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 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

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:

Ladyslippers 1: Biology

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Critically endangered Phragmipedium fischeri in northwest Ecuador near our Dracula Reserve. Click this and any other photo to enlarge. Photo: Luis Baquero and Gabriel Iturralde.

The ladyslipper orchids are among the most distinctive and beloved plants in the world. They are an ancient group, diverging from the other orchids while dinosaurs still walked among them. But today their beautiful intricate flowers have been their undoing, as plant collectors combine with habitat destruction drive them to extinction around the world. A  recent effort by Kew Gardens to assess their conservation status worldwide has shown that 79% of the world’s slipper orchid species are either vulnerable or endangered. Though slipper orchids make up less than 2% of all orchid species, they include 37% of all critically endangered orchids.

Slipper orchids are especially vulnerable to overcollection and habitat destruction because most species have specific soil and moisture requirements. Extreme soils with very high or very low pH values are favored, and many species require constant moisture. Habitat for most species is therefore scarce and patchy even in undisturbed areas. It doesn’t take much disturbance to make these populations disappear.

The ladyslippers are instantly recognizable by their pouched flowers. Insects enter the wide mouth of the pouch and then find themselves trapped inside. The inner surfaces of the pouch are mostly smooth but there is usually a ladder made of hairs on itsinside back surface. The insect climbs this ladder, passing under the flower’s stigma and then under one of its anthers in order to escape out one of the two openings at the top of the tube. If the insect is the right size, it rubs against both the stigma and the anther as it escapes, pollinating the flower if the insect already had pollen on its back from another ladyslipper flower. The escape path is clear in this cutaway view of Phragmipedium pearcei, the slipper orchid which grows in our Rio Anzu Reserve.

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Top view of the “slipper” or lip of the ladyslipper orchid Phragmipedium pearcei. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A cross-section view of the "slipper". Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A cross-section view of the “slipper” of Phrag. pearcei. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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Cutaway view of Phrag. hirtzii. Photo: Luis Baquero and Gabriel Iturralde.

Slipper orchids have a wide variety of tricks to entice insects into their traps. Some of the most surprising tricks have only been discovered in the last few years. I’ll discuss these below as I survey the different genera of slipper orchids; we’ll see how some of these tricks have arisen independently in slipper orchids on opposite sides of the world.

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Cypripedium parviflorum. Photo: Lou Jost.

Many readers will be familiar with the temperate zone ladyslippers, genus Cypripedium, found throughout North America, Europe, and temperate Asia. These include the familiar Pink Ladyslipper and Yellow Ladyslipper of the US and Canada. Genetic analysis shows that this genus is the oldest branch in the ladyslipper family tree. These orchids have thin oval leaves with prominent parallel veins, a trait they share with the next-oldest branch of slipper orchids, the genus Selenipedium, which are today found only in small scattered populations in tropical and subtropical Latin America. The common ancestor of the ladyslippers probably had leaves similar to these.

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Cypripedium acaule. Photo Paul Jost.

Cypripedium and Selenipedium, like most slipper orchids, are usually pollinated by bees, wasps, or flies. Some Cypripedium ladyslippers with large slits or openings in their pouches, like the Pink Ladyslipper of the US (C. acaule, above), are pollinated by large queen Bombus bees (see Davis 1986 for observations of Pink Ladyslipper pollination). Cypripedium tibeticum in China (see photo below) is pollinated by queen bees that are not carrying provisions for their young, indicating that they had not yet established a nest. Scientists suspect that the pouch in this species imitates a mouse hole, where queen bees usually build their nests (Pemberton 2014). Several other Cypripedium species have similar morphologies so this might be a more common strategy than people have realized. Even the Pink Ladyslipper may fall into this category, though most previous workers have interpreted them as food-deceit flowers.

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Flowers of Cypripedium tibeticum attract queen bees looking for nesting sites. Photo: Wikipedia.

Many Cypripedium species, especially the Chinese species, have very unusual flower morphologies that hint at strange new pollination syndromes. Perhaps the most surprising pollination strategy was recently discovered in the endangered Chinese Cypripedium fargesii. The leaves of this species are spotted blackish green, and each spot has a darker black center. They look exactly like the spots on plant leaves infected by certain fungi. The C. fargesii flower and freckled foliage fool a fly that feeds on the spores of this fungus. It falls into the trap and fertilizes the flower. Full details in “Flowers of Cypripedium fargesii (Orchidaceae) fool flat-footed flies (Platypezidae) by faking fungus-infected foliage”

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Cypripedium fargesii has black-spotted leaves which attract fungus-feeding flies. Photo: Wikipedia.

Besides these genera of slipper orchids with thin leaves showing prominent parallel ridges and valleys (“plicate-leaved” genera), there are three genera of slipper orchids with thick smooth leathery leaves whose veins (except for a sharp midvein where the leaf is folded) are not visible (“conduplicate-leaved” genera). These are the Asian genus Paphiopedilum and the closely-related Latin American genera Phragmipedium and Mexipedium. These three genera share a common ancestor that diverged from the plicate-leaved Cypripedium and Selenipedium about 60 million years ago; the New and Old World conduplicate-leaved slipper orchids diverged from each other around 23 million years ago. Some of the species in these genera have evolved pollination strategies similar to those of Cypripedium, but many of them have evolved novel strategies that have no parallel in the temperate zone.

I’ve written once before about the pollination strategy of Phragmipedium pearcei in our Rio Anzu Reserve. The pouch has white flaps at the top, and these are dotted with little fake green aphids and some light brown blobs that might be fake aphid wings. Female hoverflies hunt aphid colonies and lay their eggs on them; their larvae will devour the aphids. These hoverflies try to lay their eggs on the fake aphids and bounce off the white flaps into the open pouch (Pemberton 2014), where they are manipulated by the orchid, effecting pollination (see photos of this species at the beginning of this post).

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Phragmipedium pearcei has green fake aphids on the white flaps at the top of its pouch. Syrphid flies have larvae that eat aphids, so the females land on the lip to lay eggs in the fake aphid colony. When they land they slipo and fall into the pouch. Photo: Nigel Simpson.

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The staminode above the “slipper” or lip of Phrag. pearcei. At this magnification the green spots on the lip begin to show their true complexity. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Many other tropical American Phragmipedium species have these same green dots and are certainly pollinated in the same way. Our Ecuadorian Phrag. boisserianum, Phrag. caudatum, Phrag. longifolium (which grows in our Dracula Reserve), and Phrag. wallisii, among others, belong to this group. Perhaps the endangered Phrag. hirtzii (which might also grow in our Dracula Reserve) has a similar strategy.

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Phrag. boisserianum (var. czerwiakowianum?) Photo: Lou Jost.

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Phrag. hirtzii. Photo: Luis Baquero and Gabriel Iturralde.

Curiously the Old World genus Paphiopedilum also has many species with a broadly similar floral structure. Some of them, like Paph. venustum below, have some raised shiny yellow dots on the upper flaps of the pouch, and these may imitate scale insects. The green-spotted staminode (the top flap that covers the anther and stigma) may also be imitating aphids.

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Paph. venustum. Photo: Lou Jost.

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Paph. venustum. Photo: Lou Jost.

 

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Paph. venustum pouch detail. Photo: Lou Jost.

Likewise there are both New World Phragmipedium species and Old World Paphiopedilum species that have evolved another flower form, round-petalled white and pink flowers with yellow staminodes whose function is not yet understood. Phragmipedium schlimii and the critically endangered Phrag. fischeri are two Ecuadorian examples of this syndrome. The critically endangered Asian Paphiopedilum delenatii has evolved a strikingly similar flower. The North American Cypripedium reginae flower is also broadly similar. Maybe they all share a common strategy, perhaps luring bees looking for food, but we don’t really know.

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Phragmipedium schlimii. Photo: Lou Jost.

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Phrag. fischeri. Photo: Luis Baquero and Gabriel Iturralde.

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Critically endangered Asian Paphiopedilum delanatii has the same general pattern as American Phragmipedium fischeri and Phrag, schlimmii. Photo: Lou Jost.

Cypripedium reginae of North America shares the same pattern as Asian Paphiopedilum delenatii and South American Phragmipedium schlimii and Phrag. fischeri. Photo: WIkipedia.

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Ecuadorian and Peruvian Phragmipedium bessae is the most brilliantly-colored slipper orchid. Photo: Lou Jost.

The brightly-colored Phragmipedium bessae from southern Ecuador and northern Peru breaks all the rules for this genus. Early speculations about its pollinator (butterflies and hummingbirds were suggested) were poorly concieved and completely wrong. Sometimes our imagination is just too limited. Also, it is difficult for us to take into account the huge differences between insect color vision and our own. It now appears that this bright Phragmipedium attracts a wasp that parasitizes larvae of large beetles (Pemberton 2014). No one has any idea why they are attracted to this flower, though. We also do not know what pollinates the newly discovered Phragmipedium kovachii, the largest and most spectacular member of the genus, which has already been ruthlessly stripped from almost all accessible sites in its limited range in northern Peru.

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This is a cultivated hybrid of Phrag. schlimmii and Phrag. kovachii. Photo: Lou Jost.

