Machupicchu Historic Sanctuary has greater biological diversity than neighboring ecosystems. In the Aobamba River watershed (the lower, western part of the Sanctuary) are the "jungle brows," or upper limit of tropical vegetation in this part of the Andes. These "brows" contain great flora and fauna diversity, and combined with the mountainous ecosystems found within the Sanctuary, make Machupicchu a special place. The Sanctuary also has a great number of native species, genetic banks, and ecosystems, and is therefore a conservation priority.
According to Holdridge's life zone classification, which uses climate and vegetation to make its determinations, the Sanctuary includes nine life zones distributed at various altitudes from 1,850 to 6,270 m.
Mountains in the Aobamba River basin
• Subtropical humid forest: Located at the bottom of the Urubamba River Valley and in the lower elevations of the surrounding hills, from 1,850 to 2,000 m. It is flat to slightly hilly in the valley and inclined on the slopes, with gradients up to 50%. It is hot and humid. Average annual precipitation is 1,950 mm and average annual temperatures vary from 15 to 18 ºC. Natural vegetation is typical of the rainforest, with tall trees (up to 30 m) that coexist with other flora including vines, epiphytes, and shrubs. This type of forest covers 166.26 hectares (which is 0.51% of the protected area).
• Subtropical humid low montane forest: Located in the Urubamba and Cusichaca River Valleys and in the lower elevations of the surrounding mountains, from 2,400 to 3,000 m. Relief is flat to hilly in the valley, to steeply sloped on the mountainsides; gradients reach 50%. The climate is temperate and humid, average annual rainfall is 1,100 mm, and average annual temperatures are 12 to 15 º C. Natural vegetation is the same as in the subtropical humid forest. This zone covers 1,196.79 hectares, which is 3.67% of the protected area.
• Subtropical very humid low montane forest: Found between 2,000 and 3,000 m. This is where the Machupicchu village and other archeological groupings like Intipunku, Chachabamba, Templo de la Luna, and Andenes are found. Relief is flat to hilly in the valley, to steeply sloped on the mountainsides, with gradients reaching 50%. The climate is temperate and very wet. Average annual rainfall is close to 1,950 mm and average annual temperatures are 12 a 15º C. This life zone covers 4,601.89 hectares, or 14.12% of the protected area.
• Subtropical montane rainforest: Found at the mid-elevations, from 3,000 to 3,800 m. Includes archeological groupings along Urubamba's left bank such as Intipata, Wiñay Wayna, Phuyupatamarca, Conchamarka, and Sayacmarca. Relief is sloping--up to a 50% gradient. The climate is cool and rainy, average annual rainfall is 1,900 mm, and average annual temperatures range from 6 to 12° C. Natural vegetation includes tall trees (reaching 25 m) that coexist with other floral species like vines, epiphytes, shrubs, etc. It covers 8,869.93 hectares, which is 27.21% of the area.
• Subtropical very humid montane forest: Found next to the subtropical montane rainforest in the mid-elevations. Its slopes can reach 50% gradients or more. Its climate is cold and rainy; average annual rainfall is close to 1,500 mm and average annual temperatures are between 6 to 12° C. It covers 2,493.15 hectares, or 7.65% of the protected area.
• Very humid subtropical sub-alpine paramo: This life zone is found on the mountainsides between 3,800 and 4,400 m. At its lowest portions, it is hilly to steeply sloped with gradients of 50%. It is cold and very humid; average annual rainfall is 1,000 mm and average temperatures range from 3 to 6° C. The vegetation is mostly straw-like grass, with some herbaceous coverage to a lesser degree. This zone encompasses 4,051 hectares, or 12.43% of the protected area.
• Subtropical pluvial sub-alpine paramo: Covers the upper altitudes of the mountain slopes, between 4,000 and 4,400 m. It is hilly to steeply sloped, with gradients reaching 50%. It is cold and rainy; average annual rainfall is 1500 mm and average annual temperatures range from 3 to 6° C. The vegetation here consists of straw-like grass (pajonal) and herbaceous grasses to a lesser degree. It covers 4,474 hectares, which is 13.73% of the area. There is hydro potential here as evidenced by the existence of several lagoons.
• Subtropical pluvial alpine tundra: Covers the highest portions of the mountain slopes, up to the snow-covered peaks, between 4,400 and 4,900 m. It is steeply sloped to hilly, as is typical of glacial-carved areas. The climate is frigid and pluvial; average annual precipitation is 1,000 mm and average annual temperatures are 1.5 to 3° C. High Andean pastures dominate this life zone. It covers 4,293.11 hectares, which represents 13.17% of the area.
• Subtropical snow-capped peaks: Covers the peaks and mountain crests greater than 4,600 m. Its topography is abrupt, typical of rocky surfaces lacking vegetation. Climate is snowy and freezing; average annual precipitation is 900 mm and the average annual temperature is less than 1.5º C. It covers 2,445 hectares, which is 7.5% of the protected area.(7)
Wild flora of the region is particularly diverse because there is vegetation from nine distinct life zones, including typical Andean forest species like Polylepis sp. in the higher altitudes and epiphytes, shrubs, and palms typical of lower-altitude montane forests. The principal taxonomic groups include pteridophytes (ferns), gymnosperms, monocotyledons, dicotyledons, cryptogams, orchids, Poaceae, trees, moraceae, symplocaceae, roses (rosaceae), ericaceae, and vascular and non-vascular species.
Diversity in the tropical cloud forests, or "jungle brows," is typically 50 species per hectare (including individuals with diameters at breast height [dbh] of 10 cm or greater). However, in the Sanctuary, tree diversity is closer to 90 species per hectare. There is also an exceptional number of orchids in the Sanctuary: 200 species have been inventoried, which is more than 12% of Peru's total number of orchid species (1,700). Because of the orchids' beauty, they are often overharvested and, as a result, their mere existence can become threatened. Certain species that are particularly beautiful because of their size or color have seen population reductions due to forest fires and indiscriminant extraction by unscrupulous businessmen and area residents.(8)
Diverse vegetative formations present in the Sanctuary are fundamental components of unique ecosystems. Certain bird species endemic to the Sanctuary and surrounding areas, such as Thryothorus eisenmanni and Hemispingus parodi, require bamboo species like Chusquea spp. and pintoc (Arthrostylidiu, aulonemia) in order to survive. Other important formations in the Sanctuary are the queñuales forests (Polylepis besseri, P. microphylla, P. pepei, P. sericea, P. subsericans - rosaceae), which sustain endemic birds like Leptasthenura xenothorax--whose population does not surpass 100 individuals--and Anairetes alpinus. Other threatened birds that depend on this type of forest include Aglaeactis castelnaudii, Chalcostigma olivaceus, Cranioleuca albicapilla, Asthenes ottonis, and A. urubambensis.(9)
A vegetation ecosystem formed in the mouth of a creek that flows into the Urubamba River
Vegetative coverage types within the Sanctuary include mountain humid forest, humid scrubland, puna grasslands, tundra grasslands, cultivated areas, and secondary growth.(10)
Regarding threatened flora species, those considered vulnerable include Orchidaceae: Bletia catenulata, Epidendrum bambusiforme, Elleanthus aurantiacum, Masdevallia veitchiana, Sobralia dichotoma, Sobralia setigera; Betulaceae: Alnus acuminata var acuminata; Begoniaceae: Begonia cyathophora, Begonia erythrocarpa, Begonia peruviana, Begonia veitchii, Begonia pilosella; Meliaceae: Cedrela lilloí, Cedrela odorata; Rubiaceae: Cinchona officinalis, Cinchona pubescens; Onagraceae: Fuchsia apetala, Fuchsia austromontana, Fuchsia corymbiflora, Fuchsia decussata, Fuchsia denticulata, Fuchsia inflata, Fuchsia sanctaros; Cyatheaceae: Cyathea caraccisanai; Anacardiaceae: Mauria heterophylla, Mauria subserrata; Myrtaceae: Myrcianthes indifferens, Myrcianthes oreophylla, Myrica pubescens; Podocarpaceae: Podocarpus glorneratus; Rosaceae: Polylepis besseri, Polylepis sericea, Polylepis subsericans; Buxaceae: Styloceras laurifolium.
Those considered rare are Orchidaceae: Anguloa virginalis, Bletia mandonii, Cyrtopodium virens, Lycaste longipetala, Masdevallia sp. nova, Masdevallia amabilis, Masdevallia barleana, Masdevallia dudley, Odontoglossum praestans, Oncidium zebrinum, Phragmipedium caudatum, Schomburgkia weberbaueriana, Stanhopea hasseloviana, Telipogon boissierianus, Telipogon bowmanni, Telipogon papilio. Podocarpaceae: Podocarpus oleifolius, Podocarpus rusby, Prumnopitys harmsiana; Rosaceae: Polylepis microphylla, Polylepis pepei; Buxaceae: Styloceras columnare.
Finally, those in an "undetermined" state include: Orchidaceae: Masdevallia davisii; and Poaceae: Arthrostilidium harmonicum.(11)
Establishment of Machupicchu as a protected area, specifically as a Historic Sanctuary, has had positive benefits since its inauguration in 1981. Despite some serious environmental conflicts, the Sanctuary has helped wildlife in some sectors. Sightings of animals like the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) and neotropical river otter (Lontra longicaudis) along the highway (at km markers 107 and 112, respectively) are proof of this.(12)
Regarding threatened wildlife, those mammals considered vulnerable include Cebus albifrons, Cebus apella, Tremarctos ornatus, Hippocamelus antisensis; vulnerable birds: Merganetta armara, Vultur gryphus, Falco peregrinus, Fulica gigantea; rare mammals: Procyon cancrivorus, Felis jacobita, Mazama chunyi, Pudu mephistophiles (outside of the Sanctuary's limits), Dasyprocta kalinowskii; rare birds: Leptasthenura xenothorax, Ampelion stresemanni, Agriornis andicola. An "undetermined" mammal species in the Sanctuary is the Felix pardalis; a bird species: Nothoprocta tacsanowskii; and an amphibian: Gastrotec Ochoai.(13)