What butterfly is more iconic than the monarch? Their striking orange and black pattern is instantly recognizable. During my childhood summers, I remember hunting for Monarch caterpillars in my backyard. Not even the blazing heat of the Florida sun could stop me from watching the miraculous transformation from caterpillar, to pupa, to butterfly. The newly emerged monarch would cling to the remains of its chrysalis shell as its wings slowly unfurled before finally fluttering away. 

But where do they go? One of the lesser known facts about monarchs is that they migrate during the winter— all the way to the nearest cloud forests of Sierra Madre in Mexico. So what makes the cloud forests so special that Monarchs will travel up to 3000 miles to reach them? 

cloud forest in Monteverde, Costa Rica taken by Dirk van der Made

Similar to rainforests, cloud forests are also stunning tropical forests teeming with biodiversity. But cloud forests are located on the sides of mountains at altitudes that range from 850 to 2500 meters above sea level. Popular examples include the ethereal Monteverde in Costa Rica and the mystical forests in Yakushima, Japan. For cloud forests to thrive, there must be frequent rain, a tropical environment, and mountains.

All of these conditions must combine perfectly to create a cloud forest, which is why there are relatively few of them. As water evaporates from lower bodies of water, it rises into the air. As it rises up the mountain, the water vapor becomes colder and begins condensing. The result? Astonishing forests shrouded in clouds. This high humidity makes cloud forests ideal for ensuring Monarchs don’t dry out as they use their fat reserves to stay warm during the cold winter months. 

Cloud forests only make up 1% of forest area, but they are incredibly important, for the biodiversity it holds, the surrounding communities, and to entire regions.

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Cloud forest in Yakushima, Japan taken by 37 Frames

Cloud forests are home to rare, unique species

Despite the fact that cloud forests are relatively small and sparse, they are a key source of biodiversity. While cloud forests may not be as plentiful in species as lowland rainforests, the unique climate of these forests make it home to many endemic species– species that are found nowhere else in the world. A prime example is the critically endangered yellow-tailed woolly monkey, who only lives in the Andes cloud forests in Peru. During Rainforest Partnership’s mammalian survey in Peru (with partner institutions Yunkawasi and Boston University), we were able to identify two communities of yellow-tailed woolly monkeys living in the Junin cloud forests. Knowing exactly where they live in the forest can help us better protect them. 

Yellow-tailed woolly monkey in Junin, Peru

To put things into perspective, think of cats. They are found throughout the globe in all kinds of countries and habitats. If all the cats in the United States were to disappear, there would be more in Canada, Mexico, and nearly everywhere else. But if the yellow-tailed woolly monkeys were to disappear from Peru, they would be completely extinct. 

Cloud forests contain more endemic species than any other forest type. Each one contains hundreds of endemic species, which makes them extremely important for conserving these rare plants and animals. 

Cloud forests are impressive watersheds

Cloud forests work similarly to dehumidifiers. They cool moisture from the air, forming liquid. This water runs downstream to replenish rivers and other lowland bodies of water that people depend on as a drinkable water source. Cloud forests can absorb more water than any other type of forest. One study found that runoff from cloud forests is more than five times of non-cloud forest watersheds during rainfall. A cloud forest can provide at least 4 more gallons of water for every 1 that a family needs. The runoff from cloud forests is so significant that some scientists have suggested harnessing cloud forest’s watershed abilities to increase water flow to hydropower plants.

Cloud forests and the climate crisis

While cloud forests are at risk of deforestation due to mining and logging, they are also greatly threatened by climate change. Cloud forests require specific climatic conditions in order to thrive. Rising temperatures due to the greenhouse gas effect will begin to dry out cloud forests as they struggle to cool water vapor into liquid water. Scientists project that 90% of western hemisphere cloud forests could lose cloud density in 2060. They also estimate that climate change will shrink 60-80% of all cloud forests in the western hemisphere. This will not only further jeopardize the already endangered species that live in cloud forests but also the communities that depend on them. 

Rainforest Partnership: Protecting cloud forests in remarkable and unexpected ways 

While the fight against deforestation continues to rage on, many cloud forests are legally protected by their respective governments. In 2002, 327 of 736 identified cloud forests were reported to be protected. That number has continued to rise with 13,000 acres of Colombian cloud forest being one of the more recent additions. Our own Rainforest Partnership team has been hard at work in Peru, speaking with the government about protecting 130,000 acres of cloud forest in Junín. 

One of Rainforest Partnership’s longest projects has been in supporting the Colibri cloud forest in Peru. Not only have we researched the endemic and incredibly endangered spectacled bear, but we have been working with the San Antonio and Calabaza communities to develop their ecotourism since 2009. In 2010, we started small by repainting buildings, creating trails, establishing waste management collection programs, and bird watching. In the following years, we built eco hostels in San Antonio and Calabazas, built a butterfly sanctuary, and introduced beekeeping to the community.

Our approach not only benefits the cloud forests but also sustains local communities. Conservation and economic growth are often conflicting with one another, such as in the instances of deforestation for farming or mining. But with ecotourism, it’s in the people’s best interest to conserve forests. 

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Monarch butterflies on Oyamel trees in Mexico taken by Frans Lanting

As for the monarch butterflies, scientists have joined hands with local community members in Ejido La Mesa to begin moving the oyamel trees that monarchs flock to during winter 1000 feet up the mountain. At a higher elevation and cooler temperatures, the newly reloaded forest should be able to thrive even as temperatures rise due to climate change. While this is not a permanent solution, there is still hope for the monarch butterflies yet. In the meantime, we can do our part by reducing carbon emissions and protecting the remaining cloud forests. As we know, corporations are a massive contributor to carbon emissions. They alone are responsible for 71% of carbon emissions. You can sign this petition calling for the Biden-Harris administration to hold big corporations accountable and reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions they produce. For reducing carbon emissions in your everyday life, can learn about how to decrease your own personal carbon emissions here.

If you wish to support Rainforest Partnership in our endeavors to research and protect cloud forests, you can find numerous ways to help us by using the link above.