“In a very short time it was found that they were things to be unlearned as well as discovered in Ecuador’
Edward Whymper, Travels Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator, 1892
In 1998, Ecuador was officially classed as ‘mega diverse’ by Conservation international, along with 16 other countries. What makes Ecuador so remarkable to be on this list is its small size. With only 0.2% of the world’s total land mass, Ecuador is home to an estimated 8% of amphibian species, 5% of reptile species, 8% of mammal species and 16% of the world’s bird species. The diminutive size, and massive richness of species, led Conservation International to name Ecuador as the most biodiverse nation on earth, the country with the most plant and animal species per square kilometre anywhere on the planet.
Why is Ecuador so biodiverse?
The answer lies in the 3 distinct regions of mainland Ecuador, plus the Galapagos Islands. Running right through the centre of Ecuador is the Andean mountain range, then travelling down from the Andes to the west you reach the Pacific Ocean where it includes the Galapagos Archipelago and travelling down to the east the Amazon rainforest.
This makes for an incredibly rich and varied country. What makes it so special is its small size relatively to other countries in the region with such diversity. Quite literally in a day, it is possible to travel from hot to cold weather, from a steamy tropical beach to a snow capped volcano. From the tropical rainforest of the Amazon basin to altitudes above the tree-line on Ecuador’s altiplano, the Andean version of artic tundra.
The numbers are quite astounding:
- 25,000 species of plants (which equates to 10 percent of the worlds plant species live in Ecuador including around 5000 species of orchids alone)
- 1632 species of birds
- 492 species of amphibians
- 414 species of reptiles
- 398 species of mammals
- As for invertebrates – the number probably runs to millions!
(These numbers are subject to constant changes as new species are discovered)
Alexander von Humbolt and his altitudinal bands….
Alexander von Humbolt, one of the great explorers who visited Ecuador in the 19th Century used what he saw in Ecuador to develop his theory of altitudinal bands, in which he systematically explained how just as vegetation can change predictably with latitude (ie how far North or South a country or place lies), it also differs systematically with altitude. A vertical assent of 600 meters, is essentially equivalent to a trek north of 1000 km, which helps explain some of the amazing diversity of species found in Ecuador, and also how you can literally see the vegetation changing before your eyes in some train and road journeys in Ecuador that involve a rapid change in altitude. Such as that to the cloud forest in Mindo from Quito, or from Cuenca over the altiplano of the high Andes above the tree line then down to the steamy tropical pacific coast, were the vegetation literally changes before your eyes as you travel.
It’s not just Ecuador’s topography, climate, plants and animals that are varied – but also the culture. Each of Ecuador’s 3 main regions, the Andes, Amazon and coast, is also home to its own unique and astounding variety of living and ancient cultures.