There is one oddball Phragmipedium, quite common on rocky outcrops near our Banos-area reserves, which is self-pollinated. This species is derived from something like Phrag. wallisii or Phrag. caudatum, which are similar to our Phrag. pearcei but with much longer petals that hang down to the ground. In Phrag. lindenii a mutation has affected the symmetry of the flower. The pouch was converted to an ordinary petal like the other two (the pouch is also a petal, but a highly modified one). In a normal Phragmipedium there is an anther at the base of each of the two normal petals. The mutation in Phrag. lindenii not only adds a third normal petal, it also adds an anther at its base, as in the other two petals. But this third anther grows directly into the stigma, thus fertilizing the flower automatically. Every flower always sets seed. This is a very successful short-term strategy compared to the normal strategy of waiting to attract and fool a pollinator. Most normal slipper orchid flowers rarely set seed.

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Phragmipedium lindenii in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Photo: Lou Jost.

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View of Phrag. lindenii with left petal removed., The left anther and the mutant third anther are visible.; the latter grows directly into the stigma, fertilizing the flower. Photo: Lou Jost.

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Phragmipedium lindenii. Painting by Lou Jost.

The ancestor of Phragmipedium lindenii was similar to this Phragmipedium caudatum. Photo: Wikipedia.

The ancestor of Phragmipedium lindenii was similar to this Phragmipedium caudatum. Photo: Wikipedia.

So why aren’t all slipper orchids self-pollinating? Cross-pollination can quickly spread beneficial mutations throughout a population, and can bring together different favorable mutations that arose in different individuals, so a cross-pollinating species will be able to adapt to changing conditions more rapidly than a strictly self-pollinating species. So perhaps these self-pollinating species briefly burst onto the scene and then disappear, while cross-pollinating species have long runs.

The Asian Paphiopedilum slipper orchids are very diverse, and many of them have flowers whose pollinators are complete mysteries. Here are some:

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Paphiopedilum argus. Photo: Wikipedia.

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Critically endangered Paphiopedilum rothschildianum. Photo: Wikipedia.

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Critically endangered Paphiopedilum micranthum. Photo: Wikipedia.

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Paph. hookerii. Photo: Wikipedia.

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Critically endangered Paph. dayanum. Photo: Wikipedia.

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Paphiopedilum charlesworthii. Photo: Wikipedia.

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Paphiopedilum bullenianum. Photo: Wikipedia.

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Paphiopedilum armeniacum. Photo: Wikipedia.

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Paphiopedilum acmodontum. Photo: Wikipedia.

It is easy to see why people fall in love with these amazing plants and become passionate about them. I still remember being entranced when, as a teenager, I found my first wild ladyslippers in Wisconsin. That passion people to try to protect wild populations. Some of the strongest support for our foundation’s efforts to conserve wild orchids comes from people who genuinely love these plants and who grow them responsibly.The Orchid Conservation Alliance is a great example of this. The Slipper Orchid Alliance, the Quito Orchid Society, and the Quito Botanical Garden are other groups with members who are passionate about conserving orchids in the wild and who have helped us do our conservation work.

Remember, horticulturalists who really love these plants make sure they only buy laboratory-grown individuals!

In Part 2 of this series we will announce our plan to protect some of Ecuador’s most endangered slipper orchids.

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation

 

 

 

Carnegie Airborne Observatory visits our area

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Carnegie Airborne Observatory image of rainforest trees; different colors represent different spectral fingerprints. Click picture to enlarge. Image: Carnegie Institution for Science.

The Carnegie Institution for Science is a unique private organization devoted to advanced study of the earth, life, and the universe. The pioneer cosmologist Edwin Hubble (“Hubble constant”), geologist Charles Richter (“Richter scale”), geneticist Barbara McClintock, and many Nobel laureates from several different disciplines are or were Carnegie investigators. The institution has instruments orbiting Mercury, is a lead partner in constructing the world’s biggest telescope in Chile, and has one of the world’s most sophisticated ecological monitoring devices, the Carnegie Aerial Observatory (CAO). This is a two-engine 20-passenger plane that Greg Asner and colleagues has fitted with millions of dollars worth of specially-designed lasers and spectrometers. It can sample hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest per day, using LIDAR to build a 3-dimensional model of the forest’s trees with 8 cm resolution. At the same time as it acquires LIDAR data, it also samples the spectral properties of light reflected from the vegetation, gathering reflectance information at hundreds of different wavelengths (colors). This spectral data gives information about the chemical and physical properties of the leaves, and also provides a spectral fingerprint that can later be matched to field-collected spectral fingerprints from known species of trees. Some  trees have such distinctive fingerprints that they can be identified to species with this data; more commonly, they can be identified to genus, though sometimes only to family. The detailed structural, chemical and taxonomic data acquired by the CAO would be impossible to gather at the landscape level by any other method, and Greg’s work is dramatically expanding the range of questions that ecologists can ask about forest ecosystems.

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Carnegie aerial observatory rainforest image: 3-D Lidar combined with spectral signal. Image: Carnegie Institution for Science.

Last year Greg had planned to use our mosaic of forests as reference sites for a study of Andean forests on different geological substrates and elevations.  Greg and his partner Robin Martin visited our Rio Zunac Reserve, his flight plans got approved by the Ecuadorian authorities, and everything seemed ready to go, but in the end he was not allowed to bring the plane into the country. This year, however, Greg was able to bring the plane in for a more modest ten-day study of Amazonia. The plane’s home for those ten days was the military base in Shell, a town in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed near our Rio Anzu Reserve. One of the CAO’s flight transects covered a two-kilometer wide strip from west to east (high to low) through our area, perhaps including parts of up to four of our reserves. This will be a very valuable data set that will teach us a great deal about the structure and diversity of these forests. However, it will take about a year to fully process the data, so we’ll have to be patient.

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The Carnegie Airborne Observatory parked at the Shell military base. Our reserves are in the mountains in the background. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

The president of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Matt Scott, is a well-known geneticist and serious photographer. He came t0 Ecuador last month to fly with Greg, but first he wanted to visit some of our reserves. Our endangered Black-and-chestnut Eagles (Spizaetus isidori) were nesting again in our Rio Zunac Reserve after last year’s tragic nest failure, so this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe the species as it went about its business.

I picked him up in the Quito airport. The trip from Quito to Banos was picturesque as always. The glacier of Cotopaxi was covered in a layer of fresh volcanic ash, and small puffs of ash and vapor were still rising up from the crater as we drove past it.

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Cotopaxi’s glaciers covered in fresh ash. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

 

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Close to sunset as we neared Banos after passing through a rainstorm. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

The next day we had an appointment with the Black-and-chestnut Eagles at 10am-11am. Our guards told us the parents  usually brought prey to the baby at that time, but were otherwise rarely seen around the nest. The nest is about 3-4 hours away from the road, after a forty minute drive from Banos, so we had to get up early and rush out there. It was hard to keep up  a good pace, since beautiful things kept distracting us. Still, we managed to get to the nest observation spot at almost exactly 11:00, and sure enough, there was the adult in the nest, along with the chick and something dead. The adult flew off almost immediately but shortly returned to feed on the prey item while the sated chick slept. The other adult was also nearby and both called frequently. We spent an hour watching them. It was a wonderful thing to see.

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This was the view when Matt got to my house to start our trip to the Rio Zunac. Volcan Tungurahua with a lenticular cloud against a crystal sky, a great way to start the day. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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Morning fog over the Rio Pastaza. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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Black-and-chestnut Eagle (Spizaetus isidori) at its nest in our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Matt Scott.

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We saw several Highland Motmots. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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Torrent Ducks on the Rio Zunac distracted us throughout the day. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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We found this crazy katydid at the end of our walk. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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Butterflies and hesperids taking salts from the sand along the Rio Zunac. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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Matt chills out in the Rio Zunac after our hike. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost.

 

The next day we went to our Rio Anzu Reserve near the Shell airport and the CAO. That reserve is not very rich in big stuff, but there are so many interesting small things that it is hard to take ten steps without stopping for photos. We eventually got to the Rio Anzu river and the magnificent fossil-bearing limestone formations capped with ladyslipper orchids (Phragmipedium pearcei). Though it was getting late, Matt asked to stay longer. I always like to hear that from a visitor!!

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Matt photographing the limestone. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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The limestone formations along the Rio Anzu, covered with orchids. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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Phragmipedium pearcei, a ladyslipper orchid, on the limestone. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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Riodinid butterfly in the Rio Anzu Reserve. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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Large hairy caterpillar. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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Me in bamboo forest along the Rio Anzu. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

Then we went to the military base to see the CAO. Security was tight and the military were not eager to let a pair of muddy rubber-booted gringos walk through their installations. Nevertheless we were able to talk our way through the multiple layers of officials who scrutinized us. But we didn’t want to ruffle any feathers so when we finally got to the plane, we just took a quick look at it and went back (still under military escort, but actually a very friendly one).

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CAO at the military base. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

By the time we got to Greg and Robin’s hotel in nearby Puyo it was already dark. Greg was sitting at a table outside working on maps in his laptop, and he showed me the transects he had flown so far. I went back to Banos that night but Matt stayed and got to fly in the CAO over the following days. Lucky man!

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Matt (left) and Greg happy to be in the air. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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The Rio Pastaza broadens and meanders as it leaves our mountains and enters Amazonia. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

 

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The Amazon basin from the CAO. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

 

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More of the Amazon basin from the CAO. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

Matt, thanks very much for your visit! It was an honor for us to show you our forests.

Lou Jost

Fundacion EcoMinga