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You are here:1.2 Major Habitats

1.2 Major Habitats

Ecuador´s rugged topography and diverse climates have produced a surprising number of habitats for such a small country.  The Andes, running from North to South, divide the country into the western lowlands and Amazonia in the east.   The western lowlands are wet in the north and dry in the south due the influence of two different oceanic currents.   The warm California current is in the north and the cold Humboldt current in the south.  The Andes have three mountain ranges crossing north and south in the country.  The one running close to the ocean contains lower peaks than the other two running close and parallel to each other and reaching over 6,000 m (19,685 ft) at their highest point. When one considers that temperature generally falls 1 o C (3.38 o F) for every 100 m (328 ft.) of elevation gain, it is easy to see that many possible conditions of humidity, temperature and sun producing an amazing number of habitats and microhabitats are possible.
1.2.1 Forest Habitats
A large number of plant species from fairly low to very tall trees are defined as a forest.
Forest that is pristine and has never been cut down by humans is called Primary Forest.
Forest that has grown up in areas where humans earlier cut it down is called Secondary Forest. Lowland Rain Forest
Also known as Lowland Evergreen Forest is a tall wet forest with a canopy level reaching 30 to 40 m (98 to 131 ft) and a few intermixed emergent trees up to 50 m (164 ft) high.   The annual precipitation is very high from 3,000 to 4,000 mm (118 to 157 inches) or higher in certain areas.
In some of the far Northwestern lowlands where extremely rainy the forest is referred as “Pluvial Forest”, as in Esmeraldas Province.

When the western Evergreen Forest occurs in areas with a lower annual precipitation from 1,500 to 3,000mm (59 to 118 inches) it is called “Humid Forest” as in Manabí and southern Los Ríos Provinces.

In the Amazon region this evergreen forest occurring on higher ground that is never flooded is called “Tierra Firme”; Flooded Evergreen Forest Várzea Forest
When the Amazonian evergreen forest is close to some major river flowing from the Andes and carries a lot of sediments (white water rivers), the forest floor gets seasonally flooded during the rainy season and is called “Várzea”. Igapó Forest
When the Amazonian evergreen forest is close to a major lake or a river flowing from within the Amazonia carrying a lot of tannins (black water rivers) and the forest floor gets seasonally flooded during the rainy season it is called “Igapó”. Moriche Palm Swamps
Flooded soils along depressions inside forest, old lake beds or the seepage zones away from oxbow lakes inside Amazonian lowland rainforest that are dominated by the palm Mauritia flexuosa (called Moriche). The area presents a broken canopy not taller than 20 m (65 ft) high, and the understory is very dense and difficult to move through. Amazonian River-edge Forest
A low diversity forest near the edge of rivers adapted to mature quickly in clearings created by the water´s scouring action that exposes bare new ground.

When the Amazonian river edge forest is very dense and mostly dominated by very few species of low growing vegetation up to 2 to 4 m high (6.5 to 13 ft) it is called “Early successional”
When the Amazonian river edge forest is dense and mostly dominated by few species of fast growing trees and other species of bushy trees with a dense understory of tall herbs it is called “Mid successional” River Islands
These are sandy soil islands within large white water rivers (e.g. the Napo and Pastaza Rivers). They are often short-lived, as the river changes course. This habitat supports a very distinctive and unique avifauna found only on the river islands and nowhere else, not even in the river-edge forest. Montane Evergreen Forest.
This type of forest is present in both western and eastern slopes of the Andes from 600 to 3,200 m (1,970 to 10500 ft) elevation.  This forest is well drained and very humid.  All the moisture and water comes from an almost constant cloud cover and seasonal rains. It can be divided into several subsets:

