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

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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!

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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Phylogenetic tree of the major mammal groups (orders). The order Paucituberculata, which contains the shrew-opossums, is highlighted in red. Modified from https://www.palaeontologyonline.com/articles/2012/fossil-focus-marsupials/

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 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/47566303_Phylogenetic_diversity_measures_based_on_Hill_numbers

Youth Land Trust partners honored by Nat Geo and Explorers Club

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One of our expansion areas in the Dracula Reserve. Drone image made by Callie Broaddus, founder of Youth Land Trust.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, Reserva: Youth Land Trust is one of our partners building the Dracula Reserve. This week its founder, Callie Broaddus, was honored by inclusion in the Explorer Club’s inaugural list of fifty people changing the world! 

Click to access EC-50-2.pdf

 

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Callie in our Dracula Reserve. Photo: Javier Robayo/EcoMinga.

Callie has been instrumental in the purchase of an important extension of the Dracula Reserve, by mobilizing a new generation of conservation activists around the world. Congratulations Callie! Callie is also an accomplished photographer, and we will see more of her work here shortly.

“It is such an honor to be part of this diverse group of people who are working to understand, explore, and protect our world! An idea is only as good as the people who implement it, so I share this with the Reserva community and our partners EcoMinga, Rainforest Trust, and GEOS Foundation. And a biiiig thank you to Joe Grabowski for the nomination!”

Callie’s Reserva team also includes two young people, Lucy Houliston and Sruthi Guriudev,  who were honored yesterday by National Geographic for their impact as communicators about global conservation: They were recognized as two of Nat Geo’s 24 Fall 2020 “Young Explorers”:

Our Fall 2020 Young Explorers Prove There Is Always Reason For Hope

Lucy has visited the Dracula Reserve several times and, along with other Reserva team members, has written extensive field notes about these visits. I highly recommend these accounts.

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Front row left to right: Callie Broaddus, Lucy Houliston, Carter Ries. Back row left to right: Marco Montero, one of EcoMinga’s orchid experts, and Javier Robayo, EcoMinga’s Western Reserves coordinator.

 

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Lucy at the Casa Dracula on the outskirts of the Dracula Reserve. Photo: Callie Broadus.

Congratulations to Callie, Lucy, and Sruthi for these well-deserved honors, and thanks for helping us protect these endangered northwest Andean forests.

Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga

 

 

First documentation of a night monkey (Aotus) in our Banos reserves

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Night Monkey (Aotus) photographed near our Naturetrek Reserve by Luis Recalde on his cell phone!

[Traduccion en espanol abajo]

The night monkeys (genus Aotus) are a poorly-understood group of Neotropical primates that are mostly nocturnal. They are known to be monogamous and feed mostly on fruits and nectar. In the Amazonian lowlands they are easy to find on windless nights by listening for rustling leaves in the canopy, and they can also often be found in their tree-hole nests during the day. In the Andes, however, members of this genus are almost never seen and even more rarely photographed. I have heard reports from a couple of local people who thought they had seen a night monkey, but their descriptions were ambiguous, and in Spanish the name “mono nocturno” is also often used for nocturnal non-primates like the kinkajou and the potos. Today’s photo is the first documentation of the presence of night monkeys in the province of Tungurahua and the first record for the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. It was taken by our now-retired but ever-observant reserve guard, Luis Recalde, on his property near our Naturetrek and Cerro Candelaria reserves at an elevation of about 1600m.

Night monkeys are so poorly known that we really can’t be sure how to classify our population. Initially, biologist thought that there was only one species of night monkey, with geographic variations in color. Later the lowland population north of the Amazon was recognized as a distinct species-complex from the population south of the Amazon ( the Amazon is so wide that it is a barrier to dispersal, so there are many similar cases in other primate genera, as well as in birds and insects).The northern Andean form was also separated into a distinct species, Aotus lemurinus, divided into four subspecies. There are very few confirmed specimen records of this species in Ecuador. Chromosome analysis has shown that the four subspecies of the Andean form have differences in the number and shape of their chromosomes, possibly indicating that hybrids between the subspecies are rare and that the hybrids may be less fit (due to chromosome mismatch) than their parents. If so, then these four “subspecies” could also be considered as separate species. But it is not clear whether the chromosome differences really affect fitness of hybrid offspring, so for now we will only conclude that our individuals belong to the Aotus lemurinus complex. Since the chromosomes of our population have not been studied, we don’t really know how our population fits into this complex. It may even be a new species. Another exciting project for a volunteer biologist!!

Lou Jost, Director Ejecutivo, Fundacion EcoMinga

Primer registro de un mono nocturno (Aotus) en nuestras reservas de Baños
IMG 01- Mono nocturno (Aotus) fotografiado cerca de nuestra reserva Naturetrek por nuestro ex-guardabosques Luis Recalde con su celular.
Los monos nocturnos (género Aotus) son un grupo pobremente conocido de primates neotropicales que son en su mayoría nocturnos. Son conocidos por ser monógamos y se alimentan en su mayoría de frutas y néctar. En las tierras bajas de la Amazonía son fáciles de encontrar en noches sin viento escuchando el susurro de las hojas en el dosel, y a menudo pueden ser encontrados en sus nidos en huecos de árboles durante el día. En los Andes, sin embargo, los miembros de este género casi nunca son vistos e incluso más raramente fotografiados. He escuchado reportes de un par de personas locales quienes pensaron haber visto un mono nocturno, pero sus descripciones fueron ambiguas, y en español el nombre “mono nocturno” es también a menudo usado para no-primates nocturnos como el kinkajou y los cusumbos (Potos). La fotografía de hoy es el primer registro de la presencia de monos nocturnos en la provincia de Tungurahua y el primer registro de la cuenca alta del Río Pastaza. Fue tomada por nuestro ahora retirado, pero siempre observante guardia de la reserva, Luis Recalde, en su propiedad cerca de nuestras reservas Naturetrek y Cerro Candelaria en una elevación de cerca de 1600m.
Los monos nocturnos son tan poco conocidos que nosotros no podemos estar realmente seguros de cómo clasificar a nuestra población. Inicialmente, los biólogos pensaron que había sólo una especie de mono nocturno con variaciones geográficas de color. Después la población de las bajuras al norte de la Amazonía fue reconocida como un complejo de especies distinto de la población del sur de la Amazonía (la Amazonía es tan amplia que es una barrera para la dispersión, así que hay muchos casos similares en otros géneros de primates, así como en aves e insectos). La forma del norte de los Andes también fue separada en especies distintas, Aotus lemurinus, dividida en cuatro subespecies. Hay muy pocos registros de especímenes confirmados de estas especies en Ecuador. Los análisis de cromosomas han mostrado que las cuatro subespecies de las formas de los Andes tienen diferencias en el número y forma de sus cromosomas posiblemente indicando que los híbridos entre las subespecies son raras y que los híbridos pueden ser menos aptos (debido a un desajuste de cromosomas) que sus padres. Si es así, entonces estas cuatro “subespecies” podrían también ser considerados como especies separadas. Pero no está claro si las diferencias cromosómicas realmente afectan la aptitud de la descendencia híbrida, así que por ahora sólo concluiremos que nuestros individuos pertenecen al complejo Aotus lemurinus. Ya que los cromosomas de nuestra población no han sido estudiados, realmente no sabemos cómo nuestra población encaja en este complejo. Puede ser incluso una nueva especie. ¡Otro proyecto emocionante para un biólogo voluntario!
Lou Jost, Director Ejecutivo, Fundación EcoMinga
Traducción: Salomé Solórzano-Flores

Report from today’s Chical meeting about EcoMinga

[Traduccion en Espanol abajo]

Yesterday I didn’t want to tip off any bad actors, so I did not mention that our Javier Robayo and Gabriela Puetate went to the meeting of people who wanted to make trouble for EcoMinga.

Just now I got this message from Gabriela:

“Hola Lou, buenas tardes!
Te quiero avisar que seguimos en Chical, nos fué súper bien en la reunión, ahorita tendremos pequeñas reuniones con representantes de comunidades, a lo que lleguemos a Tulcán te llamaremos para contarte todo con detalles!!”

“Pero la reunión salió muy bien a favor de nosotros 💪💚”

All our past community work paid off. The meeting showed the politicians how much support we have in the community and in the Awa nation. I await further details but the local communities are asking us for meetings and we came out of this even stronger.

More news will follow tomorrow or the next day whne I find out more.

Thanks to all who expressed their concern and support!

Lou Jost, Director, Fundacion EcoMinga

Reporte de la reunión de Chical sobre EcoMinga
Ayer yo no quise escribir sobre malos actores, así que no mencioné que nuestros Javier Robayo y Gabriela Puetate fueron a la reunión de gente que querían poner en problemas a Ecominga.
Justo ahora he recibido un mensaje de Gabriela:
“Hola Lou, buenas tardes!
Te quiero avisar que seguimos en Chical, nos fué súper bien en la reunión, ahorita tendremos pequeñas reuniones con representantes de comunidades, a lo que lleguemos a Tulcán te llamaremos para contarte todo con detalles!!”
“Pero la reunión salió muy bien a favor de nosotros 💪💚
Todo nuestro trabajo pasado con la comunidad ha rendido sus frutos. La reunión mostró a los políticos cuánto apoyo tenemos en la comunidad y en la nacionalidad Awa. Espero más detalles pero la comunidades locales nos solicitan reuniones y salimos de esto aún más fuertes.
Más noticias seguirán mañana o pasado mañana cuando tengamos más.
Gracias a todos los que expresaron su interés y apoyo!
Lou Jost, Fundación EcoMinga
Traducción: Salomé Solórzano-Flores –