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.

Lou Jost/EcoMinga

Our volcano re-awakens, nice fireworks!

Our volcano, Volcan Tungurahua, re-awakened two days ago after a long period of inactivity. Nothing to worry about, but some nice displays! There was only about one hour of warning signs (small earth tremors) prior to the eruption, which sent ash clouds 7 km up into the sky. I didn’t have the chance to take pictures, so I include one from the Instituto Geofisico which monitors the volcano.

Volcan Tungurahua erupting Feb 26, 2016. Photo: Francisco Vasconez, Instituto Geofisico.

Volcan Tungurahua erupting Feb 26, 2016. Click to enlarge! Photo: Francisco Vasconez, Instituto Geofisico.

For more information visit the Instituto Geofisico website.

Past Volcan Tungurahua posts:
https://ecomingafoundation.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/earth-shaking/
https://ecomingafoundation.wordpress.com/2013/07/23/tungurahua-exploding-as-seen-from-space/
https://ecomingafoundation.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/terrifying-beauty-once-again/

Lou Jost

Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second-largest dormant volcano, comes back to life!

Cotopaxi asleep. Photo: Wikipedia, (c) gerardprins.com

Cotopaxi asleep. Photo: Wikipedia, (c) gerardprins.com

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3199888/One-world-s-dangerous-volcanoes-erupts-Ecuador-state-emergency-declared-hundreds-evacuated.html

The 18th century explorer Alexander von Humboldt called Cotopaxi “the most beautiful and perfect volcano” in the world, and so it is. Its glacier-covered cone rises above the high Andean plateau to 5897m, the second-highest peak in Ecuador. It has erupted periodically throughout recorded history, repeatedly damaging nearby cities like Latacunga, which has been rebuilt at least twice. The eruptions send hot clouds of ash and steam down its valleys: these have sometimes reached the outskirts of Quito and even entered our own Rio Pastaza.

Click to enlarge. Frederic Church, the famous Hudson River painter, visited South America in 1853 and painted an eruption of Cotopaxi. The painter may have actually witnessed Cotopaxi's 1853 eruption, but more likely he based this painting on his observations of an eruption of Sangay, a very similar Ecuadorian volcano.

Frederic Church, the famous Hudson River painter, visited South America in 1853 and painted an eruption of Cotopaxi. He may have witnessed the 1853 eruption, but more likely he based this painting on his observations of the eruptions of Volcan Sangay, in southern Ecuador.

There were major eruptions in the 1740s, 1768, 1853, 1877, 1880, and 1903-4 (and much larger ones in the geologically recent past). Edward Whymper, British mountaineer who climbed Cotopaxi and then made the first ascent of the even-taller Chimborazo in 1880, had the incredible luck of witnessing Cotopaxi explode while he was near Chimborazo’s summit (luckily this happened after he had gotten off Cotopaxi!):

“On July 3, 1880, I was engaged in an ascent of Chimborazo, and was encamped on its western side at 15,800 feet above the sea. The morning was fine…we saw to our north the great peak of Illiniza and 20 miles to its east the great peak of Cotopaxi, both without a cloud around them, and the latter without any smoke issuing from its crater – a most unusual circumstance; indeed, this was the only occasion on which we noticed the crater free from smoke during the whole of our stay in Ecuador. …At 5:45 A.M. a column of smoke of inky blackness began to rise from the crater. It went straight in the air, rapidly curling, with prodigious velocity, and in less than a minute had risen 20,000 feet above the rim of the crater. …”

“We knew that we saw from our station the upper 10,000 feet of the volcano, and I estimated the height of the column of smoke at double the height of the portion seen of the mountain. The top of the column was therefore nearly 40,000 feet above the sea. At that elevation it encountered a powerful wind blowing from the east, and was rapidly borne for 20 miles toward the Pacific, seeming to spread very slightly and remaining of inky blackness, presenting the appearance of a gigantic inverted L, drawn upon an otherwise perfectly clear sky. It was then caught by a wind blowing from the north, and was borne toward us, and appeared to spread rapidly in all directions. As this cloud came nearer and nearer, so, of course, it seemed to rise higher and higher in the sky, although it was actually descending. Several hours passed before the ash commenced to intervene between the sun and ourselfes, and when it did so we witnessed effects which simply amazed us. We saw a green sun, and such a green as we have never, either before or since, seen in the heavens. We saw patches or smears of something like verdigris green in the sky; and they changed to equally extreme blood-reds, or to coarse brick-dust reds, and they in an instant passed to the color of tarnished copper or shining brass. Had we not known that these effects were due to the passage of the ash, we might well have been filled with dread instead of amazement; for no words can convey the faintest idea of the impressive appearance of these strange colors in the sky, seen one minute and gone the next, resembling nothing to which they can be properly compared, and surpassing in vivid intensity the wildest effects of the most gorgeous sunsets.”

“The ash commenced to pass overhead at about mid-day. It had travelled (including its detour to the west) eighty-five miles in a little more than six hours. At 1.30 it commenced to fall on the summit of Chimborazo, and, before we began to descend, it caused the snowy summit to look like a ploughed field. The ash was extraordinarily fine, as you will perceive by the sample I send you. It filled our eyes and nostrils, rendered eating and drinking impossible, and reduced us to breathing through handkerchiefs. It penetrated everywhere, got into the working-parts of instruments and into locked boxes. The barometer employed on the summit was coated with it, and so remains until this day. That which ssed beyond Us must have been finer still. It travelled far to our south, and also fell heavily upon ships on the Pacific. I find that the finer particles do not weigh the twenty-five thousandth part of a grain, and the finest atoms are lighter still. By the time we returned to our encampment, the grosser particles had fallen below our level, and were settling down into the valley of the Chimbo, the bottom of which was 7,000 feet beneath us, causing it to appear as if filled with thick smoke. The finer ones were still floating in the air, like a light fog, and so continued until night closed in.”

“In conclusion, I would say that the terms which I have employed to designate the colors which were seen are both inadequate and inexact. The most striking features of the colors which were displayed were their extraordinary strength, their extreme coarseness, and their dissimilarity from any tints or tones ever seen in the sky, even during sunrises and sunsets of exceptional brilliancy. They were unlike colors for which there are recognized terms. They commenced to be seen when the ash began to pass between the sun and ourselves, and were not seen previously. The changes from one hue to another, to which I have alluded, had obvious connection with the varying densities of the clouds of ash that passed; which, when they approached us, spread irregularly, and were sometimes thick and sometimes light. No colors were seen after the clouds of ash passed over-head and surrounded us on all sides.”

“I photographed my party on the summit of Chimborazo whilst the ash was commencing to fall, blackening the snow-furrows; and, although the negative is as bad as might be expected, it forms an interesting souvenir of a remarkable occasion. ” (Whymper, E. 1884. Coloured sky observed during eruption of Cotopaxi. Nature, 29: 199-200.) Whymper estimated that over 2 million tons of debris were ejected during this eruption.

It had been silent for 70 years, and I did not think I would see an eruption in my lifetime. But yesterday and the day before, it came back to life. The explosions so far are regarded, even though the ash cloud rose many kilometers into the sky. A massive eruption may be on its way, and this would be devastating for the cities around Cotopaxi, though it might give us the chance to see Whymper’s extraordinary sky colors for ourselves.

Lou Jost

Terrifying beauty once again

An hour or so after the main explosion. The setting sun and thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide gas turn the vapor clouds yellow-orange, while the thick ash clouds remain black. Photo: Lou Jost

An hour or so after the main explosion. The setting sun and thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide gas turn the vapor clouds yellow-orange, while the thick ash clouds remain black. Photo: Lou Jost

A month ago today our volcano, Tungurahua, exploded with so much energy the debris reached 47,000 ft into the sky. It was one of the most magnificent events in its recent history. And unlike the July event, which was invisible to us because of low clouds, this eruption pierced a crystal blue sky, near sunset. Everything came together to make this one of the most beautiful yet terrifying scenes imaginable.

The first moments of the blast. The ground shook below me as I took this. Photo: Lou Jost

The first moments of the blast. The ground shook below me as I took this. Photo: Lou Jost

The ash cloud from this eruption was especially thick. It fell as far away as Quito a hundred miles to the north, and Cuenca several hundred miles to the south, closing the Cuenca airport. Our reserves once again received only a light dusting of ash, as most of it flew high above our heads. I watched from my house five miles from the crater, and got no ash at all. Juan Pablo Reyes, our reserve manager, was on the next mountain to the east, Chamana, where we have a small reserve, and where he has his own property (which he also runs as a reserve). From there he witnessed the glowing mouth of the volcano as the sun set.

From the Chamana ridge just east of the volcano, the lava still glows as night falls. Photo: Juan Pablo Reyes.

From the Chamana ridge just east of the volcano, the lava still glows as night falls. Photo: Juan Pablo Reyes.

Spectacular though it was from the perspective of a singe human lifetime, this eruption was just a burp, from a geological perspective. At least twice in geological history this volcano has completely self-destructed: once about 3000 years ago, and once about 75000 years ago. Such massive eruptions would have destroyed all life on the upper parts of the volcano, probably down to 2500-3000m (the current volcano summit is at 5020m). Since evolution takes longer than that to make a new species, we’d expect there should not be species of plants strictly endemic to the high parts of the volcano. Nevertheless a few new species had been discovered there. One, discovered in 1984 by Alex Hirtz, was named after the volcano: Lepanthes tungurahuae. As expected, I eventually found it at high elevations on many of the surrounding mountains, and even much farther away.

Lepanthes tungurahuae was discovered on the lower slopes of Tungurahua volcano, but that population would have been periodically wiped out by eruptions. I found that it actually had a much wider distribution. Photo: Lou Jost.

Lepanthes tungurahuae was discovered on the lower slopes of Tungurahua volcano, but that population would have been periodically wiped out by eruptions. I found that it actually had a much wider distribution. Photo: Lou Jost.

These infrared and visible-light photos of the eruption were taken by the Instituto Geofisico of the Escuela Politecnica Nacional from their monitoring station in Guadalupe, near Banos. The upper part of the volcano was essentially sterilized by the heat. Photo: IGEPN.

These infrared and visible-light photos of the eruption were taken by the Instituto Geofisico of the Escuela Politecnica Nacional from their monitoring station in Guadalupe, near Banos. The upper part of the volcano was essentially sterilized by the heat. Photo: IGEPN.

Geology and history often limit the possibility of strict endemism in the high parts of these mountains. Not only volcanic eruptions but also climate change can push incipient new species off these mountains. The layered, datable pollen record at the bottom of Andean lakes (such as Laguna Yaguarcocha in northern Ecuador) shows in detail how vegetative zones moved up and down these mountains in the recent past, by as much as 500-1000 meters. Species that require high elevations would be eliminated from the peaks of the highest mountains during warm times (one such warm period occurred just 2000 years ago). On the other hand, species from slightly lower elevations would be able to spread off a single peak and reach neighboring peaks during the cold periods, as vegetation bands lowered and patches of cold-loving montane forests coalesced at less-fragmented lower elevations. All of these processes, and more, affect the distribution of endemic species in today’s forests. We are trying to sort them out by looking closely at the evolutionary radiations of species endemic to our area. I’ll write more about this in later posts.

Archaeology or Geology?

The wall, looking down and to the right. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The wall, looking down and to the right. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A small well-hidden canyon between our Rio Zunac reserve and the Banos-Puyo highway has caught the attention of the world press over the last month. For example a UK tabloid, the Telegraph, wrote:

Explorers hot on the trail of Atahualpa and the Treasure of the Llanganates

It sounds like a plot from an Indiana Jones film, but explorers claim to have found ruins hidden deep in a dense and dangerous Amazonian jungle that could solve many of South America’s mysteries – and lead to one of the world’s most sought-after treasures.

The multinational team, including Britons, has located the site in a remote region in central Ecuador which it believes could represent one of the great archaeological discoveries.

They have already unearthed a 260ft tall by 260ft wide structure, made up of hundreds of two-ton stone blocks, and believe there could be more, similar constructions over an area of about a square mile.

Investigations of the site, in the Andes mountain range, are at an early stage and theories as to what it contains vary…

“This could be one of the biggest archaeological discoveries ever,” he [Benoit Duverneuil] said. “It would be huge. We just don’t have structures of this type and size in this part of the world. But we are some way from declaring that yet.

“It looks like a paved wall, an ancient street or plaza with a 60 degrees angle, perhaps the roof of a larger structure. Many of the stones were perfectly aligned, have sharp edges and seemed to have been sculpted by human hands. But there is still a chance that this could be a very unusual natural rock formation.”

The upper third of the mysterious wall, looking to the left. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The upper third of the mysterious wall, looking to the left. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

National Ecuadorian TV stations were quickly drawn to the discovery:

and now the world is buzzing about it.

This attention was inspired by some videos of the site uploaded to YouTube by local residents:

So, how much of this is real? Is it man-made or natural? And is it connected to the lost treasure of Atahualpa? Odd questions for a botanist like me to try to answer, but botany and botanists have been strangely intertwined with this story for more than two centuries.

The wall, looking to the right. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The wall, looking to the right. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The story begins when Atahualpa, the last ruler of the Incas, was kidnapped by Spanish conquistadors under Pizarro, and held for ransom in Cajamarca, Peru. As ransom the Spaniards demanded that the Incas fill rooms with gold and silver, in return for Atahualpa’s life. The Incas began bringing gold from across the empire, including what is now Quito. The Incas complied with the Spanish demands, but the Spaniards killed Atahualpa anyway. When word spread of his murder, Incas en route to Cajamarca with gold from Quito supposedly decided to hide it in the Llanganates mountains here, just north of Banos.

This story might have remained just one more silly South American buried treasure legend, if not for the Scottish botanist Richard Spruce. Spruce, one of my idols, crossed South America from Atlantic coast of Brazil to the Pacific coast of Ecuador on a voyage of botanical discovery from 1849 to 1864. He constantly risked his life in search of plants, and had many hair-raising adventures. He was South America’s first ethnobotanist, describing for the first time the plants used by various Amazonian tribes, such as the hallucinogenic species used by shamans, and the toxic species used as ingredients in poisons. He also recorded the vocabularies of 21 indigenous Amazonian languages. He discovered large numbers of new species of plants, including 400 species of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts, which were his specialty).

Lepanthes spruceana, an orchid I discovered in our Rio Zunac Reserve and named in honor of heroic botanist Richard Spruce. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes spruceana, an orchid I discovered in our Rio Zunac Reserve and named in honor of heroic botanist Richard Spruce. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

In 1857 he spent six months living in my town, Banos, exploring the surrounding mountains. Some of the plants he discovered here had not been seen since his time, and over the years my friends and I have worked to rediscover these lost species, sometimes successfully. That’s a tangent to this story, though. Some day I’ll write a separate series of posts about tracking down Spruce’s lost plants, but for now let’s stick to the treasure legend.

While Spruce was here in Banos, he heard constant rumors that the lost treasure of the northern Inca empire — hundreds of tons of gold figures and ornaments — was buried in the Llanganates mountains north of Banos. He dug deeper into these rumors, and eventually discovered a remarkable document which had been sent to Ecuador from the king of Spain. This document carefully described the location of the Inca treasure. According to Spruce and information on the document, it was written by a Spaniard named Valverde. Valverde had lived in Ecuador and supposedly learned the treasure’s location from his Indian wife’s family. Valverde eventually returned to Spain. On his deathbed he wrote the directions to the treasure and sent it to the king. The king supposedly sent it to Ecuador along with two officials (an administrator, Sr. Pastor, and a priest, Padre Longo), with orders that they should look for it. They followed the instructions, but as they closed in on the treasure location, Padre Longo died under mysterious circumstances, the expedition was abandoned, and Valverde’s guide was deposited in the public archives of Latacunga (a large city northwest of Banos).

Spruce was convinced the document was genuine, and botanical evidence unknown to Spruce confirms his confidence in it. At one point, the description of the route to the treasure speaks of a conspicuous patch of “white-leaved trees” called sangurimas in Quichua (the Inca language). Spruce wrote that he did not know what this tree could be, though he was able to identify the other plant species mentioned in the document. He speculated that the white-leaved tree was a high-elevation Cecropia. However, the Cecropia has a different local name (“guarumo”), and is not a conspicuous element of the high Llanganates flora. Nowadays anyone can look on the internet to learn what “sangurima” means and solve Spruce’s dilemma. According to the Dictionary of Trees, Vol. 2, p. 234, the only Ecuadorian tree known as “sangurima” is Espeletia pycnophylla ssp. llanganatensis, a tall tree-like member of the daisy family with bright white leaves which grows only in a few large colonies in certain very remote parts of the Llanganates. This plant was only discovered in the Llanganates (by Luciano Andrade Marin, a treasure hunter following the Valverde guide) in 1939! Previous to 1939, it was believed that this genus Espeletia occurred only in extreme northern Ecuador. This botanical prescience doesn’t prove that there was a treasure, but it does confirm that Valverde was intimately familiar (either personally or by word-of-mouth) with the deepest parts of the Llanganates, including places that are very difficult to reach even today.

The Llanganates sangurimas that were mentioned in Valverde's guide to the treasure. They are today better known by their Spanish name "frailejones" (little priests) or their scientific name Espeletia pycnophylla ssp. llanganatensis. Left: They make conspicuous white patches visible from many miles away, excellent landmarks. Right: Closer view. These are the tallest Espeletia in Ecuador. Photo: Robert and Daisy Kunstaetter. Robert is visible in the left photo beneath the tall sangurima.

Click to enlarge. The Llanganates sangurimas that were mentioned in Valverde’s guide to the treasure. They are today better known by their Spanish name “frailejones” (little priests) or their scientific name Espeletia pycnophylla ssp. llanganatensis. Left: They make conspicuous white patches visible from many miles away, excellent landmarks. Right: Closer view. These are the tallest Espeletia in Ecuador. Photo: Robert and Daisy Kunstaetter. Robert is visible in the left photo beneath the tall sangurima.

While Spruce was in Banos he heard about another botanist who had lived in the area many years before, and who had spent much time looking for Valverde’s treasure. Spruce was able to identify the botanist as Anastacio (also spelled Atanasio) Guzman, a contemporary of the great South American explorers Alexander von Humboldt and Aimee Bonpland. Humboldt admired the more than one thousand eight hundred botanical drawings Guzman presented to him, so Carl Kunth, the famous botanist who described Humboldt and Bonpland’s thousands of new plant discoveries, named one of the most striking Ecuadorian paramo flowers after Guzman: Ranunculus guzmanii. A genus of bromeliads, Guzmania, was also named after him by Spanish botanists Ruiz and Pavon. Spruce discovered a map of the Llanganates made by this botanist Guzman, with marked locations related to Valverde’s guide. For example, the map marks the place in the mountains where the priest sent from Spain is supposed to have died, and also marks many old mines in the Llanganates. Spruce published the map of Guzman along with Valverde’s guide to the treasure in the journal of the Royal Geographic Society in 1861 (Vol 31: 163-184).

Guzmania bromeliads in the Llanganates. This genus was named after the botanist and Llanganates treasure hunter Anastacio Guzman. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Guzmania bromeliads in the Llanganates. This genus was named after the botanist and Llanganates treasure hunter Anastacio Guzman. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The co-discoverer of the theory of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace, compiled and edited Spruce’s papers and diaries, publishing them in 1908 as Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and the Andes. Wallace’s Table of Contents gives the flavor of Spruce’s death-defying adventures: “The Indian Chumbi bitten on the wrist by a poisonous snake–terrible effects”, “Canoe in a whirlpool, dog driven mad, had to be shot”, “A dangerous flood”, “On to the Topo–Perilous crossing”, “Effects of Sandstorms” “A severe earthquake” “Revolution” “Troubles from the war” etc. But for the present story, the most interesting chapter is XXVII, “A hidden treasure of the Incas”, based on Spruce’s Royal Geographic Society paper. Wallace writes in the introduction to the chapter “The following narrative forms one of the most curious pieces of genuine history in connection with the never-ceasing search for buried treasure in the land of the Incas…” That’s an understatement!

People from around the world have been looking for the treasure ever since. I’ve encountered many of them, in the Llanganates, in Quito discotecas, in taxis, and on the streets of Banos. Some meetings are accidental. Once I was in the Llanganates training a group of Ecuadorian Special Forces cadets when, in the middle of this vast wilderness, we ran into Roland Glaser, a German immigrant who has spent most of his life hunting for the treasure. Once a woman in a bar told me she had been married to a well-known Canadian Llanganates treasure hunter, and said they had once found was a small golden piece of jewelry in a lake there. Other times I’ve been contacted by aficionados of the treasure story because of my Spruce research. In the late 1990s I was invited to participate in a US television documentary (Bill Kurtis’ New Explorers series on A&E)on the treasure. The crew had brought an airplane fitted with ground-penetrating radar to help look for it! My job was to talk about Spruce, and through this I met Diego Arias, who had made 40 expeditions to the Llanganates to look for the treasure. He told me that the only thing he ever found was a random gold figure lying on the surface when he went to take a piss in the bushes.

Most of these life-long treasure hunters, including Roland, Diego, and even the ex-wife of the Canadian, had developed a deep love for the Llanganates, with or without its treasure. Diego had even begun to seriously study the flora, discovering a dramatic new orchid, Epidendrum ariasii, which I recently found also on our Cerro Candelaria Reserve. Diego’s Fundacion Llanganati had been one of the first to push for government protection of these mountains (which are now a national park). Unfortunately Diego, after all his risky escapades in the Llanganates, was killed in a car accident two weeks after we filmed the documentary. To honor his passion for the Llanganates, I named another new Llanganates orchid after him, Lepanthes (now Neooreophilus) ariasiana.

Epidendrum ariasii, discovered by and named after the late treasure hunter Diego Arias. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Epidendrum ariasii, discovered by and named after the late treasure hunter Diego Arias. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

With all this historical background, it is easy to see why Banos residents and international adventurers alike would get excited by new archaeological findings like the ones reported in last month’s Telegraph article. However, even that sensational article did mention that there was a chance the rocks were a natural formation. Are they?

Contrary to the Telegraph story, the site had actually been known to a few people since at least 1997. In that year my friend Olivier Currat, co-owner of the Luna Runtun Hotel in Banos, visited and photographed the site with a local guide. In about 2003 he showed me the photographs. They looked amazing! Olivier and I tried to re-find the site (the original guide had emigrated to Spain) but we could not. I had just finished helping a British author, Mark Honigsbaum, with his research on Spruce and the Llanganates treasure, so with Olivier’s permission I sent the photos to Honigsbaum for publication in his book, Valverde’s Gold (2004), as a potentially relevant part of the story. Mark did include one photo in the book. I also sent the photos to my geologist friend Mark Thurber, and asked his opinion about it. Thurber told me that though he could not be sure from the pictures, it seemed like a natural rock formation to him. With that, I put it out of my mind.

Then a few months ago came all these new stories about the site. Finally last week I was able to visit it, guided by Manuel Barriga. Our group included government archaeologists and geologists, sent by the President of Ecuador to determine the nature of the site. To be honest, I was not sure what to think about what I saw. It does not look like closely-fitting Inca stonework. It is an odd-looking canyon wall, not in any sense a “pyramid” as some of the news reports have called it. Similar rectangularly-fractured rocks are found on the opposite side of the canyon, and in the nearby river. Particularly informative for me was the little set of fractured rocks in the following photo. This was below the wall, near a streambed. The fractures create the same sort of pattern seen on a larger scale in the wall, but here we can see that it is a single rock on the right, splitting into fragments on the left. This implies the formation is natural in spite of appearances. The two government geologists also were sure that the site was natural.

A miniature example of rectangular fractures in the same shapes as those found on the wall. Note the rock appears to be a single body at lower right, and has successively deeper, more rounded rectangular fractures towards the upper left. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A miniature example of rectangular fractures in the same shapes as those found on the wall. Note the rock appears to be a single body at lower right, and has successively deeper, more rounded rectangular fractures towards the upper left. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

To my untrained eye, the rocks in the upper third of the structure do seem too regular to be natural, but I am not a geologist. There do seem to be purposely-carved handholds and footholds on the wall (already noticed by Olivier Currat in his 1997 trip). There are also many Inca and pre-Inca artifacts in the immediate area, including finely made stone axe heads, and ceramic pottery. There is even what appears to be a stone Inca road, recently uncovered by my friends Robert and Daisy Kunstaetter about 2 km from the site. Note added later: they took me to it and it proved to be a recently-made stone road segment about 50 years old, built in conjunction with clandestine alcohol stills.

So is it man-made? Perhaps this is not an either-or question. Even if it were completely natural, I would think the Incas would be as impressed with it, and as puzzled by it, as we are today. I can easily imagine they might treat it as a sacred site, or even a tourist attraction, perhaps thinking it was made by their ancestors, or by their gods. They might have carved handholds in it. I did not look closely enough at these to make any judgement about them. In any case, its connection to the treasure legend is entirely speculative.

EcoMinga's Juan Pablo Reyes examines a cross-section of the wall. The stones are very thick. Photo:Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

EcoMinga’s Juan Pablo Reyes examines a cross-section of the wall. The stones are very thick. Photo:Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

We had very little time to spend at the site, as the rivers we had to cross were rapidly rising due to rain. I’ll go back soon for a more careful look, and I look forward to hearing the official report from the government scientists.

Note added Jan 15: I have heard second-hand that the government archaeologists who also visited the site with us agree with the geologists that it is a natural rock formation.

Note added Dec 2014: The government report has been out for some time. It can be read at
http://issuu.com/elmoxavier/docs/llanganates/3?e=0/6688310
It concludes the the formation is natural. Thanks to Oscar Valenzuela for bringing this report to my attention.

In addition Paul Heinrich, a geologist associated with the Louisiana State University, wrote me to explain this type of formation, which is an example of “tessellated pavement”. I can send the technical papers to anyone who requests them. It may be hard to believe, but these kinds of perfectly rectangular rock formations are a product of stresses in rock, and can be reproduced in models. If anyone doubts that these formations (including the “mortar”) are natural, just look up “tessellated pavement” in Google and view the images that appear.

Here are some spectacular natural examples:
Tasmania 1
Tasmania 2
Tasmania 3
Tasmania 4
Tasmania 5
Tasmania 6
Tasmania 7

Also, farther downstream in the Rio Tigre, it is possible to see all sorts of transitional formations between the regular rectangular ones and deformed, irregular rock formations, making it very clear that these are natural.

Lou Jost
http://www.loujost.com
http://www.ecominga.com

Some additional resources for the Llanganates treasure story:

http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/archaeology/lost-inca-gold/

Llanganati by Jorge Anhalzer (Spanish)