Close encounter with a Spectacled Bear

Our rangers Fausto Recalde, Santiago Recalde, and Jordy Salazar ran into this Spectacled Bear (Tremarctos ornatus) near the border between our Naturetrek and Cerro Candelaria reserves. Fausto and Santiago took to the trees to get this video. The bear first seems to threaten/bluff our rangers, and then moves slowly through the trees, not very nervous. This is a big improvement over my first encounter with a Spectacled Bear in that area, in the late 1990’s. In my encounter the bear was so scared that it fell out of its tree and ran away at full speed. Our protection of these bears for the last sixteen years has made the difference.

If you listen closely, the bear in the video is calling softly. This is similar to one of the sounds of an online recording of a Spectacled Bear calling for its cub, so maybe there was an unseen cub traveling with our bear:

Naturetrek Reserve was financed by donations from Naturetrek  to the World Land Trust. Puro Coffee () supports ranger Jordy Salazar through the World Land Trust’s Keepers of the Wild program. Fausto and Santiago are also supported by this program. Thanks to their work, the birds and animals in our forests are feeling more confident and are easier to see than they used to be. With bears, though, we have to maintain a little fear of humans, for the bears’ own safety, in order to minimize conflicts between bears and local people.

Lou Jost, Fundacion Ecominga

Ecuador is the country with the second-highest number of endangered species in the world


The ten countries with the most endangered species. From Wildlife Conservation Society,

It is a sad competition, and the world needs to react. Madagascar has the highest number of endangered species, 3664, and the situation there is doubly urgent, since most of those species are not found anywhere else in the world. Madagascar would also rank very high in terms of phylogenetic uniqueness; many of the species on Madagascar don’t even have any close relatives in the rest of the world. This means that the amount of unique evolutionary history embodied by its flora and fauna is very high. Madagascar clearly should be very high on anyone’s list of  world conservation priorities.

We are next, with 2568 endangered species, showing that Ecuador should also be a world conservation priority. We rank high for a combination of reasons. First, Ecuador is one of the countries with the highest biodiversity, so we have more species to lose than most countries. Second, because of the topographical complexity of the Andes, we have more locally endemic species (species found only in small areas and not found anywhere else in the world) than most countries. These are particularly vulnerable to extinction. Third, the population density of Ecuador is one of the highest in South America, so there is tremendous pressure on all those rare, locally endemic species.

A simple list of the number of endangered species is just one out of many equally legitimate numbers which could be used to set conservation priorities, but this is a good starting point to help set the world’s conservation priorities. We are doing our part by discovering and protecting Ecuador’s hidden hotspots of endemic species of plants and animals, thanks to your help.

Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga

Banded Ground Cuckoo (Neomorphus radiolosus)


Banded Ground-Cuckoo (Neomorphus radiolosus) photo by Roger Ahlman in Milpe, Pichincha, Ecuador.

[Traduccion en espanol abajo]

The Neomorphus ground-cuckoos are some of the rarest and least-known birds in the world. There are about five species, all in humid forests of the New World tropics. Three species are in Ecuador, two in Amazonia and one  west of the Andes. They are on every birder’s “wish list”, but most people, even people who have spent their whole life looking for bird, have never seen one. That includes me. I lived in the Amazon for two years and went birding every day, often with experts and tape recorders, and I had seen almost every Amazonian bird (even rarities like the Nocturnal Currasow) but we never saw a ground-cuckoo. Almost all the other rare rainforest birds have distinct territories and favorite spots, but this seems to be a nomadic bird or one that holds an enormous territory. They follow army ants or herds of wild pigs, capturing the insects and frogs and other small animals that are flused as the ants or pigs forage in the forest. They therefore rarely stay in one place (except when nesting). They are also very shy and furtive and fast, so they can scurry away when they hear us coming.


Banded Ground-cuckoo photographed in the “Un poco del Choco” reserve in Pichincha, Ecuador by Roger Ahlman.

They are highly endangered, especially the Banded Ground-cuckoo (Neomorphus radiolosus), which lives in northwest Ecuador and adjacent Colombia. Its population is estimated to be between 600 and 1700 adult individuals. In Ecuador most of the lowland forest in that region is gone, and so is this bird. It survives in small numbers in the  few remaining large tracts of forest in this area. Over the last couple of years, rangers in our Manduriacu Reserve have managed to spot this species, and in April our ranger Jimmy Alvarez actually managed to photograph it.


Banded Ground-cuckoo (Neomorphus radiolosus) in our Manduriacu Reserve. It was found on a parcel recently purchased with funds from the World Land Trust. Photo: Jimmy Alvarez.


Banded Ground-cuckoo photographed in the “Un poco del Choco” reserve in Pichincha, Ecuador by Roger Ahlman.



Banded Ground-cuckoo in Milpe, Pichincha, photographed by Roger Ahlman. Note the heavy hawk-like beak which looks as though it is capable of handling fairly large prey.

Until recently no one ever saw these birds. Bird photographer Murray Cooper spent years working on this bird, and would sometimes go for an entire year without seeing one, but he got lucky one year when he found a nest. You can read the story and see his photos on the linked Audubon Society web page.

Photographer Roger Ahlman, who kindly provided most of the photos shown here, wrote on his photo website:  “So I finally got to see this beast that I have been too close to, too many times to be good for my psychological health.” .

Over the last few years, though, some very dedicated people have managed to reduce the shyness of these and other rare birds by feeding them and habituating them to humans, an effort that can take years of intense work. Nicole Buttner and Wilo Vaca, owners of the “Un poco del Choco” biological station in Pichincha, Ecuador, and their staff have succeeded in doing this over several generations of Banded Ground-cuckoos. Many of Roger Ahlman’s pictures shown here were taken at this station. Some of their ground-cuckoos are so tame that they can be hand-fed.


The widespread but rare Amazonian Rufous-vented Ground-cuckoo (Neomorphus geoffroyi) by Greg Kanies. This species lives on the opposite side of the Andes from the Banded Ground-cuckoo.  Creative Commons licence.

For the moment our only reserve with documented ground-cuckoos is our Manduriacu Reserve. It might also possibly turn up some day in our Dracula Reserve. We hope so!

Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga

Cuco Hormiguero Franjeado (Banded Ground Cuckoo – Neomorphus radiolosus)

IMG 01 – Cuco Hormiguero Franjeado (Neomorphus radiolosus), fotografía por Roger Ahlman en Milpe, Pichincha, Ecuador

Los cucos hormigueros Neomorphus son algunas de las aves más raras y menos conocidas en el mundo. Hay casi cinco especies, todos en bosques húmedos del trópico del nuevo mundo. Tres especies están en Ecuador, dos en la Amazonía y uno en el occidente de los Andes. Están en la “lista de deseos” de todos los pajareros, pero la mayoría de la gente, incluso gente que ha dedicado su vida entera a observar estas aves, nunca han visto uno. Eso me incluye. Viví en la Amazonía por dos años y fui a observar aves todos los días, a menudo con expertos y grabadoras, y he visto casi todas las aves amazónicas (incluso rarezas como el Pavón Nocturno – Nothocrax urumutum) pero nunca vimos un cuco hormiguero. Casi todas las demás aves raras del bosque lluvioso tienen distintos territorios y puntos favoritos, pero parece ser un ave nómada o una que ocupa un territorio enorme. Ellos siguen a las hormigas legionarias o a piaras de cerdos salvajes, capturando los insectos y ranas y otros pequeños animales que tratan de escapar mientras las hormigas o los cerdos se alimentan en el bosque. Por lo tanto ellos rara vez se quedan en un lugar (excepto cuando anidan). También son muy tímidos, furtivos y rápidos, de modo que pueden escabullirse cuando nos escuchan acercándonos.

IMG 02 – Cuco hormiguero franjeado fotografiado en la reserva “Un poco del Chocó” en Pichincha, Ecuador, por Roger Ahlman.

Están altamente amenazados, especialmente el cuco hormiguero franjeado (Neomorphus radiolosus), el cual vive en el noroccidente de Ecuador y adyacente a Colombia. Su población está estimada entre los 600 y 1700 individuos adultos. En Ecuador la mayoría de los bosques piemontanos en esa región se ha ido, y los pájaros también. Sobreviven en pequeños números en las pocas extensiones de bosque remanentes en esta área. En el último par de años, los guardias en nuestra Reserva Manduriacu han logrado avistar esta especie, y en Abril, nuestro guardia Jimmy Álvarez logró fotografiarlo. 

IMG 03 – Cuco Hormiguero Franjeado (Neomorphus radiolosus) en nuestra Reserva Manduriacu. Fue encontrado en una parcela recientemente adquirida con fondos de World Land Trust. Fotografía: Jimmy Álvarez

IMG 04 – Cuco Hormiguero Franjeado fotografiado en la reserva “Un poco del Chocó”, en Pichincha, Ecuador por Roger Ahlman.

IMG 05 – Cuco Hormiguero Franjeado en Milpe, Pichincha, fotografiado por Roger Ahlman. Observe el pesado pico similar a halcón, que parece ser capaz de manejar presas bastante grandes. 

Hasta hace poco, nadie había visto *vió* estos pájaros alguna vez. El fotógrafo de aves Murray Cooper pasó años trabajando en esta ave, y a veces pasaba un año entero sin verlas, pero tuvo suerte un año cuando encontró un nido. Puede leer la historia y ver fotografías de la página web de la Audubon Society.

El fotógrafo Roger Ahlman, quien amablemente nos brindó la mayoría de las fotografías mostradas aquí, escribió en su sitio web de fotografía ” Así que finalmente pude ver a esta bestia con la que he estado excesivamente cerca, demasiadas veces como para ser bueno para mi salud psicológica”

Video 01 – A la altura de los ojos con el Cuco Hormiguero Franjeado – Un poco del Chocó
Sin embargo, en los últimos años, algunas personas muy dedicadas han logrado reducir la timidez de estas y otras aves raras al alimentarlas y habituarlas a los humanos, un esfuerzo que puede tomar años de intenso trabajo. Nicole Buttner y Wilo Vaca, dueños de la estación biológica “Un poco del Chocó” en Pichincha, Ecuador, y su equipo, han tenido éxito en hacer esto a lo largo de varias generaciones de Cucos Hormigueros Franjeados (Banded Ground Cuckoo – Neomorphus radiolosus). Muchas de las imágenes de Roger Ahlman mostradas aquí, fueron tomadas en esta estación. Algunos de sus cucos hormigueros son tan mansos que pueden ser alimentados a mano

IMG 06 – El ampliamente distribuido pero raro Cuco Hormiguero Ventrirrufo (Rufous-vented Ground-cuckoo – Neomorphus geoffroyi) amazónico fotografiado por Greg Kanies. Esta especie vive en el lado opuesto del Cuco Hormiguero Franjeado (Banded Ground Cuckoo – Neomorphus radiolosus). Licencia Creative Commons.

Por el momento, nuestra única reserva con cucos hormigueros es la Reserva Manduriacu. También podría posiblemente aparecer un día en nuestra Reserva Drácula. ¡Esperamos que si!

Lou Jost, Fundación EcoMinga

Traducción: Salomé Solórzano-Flores

A strange and beautiful new species of Pseudolepanthes orchid discovered in our Dracula Reserve


Pseudolepanthes bihuae. Photo Marco Monteros.

The orchid genus Pseudolepanthes (formerly Trichosalpinx subgenus Pseudolepanthes) is made up of about 11 species in Colombia and Ecuador. All the species are rare and locally endemic to very small areas, like single mountains. In this regard their distribution pattern is similar to that of the genus Teagueia, which I have discussed often on this site. Another peculiar feature of their distribution is that, just as in Teagueia, there are a few small areas where the genus has experienced an explosive local diversification, with many species growing in the same place. The genus is mainly Colombian, and is very rare in Ecuador. Today marks the publication of the first species ever found in northwest Ecuador, discovered by our collaborators Marco Monteros and Luis Baquero (Universidad de las Americas) in our Dracula Reserve.

The species name honors Bihua Chen, a devoted orchid lover, as part of Rainforest Trust’s “Legacy Species” program. We thank her for supporting Rainforest Trust’s conservation programs!


Pseudolepanthes bihuae. Photo: Marco Monteros

At the moment, the species is known from only a single small population. The population is inside our reserve, but it is also inside a mining concession given by the government. In Ecuador the subsoil rights are separate from the surface rights, so the government can sell these rights without the consent of the surface owner. Because of this, the authors of the new species proposed to have it listed as “Critically Endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. As we’ve noted before, we and many other groups are fighting to keep mining interests out of protected natural areas, and the courts so far have agreed with us. This species is one more indicator of the biological importance and uniqueness of our Dracula Reserve.

Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga

Shrew-opossums, our strangest mammals


The shrew-opossum Caenolestes sangay, not exactly cute and cuddly! Photo: Jorge Brito.

Most mammals, including us, are placental mammals. There are two smaller groups of mammals: egg-laying monotremes like the platypus, and marsupials like the opossum and kangaroo. These groups diverged more than a hundred million years ago from the lineage that became the placental mammals, and though they are minor players in the world today, both were more important in the distant past.  Marsupials in particular were once much more important and much more diverse. Marsupials apparently originated in the northern continent that became Asia and North America. About 65Mya marsupials moved from North America into South America, which at this time was also connected to Antarctica and Australia. Around 50-35Mya, at least one species of marsupial made it to what is now Australia via Antarctica, setting the stage for the later diversification of marsupials on that continent as it moved away from Antarctica and into its splendid isolation in the remoteness of the Pacific Ocean.


South American saber-toothed marsupial carnivore Thylacosmilus. Photo: Wikipedia CC.

Fossil evidence shows that ancient South America of 10-40Mya had a rich and ecologically diverse marsupial fauna. Some of them were the size of bears, and others were large predators with two saber-like teeth like those of the famous saber-toothed cats. Some were hopping animals similar to the kangaroo rat, some resembled the present-day North American opossum, and some were arboreal animals resembling primates. There was also a rich and varied group of small and mid-sized rat-like marsupials belonging to the order Paucituberculata, which included both carnivorous and plant-eating genera.

Over time, these strange marsupials slowly disappeared. Only a few species in the order Paucituberculata, and one species (or species complex) in the order Microbiotheria (which may have been  a reverse migrant from the early marsupial diversification in Australia), survive today.

Our reserves protect two of these survivors, the “shrew-opossums” Caenolestes convelatus in our Dracula Reserve and Caenolestes sangay in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve (see Technical Note 1 below). Both shrew-opossums are in the order Paucituberculata and both are mainly predators, feeding on insects, other arthropods, worms, frogs, and small mammals, but they also sometimes eat fruit and fungi. They have two distinctive lower incisors that point straight ahead, like daggers. Caenolestes sangay is a new species described in 2013 by a group of scientists that included our collaborator Jorge Brito. It is exciting to add a previously unknown descendant of this lonely lineage, which diverged from other marsupials 55Mya.


Caenolestes sangay skull, note the dagger-like lower incisors. From Ojala-Barbour et al (2013) A new species of shrew-opossum (Paucituberculata: Caenolestidae) with a phylogeny of extant caenolestids, Journal of Mammology 94: 967-982.

C_sangay_ Candelaria_JB_DSC9230small

The shrew-opossum Caenolestes sangay. Photo: Jorge Brito.

Caenolestes convelatus_Carchi_Reserva Drácula_Foto Jorge BritoSmall

The shrew-opossum from our Dracula Reserve, Caenolestes convelatus. Photo: Jorge Brito.

In our Dracula and Cerro Candelaria reserves, the resident species of Caenolestes is the sole representative of its order, and this makes its conservation especially important. Conservationists tend to think in terms of species diversity, but we should also pay attention to higher-level diversity. All else being equal, a reserve that contained sloths, manatees, monkeys, bats, and deer would be far more important than a reserve that protected only a set of rodents, even if the number of species were the same in each of the two reserves. A reserve with one species of rat and one species of shrew-opossum is far more diverse and important than an otherwise identical reserve with two species of rat and no species of shrew-opossum. The first reserve protects more unique evolutionary history than the second. I believe this should be the guiding principle of conservation: maximize the amount of unique evolutionary history protected.


Phylogenetic tree of the major mammal groups (orders). The order Paucituberculata, which contains the shrew-opossums, is highlighted in red. Modified from

The amount of unique evolutionary history represented in a given locality is called its “phylogenetic diversity”. In this age of DNA analysis we have reasonably accurate phylogenetic trees for many plant and animal groups. For any given natural group — mammals, for example — the simplest measure of the amount of unique evolutionary history protected at a locality is the total length of all the branches in the phylogenetic tree (including the “trunk” that connects the group to the rest of the organisms in the reserve) of the species found there (see Technical Note 2 for other ways of measuring this). In the case of our shrew-opossum, it has been evolving on its own unique branch for at least 55 million years, so it contributes quite a lot of  phylogenetic diversity to our Cerro Candelaria and Dracula reserves. The shrew-opossums are among the most interesting mammals in our reserves, even though almost no one has ever heard of them.

Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga

Technical notes:

  1. The name “Shrew-opossum” can be misleading. Strictly speakimg, the opossums are marsupials in a different order than this animal. I think a better English name for these would be “marsupial shrew”.
  1. My colleagues Anne Chao, CH Chiu, and I have developed some more advanced measures of phylogenetic diversity and differentiation: Chao A, Chiu CH, Jost L (2010) Phylogenetic diversity measures based on Hill numbers, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 365:3599–3609