Cloud Forest. This habitat is located near the crest of the Coastal Cordillera and in Southern Azuay and El Oro province (Southwest Ecuador).   It has a relatively low precipitation when compared with the more northerly forest habits with 1,000 to 1,500 mm (39 to 59 inches) but presents a constant cloud cover in which humidity condenses on the vegetation and the forest continuously drips.
Foothill Forest. A very humid forest that occurs in both outer sides of the Andes between 600 to 1,200 m (1,970 to 3,940 ft) with an annual precipitation of about 3,000 mm (118 inches).
Subtropical Montane Forest.  This forest occurs in both outer sides of the Andes between 1,200 to 2,400 m (3,940 to 7,870 ft) with an annual precipitation of about 2,000 to 2,500 mm (78 to 98 inches).
    Temperate Montane Forest. This forest occurs in both outer sides of the Andes and also in the inner Andean valleys from 2,400 to 3,200 m (7,870 to 10,500 ft) with an annual precipitation of about 2,000 to 2,500 mm (78 to 98 inches).  These forests have  substantially cooler temperatures.  An important microhabitat in this forest is the Chusquea bamboo understory. Elfin Forest.
Also known as Elfin Woodland. It is stunted vegetation near or at tree-line ranging from 3,100 to 3,400 m (10,170 to 11,150 ft) and exposed to frequent frost.  The precipitation is similar to Temperate Montane forest.  Most of the plant species are the same too, but the major environmental difference seems to be the high wind exposure.  This exposure creates a high turnover of individual plants and creates conditions of very slow growth. Polylepis Forest (Woodland)
These forests are also known as Polylepis Woodland and are found at very high elevations.   Polylepis trees are orange-colored flaky barked trees that grow in woods near timberline.  They are found normally from 3,500 to 4,200 m (11,500 to 13800 ft). Polylepis forests used to be a more widespread habitat, but are  under great threat due to burning and cutting for fire wood and fence posts. Tropical Deciduous Forest.
These are forests with trees from 20 to25 m high (60-80 feet) in which many of the trees lose their leaves in the dry season.  Rainfall is highly seasonal lasting just about three months and ranges from 500 to 1500 mm (19.6 to 59 inches).  Tropical Deciduous Forests  are restricted to southwestern Ecuador in Manabí, Los Rios, El Oro, Guayas, Santa Elena and Loja provinces. Mangrove Forest.
A forest formed by relatively short trees that belong to three or four unrelated genera that are adapted to survive along estuaries that have quite variable salinity conditions in the water.   These mangrove forests exist in places where muddy salty and muddy fresh waters occur on a daily basis with tidal variation.

1.2.2 Shrub and Grassland habitats Arid Lowland Scrub
These lands have an annual precipitation below 500 mm (20 inches) and contain spaced out and scattered bushy trees that are adapted to harsh and dry weather conditions. Lowland Scrub areas occur in Western Guayas, southern coastal El Oro, Santa Elena southwestern Loja and south and central coastal Manabí. Desert
The western tip of Santa Elena Province is even drier than the Arid Lowland scrub areas described above.  The desert landscape is barren with sparse vegetation creating a desert like habitat near the coast. The only other desert in Ecuador is “El Desierto de Palmira” a very small desert like area in Chimborazo province south of the city of Riobamba at 3.150 m (10,340 ft). It is caused by a rainshadow effect from Volcán Chimborazo. Andean Montane Scrub
This habitat is similar to the Arid Lowland Shrub but with more cacti. It typically occurs in rain shadow valleys in isolated areas along the western slopes of the Andes and some inner-Andean valleys always over 1,000 m (3,280 ft). Good examples of these areas can be seen in Calacalí and Guayllabamba near Quito, El Chota valley north of Ibarra and the Río Girón Valley on western Azuay. Páramo Grassland
In the high Andes the temperature falls considerably especially under overcast conditions and at night. Temperatures often fall below freezing even when the humidity is high. This habitat drains very fast due to high evapotranspiration. Very few species of trees can grow. Trees give way to bushes as elevation and weather conditions become more severe.  Higher still is a wet grassy habitat called “Páramo” in which trees and bushes have disappeared at an approximate elevation of 3400 to over 4000 m (11000 to 13200 feet). As elevation increases, the grasses and shrubs become less frequent as well.  
The Páramo of southern Ecuador is drier and resembles the “Puna” region of central Peru and Bolivia.   Páramo eventually gives away to glacial scree of bare gravel and rocks just below the permanent snow-line at about 5,000 m (16,400 ft). Agricultural Fields and Pastures
Plantations and grazing pastures occur in many different natural habitats at most elevations. The drier habitats require irrigation. Second-growth Scrub
These are bush-dominated habitats that appear after agricultural and pasture areas are abandoned.  They can occur at various elevations in Ecuador.

1.2.3 Wetland habitats
Wetlands and bodies of water occur in many habitats throughout Ecuador.  Nearly all of them are important for water birds and water dependent birds both local and migratory. Freshwater Marshes
These are flooded areas that support different kind of emergent vegetation including reeds, grasses and other types of floating and aquatic vegetation.   Typical examples of wetland vegetation can be found in “La Segua Marshes” also known as “Chone Lakes,” and the Santa Rosa and Guayaquil Marshes.   Other areas of this type occur in the Yaguarcocha, San Pablo and Llaviucú Lakes and the floating vegetation along the shores of certain Amazonian lowlands lakes like Limoncocha and Emuya Lakes. Saltwater and Brackish lakes.
These are very rare habitats in Ecuador.  These lakes were probably present in the same areas where now there are artificial salt ponds along the coast of Ecuador mainly on the Santa Elena Peninsula. Examples include the salt ponds of Salinas and the Pacoa.
The vast areas of Mangrove Forest that were turned into shrimp ponds are also of some importance for certain sea and shore birds and can be found along the ecuadorian shoreline. Freshwater Lakes and Ponds
This habitat includes all major open fresh water bodies throughout Ecuador. Oxbow lakes
As the major rivers meander through the Amazonian floodplains, subsequent to major flooding events they occasionally adopt an entirely new course, abandoning their old channels.  These channels often gradually become separated from the river itself.   They eventually form isolated, shallow and often curved bodies of water called “oxbow lakes”.   These lakes slowly fill in and varied forest types develop over time.

1.2.4 Rivers Large Rivers
These include all major rivers in the Amazonian and Western lowlands.  Some of these start quite high in the Andes, namely the Napo, Aguarico, Pastaza, Esmeraldas, and Guayas rivers. Riverine Sand Beaches
These are islands of mud and sand exposed along major rivers during the dry season when water levels are low.  They are barren and open, but if the next rainy season does not wash them away they can turn to vegetated river islands. Streams
These include all small rivers and streams within different habitats.

1.2.5 Ocean Sea Coast
These habitats include all the areas situated on the ocean and are beaches, bays and estuaries. Coastal Sand Beaches and Mudflats
Most of the Ecuadorian shoreline is sandy beach, the preferred habitat for many birds to feed, roost, and breed.  Mudflats are present at the mouths of many major rivers. These mudflats get exposed every twelve hours during low tides. Coastal Rocky Shore
In Ecuador much of the coastline is often dotted with rocky outcrops that approach the ocean.   These rocky habitats provide a habitat for other birds than those found on the sandy beaches and are particularly important for nesting sea birds. Pelagic Waters
These are the deep offshore oceanic waters.  In Ecuador, the best places to begin a pelagic birding trip are from the city of Salinas on the Santa Elena Peninsula and from the town of Santa Marianita, south of Manta.   From these towns extremely deep waters occur only some 30 km off the coast of the country.

Copyright © 2010 by Lelis Navarrete

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Meet the Author

Lelis Navarrete – Birding tour leader. Lelis has 19 years of experience as a birding guide and naturalist in the field. He has led groups of birders throughout most of Latin America, guiding frequently in countries like his native country of Ecuador and in the Galapagos Islands, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Panama. A Biology B.Sc. graduate from Universidad Católica in Quito, Lelis has supported Jocotoco Foundation since its founding in 1998 and was an active Board Member until 2010 supporting Ecuadorian bird and wildlife conservation. Lelis divides his time between his two great passions in life: birding and spending time with his wife Solange and son Fabian with whom he lives in Quito.


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