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Caribbean Region: CPD Site SA1

COASTAL CORDILLERA
Venezuela

Location:  Mountain system extending east-west along northern coast of Venezuela, about from Yaracuy Depression (latitude c. 10°20'N, longitude c. 68°30'W) eastward to tip of Paria Peninsula (latitude 10°45'N, longitude 61°50'W).
Area: 
c. 45,000 km².
Altitude: 
.
0-2765 m.
Vegetation: 
Mangroves, coastal thorn scrub, hill savanna, deciduous forest, semi-deciduous lower montane forest, evergreen lower montane forest, evergreen montane cloud forest, upper montane elfin forest, upper montane scrub (subpáramo).
Flora: 
c. 5000 vascular plant species with numerous endemic taxa, especially in cloud forests.
Useful plants: 
Many medicinal and ornamental species.
Other values: 
Watershed protection, fauna refuge, tourist attraction.
Threats: 
High demographic pressure; colonization; shifting and industrial agriculture; road construction; set fires.
Conservation: 
11 National Parks, 5 Natural Monuments, fauna refuges.

Map 37: CPD Site SA1
References

Geography

The Coastal Cordillera (Cordillera de la Costa) is the third largest mountain system in Venezuela, extending c. 720 km in an east-west direction along the northern (Caribbean) coast (Map 37). The easternmost extension lies in the Paria Peninsula opposite the island of Trinidad (and the system extends into Trinidad); the western end is in the State of Yaracuy where the depression of Yaracuy forms a natural separation from the south-westerly adjacent Andes mountains (and the Sierra de Aroa can also be considered coastal). The northern limit of the Coastal Cordillera is formed by the coastline of the Caribbean Sea, and to the south it is bordered by the extensive plains of the Llanos.

The Coastal Cordillera is articulated into two transversal sections, a larger western and a smaller eastern one. The western section in turn consists of two parallel east-west mountain chains: a northern Serranía del Litoral from the River Yaracuy, and a southerly adjacent and lower Serranía del Interior extending to the depression of Unare (c. 10°N, 65°W). Between them are the densely populated valleys of Caracas and Tuy, and the Valencia Lake Depression.

Several mountains north of Caracas in the coastal chain have received the most botanical attention: El Avila (2200 m), La Silla de Caracas (2650 m) and Pico Naiguatá (2765 m) which is the highest peak of the entire Coastal Cordillera. Other botanically important mountains of the Serranía del Litoral are Pico Codazzi (c. 2200 m) near Colonia Tovar 60 km west of Caracas, and the mountains of Rancho Grande (the highest is Pico La Mesa, c. 2400 m) to the north of the city Maracay in Aragua State (120 km west of Caracas). The most important mountains of the Serranía del Interior are Guatopo (c. 1800 m) (30 km south-east of Caracas), and the Morros de San Juan (over 1700 m) (near the town San Juan in Guárico State). The eastern section comprises the large massif of Turimiquire (c. 2590 m) located to the east of the depression of Unare, followed farther east by the cerros Humo (c. 1350 m) and Patao on the Península de Paria, and continues in the island of Trinidad under the name Northern Range.

The geology of the Coastal Cordillera consists mainly of Tertiary schists and gneisses, underlain in some parts by granites; limestones are also present in several areas, especially in the Serranía del Interior, where the Morros de San Juan offer a characteristic landscape feature. The Coastal Cordillera was formed by strong tectonic movements during the Tertiary (60 million years ago) and is considerably older than the Andes (which uplifted 30 million years ago).

Soils are generally acidic and predominantly entisols and ultisols. Nutrient levels are generally low; in some soils under forest cover high concentrations of aluminium have been found (Zinck 1986).

The general climate of the Coastal Cordillera is strongly influenced by the north-eastern trade winds, especially during the dry season from December to April, whereas during the rainy season the Intertropical Convergence Zone reaches its northern limit in the area, accompanied by predominantly southern winds with high moisture. The local climate is very diverse, ranging from arid macrothermic conditions (average annual temperature over 24°C) near the coast to perhumid mesothermic conditions on the upper slopes (average annual temperature 20°-10°C). Above about 800 m on the windward and 1000 m on the leeward slopes, frequent mist occurs, extending usually 1000-1200 m upwards. Seasonality is strong in the lower regions, where the dry season is marked, but at higher elevations seasonality tends to become less pronounced.

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Vegetation

A wide variety of vegetation types covers the entire Coastal Cordillera, showing a characteristic altitudinal zonation throughout the range. Predominant is the forest formation, which ranges from deciduous low forests to evergreen luxuriant and very tall upper montane forests, also known as cloud forests. Scrub is present in the arid coastal areas and on the uppermost peaks of higher mountains. Savannas and related herbaceous formations occur on lower slopes, mainly toward the interior valleys and plains.

The following altitudinal sequence of vegetation types represents the most common situation in both the central and eastern Coastal Cordillera, although variations are noticeable in various areas, due to local climatic, topographic and edaphic conditions.

This typical transect upwards from sea-level is in the central Coastal Cordillera (Schäfer 1952; Beebe and Crane 1947):

1. Mangrove forest
Where the coastline is not formed by steep rocky slopes emerging abruptly from the sea, small mangrove stands with Rhizophora mangle, Laguncularia racemosa, Avicennia nitida and Conocarpus erecta form low dense forests.

2. Coastal xerophytic thorn scrub
The lowermost slopes (c. 2-200 m above sea-level) are covered with a dense, 3-8 m high thorn scrub dominated by columnar cacti (Stenocereus griseus), spiny shrubs [essentially Mimosoideae such as Prosopis juliflora, Acacia spp., and Flacourtiaceae (Ximenia americana)], low sclerophyllous shrubs (Capparis linearis, Jacquinia pungens, Plumeria sp.) and some understorey herbs belonging mainly to Malvaceae, Euphorbiaceae and Erythroxylaceae.

3. Semi-deciduous lower montane forest
These usually two-storeyed, 15-25 m high forests occupy the slopes from c. 300-600 m. Dominant trees are Anacardium excelsum, Ceiba pentandra, Bourreria cumanensis and several legumes, such as Erythrina spp. (which are frequently planted as shade trees for cocoa plantations common in the area). The understorey is dense and lianas are frequent.

4. Evergreen montane forest
From 600-800 m to 900 m elevation, evergreen transition forests form a narrow belt between the lower montane semi-deciduous and upper montane cloud forests. Heavily buttressed trees to 60 m tall of the endemic Gyranthera caribensis form small stands, emerging above the general forest canopy dominated by Trophis racemosa, Ficus macbridei, Tetragastris caracasana, Zanthoxylum ocumarense, Banara nitida, etc. The understorey is dominated by shrubs of Aphelandra micans, Besleria disgrega, Psychotria macrophylla and Hoffmannia apodantha, together with large colonies of giant herbs, e.g. Musaceae (Heliconia bihai, H. revoluta), Araceae (Dieffenbachia maculata), Marantaceae and ferns.

5. Evergreen montane cloud forest
These forests, extending from c. 1000-2200 m elevation, are by far the most species-rich plant communities in the entire Coastal Cordillera, representing also the most complex ecosystems with the most life forms and ecological niches (Vareschi 1986). They are irregularly structured in 2-3 layers, with a main canopy extending 15-20 m, overtopped by emergents to 40 m. Canopy trees include Ecclinusa abbreviata, Sloanea spp., Neea spp., Eschweilera perumbonata, Graffenrieda latifolia and Ocotea spp. Palms are very frequent in the canopy and in the understorey as well, either growing solitary (Dictyocarium sp., Socratea sp., Geonoma spp.) or in large clumps (Hyospathe pittieri, Catoblastus praemorsus, Bactris sp.). Also epiphytes are very abundant mainly ferns, orchids, bromeliads, ericads and gesneriads. The shrub and herb layer is usually dense and dominated by many endemics, such as Psychotria agostinii, P. costanensis, Palicourea fendleri, Schoenobiblos daphnoides, Geonoma spinescens and Anthurium bredemeyeri. Terrestrial ferns, including tree ferns, are particularly abundant and diverse in these very moist, misty and cool forests.

6. Upper montane elfin forest and scrub (subpáramo)
Above c. 2200-2400 m, a low mossy forest grading into an open scrub vegetation covers the highest peaks of the Coastal Cordillera; its physiognomy resembles in some instances the subpáramo belt of the Andes, with which it even shares some significant species, such as Libanothamnus neriifolius. This primitive espeletioid composite dominates the open scrub, whereas in the elfin forests the most frequent tree species are Clusia multiflora, Weinmannia spp. and Prumnopitys harmsiana. In the upper montane scrub an irregular but often rather dense herbaceous layer is present, in which several species of Andean affinities grow, e.g. Achyrocline flavida, Orthrosanthus chimboracensis or Juncus effusus.

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Flora

Phytogeographically, the flora of the Coastal Cordillera shows strong relationships to the Mesoamerican and Caribbean floristic regions, and to a lesser degree, to the northern Andean flora. Botanical collecting has been active in the Coastal Cordillera of northern Venezuela since Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland visited in 1799-1800 to the mountains around Cumaná, Caracas and Valencia, with cumulative emphasis on the Avila and Silla mountains above Caracas, the Rancho Grande area near Maracay (Aragua State) and on Cerro Turimiquire. However, the cordillera as a whole is still far from being adequately explored botanically, especially in the middle and upper montane regions. The rich cloud forests on the Avila mountain and in Rancho Grande are only better known because of their easy access.

For the entire region only one modern Flora exists, covering not more than 5% of the entire range: the Avila, Silla and Naiguatá mountains above Caracas (Steyermark and Huber 1978). There is a 1984 checklist of species from Rancho Grande (Henri Pittier National Park) (Badillo, Rojas and Huber 1984).

According to Steyermark (1981, pers. comm.), probably no fewer than 5000 species of higher plants occur in the Coastal Cordillera; the Flora del Avila includes 1892 species of vascular plants. Undoubtedly, the various cloud forests of the Coastal Cordillera harbour the most species and endemics. In a 0.25-ha plot in the cloud forests of Rancho Grande, the 150 trees >10 cm dbh represented more than 60 different species; in a second plot only 1000 m from the former, a similar number of species was found, but more than 80% of the species were different from those in the first plot (Huber 1986). Even short visits reveal an overwhelming floristic diversity in the many different cloud-forest types existing along the entire 720 km of the Coastal Cordillera. Recent accounts of a few large families in the Flora de Venezuela (e.g. Pteridophyta, Piperaceae, Melastomataceae, Rubiaceae), confirm that a significantly large number of species belong to this ecoregion of the northern neotropics.

The flora of the Venezuelan Coastal Cordillera probably contains some 10% endemic taxa (Steyermark 1981, pers. comm.). Endemism, like floristic richness, is mainly concentrated in the montane cloud and rain forests, being practically absent from the dry flora of the lower montane belts. No attempts to more precisely quantify the degree of endemism of this ecoregion have been made, mainly because the floristic knowledge of the area is so incomplete.

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Useful plants

Surely many species of the Coastal Cordillera were used by the indigenous population prior to European colonization; however, most of this knowledge has been lost. A limited number of herbs (native and introduced) are used in popular medicine, e.g. "cariaquito morado" (Lantana trifolia) (Rodríguez 1983). The red bark of the quinine tree (Cinchona henleana) was used as an antimalarial remedy. Many trees of the dry and semi-deciduous forests, such as certain Meliaceae (Cedrela, Trichilia), Anacardiaceae (Spondias mombin), Lauraceae and many Leguminosae were used over centuries for construction, furniture, etc. As a result of this long-time selective logging, many of the dry forests have been degraded to low forests or scrub, with much less species diversity.

The outstanding botanical richness of the vegetation of the Coastal Cordillera constitutes one of the most valuable biological and genetic resources of Venezuela. Since a consistent programme of pharmaceutical and biochemical screening of many promising plant taxa has not yet been undertaken, it is impossible to estimate the real genetic and medicinal potential of this resource.

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Social and environmental values

Most of the steep mountain slopes are exposed to heavy soil erosion after elimination of the forest cover. The natural forests are not only an important protection of watersheds including many sources of drinking water, but also protect soils from further erosion.

Due to the high population density in the entire Coastal Range, demand for recreation areas and mountain tourism is very pronounced. A recreation and tourist industry is rapidly growing, benefiting greatly either directly or indirectly from the numerous natural landscapes and sceneries of the Coastal Cordillera already protected by National Parks and Natural Monuments.

Birds of restricted range in the Coastal Cordillera primarily inhabit the evergreen montane and cloud forests and elfin forest. The large western section of the range, the Cordillera de la Costa Central, forms an Endemic Bird Area (EBA B04) which has 18 restricted-range bird species (five confined to these mountains). The smaller eastern section forms the Cordillera de Caripe and Paria Peninsula EBA (B03), which is home to 14 restricted-range species, five found nowhere else. These five species are considered threatened, making this EBA one of the highest priorities for neotropical bird conservation.

