Moustached Puffbird, never before seen in Ecuador, has just been found in our Dracula Reserve


First record of the Moustached Puffbird (Malacoptila mystacalis) for Ecuador. Click to enlarge. Photo: Alex Boas.

Ecuador is one of the world’s richest countries for birds, and it just got richer. Jose Maria Loaiza B. (a noted professional ornithologist who is EcoMinga’s community relations person in our Manduriacu Reserve), Juan Carlos Crespo (also an experienced ornithologist), and Alex Boas (ornithologist and photographer) visited Cerro Oscuro in our Dracula Reserve last week, partly because they suspected that the riparian habitat near the base of Cerro Oscuro might be appropriate for the elegant Moustached Puffbird (Malacoptila mystacalis), previously known only from Colombia and Venezuela. Puffbirds are tough to spot, since they spend most of their time perched quietly in the forest looking for large insects, but they have distinctive calls. Jose Maria heard a puffbird call near the edge of the stream that flows past Cerro Oscuro, and when they tracked it down, they were thrilled to find the first Moustached Puffbird ever seen in Ecuador! Continued searching turned up the mate of the first bird, and also a second pair of Moustached Puffbirds nearby.  Fortunately Alex was able to take some excellent photos and video to document the find. The team was not able to find any Moustached Puffbirds outside of the Dracula Reserve.  So for now, our Dracula Reserve is the only place in Ecuador where this bird can be seen.

Alex Boas’ video of the Ecuadorian sighting of the Moustached Puffbird.

Here are Jose Maria’s own words on the discovery:

“Novedades en la Reserva Cerro Oscuro

Por: José María Loaiza B.

Este pasado fin de semana realizamos una visita a la Reserva Cerro Oscuro en el noroccidente del Carchi y nos encontramos con una increíble sorpresa: la presencia de Mosutached Puffbird / Malacoptila mystacalis, especie que es registrada por primera vez en el Ecuador. Por el momento, la única localidad conocida es la parte baja de esta Reserva.

Este descubrimiento no fue del todo fortuito, ya desde hace tiempo sospechábamos que este esponjoso pájaro podía estar entre la vegetación ribereña. Dos parejas fueron encontradas: la primera justo a la orilla del río y la segunda más arriba de la casa-estación. Este hallazgo también contribuye con la extensión de su rango de distribución, y nuestra reserva asegura la supervivencia de lo que podría constituir una pequeña población en la frontera  noroccidental del Ecuador, posiblemente la única en todo el país.

El comportamiento característico de esta especie (y todos los Puffbirds), perchada sigilosa  en el sotobosque y relativamente quieta,   nos permitió detectarla por su canto y luego hacer excelentes fotografías y videos.   El equipo en campo estuvo conformado por la experticia de Juan Carlos Crespo, la experiencia fotográfica de Alex Boas y el  oído de José María Loaiza….”

They also made a second thrilling discovery in Cerro Oscuro. More on that in a future post. EcoMinga thanks Joe Maria, Juan Carlos, and Alex for their dedication and curiosity about the avifauna of our reserve.


Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation


Remarkable mimicry

2017-07-19-15.27.39 ZS PMax

Spider that mimics a frog in our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

I’ve been away again, this time gone for almost three weeks with a great group of students from Stanford University led by Dr Margaret (Minx) Fuller. We spent most of our time in the Amazonian lowland rainforest, but I also took them to EcoMinga’s Rio Zunac and Rio Anzu Reserves. Throughout the trip we found amazing examples of mimicry. The most unusual mimic was this spider, which was found by students Dylan Moore and Natalia Espinoza on our Rio Zunac trip. At first they thought it was a frog. It holds its forelegs in a position reminiscent of the hind legs of a frog, and its abdomen mimics a frog head, complete with eyes. I imagine that small birds or insects that would catch a spider might not want to waste energy or risk their lives trying to catch a frog.This spider seems to be related to the famous “bird poop spiders” but I don’t really know. If an arachnologist reads this, perhaps he or she could add some information about this?


