Ecuador is considered by ecologists to be one of the most biologically diverse countries on Earth. The ecological diversity of Ecuador is due to the large number of different habitats that are found there, which are divided into six main ecosystems covering the dry Andean highlands down to the Amazon basin. The staggering variety of plants and animals found in the country are only beginning to be understood, and many more await discovery.
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The diversity of animals in Ecuador is overwhelming, with 302 species of mammals, including 28 threatened or endangered species. The largest group of mammals in Ecuador belong to the bat family, with over 100 species. Monkeys and other primates are also incredibly diverse throughout the forested region, and include titi, howler, spider and capuchin monkeys, as well as marmosets and tamarins, which are the smallest primates in the Americas. There are two species of sloth in Ecuador: the two-toed and three-toed sloth. Other animals found in the country are agoutis, capybaras, jaguars, ocelots and tapirs. One of the most fascinating and little-known animals in Ecuador is the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), which is the last remaining species of "short-faced" bear, an ancient type that once lived throughout the Americas. They are the only species of bear native to South America and are found throughout the Andes mountain range and up into eastern Panama. Spectacled bears are named for their distinctive facial markings, which resemble spectacles, or eyeglasses.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Ecuador is home to 460 species of amphibian and 410 species of reptile, according to David L. Pearson in his book, "Travellers' Wildlife Guides Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands." Frogs comprise the majority of Ecuador's amphibian population, but there are also salamanders and newts. Three of the most famous reptile species live on Ecuador's Galapagos island chain: the marine iguana, land iguana and giant land tortoise. All three are easily found on the islands and have been extensively studied. The largest reptile species on the mainland is the caiman, which is a relative of the crocodile. They inhabit lagoons and freshwater wetlands throughout the lowlands.
There are over 500 species of trees in Ecuador, most of which are confined to the country's six primary ecosystems: the paramo, or high-altitude grass and scrublands, the cloud forest, rainforest, mangrove swamp and Galapagos islands. The paramo has primarily grasses and herbaceous plants that thrive in the cold air, strong sunlight and peaty soil of the area. Trees are rare in the paramo with the exception of Polylepis, which is the highest-growing tree in the world. The mangrove forests of Ecuador are defined by their trees, which are perfectly adapted to thrive in saltwater. The broad, arching roots of the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) act as stilts, holding the leaves and trunk above the water, while at the same time providing underwater breeding grounds for crustaceans and fish.
There are over 25,000 species of plants in Ecuador, including many varieties of flowers. One of the most unusual flowers in the country is found in the paramo ecosystem: the giant espeletia. Sometimes called frailejon, or "grey friar," the espeletia is an unusual and highly diverse group of flowers with 88 species throughout the Andes. The most common variety in Ecuador is a tall, thick-trunked herbaceous plant with a woolly, silver trunk and large sunflower-like blooms. Orchids are common in Ecuador, with over 4,000 discovered species. The majority of orchids live in the cloud forests and rainforests. The unusual Dracula orchid is found throughout Ecuador and is recognisable by its unearthly flowers, which come in a range of colours and patterns, including bright chartreuse and maroon and white striped varieties.
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