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Threats

The plants of the Coastal Cordillera in northern Venezuela have probably been altered most by the human impacts during the last five centuries, following European colonization and subsequent heavy occupation of the region. Although Amerindian groups had lived there for many more centuries, their impact on the vegetation is not known but probably was not as intense.

Deforestation for shifting cultivation was responsible for most of the destruction of the original forest on the lower and middle mountain slopes. Today more extensive deforestation is mainly caused by urban and industrial expansions, but these usually do not affect the upper mountain slopes. Deforestation is also caused by construction of more and more tourist and recreation resorts in the vicinity of the larger cities, also involving intensive road building into previously inaccessible areas. Another cause of deforestation is the establishment of large agricultural farms, mainly for fruits and vegetables.

A major threat to the remaining forests is frequent fires lit during the dry season in the already deforested and mostly savanna-covered, surrounding lower areas. Although fires usually do not penetrate into the cloud forests proper, in some places the adjacent montane evergreen forests are being severely reduced.

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Conservation

For centuries, the lower montane forests of the Coastal Cordillera were used for cocoa plantations, whereas the cooler cloud forests were preferably used for coffee plantations. Today this is very restricted, and in many cases forests originally modified for plantations through selective logging, planting of shade trees and clearing of the understorey are slowly recovering their original structure, although not yet their original floristic composition.

Governmental protection of ecosystems in the Coastal Cordillera has acquired significant dimensions: there are 11 National Parks and five Natural Monuments, protecting large parts of the remaining natural vegetation (García 1989). Henri Pittier National Park in Aragua State is the oldest park in Venezuela (since 1937). El Avila NP (declared in 1958) is one of the most extensive wilderness areas in the region and serves as the most important recreation area for the capital Caracas.

National Parks protecting mainly mountain ecosystems in the Coastal Cordillera are: Yurubí (237 km²), Henri Pittier (Rancho Grande) (1078 km²), San Esteban (435 km²), El Avila (852 km²), Macarao (150 km²), Guatopo (1225 km²), El Guácharo (627 km²) and Península de Paria (375 km²). National Parks protecting mainly coastal areas of the Coastal Cordillera are: Morrocoy (321 km²), Laguna de Tacarigua (391 km²) and Mochima (949 km²) (Gabaldón 1992).

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Map 37. Coastal Cordillera, Venezuela (CPD Site SA1)

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References

Badillo, V.M., Rojas, C.E.B. de and Huber, O. (1984). Lista preliminar de especies de antófitas del Parque Nacional 'Henri Pittier', Estado Aragua. Ernstia 26: 1-58.

Beebe, W. and Crane, J. (1947). Ecology of Rancho Grande, a subtropical cloud forest in northern Venezuela. Zoologica 32(5): 43-60.

Gabaldón, M. (1992). Parques nacionales de Venezuela. Parques Nacionales y Conservación Ambiental No. 1. Fundación Banco Consolidado, Caracas. 116 pp.

García, R. (1989). Los parques nacionales de Venezuela. Encuentros 6: 15-20.

Huber, O. (1986). Las selvas nubladas de Rancho Grande: observaciones sobre su fisionomía, estructura y fenología. In Huber, O. (ed.), La selva nublada de Rancho Grande, Parque Nacional 'Henri Pittier'. Fondo Editorial Acta Científica Venezolana, Caracas. Pp. 131-170.

Rodríguez-M., P. (1983). Plantas de la medicina popular venezolana de venta en herbolarios. Sociedad Venezolana de Ciencias Naturales, Caracas. 267 pp.

Schäfer, E. (1952). Ökologischer Querschnitt durch den 'Parque Nacional de Aragua'. Journal für Ornithologie 93(3/4): 313-352.

Steyermark, J.A. and Huber, O. (1978). Flora del Avila. Sociedad Venezolana de Ciencias Naturales, Caracas. 971 pp.

Vareschi, V. (1986). Cinco breves ensayos ecológicos acerca de la selva virgen de Rancho Grande. In Huber, O. (ed.), La selva nublada de Rancho Grande, Parque Nacional 'Henri Pittier'. Fondo Editorial Acta Científica Venezolana, Caracas. Pp. 171-187.

Zinck, A. (1986). Los suelos. In Huber, O. (ed.), La selva nublada de Rancho Grande, Parque Nacional 'Henri Pittier'. Fondo Editorial Acta Científica Venezolana, Caracas. Pp. 31-66.

Author

This Data Sheet was written by Dr Otto Huber (Research Associate, Apartado 80405, Caracas 1080-A, Venezuela).

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