Above and below: Spider that mimics a frog in our Rio Zunac Reserve. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.


Note added July 26 2017: Andreas Kay in nearby Puyo reports that he has also found this spider twice, and thinks it is in the genus Stephanopis; see his picture here:

It is always a pleasure to browse his site, Ecuador Megadiverso.

I found another exquisite mimic in our Rio Anzu Reserve the next day. This leaf-mimic katydid would have passed unnoticed except that when we walked past, it went into its hiding pose and moved its two antennae together so that they appeared as one. That motion caught my attention, but it still took me a minute to see the katydid.


A leaf-mimic katydid in our Rio Anzu Reserve. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The best way to see exotic katydids, grasshoppers, and crickets is to walk in the forest at night. Here are some others we found in the eastern lowlands on this trip.


Dead-leaf katydid in the Amazon. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMnga.



Grasshopper in the Amazon. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.



Amazonian nymph katydid. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMimnga.

Mimicry is not limited to insects and arachnids, though. Birds can can also disguise themselves. The hardest birds to spot in these forests are the potoos, which look like dead stubs on tree branches. When some species of potoo sense danger, they even lift their heads to point straight up, enhancing the illusion. They sit all day on their chosen perch, and only hunt at night, sallying for large flying insects. The females lay their single egg carefully balanced on the broken-off tip of a branch, and the baby grows up looking just like an extension of the branch.


Great Potoo. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.



Common Potoo. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Thanks for looking,

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation.

Visit to our Rio Zunac magnolias



Trunk of one of our Magnolia trees. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

I’ve written often about our exciting new magnolia species. Our first two undescribed species were discovered in our Rio Zunac Reserve, and they were recently described by Dr Antonio Vazquez (Mexico) as Magnolia vargasiana and M. llanganatensis.

We got a grant from Botanical Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), London, to try to enrich our populations of these species, which do not appear to be reproducing well. Last month Dr Joachim Gratzfeld of BGCI came to see our famous Magnolias for himself. He was guided by our  reserve caretakers Luis and Fausto Recalde, who are also co-authors with Dr Vazquez on the scientific papers describing the new Magnolias.


Joachim Gratzfeld photographing plants in the reserve. Photo: Fausto Recalde/EcoMinga.


Fausto Recalde with rotten magnolia buds. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.


These Magnolia species, like many other neotropical Magnolias, have flowers that open briefly at night and then close before dawn, trapping their pollinator inside. The next night, the flower opens again and releases its pollinator, now thoroughly covered in pollen. This secret drama unfolds each night in the top of the forest canopy, unseen by human eyes. The only way a visitor can see the process is for someone to climb the trees and bring down some ready-to-open buds. These can be kept in water and will open the following night if they are mature enough.


The buds of Magnolia llanganatensis high in the canopy. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.


Luis and Fausto are expert tree climbers, and were able to climb our giant trees to bring Joachim some buds of each species. (By the way, our grant from BGCI is for buying static climbing rope and harnesses to set up a safe system, so that anyone can reach the canopy of these magnolias and work on their pollination and propagation. We will deploy this system in late December.)


Luis and Fausto Recalde examining the crown of a tree with their camera zoom. The gold tubes attach together and have clippers at their tip, which can be pulled closed by a string. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.


Luis Recalde climbing a magnolia. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.


Luis Recalde (right) and Fausto Recalde studying magnolia buds. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.


Magnolia vargasiana bud starts to open. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.


As the flower opens it frees its trapped pollinators, such as the flea beetle at the base of this flower. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.


Magnolia vargasiana  opening. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.


Magnolia vargasiana fully open. Only a handful of humans have ever seen this. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

A trip to the Rio Zunac Reserve always has surprises in store, no matter what a visitor comes for. Joachim’s visit was no exception. He  had to climb some gentle mountains to reach the Magnolias, and at his highest point he had reached a poorly-known forest where other trees besides the Magnolias were newly-discovered or, in a few cases, still unknown to science. By chance Joachim came across a tree with large intense wine-purple flowers in the genus Meriania, a member of the large and important family known to botanists as the Melastomataceae. We had first seen this species a few years ago in the same area, and I sent pictures to experts but no one could identify it. There was also another species in the same genus, Meriania, which David Neill and I had discovered in this same forest fourteen years ago. This was Meriania aurata, one of the most spectacular trees in the world, which I have written about before.


Meriania aurata. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

In addition to exciting trees, Joachim visited our Black-and-chestnut Eagle (Spizaetus isidori) nest and saw the baby, nearly ready to leave the nest.


Black-and-chestnut Eagle adult and young at their nest in the reserve. Photo: Fausto Recalde/EcoMinga.

There were lots of other birds, and many species came to feed on the fruits of some melastomes that the guards had planted around our cabin and in old pastures:


Immature male Green-and-black Fruiteater eating melastome berries. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga


Golden Tanager eating melastome berries. The guards planted these melastomes here to attract birds. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.


Golden-winged Manakin, rarely seen in the reserve. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

Joachim found an unusual fern, Ophioglossum palmatum. It makes big rubbery hand-shaped leaves that look nothing like a typical fern, with club-shaped spore-bearing structures growing from the leaf margins. This fern is very seldom encountered here, but it has a very wide distribution that even reaches into southern Florida in the US.


The weird fern Ophioglossum palmatum. Note the spore-bearing finger-like projections where the leaf tapers into its stem. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.


The forest interior. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation.

More cat food

The last two posts (here, and here) have been devoted to camera trap videos taken in a single spot in our Dracula Reserve. It is amazing to see how much life there is in just this one spot. Here are a few more animals, near the bottom of the food chain: a Sickle-winged Guan (Chamaepetes goudotii) and a rodent. This is  the same spot where the camera filmed puma and jaguarundi. And nearby we’ve filmed ocelots as well.  The smaller animals shown here are potential prey for all these cats, though probably the jaguarundi and ocelot would be more interested than the puma.

As if the cats weren’t enough for the guan to worry about, the Black-and-chestnut Eagle (Spizaetus isidori) also hunts guans regularly. In our Rio Zunac Reserve we’ve observed that the eagle feeds its young almost exclusively on guans.


Balck-and-chestnut Eagle photographed by Roger Ahlman near what is now the Dracula Reserve, Carchi, Ecuador. Used with Roger’s kind permission.


Photo by Mark Wilson of our Rio Zunac Black-and-chestnut Eagle bringing a piece of a guan to its nestling.


We have a report of an ocelot eating a Black-and-chestnut Eagle in the Banos area, so even this can be cat food!
Camera trap set up by Javier Robayo, Juan Pablo Reyes, and  Hector Yela. Camera courtesy University of Basel Botanical Garden.

Lou Jost
EcoMinga Foundation


Second trip to our Rio Machay Reserve: Orchids, magnolias, tortoise beetles, and toxic trees

Chrysomelid beetle feet in action.  Video: Lou Jost

Chrysomelid beetle feet in action. Video: Lou Jost

A few weeks ago I visited the east ridge of our new Rio Machay Reserve, and found lots of interesting things. I also seemed to get through the visit without touching any Toxicondendron trees (same genus as poison ivy but more virulent), which had caused grave problems to my students and I a decade ago. Encouraged by this, I visited again last week, to search for new Magnolia species and interesting, biogeographically-informative orchids.

I picked a perfect almost-rainless day. The forest was beautiful in the sun, with lots of butterflies and other insects. Right at the start, at about 1600m, I found another beautiful chrysomelid beetle from the tribe Cassidini, a “tortoise beetle” similar to the fancy species I wrote about recently (“An insect that uses its own feces to build a statue of an insect or spider on its back”). This one had a more colorful pattern, which had no obvious function.

The beetle's back pattern. Note the transparent sections of its shell. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The beetle’s back pattern. Note the transparent sections of its shell. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The feet of these Cassidinae beetles are very unusual, with mop-like pads of long oily flattened hairs that stick tightly to even the smoothest surface. When the beetle feels threatened, it sticks tightly to its leaf with these fancy feet, and pulls its shell tight against the leaf surface. The shell extends beyond the feet so there is no place to get a grip on this slippery dome. It can hang on against a force 100 times greater than its body weight.

I’ve been wondering how the beetle detaches the sticky feet from the surface when it wants to walk. From looking at the feet of the previous species, I inferred that the two long claws between the pads could act as a lever to separate the pads from the leaf surface. However, I made that inference based on microscopic observations of the dead beetle’s claws. This new beetle gave me the chance to observe the feet in action.

First I made some microphotos of the feet. The beetle sometimes stood still long enough to take the several hundred photos required to make each final image, though this required a lot of luck and patience. These feet had bigger secondary pads than those of the other species. Then I made a couple of videos of the feet in action. They are too big to include here, but I include a small reduced gif above, and I may put an additional one in a separate post, to keep this post from getting too heavy.

The full-sized video clearly shows that my earlier inference was wrong. The claws aren’t being used as a lever, at least not in the way that I imagined. The feet also pivot freely at times, as if the pads are not always sticky, though sliding might be easy since the surface tension isn’t broken (it is easy to slide a wet piece of glass over another piece of glass, but hard to pull them apart). Some articles had suggested that the beetle can produce the sticky liquid quickly when needed, and that the pads were normally not so sticky. Other people were skeptical of this, and the permanently-wet pads of the other species I photographed suggested that they were always sticky. I still don’t really know.

A miniature woodpecker, Lafresnaye's Piculet, just 9 cm long, smaller than some cigarettes! Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A miniature woodpecker, Lafresnaye’s Piculet, just 9 cm long, smaller than some cigarettes! Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Also early in my climb I saw a pair of adorable Lafresnaye’s Piculets, tiny little woodpeckers that specialize in pecking the thin terminal twigs of branches where bigger woodpeckers can’t go.

This orchid, Sphyrastylis dalstromii, has unusual leaves and flowers. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This orchid, Sphyrastylis dalstromii, has unusual leaves and flowers. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

An unusual orchid, Sphyrostylis dalstromii, first discovered by my friend Stig Dalstrom, hung down from a trunk on the side of the trail. These plants have iris-like dagger-shaped leaves and the stem grows continuously from its tip, unlike most New World orchids which make successive short growths from a rhizome.

Later in my climb to the magnolia trees we’d recently discovered, I found one of the most spectacular Pleurothallis orchids in the world, P. (Elongatia) excelsa. I’d only seen this once before in my life. Most species in this artificial genus have tiny, dull flowers. John Jearrard writes this about the genus: “There is a strange fascination to Pleurothallis which are some of the dullest flowering plants imaginable. There are hundreds of them, actually more than 1000 at present but the number varies as more are found. The number reduces every time a botanist decides that a group aren’t really dull enough to belong, and shunts them off into a new genus. They are confusing, they are dull and they are fascinating.”

This species breaks all the rules of this group of orchids. It is huge, imposing, and spectacular. The plant is several feet tall and the pendant flower stalk is also several feet long. The flowers are enormous compared to the usual species. This plant was apparently not known from Ecuador until I found it here in the 1990’s. It was a real pleasure to see it again. (In a future post I might talk about its proper generic classification, which turns out to be very complicated. I think it is best placed in Elongatia, not Stelis, and certainly not Pleurothallis in any sense of that genus. See my article here for an introduction to problems of the old genus Pleurothallis, and see Wilson et al and Karremans for more technical discussion on the position of this species and its close relatives like “P.” restrepiodes.)

Click here to enlarge.  The mysterious Magnolia tree I found here. I cleared out some of the bamboo which was beginning to overtake it. Some day we may see it flower so we can figure out what it is. Meanwhile we will include it in the laboratory Magnolia propagation project we are doing in collaboration with the Jardin Botanico de Quito and the Universidad Estatal Amazonica, financed by a grant from Botanical Gardens Conservation International. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Click here to enlarge. The mysterious Magnolia tree I found here. I cleared out some of the bamboo which was beginning to overtake it. Some day we may see it flower so we can figure out what it is. Meanwhile we will include it in the laboratory Magnolia propagation project we are doing in collaboration with the Jardin Botanico de Quito and the Universidad Estatal Amazonica, financed by a grant from Botanical Gardens Conservation International. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Above that, at 2200m, I found a couple more of the giant-leaved mystery Magnolia trees I had come for. These have much bigger and more tapering leaves than the adult plants of our two new species of Magnolias from our nearby Rio Zunac Reserve. I strongly suspect they are different species, and hence probably new to science. [Note added April 30: Dr Antonio Vazquez, magnolia expert, and Eduardo Calderon, who has grown many Colombian magnolia species from seed, both say that juvenile magnolia trees often have much bigger leaves than adults, so I now think these forms are probably juveniles of the smaller-leaved species that Juan Pablo Reyes and our caretakers found on their visit here a few weeks ago. That may or may not be M. vargasiana, one of the new species from the Rio Zunac Reserve.] However w We do not know the juveniles of the new Magnolia species from the Rio Zunac, so we cannot rule out the possibility that one of those species has giant leaves when the tree is young. I could find no flowers, which would have settled the issue.

On my way down I was accosted by two Black-billed Mountain-Toucans (Andigena nigrirostris). These big toucans are always brave and curious in wild areas where nobody goes. These two came very close at eye level, rattling their beaks at me. But they were moving around too fast for good pictures. I got a few shots of one of them behind a tree. I include a better picture recently taken by Fausto Recalde in one of our other reserves. The Andigena toucans are among the most beautiful of the world’s toucans; besides this species, we are lucky to have two others in our reserves.

It was a wonderful day, but the next day I felt sick. The day after, I felt worse, and saw why. My right arm and the right side of my face was covered with a red rash. By the third day my right eye was swelling shut. I knew immediately what was wrong…

This time the toxic tree Toxicodendron, whose local name is "alubillo", got me again. This is the earliest stage. If left untreated my whole body would be covered with bursting yellow pustules in a week or two....Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This time the toxic tree Toxicodendron, whose local name is “alubillo”, got me again. This is the earliest stage. If left untreated my whole body would be covered with bursting yellow pustules in a week or two….Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

In my post from last week about this trail, I wrote “From 1996 to about 2004 I spent a lot of time exploring the western arm of the horseshoe, but only visited the eastern arm once or twice. A poisonous tree called Toxicodendron (same genus as American poison ivy) is common near the beginning of the trail up the eastern arm, and I developed a nasty allergy to it. A week after my last trip there (2004?), my eyes were swollen shut and yellow liquid dripped from my earlobes, and I nearly clawed my skin off from itching…. Since then I thought it best to avoid that ridge.”

I did not have problems after my trip two weeks ago. but this time, in spite of my care, I had apparently brushed against the dreaded Toxicodendron tree known here as Alubillo, which I had worried about in my earlier post. I knew that by next week, my whole body would be covered with this rash, and by the week after that, my eyes would be swollen shut and yellow liquid would be dripping from my ears. I don’t know what would happen after that— by the fourth week I had found a doctor who knew the cure (after many stupid doctors who prescribed nonsense). So I have now begun taking that cure, prednisone, and already I am better. (Added note: My friends who are reading this, please don’t worry about me, this is a common routine for me…)

[AApril 30: Photos of the Toxicodendron added below. Note to self: Learn to avoid!!]

Lou Jost
EcoMinga Foundation