A “coral reef” of lichens, bryophytes, and algae on cloud forest twigs

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In keeping with the theme of my last post, here are some more bryophytes, lichens, and algae, found on the upper branches of cloud forest trees in and around Banos (1800-2000m). I know nothing about them yet, so for now I just post the pictures without comment. Maybe when I have more time I will post some dissections of these to understand their structure. Click on any image to enlarge it so you can see the detailed structures. All photos Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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I encourage you to click on any of these images to enlarge them and see the rich textures and forms.

Lou Jost/EcoMinga Foundation

A new species of liverwort discovered in our Rio Anzu Reserve!

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The bryophyte-covered limestone canyon of the Rio Anzu before the 2016 flood, which removed almost all of the vegetation. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Mosses and liverworts, collectively known as “bryophytes”,  were the first plants to emerge from the oceans onto dry land, about 300 million years ago. Many of them are still closely tied to water. Some of the most interesting bryophytes are riverside specialists adapted to regular submergence. Most bryophyte species have very wide geographic distributions, even ranging across multiple continents, since their spores are small and easily blown in the wind. Most scientists would not expect much local endemism in such a group. However, as we have also seen in orchids (whose seeds are small and spore-like), habitat specialization can lead to local endemism even in the absence of dispersal limitations or barriers. So it always pays off to look closely at places that combine unique geological and ecological factors.

The great Scottish botanist Richard Spruce was the first bryologist to look closely at the mosses and liverworts in our upper Rio Pastaza watershed, on his epic twelve-year trip from the mouth of the Amazon to the Pacific Ocean.He lived in Banos for six months, discovering many new species of mosses, liverworts, ferns, and flowering plants. Before he reached Banos from the Amazon basin, he had to cross our Rio Zunac, and then the nearby Rio Topo. As often happens, though, hard rains made it difficult to cross the Rio Zunac. He and his group of indigenous helpers managed to make the crossing, but were then trapped between the Zunac and Topo rivers as both rose to dangerous levels. They were stuck there for three days, and nearly starved to death (they ate toads to stay alive). But a botanist is never bored in a new country. While he was stuck between these two rivers he discovered the strangest bryophyte of his whole Amazon-to-Pacific expedition, a riverside liverwort which he named Myriocolea irrorata. He wrote in his journal (later published as Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and  Andes, edited by the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace) that it was “perhaps the most interesting bryophyte that I have ever found.”

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Myriocolea (Colura) irrorata, a remarkable epiphytic liverwort with a very restricted geographic range. This was Richard Spruce’s favorite discovery of his whole Amazon-to-Pacific twelve-year trip in the mid eighteen-hundreds. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

No one ever saw this plant again in life until Dr Rob Gradstein, then of the University of Gottingen, and his student Noelle Noske came to Banos in 2002 to search for it. They asked me to join them. Rob, Noelle, and I tried to follow Spruce’s journal. We failed to find the plant on the first day, but during our second day of searching we found lots of plants on the Rio Topo. We were tremendously excited, especially Rob! However the rediscovery was followed shortly by the news that the Rio Topo would be the site of a small hydroelectric project, which the local people opposed. Myriocolea irrorata, which was classified by the IUCN as Critically Endangered, became the emblematic species of the struggle to stop the project, but the government eventually forced it through. [Phylogenetic studies recently showed that the very unusual morphology of Myriocolea irrorata was a recently-evolved feature, and that it was actually part of the large genus Colura. Recently a new population of this species was found on the Cordillera del Condor in southeast Ecuador, far from the original population.]

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Protests against the Rio Topo hydroelectric project continued for years, partly to protect Myriocolea irrorata and the rest of the Rio Topo ecosystem. They ended when two hundred police in full riot gear forceably removed protestors who were blocking the access road. The police then escorted the first machines to the construction site. Screen shot from an amateur video.

Rob and I worked to have a bust of Richard Spruce erected here, and this became a reality in 2006, with the help of the Linnaean Society of London, Missouri Botanical Garden, the Birtish Embassy, Ghillean Prance, Raymond Stotler and Barbara Crandall-Stotler, and others. It was made by a local Banos artist, Edguin Barrera. Probably the only monument to a bryologist in all of South America!

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Bust of Richard Spruce in Rio Verde, Canton Banos, Ecuador. Photo: Bryological Times/Rob Gradstein.

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Dedication to the Spruce bust. From the Bryological Times.

On Rob’s visit to Banos in 2008, I took him to our Rio Anzu Reserve, to see if Myriocolea irrorata grew in the Rio Anzu. This is a limestone river with many interesting limestone-specialist plants. It was on these limestone cliffs that I had once found a new genus of orchid, which Gerardo Salazar and I named Quechua. On this trip Rob and I did not find any Myriocolea irrorata, but Rob did find another strange liverwort, in the genus Fossombronia, that he could not identify. Some Fossombronia (such as F. texana, found along the limestone streams of the Hill Country of central Texas) are limestone specialists (B. Crandall-Stotler, pers. com.), and this appears to be another. He collected it and began to work on its taxonomic placement. A few weeks ago, nine years later, he and his colleague Barbara Crandall-Stotler were finally confident that it was in fact a new species, still known only from the Rio Anzu. I was flattered to hear that they wanted to name it after me…

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Rob Gradstein at the moment that he discovered the new Fossombronia in 2008. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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In this 2008 photo the Fossombronia covered large areas of the rocks. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Last week, excited by this news, I went to the Rio Anzu to photograph “my” liverwort. The trip started out badly. A huge storm (said to have been a 50-year storm) had hit the area in December, washing out the aquatic park of the nearby city of Shell, and causing much flood damage. As I went up the entrance road to the Rio Anzu, , where once little forest streams quietly flowed, I saw deep bare newly-scoured canyons  filled with fallen tree trunks. The road itself eventually became impassable due to the flood damage, and I had to walk a long way to the trailhead. Inside the forest the damage continued, with big washouts and landslides. This did not bode well for the riverside vegetation I had come to see. Nevertheless there were beautiful flowers growing in the forest; I was briefly distracted by Heliconia aemygdiana and a species of Eucharis, a relative of the amaryllis.

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Heliconia aemygdiana in the Rio Anzu understory. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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Eucharis formosa(?), a large amaryllid which is common in the Rio Anzu forest. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

When I got to the rocky riverside where Rob had discovered the new Fossombronia, my worst fears were confirmed. There was almost nothing left of the thick moss layer that used to cover every surface. Most of the rocks looked and felt like they had been sandblasted, with fresh bare surfaces,  no organic material at all. The ladyslipper orchids (Phragmipedium pearcei) that were one of the highlights of this vegetation had been severely damaged, though many tattered plants still clung to the downstream sides of the rocks, held by their white newly-exposed roots.

Before the flood:

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Before the 2016 flood. Lots of bryophytes on the limestone rocks. The bridge in the background was washed out by floods even before the 2016 flood. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

After the flood:

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Bryophytes are almost gone after the 2016 flood. Many Phragmipedium plants still hang on, especially those clinging to the downstream side of the rocks. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Before the flood:

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The mossy canyon of the Rio Anzu before the flood. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

After the flood:

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After the 2016 flood, the rocks have been scraped clean by the river. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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The rocks cleaned of bryophytes by the 2016 flood. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Some of the slightly sheltered pockets in the bare rocks still had traces of green moss. I desperately searched these for “my” Fossombronia. In nearly the same place as Rob’s initial discovery in 2008, I found what was left of them. It looked like the river stripped off all their leaves, but the bases of the plants were still alive and were vigorously resprouting! I shouldn’t have worried about them. This is, after all, the rough habitat they had evolved in for millions of years.

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The new Fossombronia resprouting. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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Larger plants of the new Fossombronia. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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The new Fossombronia resprouting after the flood. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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Cloud forest images from our Rio Zunac Reserve, and canopy access at last

 

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Aroids in our Rio Zunac cloud forest. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

Last week our rangers and I went on a  camping trip in the wet cloud forests of our Rio Zunac Reserve. We were on a mission to put climbing ropes into the canopies of some of our Magnolia trees, so that we (and other researchers) could study their reproduction, and perhaps protect the seed capsules from insect predators, and try other techniques to help them reproduce. We never see very young plants of these species, so we are a bit worried about their future.

I also used the opportunity to capture some better photos of the complex interior of this beautiful cloud forest. The ridgetop forest above 1700m is very special, one of the wettest forests in Ecuador, with plant life bursting from every available surface, plants piled on other plants. We didn’t have many photos of this forest.

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Rio Zunac cloud forest, 2000m. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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Rio Zunac cloud forest, 2000m. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

 

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Rio Zunac cloud forest, 2000m. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A grant from BGCI allowed us to buy mountain-climbing rope and harnesses. In the 1990s I used to spend a lot of time climbing tropical rain forest trees, and I still had my powerful bow and arrows and fishing reel; with this I can shoot a fishing line over a chosen branch. Then the fishing line pulls up a heavier line, and then  a heavier line, and after a series of between three and six successively heavier lines, I can pull up the mountain-climbing cord.

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Preparing the bow and arrows. The arrows, dragging the fishing line behind them through the moss and leaves, have a hard time coming down through all the vegetation. So I use heavy fishing arrows, and I put weights on their tips. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

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Shooting a newly-described Magnolia vargasiana. Accidental photo of the exact millisecond when the arrow leaves the bow– a minor miracle. I think we could try a million times without ever managing to repeat this feat.  Click image to enlarge. An arrow can be shot with fair accuracy over a particular branch, though what happens after it passes the branch is partly up to chance…The arrows are easy to lose, and I lost two of my three remaining arrows (unobtainable in Ecuador) on this trip. The one I’m firing in this picture was one of them–it got embedded in the tree (even though it has a flat tip) and did not come down. Photo:Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

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Shooting another tree, an unidentified species of Magnolia which Fausto Recalde had found the day before. It is not either of the two species previously found here (M. vargasiana and M. llanganatensis, which are both new species recently described by Dr Antonio Vazquez and his collaborators from specimens found on this ridge of the Rio Zunac cloud forest).  This is my last remaining arrow, bent and tattered, but it  worked. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

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Pulling up heavier line. This is delicate work, as the knot sometimes gets caught on stuff. I tape the knots with electric tape to minimize that. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

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While I pull from the far side of the  tree, our rangers release the mountain-climbing cord from the other side. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

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The mystery Magnolia with the climbing rope in place. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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I dress for the climb: harness and helmet. I have a rule that everyone must use gloves on the rope, to keep the rope free of salts from our sweat. In a place with lots of animals, it is important that the rope not attract gnawing critters looking for salt. As a further precaution we normally take the rope down between uses (leaving a cheap string in its place), which also protects it from UV light degradation. But even when stored in the forest or in camp, rodents wouldfind the salt and cause potentially fatal damage. This happened to my rope in Costa Rica. Of course we also inspect the rope before each use…Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

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Climbing the mystery Magnolia. It is thin but tall, and couldn’t be free-climbed. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

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Our rangers below me at the base of the Magnolia. Click to enlarge.  Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

 

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Here’s a flower of the mystery Magnolia. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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There are many other beautiful trees in this forest. Here is Meriania pastazana, similar to our recently-discovered Meriania aurata but without the yellow wings on the ovaries.

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Flower of Meriania pastazana. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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The anthers of Meriania pastazana. These are hollow and contain their pollen on the inside. The pollen comes out through small pores (one pore is visible on the top purple tip of the rightmost anther) when the anther is shaken rapidly by a bee or other agent. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

EcoMinga would like to thank Joachim Gratzfeld and Botanical Gardens Conservation International for a grant which enabled us to purchase climbing ropes and harnesses. I also want to thank our rangers, who risk their lives free-climbing some of the trees.

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation

 

 

Releasing a rescued Spectacled Bear in our Rio Zunac Reserve

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Ukumari wakes up in his new home as the anesthesia wears off. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

Jeremy La Zelle and Greg Taylor, the men behind Backpacker Films, visited Banos in September 2015. When they heard about the pending release of a rescued Spectacled Bear in our Rio Zunac Reserve, they asked to join the release team.

The young bear had been found by a farmer two years earlier, badly injured. Doctors performed surgery on it and saved its life. Sebastian Kohn, director of Centro de Rescate Ilitio on the slopes of Volcan Cotopaxi, took it into his care and raised it, taking care to maintain its wild character and not turn it into a pet. The goal was always to return it to the wild. He fed it while hidden so that it did not associate food with people, and the bear kept its distrust of humans.

When Volcan Cotopaxi began to erupt, the Centro de Rescate suddenly had to close, so the bear had to be released quickly. The Ministry of the Environment asked us to receive the bear and assist in its release. Our rangers and a team of specialists carried the bear on a stretcher for several hours to take it to good habitat away from humans. Jeremy and Greg filmed the whole process, and the video below, released a few days ago, is the result.

 

It’s a testament to the best elements of our own species that so many people put so much effort and so much heart into the rescue and rehabilitation of this poor bear:

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The team of veterinarians, bear experts, “stepfather” Sebastian Kohn (yellow shirt at left), and EcoMinga rangers (Luis and Santiago Recalde, not in view, and Fausto Recalde holding the intravenous serum bag). Photo: Santiago Recalde?EcoMinga.

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EcoMinga Ranger Luis Recalde holds the bear’s head while the veterinarian tapes its claws to minimize danger to the crew. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

The bear, after its release, wandered widely and was filmed by camera traps up to seven kilometers from its release site. It was last recorded alive and well about six months after its release, but its body was later found by Ministry of the Environment field staff, well outside our reserve. Some speculated that the bear had been attacked by another bear, but we don’t really know.

Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga

 

Camera trap glimpses a rarely-seen forest falcon in our Machay “Forests in the Sky”corridor

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Our rangers have reached 3200m, high above the clouds, in our “Forests in the Sky” reserve. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

Happy 2017! We wish our readers a productive and fulfilling year.

As regular readers know, we have been constructing a 13 kilometer long corridor of protected forest between Ecuador’s Llanganates and Sangay National Parks, by purchasing the intervening properties one by one. The project has been supported for almost ten years now by the World Land Trust and their donors, including long-term patrons Puro Coffee, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Naturetrek. The idea is to maintain a forested link between the northeast Andes and southeast Andes, which are separated by the very vulnerable low valley of the Rio Pastaza, a tributary of the Amazon. The valley is becoming densely populated and has a major highway running through it. Luckily the highway goes through some big kilometer-long tunnels, and our corridor goes over one of those tunnels. Our hope is that the corridor will maintain the connectivity between the north and south populations of large Andean birds and mammals such as Spectacled Bear, puma, Mountain Tapir, and Black-and-chestnut Eagles. This  is important for the long-term genetic and demographic health of those species. Some of these are “keystone” species that play major roles in the ecosystems they inhabit, so maintaining these species is necessary for the health of those ecosystems.

Juan Pablo Reyes and our rangers Luis, Fausto, Santiago, and Jesus Recalde have been exploring our latest purchases on the north side of the Rio Pastaza, starting at about 1500m elevation. In late October they reached 3200m elevation near the transition between cloud forest and cold alpine shrubland. They put up a camera trap  on the new trail they have built, and they recently brought the memory cards back down the mountain.

It is always a thrill to look at our camera trap images and videos for the first time. It feels like we are spying on the animals. We never know what we’ll be seeing. This time, we were amazed to see a secretive Collared Forest-falcon half-flying, half-running down the trail, a quick dash through the  camera’s field of view, hoping to surprise some bird or small mammal. We’ve never seen this bird in any of our reserves, and never imagined we would catch it on video like this.

 

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Collared Forest-falcon captured by our camera trap. This camera takes three still frames before the video starts. This is one of them, enlarged.

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Here’s a better look at a Collared Forest-falcon (Micrastur semitorquatus), this one photographed in western Ecuador by Roger Ahlman.

Of course one of the main purposes of the corridor is to facilitate movement of large mammals. Other videos from this camera trap show that animals are already using our new trail. Here’s a Spectacled Bear (Tremarctos ornatus)  captured at dusk in the same spot as the previous video:

A small cat also made an appearance the same night as the bear:

Edit 8pm Jan 1: Spectacled Bears often mess with our cameras. We’ve had to put them in heavy metal housings to protect them. After the above videos were taken,  a bear came to adjust this camera’s field of view to his liking:

Then he left the camera with the lens covered by a large leaf, as seen in the still shot following the video.

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The bear left the camera covered by this leaf.

 

We’re glad to see that animals are using our corridor’s trails, but we wish they would leave the camera adjustments to us!

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation