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Mountain Roraima: The 'Floating Island' Plateau

In the year 2009 Pixar film Up, the two main characters begin from the big city on a mission to Paradise Falls, a highland somewhere in South America that appears like it floats high above (in the air) a forest. Whereas Paradise Falls is imaginary, a similar mountain actually does exist in South America known as Mount Roraima that juts directly of Earth on the borders of Brazil, Venezuela, and Guyana. Nicknamed as the Floating Islandl, it’s so matchless, researchers are still trying to understand its ecosystem.


At first sight, the key difference between Roraima and other mountain kinds is that it looks a lot like a massive tabletop, with all four sides made from sheer cliffs approximately 400 meters (1,312 feet) tall. These cliffs seem to drop suddenly into oblivion, giving the entire plateau the presence of a section of Earth that's in some way popped out of the earth like a strange Minecraft biome. Also recognized as tepuis, odd-looking ecological formations like this are among the ancient plateaus in the world.

Paulo Fassina/Flickr

Also, their other-worldly presence, tepuis similar to Mount Roraima form differently from old-fashioned mountains, most of which are the effect of two continental plates basically smashing together. As an alternative, scientists believe tepuis started forming when sand developed and became the rock at the foot of the earliest oceans, almost 2 billion years ago. To put that into viewpoint, Mount Everest just formed approximately 60 million years ago, and Earth itself is nearly 4.5 billion years old.

So yeah, these things are very old.

After this mountain formed, the oceans moved away and erosion took over, chiseling down the regions close to the tepuis and forming a massive shelf made of an ancient rock that looks totally out of place if noticed its surroundings.

Paulo Fassina/Flickr

While their age is unbelievable in itself, one of the best tantalizing things about Mount Roraima and other tepuis is that scientists are just now beginning to understand the lifeforms that live on top of and inside the mountains. This mysterious mountain revolves around the reality that we know many lifeforms call the tops of these distinctive geological constructions home, but how in the world did they get there? Did they change by themselves away from other ecosystems, a concept well-known as the 'lost world hypothesis', after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 unique novel The Lost World, which happens at Roraima? Or did they travel there in some way? No one can tell just yet, but we are getting closer to a solution.

One of the most discussed studies on the question was a 2012 paper that examined the DNA of four different tree frog types from different tepuis in South America. The objective was to see if the frogs, which normally stick to one region for their whole lives, had mutual ancestors that dated back over 70 million years ago when scientists think the tops of the tepuis developed difficult to get to by traditional means.

If the species had a mutual ancestor from more than 70 million years, it positions to reason that the frogs existed and evolved on the top of their separate tepuis. If not, the frogs possibly moved up to the tepui somehow. The team discovered that all of the frogs had a common ancestor that existed about 5.3 million years ago, signifying that there was a way for the living being to travel to and from the cliff tops on their own.  But that is not to say that some species have not jumped up individually on the tops of these tepuis somehow. An extraordinary 35% of Mount Roraima’s species, for instance, are believed to be common, like the pitcher plant, a predatory plant that traps insects in digestive liquids, which evolved self-sufficiently on Roraima over millions of years.

Jeff Johnson/WikiCommons

The good news is that scientists and explorers are starting to gradually reveal these secretive ecosystems. Earlier this year, a team of Italian scientists and explorers lead by Francesco Sauro, from the University of Bologna, set off to pass through the Imawarì Yeuta, a massive cave hidden inside Auyan-tepui.

As David Nield described for us back in April:

"Inside the quartz stone caves, which are expected to have taken more than millions of years to form, the team supposes to discover minerals and matchless species of animals that have never been seen by human eyes. The caves are occupied with strangely shaped speleothems (pillars and stalagmites) stamped out by colonies of microbes, and Sauro and his generations are hopeful to lastly figure out how they form."

The team has not released their complete conclusions yet, however, they are planned to drop soon. Till then, the 'lost worlds' of the tepuis will remain some of the most exciting and unidentified, places on the planet. Until then, nonetheless, it’s kind of neat to know that there are still big chunks of the world that we still know not very much about. Adventure, as they had said in Up, is out there.

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