Exploring the “Forests in the Sky”: our new Rio Machay Reserve, east ridge

Our new Rio Machay Reserve near Banos and the Rio Pastaza protects Cerro Mayordomo, in the Llanganates mountains of the eastern Andes of Ecuador. Cerro Mayordomo is shaped like a horseshoe with the open end facing south; the Rio Machay runs through the center of the “horseshoe”. From 1996 to about 2004 I spent a lot of time exploring the western arm of the horseshoe, but only visited the eastern arm once or twice. A poisonous tree called Toxicodendron (same genus as American poison ivy) is common near the beginning of the trail up the eastern arm, and I developed a nasty allergy to it. A week after my last trip there (2004?), my eyes were swollen shut and yellow liquid dripped from my earlobes, and I nearly clawed my skin off from itching…. Since then I thought it best to avoid that ridge. (Note: I now know there is a simple cure: Prednisone, which cures me completely in less than half an hour!)

Now that we own it, we’ve begun to explore it once more, with eyes that have been trained by ten additional years of exposure to interesting plants in our area. Juan Pablo Reyes, Fausto Recalde, and Luis Recalde went up last week, and came back safe and sound without developing rashes. They went as far as they could in one day, clearing the old trail from 1500m to 2200m. They stopped for lunch at the highest point. As Luis was eating he looked at the ground and noticed a fallen bract, which to almost anyone else would have been completely meaningless. But Luis shouted “Magnolia!” and he was right. It was a piece of a Magnolia flower that had fallen from the canopy. He had recognized it because he had worked many weeks with Dr Antonio Vazquez and students, studying two newly discovered Magnolia tree species in the Rio Zunac Reserve in the Cordillera Abitagua, just 15 km to the east of this ridge. Luis, Fausto, and Juan Pablo looked around and found two Magnolia trees near the trail. Here is their photo of the leaves and flower bud:

This was a remarkable discovery. The local people here do not know these plants (except for our men); they have no local name. Apparently Magnolias have always been very rare here. I sent pictures of these leaves to Dr Vazquez, who said it was Magnolia vargasiana, one of the two new species discovered in the Rio Zunac Reserve. Luis, however, felt the flower bud was much smaller than that species. Perhaps the flower bud was very immature.

Fausto Recalde now has a great eye for the orchid genus Dracula, and he found some there near the lunch spot. This was also exciting news for us, as we had never found any Dracula species in the Banos area on any of the mountains except the easternmost one, the Cordillera Abitagua. Unfortunately he couldn’t find any flowers, so we didn’t know which species it was.

The three men also found one of my favorite orchid species, Masdevallia teagueii. Up to now this plant had only been found in our area on the Cordillera Abitagua and other mountains to the east. This strange flower has a trap mechanism like a Venus’ Flytrap; when a small Drosophila-like fly lands on the lip, the lip of the flower instantly snaps shut, trapping the fly. In order to escape, the fly has to squeeze past the stigma and anther of the orchid, thus ensuring pollination (if the fly had pollinia previously attached to it) and deposition of its own pollinia (which are waxy chunks of pollen attached to sticky plunger-like pads that glue themselves to the insect). After twenty minutes the lip opens and the flower can do it again.

There are very few orchids that have active lips like this. Three other orchid genera in our area have independently evolved this ability: Acostaea, Porroglossum, and Condylago (all in the Pleurothallidinae, the same subtribe as Masdevallia teagueii). Incredibly, each of the four genera evolved a completely different engineering solution to accomplish the motion. In Masdevallia teagueii the heavy lip is attached to the rest of the flower by a thin concave strip of tissue. When stimulated, it instantly changes concavity, flipping the lip upward. The stimulus signal may be electrical.

I discovered the sensitivity of the lip in the 1990s. Prior to that discovery the plant seemed like a normal Masdevallia, where it had been placed originally. But after the discovery of this extraordinary snapping ability, and the unusual structures underlying it, the world expert in these orchids, Dr Carl Luer, decided to establish a new genus for this plant. He named the genus after me, “Jostia“. But later molecular phylogenies based on DNA showed that this plant was embedded in the same branch of the orchid family tree as the normal Masdevallia species. So “my” genus got sunk and the plant is now once again called Masdevallia teagueii. (By the way, the specific name honors the same Walter Teague who was honored by the genus Teagueia, which I have discussed extensively elsewhere.)

Of course I wanted to see all these exciting finds of Juan Pablo, Luis, and Fausto. I waited a few days to make sure the rangers and Juan Pablo didn’t swell up and drip yellow liquid from their ears. They didn’t, so I dared to go up myself, especially to try to find a flower of the Magnolia, and to look more closely at the Dracula plants. I made an extra effort not to touch the trunks of any tree along the trail, to avoid the poison tree. The climb was more difficult than I had remembered from twenty years ago….I hate getting old!!!….but I did make it to the point where the earlier group had turned around. I was pleased to find one of the species I had discovered on the west arm of Mayordomo decades earlier, Lepanthes aprina. It also turns up on Cerro Candelaria to the south (same climate), but not on the cordilleras to the east (wetter) or to the west (drier). I also found Lepanthes jackinpyxa (latin for “jack-in-the-box”, named by Carl Luer), which I had never seen before on this mountain. It was previously known in this area only from the Cordillera Abitagua, where it grows in the same forest as Magnolia vargasiana.

Lepanthes aprina, endemic to the second line of mountains facing Amazonia in our area, first discovered in what is now our Rio Machay Reserve. The name "aprina" means "tusks". Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes aprina, endemic to the second line of mountains facing Amazonia in our area, first discovered in what is now our Rio Machay Reserve. The name “aprina” means “tusks”. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes jackinpyxa in the Rio Machay Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes jackinpyxa in the Rio Machay Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

I tried hard to find the Magnolia that our rangers had found, but couldn’t locate it in the heavy rain that struck just then (meanwhile Banos itself was sunny all day). As I was leaving, disappointed, something subconscious called my attention to a tree some distance from the trail. It turned out to be a Magnolia! But it was very different from the one the guards had found. This one had much longer, tapered leaves, and long slender petioles. I really don’t know why I went to look at it—that was the only tree of the thousands I passed that day which caught my eye like that. Dr Vazquez thinks that my individual may be a juvenile leaf of M. vargasiana, or an undescribed species. It had no flower buds. I’ll have to go back.

Then I found some Dracula plants! It looked like there might be two species here, based on the leaf shapes. I examined many plants until I managed to find a flower. It was Dracula fuligifera, which had always been considered a Cordillera Abitagua endemic. Very exciting!

These recent discoveries reinforced my impression of twenty years ago that for orchids, this eastern ridge of Cerro Mayordomo is a transition zone between the flora of the eastern Cordillera Abitagua and flora of the more westerly main body of the Andes. It will be exciting to push these explorations upwards to the top of Mayordomo at 3400m. Maybe much of the as-yet-unknown flora of the high Cordillera Abitagua will also be found on the eastern high ridges of Cerro Mayordomo, as we’ve just seen at middle elevations. We could get to the top of Cerro Mayordomo and back on a five-day camping trip, I think. This is far easier than getting to similar elevations on the Cordillera Abitagua (summit at 3200m). That would take two weeks or more, if we started at our Rio Zunac station. We look forward to trying this.

The World Land Trust still needs to raise some of the funds to make our final payment on the Rio Machay Reserve. Help them if you can!

Lou Jost
EcoMinga Foundation

More info:
https://ecomingafoundation.wordpress.com/2015/10/04/world-land-trust-big-match-campaign-for-ecominga-forests-in-the-sky-october-1-to-15/
https://ecomingafoundation.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/first-piece-of-the-forests-in-the-sky-is-now-protected/
https://ecomingafoundation.wordpress.com/2016/03/05/landscape-level-conservation-becomes-a-reality-for-ecominga/

A military footnote: A US military manual for soldiers in Ecuador warns of the Toxicodendron tree: “Plants most important to military personnel are Toxicodendron spp. and Anacardium occidentale (cashew nut)…These are abundant at many CONUS installations, often causing skin reactions that require soldiers to be placed “on quarters” or occasionally in the hospital. The seriousness of lesions caused by poison ivy or poison oak is exacerbated in the tropics…”

Endemic Orchids Part 3: Priority areas for conservation. From a conference on endemic plants of Ecuador, Yachay, Ecuador, June 24-26, 2015.

Lepanthes meniscophora in our Dracula Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/Ecominga.

Lepanthes meniscophora in our Dracula Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/Ecominga.

In Part 2 of my talk, I explained that the most range-restricted orchid species tend to be clustered together in very special microhabitats. Identifying and protecting these special microhabitats is the key to preserving the orchid diversity of Ecuador.

On the east slope of the Andes these special microhabitats are often found at middle elevations beginning around 1700-1800m. Unfortunately in Ecuador, as in most other countries including the US, national parks tend to be placed in land that nobody wants, at higher elevations. Middle elevations are valuable for timber and for crops like naranjillo (a tomato relative). This means many centers of orchid endemism lie outside national parks, even in areas where there are a lot of national parks, as in our Banos area.

Our EcoMinga reserves extend protection to the richer lower-elevation forests lying outside the high-elevation national parks.

Our EcoMinga reserves extend protection to the richer lower-elevation forests lying outside the high-elevation national parks.

This is where private foundations like EcoMinga can play a key role. Besides us, there are many other foundations with one or more strategically-located reserves that protect endangered species that are not otherwise protected in national parks. One the best is the Fundacion Jocotoco, which concentrates on protecting endemic bird habitat, but whose reserves also protect extraordinary numbers of endemic plant species. Other foundations that do this include the Jatun Sacha Foundation, Tercer Millenium, Pahuma, Jama, Maquipucuna, and many others. Together we work to create a web of protected areas that fill the gaps between the national parks. The web is currently thin, with many gaps, because funding is scarce. But we are making progress.

Almost all georeferenced collections of endemic plants were made within 750m of a road! Map by Lorena Endara.

Almost all georeferenced collections of endemic plants were made within 750m of a road! Map by Lorena Endara.

One of the limiting factors in weaving this protective web is knowledge. Finding important areas of high local endemism requires hard field work. Sadly, most botanical fieldwork is limited to the immediate vicinity of roads, as shown by this map (made by Lorena Endara) of all the georeferenced collections of endemic plants collected in Ecuador, superimposed on a map of roads. Almost all collections were made within 750m of a road!

Where should we look for new centers of endemism? The front ranges on both the west and east sides of the Andes are the most promising places; their ridgetops are at the optimal elevations for endemic orchids. Isolated mountains farther from the Andes often generate cloud layers at lower elevations than those generated by the Andes, and these are excellent candidates.

Number of endemic species on the east slope of the Andes, by province bands from north to south. There is a striking linear trend of increasing endemism southward.

Number of endemic species on the east slope of the Andes, by province bands from north to south. There is a striking linear trend of increasing endemism southward.

I’ve done an analysis of the distribution of endemic orchids and other plants on the east slope of the Andes in Ecuador, using east-west province bands as the geographic units. These bands vary in width, but each band had (at that time) only one major road passing through the Andes into the lowlands, and so I think they are more or less comparable. One might expect the bands near the largest Andean city, Quito, to have more endemic species because of more intense collecting there, but this was not the case. The pattern revealed by the graph is remarkably orderly, with a strong trend of linearly increasing endemism from north to south. The trend is exactly the same for orchids and for non-orchids, which is surprising. Geological substrates are more diverse in the south, and this might explain the increase in endemism of terrestrial plants from north to south. Orchids, however, are primarily epiphytes and not so sensitive to geological substrate. Yet they increase at the same rate as other plants.

Relations among endemic species of orchids according to regions. Courtesy Lorena Endara.

Relations among endemic species of orchids according to regions. Courtesy Lorena Endara.

Lorena Endara has done a study trying to pinpoint forest types and regions with higher orchid endemism. In the following graphic, longer branches indicate more endemic species. According to this analysis, the most promising habitats for endemic orchids are the cloud forests of the northwestern Andes (1800-2800m) closely followed by the lower montane forests of the northwestern Andes (1300-1800m). The next most important are the same two forest types in the southeast Andes.

Precipitacion map of Ecuador. Note area of high precipitacion circled in northwestern Ecuador. Map: Lou Jost

Precipitacion map of Ecuador. Note area of high precipitacion (click to enlarge) circled in northwestern Ecuador. Map: Lou Jost

The northwest Andean cloud forests close to the Colombian border have very high rainfall and might be expected to have especially high orchid diversity. Recent field work has confirmed this, with many new species described from the new road crossing the region from Chical, and others still awaiting description. The northwest is also an area of high deforestation, and the unusually wet habitat types along the upper parts of the Chical road are not known to be represented in national protected areas, making them a very high conservation priority. So when the botanical gardens of the University of Basel asked us to start a reserve there, and offered to help fund it, we accepted the challenge. The Rainforest Trust, the Orchid Conservation Alliance, the Quito Orchid Society, and individual donors enthusiastically joined the project. We have now purchased many key elements of the habitat mosaic in this area, and named it the “Dracula Reserve” in honor of the orchid genus Dracula, which is especially rich there.

Dracula andreettae, in our Dracula Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Dracula andreettae, in our Dracula Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Dracula psyche, in our Dracula Reserve. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Dracula psyche, in our Dracula Reserve. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Just this week we have signed the deeds which add a new block of forest to our mosaic there, adjacent to the site I wrote about here. We will continue to expand this if funding can be found. This is one of the most diverse and least known areas of Ecuador, and we are excited to be able to protect it!

In Part 4, which I didn’t get to talk about at Yachay for lack of time, I will suggest some novel ways of quantifying conservation objectives.

Lou Jost
www.loujost.com

Please donate to our efforts if you can!

Darwin Day Special: Some of Ecuador’s evolutionary radiations

The Beagle in the Galapagos.

The Beagle in the Galapagos.

When Charles Darwin first landed on Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands in 1835, he was not impressed:

“The black rocks heated by the rays of the Vertical sun, like a stove, give to the air a close & sultry feeling. The plants also smell unpleasantly. The country was compared to what we might imagine the cultivated parts of the Infernal regions to be… I proceeded to botanize & obtained 10 different flowers; but such insignificant, ugly little flowers…” —Diary

“Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves, and crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted, sun-burnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life… With the exception of a wren with a fine yellow breast, and of a tyrant-flycatcher with a scarlet tuft and breast, none of the birds are brilliantly coloured….All the plants have a wretched, weedy appearance, and I did not see one beautiful flower. The insects, again, are small-sized and dull-coloured…. I took great pains in collecting the insects, but excepting Tierra del Fuego, I never saw in this respect so poor a country.”—Voyage of the Beagle

Galapagos scene. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Galapagos scene. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Still, as was his custom, he collected specimens of as many distinct plants and animals as he could. There was as yet no evolutionary insight, just curiosity. He wrote in his diary at the time

“It will be very interesting to find from future comparison to what district or “centre of creation” the organized beings of this archipelago must be attached.”

His first flash of insight about the nature of the Galapagos flora and fauna came after the Beagle had already left the islands to go to Tahiti. During the long travel days with blank seascapes stretching in all directions, he worked on his specimens. It was only then that he noticed something surprising. Ten years later (in his second edition of “Journal of Researches” p. 394) he wrote about that moment on the Beagle:

“My attention was first thoroughly aroused, by comparing together the numerous specimens, shot by myself and several other parties on board, of the mocking-thrushes [mockingbirds], when, to my astonishment, I discovered that all those from Charles Island belonged to one species (Mimus trifasciatus); all from Albemarle Island to M. parvulus; and all from James and Chatham Islands (between which two other islands are situated, as connecting links) belonged to M. melanotis. These two latter species are closely allied, and would by some ornithologists be considered as only well-marked races or varieties; but the Mimus trifasciatus is very distinct. Unfortunately most of the specimens of the finch tribe were mingled together…”

“This bird which is so closely allied to the Thenca [mockingbirds] of Chili … is singular from existing as varieties or distinct species in the different islands.

“…I never dreamed that islands about 50 or 60 miles apart, and most of them in sight of each other, formed of precisely the same rocks, placed under a quite similar climate, rising to a nearly equal height, would have been differently tenanted ….”

“It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner to discover what is most interesting in any locality, than they are hurried from it; but I ought, perhaps, to be thankful that I obtained sufficient materials to establish this most remarkable fact in the distribution of organic beings.”—-Zoology notes p. 298

Gould's plate of Darwin's Finches. Creative Commons

Gould’s plate of Darwin’s Finches. Creative Commons

When he eventually returned to England, he gave his plant and animal specimens to specialists who could distinguish which ones were new species, and could figure out how they were related to each other. The great ornithologist Gould was the first to finish this task. His report to Darwin was quite a shock. Darwin had rather casually collected many dingy birds on the Galapagos. As he mentions in the excerpt above, he didn’t even bother to label some of them with the names of the specific islands where they had been collected. (Luckily some of his shipmates did make properly-labeled specimens, so their distributions were eventually sorted out.) He thought some of these dingy birds were finches, some were warblers, some were wrens, and some were blackbirds (icterids). Ornithology was not one of Darwin’s strong points. (He once ate an important new species of rhea before realizing that it was the bird he had long been searching for!) Gould, however, was a good ornithologist, and recognized that all these different birds actually belonged to twelve closely-related species of a single subfamily, not found anywhere else in the world at the time, known today as Darwin’s finches (later one additional species was discovered on Cocos Island off Costa Rica). This was an astonishing discovery, that birds with such outwardly-different beaks and habits would all be so closely related, and that there would be different sets of them on different islands.

Leaf shapes of different species of Scalesia . From U. Eliasson (1974) Studies in Galápagos Plants. XIv. The Genus Scalesia Arn. Opera Botanica 36: 1–117, under Fair Use.

Leaf shapes of different species of Scalesia . From U. Eliasson (1974) Studies in Galápagos Plants. XIv. The Genus Scalesia Arn. Opera Botanica 36: 1–117, under Fair Use.

The same turned out to be true of Darwin’s Galapagos plants, which he had first given to his old teacher Henslow and then to his close friend Hooker. Hooker discovered that many of Darwin’s plants belonged to a single genus, Scalesia, found nowhere else in the world. Just like the birds, there were different species of Scalesia on different islands. Darwin wrote:

“Scalesia, a remarkable arborescent genus of the Compositae, is confined to the archipelago: it has six species: one from Chatham, one from Albemarle, one from Charles Island, two from James Island, and the sixth from one of the three latter islands, but it is not known from which: not one of these six species grows on any two islands.”

“The distribution of the tenants of this archipelago would not be nearly so wonderful, if, for instance, one island had a mocking-thrush, and a second island some other quite distinct genus, — if one island had its genus of lizard, and a second island another distinct genus, or none whatever; — or if the different islands were inhabited, not by representative species of the same genera of plants, but by totally different genera, as does to a certain extent hold good: for, to give one instance, a large berry-bearing tree at James Island has no representative species in Charles Island. But it is the circumstance, that several of the islands possess their own species of the tortoise, mocking-thrush, finches, and numerous plants, these species having the same general habits, occupying analogous situations, and obviously filling the same place in the natural economy of this archipelago, that strikes me with wonder.”

“Although the species are thus peculiar to the archipelago, yet nearly all in their general structure, habits, colour of feathers, and even tone of voice, are strictly American.”

“… Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact – that mystery of mysteries – the first appearance of new beings on this earth…..one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends…..”

These patterns, which would now call “evolutionary radiations”, were some of the most important clues in Darwin’s intellectual journey towards his theory of evolution. In 1837 he wrote in a private notebook:

“In July opened first note-book on ‘transmutation of species.’ Had been greatly struck from about month of previous March on character of South American fossils, and species on Galapagos Archipelago. These facts origin (especially latter), of all my views.”

The plant and animal radiations on the Galapagos Islands went on to become icons of evolutionary theory. Later explorers pushed the number of species of Darwin’s finches to about fourteen. New Scalesia species continued to be discovered until as recently as 1986, pushing the total Scalesia species to fifteen, with up to four species on a single island. The total number of plants that are unique to the Galapagos Islands, and not found anywhere else in the world, is now about 175-180 species. Because of its immense scientific importance it was made a national park by the Ecuadorian government and declared a World Heritage site by the UN.

Even today, seeing these kinds of evolutionary radiations leaves one with a palpable sense of direct contact with Darwin’s “mystery of mysteries”, the evolution of new species. I got my first taste of this feeling in the Ecuadorian Andes around Banos twenty years ago, as I explored the mountains of the upper Rio Pastaza watershed looking for new orchid species.

The upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Photos: Andreas Kay.

The upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Photos: Andreas Kay.

Evolutionary radiation of Lepanthes orchids in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Left: a widespread species, L. mucronata. Middle and right: two new species I discovered here, closely related to L. mucronata. These are L. abitaguae (middle) and L. pseudomucronata (right). Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Evolutionary radiation of Lepanthes orchids in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Left: a widespread species, L. mucronata. Middle and right: two new species I discovered here, closely related to L. mucronata. These are L. abitaguae (middle) and L. pseudomucronata (right). Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

At first I discovered lots of little radiations, mostly in the orchid genus Lepanthes–two or three new closely related species, sometimes different “sister species” on each mountain, as if these mountains were acting like islands in the clouds. In other cases, I found sets of closely-related new species all living together on a single mountain, analogous to the multiple species of Scalesia that lived on some individual Galapagos islands. Slowly, over the years of hiking, patterns began to emerge from the maps I made of the distributions of these species. It was like watching the construction of a stained-glass window, each beautiful fragment adding more detail until order began to triumph over chaos.

Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Then in the year 2000 everything changed. After a year of failed attempts, I finally figured out how to get up a high unexplored mountain between Banos and Puyo. It was called “Mayordomo” on the maps. After two day’s climb, I reached a beautiful mossy cloud forest at 3100m. I looked down and at my feet I saw little orchid plants creeping through the thick moss, with single leaves widely spaced on a thin stem. I began to find a few with flowers, but still I had no idea what they were. I couldn’t even recognize their genus –quite embarrassing for me, who claimed to be an orchid expert! The strangest thing was that there were four clearly-different species of these strange creeping orchids right here in one square meter of moss. How could such a big group of species be unfamiliar to me?

Mysterious Teagueia orchids creeping through moss on Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Mysterious Teagueia orchids creeping through moss on Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

I could hardly wait to get home and look them up in books. But there was nothing like them in any book. I sent them to the world’s specialist in miniature orchids, Carl Luer, and he wrote back excitedly that these were all new to science, and belonged to a tiny genus of orchids called Teagueia. Up until that moment, there had been only six species of Teagueia known in the whole world, three from Ecuador and three more from Colombia, all very local endemics. In my one square meter of moss I had more than doubled the number of species of Teagueia in Ecuador. Most interesting was that all of my new species were long-stemmed creeping plants, unlike any of the previously-known Teagueia species. The new species also shared floral traits not found in any of the previously-known species. Such clues suggested that these new species had evolved right here, from a recent common ancestor, just like Darwin’s finches or his Scalesia plants in the Galapagos. Carl quickly described the new species: Teagueia sancheziae (after my friend Carmen Sanchez who climbed the mountain with me), T. alyssana (after my dear friend Alyssa Roberts who helped support my research), T. cymbisepala (a Greek word referring to the shape of the flower), and T. jostii, which Carl decided to name after me.

Teagueia alyssana, one of the new Teagueia species I discovered on Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Teagueia alyssana, one of the new Teagueia species I discovered on Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The discovery of this evolutionary radiation raised an obvious question: How many more of these species might be hidden on this and the many other unexplored mountaintops around my town of Banos? I eventually returned to Mayordomo and got higher up the mountain on a long camping trip with my hiking companions Robert and Daisy Kunstaetter. There was no rain during the whole trip, so we had to use rainwater I had collected and stored in a big plastic bag at an old campsite of mine several years earlier. It was still good, thanks to a few drops of iodine I had added when I stored it. When that ran out we were forced to squeeze dew out of moss; this was horrible, though I discovered a new Maxillaria orchid while collecting the moss. We had to abort the trip early, but we still managed to find three or four more new Teagueia species! All had long creeping stems and shared floral characteristics with my previous discoveries. This unexpected evolutionary radiation of plant species was turning out to be bigger than I could have imagined.

Some Mayordomo Teagueia species. Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Some Mayordomo Teagueia species. Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A year or so later, Robert and Daisy came back from the next mountain to the west of Mayordomo with an interesting leaf to show me. They thought it might be from a Lepanthes, but it was another of these creeping Teagueia species! I went up that mountain and found it covered with creeping species of Teagueia. Some were the same species as on Mayordomo, but many of them new to science. All of these new one were clearly related to the ones on Mayordomo.

One of the new Teagueia species I discovered on the mountain just west of Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

One of the new Teagueia species I discovered on the mountain just west of Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Unexplored mountains south of the Rio Pastaza. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Unexplored mountains south of the Rio Pastaza. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Did every mountain around here have its own new species of Teagueia? I sometimes give a guest lecture to visiting biology students at the School for International Training, in Quito the capital of Ecuador. After I talked about these Teagueias, two students, Pailin Wedel and Anderson Shepard, volunteered to do an independent study project on the genus. They wanted a challenging project, so I trained them to recognize Teagueia plants (Andy discovered a fantastic new Teagueia on one of his training trips!) and then I sent them off with a local guide for a week to look for Teagueia on a mountain south of the Rio Pastaza that I had never explored. Andy was a mountain rescue guide from Colorado so I figured they’d be alright. The deep valley of the Rio Pastaza separated this mountain from both Mayordomo and my other Teagueia mountain, so none of us knew what to expect.

The students survived, though they said it was the hardest thing they had ever done, and Pailin lost a toenail from the long muddy climb. They didn’t mind; they had found eight or nine species of creeping Teagueia, each new to science! None of the species on their mountain were shared with the two mountains on the other side of the Rio Pastaza valley. This was unexpected, since the other orchids I had studied showed a different distribution pattern.

A new Teagueia discovered by Andy and Pailin. I'll name this one after Pailin. Photo: Andreas Kay.

A new Teagueia discovered by Andy and Pailin. I’ll name this one after Pailin. Photo: Andreas Kay.

Another new ,em>Teagueia discovered by Andy and Pailin. I'll name this one after their local guide Ali Araujo. Photo: Andreas Kay.

Another new Teagueia discovered by Andy and Pailin. I’ll name this one after their local guide Ali Araujo. Photo: Andreas Kay.

There was still one more big unexplored mountain between Banos and the Amazon lowlands, known on the maps as Cerro Candelaria. It rose to 3860m, much higher than the other mountains we had looked at. It was like a magnet. My friends the Kunstaetters and I finally climbed all the way to the top at the end of 2002. It was a difficult nine day camping trip, eased somewhat by the help of some local people (who later became EcoMinga’s forest guards) whom we hired to carry our packs the first (and steepest) day. This mountain not only had all the new Teagueia species my students had found on their mountain, but also another six Teagueia species that were completely new! For a magnificent photographic album of Cerro Candelaria, including many Teagueia species, see Andreas Kay’s Cerro Candelaria Flickr album.Highly recommended!

Some of the new creeping Teagueia species discovered by my students and I in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. All flowers are photographed at the same magnification so relative sizes are accurately shown. Click to enlarge! Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Some of the new creeping Teagueia species discovered by my students and I in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. All flowers are photographed at the same magnification so relative sizes are accurately shown. Click to enlarge! Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

As a result of these expeditions, we now know that this evolutionary radiation of Teagueia species contains almost double the number of species of the famous Galapagos radiations, even though the Galapagos islands are much bigger and more numerous than these four mountains, and even though geographic isolation here is much less complete than in the Galapagos. And unlike any island in the Galapagos, a single mountain here can have 8-15 Teagueia species growing together. (In a future post I’ll write about what DNA analysis tells us regarding the speed of this evolutionary radiation relative to that of the Galapagos Scalesia radiation.) Counting these new Teagueia species, there are now about 190 unique endemic plant species in our upper Rio Pastaza watershed. That is more locally endemic species than there are in all of the Galapagos. This is a region that has much to tell us about the mysteries of speciation, maybe even more than the Galapagos.

Teagueia distribution in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Teagueia distribution in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Conservation can have many motives, but one of mine is to preserve enough of the earth’s legacy that future generations will still be able to unravel those fundamental mysteries that we have not yet been able to figure out. The answer to the question of the origin of species is written here in these mountains, but we are tearing up the pages before we have learned how to read them. One of the reasons my friends and I founded EcoMinga was to save some of those pages, hopefully the most strategic ones. Thanks to our partner the World Land Trust, we have now bought the mountain that has sixteen species of Teagueia; it also turns out to have many other unique newly-discovered species of orchids, trees, frogs, and more. Thanks to them and many other donors (Rainforest Trust, Orchid Conservation Alliance, University of Basel Botanical Garden, Montreal Botanical Garden, and some generous individual donors to EcoMinga) we have also begun to buy land on Mayordomo, and other places where unusual evolutionary forces have led to high concentrations of new, locally endemic species of plants and animals. Not only do we want to preserve the biodiversity of these places, we also want to preserve the clues they contain to the origin of biodiversity itself.

Can't have a Darwin Day post without including a picture taken by our own Darwin Recalde. Darwin is Jesus' son and a great young naturalist. Here he has managed to photograph an elusive Rufous Antpitta standing on a bunch of Teagueia. Photo: Darwin Recalde/EcoMinga.

Can’t have a Darwin Day post without including a picture taken by our own Darwin Recalde. Darwin is Jesus Recalde’s son and a great young naturalist. Here he has managed to photograph an elusive Rufous Antpitta standing on a bunch of Teagueia. Photo: Darwin Recalde/EcoMinga.

Lou Jost