"What makes the northern Andes so special is that they have extraordinary concentrations of species within very small geographical ranges," said Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University who specializes in species extinction.
"Each one of these mountain-tops has wonderfully different sets of species of plants and birds and butterflies and amphibians," said Pimm, who also chairs a conservation organization, SavingSpecies, that is restoring deforested lands near Las Orquídeas to address habitat fragmentation. "The question is, what happens when the climate warms?"
The vast range of ecosystems in the park begins in lowland rain forests 2,600 feet above sea-level, rising to mountain cloud forests and then páramo wetlands at an elevation of more than 11,000 feet, where fog clings to the chilly slopes and spongy moorland valleys just below glacial peaks.
"Sometimes you think about how long these things have been out there and we are just not getting to them on time, in that the deforestation is happening sometimes in front of our eyes and things that are not even known to scientists ... are disappearing," said Pedraza-Peñalosa.
Plants and animals in the tropical Andes have evolved to fill specific niches up and down the mountains. In Las Orquídeas, those species include the emblematic and endangered Andean spectacled bear, rare jaguar, puma, monkeys, deer, amphibians and an incredible variety of birds, bats and insects.
Throughout the tropical Andes, the habitats of these animals are already fragmented by deforestation. Climate change could exacerbate those changes, according to Orlando Vargas, a professor of ecology at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá.
Vargas is monitoring the impacts of climate change in páramos like Chingaza, near Bogotá. He notes two distinct trends in these high mountain ecosystems as human pressures converge with rising temperatures and other global climate disruptions.
One is that plant species from lower elevations are migrating up the mountains, threatening to transform the unique ecosystems of the cloud forests and the páramos. The second, and perhaps more serious problem, he said, is the upslope encroachment of invasive plant, animal and insect species. These invasive species can often move faster than native plants, pushing out species critical to the integrity of the upper mountain ecosystems.
That problem is made worse by the fact that human interventions have reduced predators and, in doing so, increased the populations of the animals they once preyed on. While these animals are not invasive species, they behave like them, said Vargas, consuming plants and other animals that maintain the healthy functioning of the ecosystems.
Shifts in seasonal events such as plant bloom times could cause additional significant disruptions, he said.
But it's not always clear how species will react to warming temperatures, according to Pimm, who is investigating whether climate change will directly lead to the extinction of species, or just add to the threats they face.
"Estimates for climate-related extinctions are all over the place," he said. "There is no consensus, and we need to have better answers."
The lack of information creates obstacles for those tasked with creating effective conservation strategies in the region's protected areas. Héctor Velásquez Lema, the director of Las Orquídeas, said park managers often work with very limited information and resources.
Simply having baseline data on plant populations is a significant step in improving conservation plans for these complex ecosystems. But Velásquez Lema is concerned about the dearth of research on how climate change could compound existing problems created by ranching, agriculture, mining and timber harvesting in and near his park.