This is a lone Polylepis tree growing by the highway at about 4,800 meters of elevation in the Kiss the Sky portion of Ecuador's Papallacta pass (the highest navigable road pass in the world.) Polylepis are members of the rose family, and are only found at extremely high altitudes in the Andean mountains, typically above the line where other trees stop growing; stands of these trees cover portions of the paramo past 5,000 meters of elevation in the pass where this specimen was photographed. There are about 28 species of Polylepis, distributed from Colombia south to Argentina, with the highest rate of endemicism found in Ecuador and Bolivia. The trees are easily recognized by their papery, peeling red bark and minute pinnate leaves, and when they bloom the forest canopy turns gold. The trees in these photos are likely P. australis, but the high rate of endemicism and the trees' similarities between species makes identification difficult without flowers. Polylepis is also one of the most threatened trees in the Andean highlands, as it is often harvested for firewood by the peoples living in these passes (and has been since before Incan times). Scientists believe that the almost the entire paramo biome above the normal treeline was once covered in dense Polylepis forest, and human intervention is what has reduced it to smaller pockets. In Ecuador, this has led to the tree becoming a protected species, and it is now a federal crime to cut Polylepis unless it threatens a dwelling. The largest stand of Polylepis in Ecuador is contained within the highland portion of the Cayambe-Coca Biological Reserve; these trees are estimated to be several thousand years old. The last two pictures show a full, untouched Polylepis forest, and a valley that has been cleared for use as pature. These are at 4,900 m and 4,500 m respectively.