Nature "Andes: The Dragon's Back" on WXXI-TV

Nature "Andes: The Dragon's Back" on WXXI-TV

Sun, 07/18/2010 - 8:00pm

Pictured: Torres del Paine, Chile.

Credit: Laurie Campbell

The Andes mountains continue to grow and evolve and are home to a rich tapestry of environments.

When this great spine-like mountain range rose from the sea, it created a new continent and a bridge that joined North and South America, allowing flora and fauna from each to mix and diversify. Nature "Andes: The Dragon's Back" airs Sunday, July 18 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT21.1/cable 11/cable 1011). Today, the Andes continue to grow and evolve and are home to a rich tapestry of environments, including the largest ice field outside the poles, a desert where penguins nest and vertical mile-high geysers where flamingos huddle for warmth.

The longest chain of mountains on the planet lies along the western edge of South America like an immense dragon - its tail falling into the freezing Antarctic Ocean, its head breathing fire 5,000 miles north. The Andes, home to the highest points outside the Himalayas, are remarkable not only for their volcanoes and their jagged peaks, the spines of the dragon's back; the niches they shelter are a world of extremes and hidden secrets. NATURE journeys the length of the Andes, passing through deserts and cloud forests, across glaciers and fjords, encountering the amazing creatures that call these habitats home: penguins and hummingbirds, pumas and flamingos, a deer only 12 inches tall, a tree-dwelling bear and much more. Academy Award-winning actor F. Murray Abraham narrates. 

The Andes can be both vibrantly alive and desolate. They shelter the driest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert, where in places it has never, ever rained. But farther north is also the wettest place on the planet — the cloud forest of Lloro, Colombia, which absorbs an astounding 40 feet of rainfall a year. And in between, on the wide plateau called Altiplano, lie poisonous, caustic salt lakes. There, only flamingos survive, performing tightly choreographed mating dances and feeding on brine shrimp that pass on their pink color to the birds.

Flamingos are just one example of the Andes' startlingly diverse wildlife. Towards the south of the continent, penguins nest in nearly vertical mountainside forests while hummingbirds visit wild fuschia that grows by a glacier's edge. The world's smallest deer, the pudu, emerges from under a rhubarb leaf. 

In a wildlife sanctuary sheltered by the peaks of Torres del Paine lurks the elegant but dangerous puma. It's one of the Andes' main carnivorous predators, but even it must be careful to protect its cubs from the condors that circle above. Gliding along on its nine-foot wingspan, the condor is the biggest flying bird in the world. 

Farther north, in the cloud forests beyond the Atacama and Altiplano, lives the 300-pound spectacled bear, so named for the white markings on its face. In yet another of the Andes' surprises, South America's largest predator is often found not in a terrestrial den but in the treetops.   

Among the other astounding facts "Andes: The Dragon's Back" reveals: the Andes are relatively young compared to the Himalayas and are still growing. In the last century they've risen hundreds of feet in some places, pushed skyward as the sliding mass of South America crashes into solid rock under the Pacific Ocean. An Andes peak may yet top Mount Everest. 

For more than 25 years, NATURE has been the benchmark of natural history programs on television, capturing the splendors of the natural world, from the African plains to the Antarctic ice. The series has won nearly 450 honors from the television industry, parent groups, the international wildlife film community and environmental organizations, including 10 Emmys, three Peabodys and the first award given to a television program by the Sierra Club.