Family visit

Last week two of my brave family members from the US visited some of EcoMinga’s reserves with me.  My sister Lorie Koessl and my brother Brad’s 17-year-old daughter Saige Jost are both nature-lovers and hikers, so they were perfect companions. Here are some of the things we saw in and around our reserves in six days of hiking.

Mammal encounters are rare here. Usually we only see them in our camera trap videos, or we find their tracks or scat. But on our visit to EcoMinga’s Rio Anzu Reserve in the Amazonian foothills, we were sitting on rocks along the river when we heard a strange call,  not quite bird-like….a few seconds later two tayra (Eira barbara) appeared on the opposite bank, jumping from rock to rock. These are relatives of the wolverine and mink, fairly large muscular omnivores that are capable of killing large birds and mid-sized mammals. This was one of the best views I have ever had of them. They were not concerned by our presence. My sister had borrowed one of my cameras for the day and she managed to snap a few pictures of them as they went along.

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Tayra (Eira barbara) on the limestone along the shore of the Rio Anzu. Click on image to enlarge. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

Of course there were many invertebrates in the Rio Anzu Reserve. Here is a colorful grasshopper photographed by Saige on her cell phone:

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Grasshopper. Photo: Saige Jost.

In our Rio Zunac Reserve, we encountered a couple of rodents. One especially cute individual had made a nest in an abandoned cabin that used to belong to our park ranger Fausto Recalde before we bought the land from him:

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Albuja’s Climbing Rat (Rhipidomys albujai). Photo: Lorie Koessl.

Incredibly, this turned out to be a recently discovered new species of mammal,  Albuja’s Climbing Rat (Rhipidomys albujai), that was only described a few months before our visit, by our friend Jorge Brito and coauthors:

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From the Climbing Rat’s cabin Lorie spotted our magnificent pair of Black-and-chestnut Eagles, though they were too far away to photograph. This cabin is just below their former nesting site, but it seems they are not currently nesting there. Perhaps they are still caring for last year’s fledgling.

On a day hike to our Cerro Candelaria and Naturetrek Reserves, we were able to spend time watching the well-named Torrent Duck (Merganetta armata) feeding in a raging whitewater stream that would have quickly killed almost any other bird or mammal.

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Female Torrent Duck resting on a rock in the rapids. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

This is a very distinctive duck appears not to be closely related to the familiar north temperate duck species, but its position in the tree of life is still uncertain.

On the day of the Torrent Duck sighting, our ranger Fausto Recalde brought his 5-year-old daughter Amy along. She was an excellent guide, who found several interesting things that we had not noticed. She was also very playful; she did this controlled falling trick about 20 times in succession, laughing all the while:

Amy Recalde playing.

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A spider (genus Gasteracantha?) along the river of the Torrent Duck. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

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A plant with irritating spines, Nasa (Loasaceae), along the river of the Torrent Duck.

Night hikes are always special in the tropics. We took a night hike during our three-day stay in EcoMinga’s Rio Zunac Reserve, and in the space of less than a half hour we saw a non-stop show of fascinating insects, arachnids, frogs, and sleeping lizards:

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A tropical harvestman (“daddy longlegs” to US readers). Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

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Frog at night. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

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Sleeping lizard. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

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Exuberant antennae. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

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One of many variations on this theme seen during our night walk. Parobrimus sp. (could be Parobrimus horridus) according to a comment below by Yannick. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

There were neat invertebrates during the day too along the Rio Zunac. On our return home we saw these:

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Walking stick. Male Oreophoetes sp (maybe a new species) according to Yannick in the comments below. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

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A water bug. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

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Saige plays with a millipede. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

Some of the invertrebates were less welcome. There was an eruption of biting horseflies in the Zunac Reserve that week, and here are some that we killed while they bit us during a quick dinner:

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Dead horseflies killed as they tried to bite us during dinner. This is about a quarter of the total number we killed during that dinner; most were completely squished….Photo: Lou Jost.

On the same rock wall where we piled the dead horseflies, there was a fascinating construction of waxy tubes made by large black bees:

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This is an open cell under construction. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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This is a sealed cell with larva inside. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

 

Lorie and Saige, thanks for your visit! It was fun to show you EcoMinga’s reserves!

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Myself, Saige, and Lorie at the Pailon Del Diablo waterfall just below EcoMinga’s Naturetrek Reserve. Photo: unknown stranger.

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Approach to Quito’s airport. Photo: Saige Jost.

Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga.

New orchids: Scaphosepalum zieglerae

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Scaphosepalum zieglerae, a new species of orchid discovered in the Dracula Reserve. Photo: Luis Baquero.

Our Dracula Reserve in northwest Ecuador has an exceptionally rich, highly endemic, but poorly known flora which still contains many surprises for biologists. Orchid expert Luis Baquero (Jardin Botanico de Quito, Universidad de Las Americas), has been exploring this region for many years, sponsored in part by the Quito Orchid Society, and he recently discovered several new species in and around our reserve. I’ll feature them in the next few blog posts.

Members of the orchid genus Scaphosepalum have strange flowers that look like the heads of horned animals. There are two upper horns that point sideways, and a lower horn that points forward and upward. These horns are actually extensions of the three sepals, which are more or less united at their bases to form an enclosure for the small but complex lip.

The Dracula Reserve and the surrounding forests are home to many species of Scaphosepalum, some of which are very hard to distinguish because of their natural variability and perhaps some occasional hybridization. Luis has found one ridge that has up to seven species of Scaphosepalum! One of these species turned out to be new to science, and Luis recently published its description in the botanical journal Lankesteriana. He named it Scaphosepalum zieglerae, after Susann Ziegler Annen of Basel, Switzerland, who together with her husband Max have been major supports of our Dracula Reserve project, through the University of Basel Botanical Garden. (The University of Basel Botanical Garden provided the initial funding and support to start this reserve.) The new orchid discovery got national attention.

We are currently raising funds to buy the ridge that contains this and other Scaphosepalum species, along with many other rare orchids. The ridge connects two of our Dracula Reserve units, Cerro Colorado and Cerro Oscuro, and is a rare example of lower-elevation ridge line habitat, most of which has been turned into pastures elsewhere in the region. Donors should contact the Orchid Conservation Alliance; all fund they receive will be matched 1:1 by the Rainforest Trust.

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Another Scaphosepalum species from our Dracula Reserve, S. gibberosum. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

For more info on our Dracula Reserve, please check out this link and search for {EcoMinga  “Dracula Reserve”} and see this link.

Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

Lou Jost/EcoMinga Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dedication to the Spruce bust. From the Bryological Times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before the flood:

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

After the flood:

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

Before the flood:

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

After the flood:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lou Jost/EcoMinga

Visit to our Rio Zunac magnolias

 

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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.

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

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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Luis Recalde climbing a magnolia. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

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

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

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

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Magnolia vargasiana  opening. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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

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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.

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

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The forest interior. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation.