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The Atacama and Peruvian Deserts form a continuous belt for more than 3500 km along the western escarpment of the Andes from northern Peru to northernmost Chile. These arid environments are due to a climatic regime dominated by the cool, north-flowing Humboldt (Peruvian) Current. Atmospheric conditions influenced by a stable, subtropical anticyclone result in a mild, uniform coastal climate nearly devoid of rain, but with the regular formation of thick stratus clouds below I 000 m during the winter months. Where coastal topography is low and flat, the clouds dissipate inward over broad areas with little biological impact. However, where isolated mountains or steep coastal slopes intercept the clouds, a fog-zone develops. This moisture allows the development of plant communities termed lomas formations. These floristic assemblages function as islands separated by hyperarid habitat devoid of plant life. Since growth is dependent upon available moisture, an understanding of climatic patterns is essential in efforts to interpret present-day plant distributions. Topography and substrate combine to influence patterns of moisture availability. The ecological requirements and tolerances of individual species ultimately determines community composition. Species endemism exceeds 40% and suggests that the lomas formations have evolved in isolation from their nearest geographic neighbors in the Andes. While the arid environment is continuous, there appears to be a significant barrier to dispersal between 18° and 22°S latitude in extreme northern Chile. Less than 7% of a total flora, estimated at nearly 1000 species, occur on both sides ofthis region. Viable hypotheses concerning the age and origins of these desert floras will require continued study of the ecology and biogeography of their component species.

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© 1991 P.W. Rundel, M.O Dillon, B. Palma, H.A. Mooney, S.L Gulmon, J.R. Ehleringer

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

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