This article originally appeared in

Modern world crowds ancient life form


By ERIC J. LYMAN
Special to the Chronicle

HUARAZ, Peru -- Isolated for millennia high in Peru's rugged Andes Mountains, the
prehistoric Puya Raimondi was considered a plant that time forgot.

Each cactus-like plant -- a distant cousin to the pineapple that can grow as high as 50 feet --
is believed to live for 100 years.

At the end of its time, the plant's long trunk explodes with as many as 10,000 tiny flowers that
change from green to white to yellow to pink over a two-week span. After the blooms fade, the
plant dies.

Described as a "living fossil" by naturalists, the Puya has remained unchanged genetically
for hundreds of thousands of years.

But now the Puya faces several threats that could hasten its demise.

"The plant has lived unthreatened for so many thousands of years that it hasn't had to change,"
said U.S.-based botanist Ramon Salazar. "That makes it less equipped to handle the modern
world."

Indeed, the plant, would seem more at home in a scene from Jurassic Park than at the
threshold of the 21st century.

The weather phenomenon El Niño is the latest in a long line of factors pushing the Puyas
the way of the dinosaurs.

The unusually warm weather from El Niño caused an abnormally high bloom rate among the plants. That made the plants even more
attractive than normal, but it also means that more Puyas than usual will die this year.

"There aren't any estimates yet, but if El Niño forced half of the Puyas to bloom this year, then that would mean that the population will
be cut in half by next year," said Italian naturalist Ittore Grugni, who is based in Lima. "That could be disastrous."

    Even before El Niño, the plants were being threatened. Farmers cut the plants
    down for their strong but nearly weightless wood, or because long-haired livestock
    such as sheep and alpaca get trapped in the plant's long thorns and starve to
    death.
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"It's such a fragile system that it would be very easy for it to be upset," said Salazar. "Maybe these plants will grow up and not bloom.
Maybe they will grow seeds incapable of developing into a healthy generation. Maybe the seeds will be sterile. Keep in mind that the
plants we see today were subject to events that passed around the turn of the last century."

Walking in a forest of Puyas isn't like walking among more familiar plants. Thriving at an altitude of between 13,000 feet and 18,000 feet,
the spires rise from an otherwise barren, lunarlike landscape. When in bloom, the plants fill the crisp air with a delicate fragrance.
Sounds echo off the rocky hills and create an eerie feeling of peaceful isolation.

"You can see some of the tourists wander off among the Puyas, and they lose track of time," said Eduardo Peralta, a Huaraz-based tour
guide. "We have to carefully count our passengers when we reload our buses. If we don't, we might leave someone behind."
El Niño edges plant to lip of extinction
September 11, 1998