tails to help them as they glide from branch to branch in search of fruit, leaves and flowers. The dense and lush forests they depend on are increasingly being cleared for agriculture and mining, isolating populations and causing Brown-headed Spider Monkeys to become one of the world’s 25 most endangered primates. There are only about 250 of them in Ecuador.
The tiny yellow dots along this petite lizard’s flanks almost look like a string of party lights! But you won’t find the Tropical Lightbulb Lizard out and about often. They spend most of their time underground in burrows they excavate themselves, though they are increasingly rare and conservationists are unsure how many remain in the wild. Their Andean cloud forest homes are being destroyed and becoming increasingly fragmented for agriculture, logging and as a result of urbanization.
These secretive birds live in Colombia and the Chocó of the northwestern Ecuadorian Andes. Although they can fly, they usually prefer to hop and run along the ground and they don’t stray far from their home ranges, which are usually about five square kilometers. Males and females are equally dedicated parents, taking turns brooding their clutches of eggs and feeding hatchlings. Adults mostly eat arthropods that they find scouring the forest floor. Biologists are still trying to learn more about these birds that sport dark plumage with light-colored banding on their breasts and bellies. The blue patches around their eyes expand and contract, which might play a part in mating displays. Banded Groud-Cuckoos are threatened by habitat destruction, isolating them as the forests where they live are cleared for agriculture and mining. Scientists estimate there are between 600 and 1,700 Banded Ground-Cuckoos living in the Colombian and Ecuadorian Andes.
Looking for Kermit the Frog's doppelgänger? Check out Lynch's Giant Glass Frogs, they are best known for their muppet-like appearance with bulging eyes and slick lime-green skin. Don't be fooled, they are only giants by name, these frogs average no longer than 1 inch (2.5 mm). This Critically Endangered species rely on forest vegetation that grows over water. Why? Glass frogs will lay their eggs on leaves above water, and when the eggs hatch into tadpoles they can easily slide off the leaves into the water below.
The Preñadilla, the Spanish name for Andean Catfish, is only found in the cloud forests of Ecuador. Like other catfish species, the Preñadilla has barbels (cat-like whiskers) around their mouths that contain taste buds to help them locate food. At one time this petite species was abundant throughout the tropical Andes, growing to about 6 inches (15 cm) long. Today the Preñadilla is classified as Endangered, threatened by habitat loss and water pollution.
This striking bird of prey is rightfully named for its colored blocked feathers of black and chestnut. Found within a narrow range following the cloud forest habitat of the tropical Andes, Black-and-chestnut Eagles are classified as Endangered. Like many raptors, these eagles are top predators, preying on many mammal species, including monkeys. Their role is key to maintaining a balanced ecosystem. Their population is declining, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with an estimated count of fewer than 999 individuals remaining.
Teeny-tiny is the only fitting description for these mighty geckos. The Spiny Dwarf-Gecko measures a whopping 3.5 inches (9 cm) from the tip of their nose to the end of their tails. This Endangered species is rarely seen in the wilds of Ecuador. Spiny Dwarf-Geckos are well disguised both for their small size and their impeccable camouflage among the leaf-litter deposited on the cloud forest floor.
Milo is a communications specialist for Re:wild and has a true love of storytelling and creating compelling content that mobilizes action for our planet. He's always looking to uncover the next best story to engage others in discovering the natural world and helping to protect it in the process. When he's not crafting engaging content, Milo loves going on adventures near and far with his husband.