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.

Ladyslippers 2: Conservation

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Phragmipedium fischeri, one of the most endangered plants in Ecuador. Photo: Luis Baquero and Gabriel Iturralde.

As I mentioned in a recent post, ladyslippers as a group are the most endangered of all orchids. More than 37% of the world’s critically endangered orchid species are slipper orchids,  even though they make up less than 2% of orchid species worldwide. Our EcoMinga reserves are fortunate to host at least six slipper orchids in the genus Phragmipedium. Some of these are among the most critically endangered orchids in the world.

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Phragmipedium lindenii near Banos. Photo: Lou Jost.

The most common of our slipper orchids is the one species that doesn’t have a slipper, Phragmipedium lindenii. It grows in drier habitats in some of our Banos-area reserves. A fortunate mutation in the distant past changed the symmetry of the flower, so that instead of two normal petals and a slipper, it has three normal petals. In slipper orchids there is an anther above each normal petal, and in this mutation the third petal also has an anther, which grows straight into the stigma, always fertilizing the flower.

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Phragmipedium pearcei in our Rio Anzu Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost.

Our Phragmipedium pearcei is another widespread slipper orchid. In remote places where people do not strip it, this species forms immense colonies along streams which pass through limestone outcrops at the base of the eastern Andes, on the edge of the Amazon basin. Our Rio Anzu reserve protects several large colonies.

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Phragmipedium pearcei is often underwater. Photo: Lou Jost.

Several slipper orchids are also found in the vicinity of our Dracula Reserve mosaic in northwest Ecuador. Widespread Phragmipedium longifolium can be found on moist roadside cliffs . There is also a more unusual species whose flowers we have not seen yet, but judging from the leaves, it must be a long-petaled species, perhaps the endangered  Phrag. caudatum.

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Phragmipedium longifolium in our Dracula Reserve. Photo: Luis Baquero and Gabriel Iturralde.

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 Phragmipedium caudatum. Photo: Wikipedia.

The species I’ve mentioned so far are fairly widespread, though they are rapidly disappearing as a result of habitat destruction and plant collectors. Much more important for conservation are two slipper orchids which have very limited distributions centered around our Dracula Reserve: Phragmipedium hirtzii and Phragmipedium fischeri.

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Phragmipedium hirtzii. It is easily distinguished from Phragmipedium longifolium by the lack of black “eyelashes” on its staminode (the shield-like green thing covering the entrance to the pouch). Photo: Luis Baquero and Gabriel Iturralde.

Phragmipedium hirtzii is classified as “Endangered” in the IUCN Red List, and is only known from a few sites in extreme southwest Colombia and adjacent extreme northwest Ecuador. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) reports that there are only three sites covering a total of 12 sq. kilometers. It is under heavy pressure by plant collectors. One of the populations is in our target area for expansion of the Dracula Reserve.

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Critically endangered Phragmipedium fischeri in its natural habitat. Photo: Luis Baquero and Gabriel Iturralde.

Phragmipedium fischeri is even more threatened than Phragmipedium hirtzii. It is endemic to a very small area near our existing Dracula Reserve in extreme northwest Ecuador, and nearby southwest Colombia. It is classified by the IUCN as “Critically Endangered,” and they estimate the total area of occupied habitat is only around 4 sq. kilometers. The IUCN estimates there may be fewer than 100 adult individuals, and reports that even this small number is rapidly declining. If this is true, the species is on the brink of extinction and it is among the most endangered plants in Ecuador.

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Fallen Phragmipedium fischeri and Phragmipedium longifolium gathered at the P.  fischeri site. Photo: Luis Baquero and Gabriel Iturralde.

This beautiful orchid urgently needs protection. We are therefore assuming the responsibility to buy and conserve the only known Ecuadorian location for this species. Because of its importance and because increasing demand for the species from collectors, we have taken the unusual step of temporarily securing the property using borrowed money, which we must replace quickly.

The Orchid Conservation Alliance is committed to help us  extend the Dracula Reserve to include this Phragmipedium fischeri site, a Phragmipedium hirtzii site, and additional unusual habitats rich in rare and undescribed orchids and other plants and animals. We urge readers interested in slipper orchids to donate to the Orchid Conservation Alliance for this project. Please make sure you specify “Dracula Reserve” when you contact them– they support many projects, including other projects of ours. Write to tobias@scripps.edu

or send a check to

Peter Tobias, Orchid Conservation Alliance

564 Arden Drive

Encinitas, CA 92024 USA

Thanks!

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation

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Luis Baquero photographing Phragmipedium fischeri in its natural habitat. Photo: Gabriel Iturralde.

List of IUCN Critically Endangered Slipper Orchids: