Visit to our Rio Zunac magnolias



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.


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


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.


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.)


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.


Luis Recalde climbing a magnolia. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.


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


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


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


Magnolia vargasiana  opening. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.


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.


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.


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:


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


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


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.


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


The forest interior. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation.

Two of our new Magnolias are spotlighted in the Ecuadorian national press; and a fourth new species of Magnolia is found in our Dracula Reserve


Magnolia vargasiana with flea beetle pollinator. Click caption to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Over the weekend one of the largest newspapers in Ecuador ran a nice story about the two new species of Magnolia discovered in our Rio Zunac Reserve some years ago. The article quotes David Neill explaining the remarkable story of the recent explosion of Latin American discoveries in this genus: “As of two years ago only five species of magnolia were known from Ecuador; now there are 23.”

The article notes that Fundacion EcoMinga protects the two newly-discovered species, M. llanganatensis and M. vargasiana. Our “Keepers of the Wild” reserve guards played a crucial role in their discoveries and are co-authors of the scientific articles describing these species.


Magnolia llanganatensis. Click caption to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost.

David mentions that many Magnolia species are endangered, but that these two species are safe thanks to our foundation.

The article only mentions two of our species, but as readers of this blog know, our guards had recently found a third undescribed species, in our new Forests in the Sky reserve near Banos, very close to the Rio Zunac Reserve where the other two Magnolias were found. That species had originally been discovered somewhat north of there, and is currently being described.

But that’s still not the end of it! Last month Alvaro Perez of the Universidad Catolica found a new population of an undescribed Magnolia in our Dracula Reserve in northwest Ecuador. That species was originally discovered near Mindo in west-central Ecuador. I suspect we will still discover one or two more new species in our reserves. But even just these four make our reserve system one of the richest in South America for this genus.

Here is the Spanish text of the article:

En Ecuador se descubrieron dos magnolias

” Científicos de la Universidad Estatal Amazónica (UEA) y de la Fundación Ecominga descubrieron dos especies de plantas del género magnolia. Este grupo de árboles es uno de los antepasados más antiguos de las plantas con flor (angiospermas). Son fósiles vivientes que colonizaron la Tierra en la era de los dinosaurios, hace 70 millones de años.
Los árboles miden entre 11 y 27 metros de altura.

Tienen flores grandes que pueden alcanzar los 30 cm de ancho y algunas tienen hasta 50 pétalos, aunque el número varía entre especies e individuos. 
¿Por qué tantos pétalos? Las primeras flores evolucionaron de una especie de piñas características de las plantas de la época del Cretácico. Así lo explicó David Neill, uno de los investigadores del estudio.
 El descubrimiento de especies de magnolia es esencial para estudiar el origen y la evolución de las plantas con flor. En el mundo existen alrededor de 170 especies de este género. 
En la última década, se ha descubierto un gran número de especies neotropicales. Ahora las magnolias que se encuentran en el Nuevo Mundo han aumentado de un tercio a casi la mitad de todos los especímenes a escala mundial.

“Hace dos años se conocían apenas cinco especies de magnolia en Ecuador; ahora son 23”, cuenta Neill. Agrega que esta es una demostración de las pocas investigaciones que se han realizado del género.
 El Ecuador es el país neotropical con más especímenes por área. En especial la región de Zamora Chinchipe, la cual alberga nueve especies por ­cada 10 000 km². 
El descubrimiento de los dos nuevos árboles fue inesperado. Los científicos habían encontrado las flores de los especímenes durante un muestreo en la Cordillera de los Llanganates, en el 2014. Las archi­varon, guardando su secreto en el herbario de la UEA.

Meses más tarde, el botánico mexicano Antonio Vázquez las identificó como dos nuevas especies de plantas únicas en el mundo. A la primera, los científicos la llamaron Magnolia vargasiana, nombrada en honor al rector de la UEA, Julio César Vargas. Las segunda recibió el nombre del lugar donde la encontraron: Magnolia llanganatensis. 
Magnolia vargasiana tiene hojas más puntiagudas que la llanganatensis. Esta última, publicada recientemente como nueva especie, tiene frutos rojos, su flor mide 3 centímetros y posee seis pétalos.

Las dos especies son endémicas de un área limitada de la cordillera central de los Llanganates. Es decir, no se encuentran en ninguna otra parte del mundo. 
Ambas habitan dentro de un área protegida por la Fundación Ecominga, por lo que según Neill no presentan ninguna amenaza, al contrario de otras especies.

Un estudio -realizado por Vázquez y sus colegas- afirma que un 26% de las magnolias del neotrópico se encuentra amenazado de extinción, según la Lista Roja de la Unión Internacional para la Conservación (UICN).
El género magnolia es de origen norteamericano. Este migró a Europa, Asia y Sudamérica. Después de miles de años se extinguió en Europa, dejando solo restos fósiles de su existencia.

Actualmente, debido a la degradación del hábitat, muchas especies de estos fósiles vivientes ya no existen en estado natural . 
En Asia y América, este grupo de árboles tiene una importancia económica y cultural. Su madera es cotizada por ser dura. Muchas especies 
se siembran con fines ornamentales. Otras se utilizan para la industria farmacéutica y la de perfumes.”

Este contenido ha sido publicado originalmente por Diario EL COMERCIO en la siguiente dirección:
Lou Jost
Fundacion EcoMinga

First photos of our third Magnolia species


My last post described the wave of unexpected new discoveries of Magnolia species in the Neotropics, and celebrated the publication of our second new Magnolia species, M. llanganatensis. In an earlier post I had mentioned a possible third species of Magnolia that our guards Luis and Fausto Recalde had found in our new “Forests in the Sky” reserve (see also here). Well, Luis and Fausto were at last able to photograph an open flower of this Magnolia. Dr Antonio Vazquez of Mexico has confirmed that it is indeed different from our other two new Magnolia species (M. llanganatensis and M. vargasiana); it is an as-yet-undescribed species that had been discovered recently in Antisana National Park just north of our area. Dr Vazquez is in the process of describing it as Magnolia mercedesiarum ined. The guards’ flower photos are the first ever taken of a live flower of this species! The flower that Dr Vazquez had used in his scientific description was a bud that he had boiled in order to open it.

I bet we still have more unknown Magnolia species in our reserves….

Lou Jost

Our second new Magnolia is now officially described and published: Magnolia llanganatensis

I’ve written often here (see this, this, and this) about the tree genus Magnolia. Until very recently, everyone thought that the center of diversity of the family Magnoliaceae was Asia, and that Latin America was an evolutionary backwater with relatively few species. Only five species were known from Ecuador in 1999 (Perez 2015). Nevertheless, adventurous botanists are suddenly finding, over the last twenty years, that the unexplored mountains and forests of Latin America are peppered with rare, locally endemic Magnolia species. It now looks like Latin America may have as many Magnolia species as Asia. Ecuador alone now has at least 23 species (Perez 2015), with 17 of these new species discovered just since 2012! Our Banos-area reserves are good examples of this trend. On a single trail in our Rio Zunac Reserve, as of 2014 there were three undescribed species of Magnolia, all very rare.

The first of these three to be described was Magnolia vargasiana, published in late 2015 by Dr Antonio Vazquez, visiting from Mexico, and his colleagues. Our reserve guard, Luis Recalde, was a coauthor on that paper. Now the second species, named Magnolia llanganatensis after the Llanganates mountains, has just been published by Dr. Vazquez’ team. This time our forest guardian Fausto Recalde is one of the coauthors. Both of the Recaldes earned the honor, since they risked their livese to free-climb these tall trees to obtain the flower buds needed for their identification and description. These particular neotropical Magnolia (section Talauma, subsection Talauma) only flower at night, so flower buds have to be brought down and nurtured and watched until, at dusk, they pop open and fill our scientific station with an exotic fragrance like some imaginary tropical fruit.

We now know quite a bit more about the population of this tree, thanks to an independent study project done a few months ago by Jaelyn Bos, a student from the US who participated in the biology program of the School for International Training here in Ecuador. She and our reserve caretaker Fausto Recalde spent two weeks searching within 20 meters on either side of our trails near the known trees of this species, hoping to find more. Only four new trees was found, bringing the total to ten, in three clusters separated from each other by up to a kilometer. Strikingly, all of these trees were found in a narrow band of elevation from 1730m to 1860m. The elevation band from 1799-1820m contained seven of the ten individuals. A previous survey by John Clark, David Neill, and University of Alabama students (who found the original M. llanganatensis trees) carefully sampled a quarter-hectare of forest at 2100m elevation just up the trail from the original M. llanganatensis site, and did not find any there, though they did find two other, different new Magnolias in that higher plot. Magnolia llanganatensis thus appears to be extremely fussy about the elevation where it will grow. The two species found in the 2100m plot also seem to be hyper-specialists in a particular elevation, since no individuals of those species were found in the elevation band occupied by M. llanganatensis. This is a surprising degree of altitudinal specialization for cloud forest trees, though we see this same pattern in many of the area’s orchids and other non-woody species.

Jaelyn attempted to characterize the trees’ locations using climate and physical data, and then use ArcGIS computer software to predict where else the species might occur. Unfortunately this didn’t work, probably because of the small and highly nonrandom sample size. She also identified some of the individual Magnolia llanganatensis crowns in some aerial photos of the forest, in case their particular shade of green might be distinctive enough to identify other Magnolia crowns in the aerial photos. Unfortunately the leaves were not distinctive enough to be used for this purpose.

Jaelyn measured the trees she found. Some are canopy giants; the largest had a diameter of 59.4cm. No trees smaller than 13cm diameter were located. This may suggest that the tree is not successfully reproducing, or it could mean that the juvenile trees have leaves so different from the adults that they were not recognized by Jaelyn or Fausto. That often happens in Neotropical magnolias. In any case the tree is so rare that we are attempting to propagate it to augment the population and to get it into cultivation in botanical gardens. We have a grant from Botanical Gardens Conservation International to help us do it. We will rig the trees with climbing ropes and try to collect seeds before they are removed by predators.

Meanwhile Jaelyn and Fausto happened to find a large fallen branch from one of our big M. llanganatensis (maybe the same branch that Luis Recalde climbed to collect the original flower bud). The branch was full of capsules with ripe seeds! Some of these seeds were collected and sent to the Universidad Estatal Amazonica for propagation. I don’t yet know if they have sprouted.

Part of the massive fallen M. llanganatensis branch which Jaelyn Bos and Fausto Recalde found. This contained many fruits with seeds, which were rescued for the Universidad Estatal Amazonica's attempt at propagation of this species.

Part of the massive fallen M. llanganatensis branch which Jaelyn Bos and Fausto Recalde found. This contained many fruits with seeds, which were rescued for the Universidad Estatal Amazonica’s attempt at propagation of this species. Photo: Jaelyn Bos.

Magnolias have existed as a coherent, easily recognizable group for at least 100 million years. That gives them a lot of time to move around the globe and speciate. How did this particular species end up here and nowhere else? The locally endemic orchids that inhabit the same forest belong to young genera only ten million years old at best, and we have often found sets of local species that are more closely related to each other than to distant species. In other words, in these groups, speciation is so recent that the there has not been time for dispersal beyond their original area. The local high-elevation species of the genus Teagueia are good examples; the entire group is strictly endemic to the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. So I wondered whether our two new species of Magnolia were each other’s closest relatives. Was this a local evolutionary radiation? I asked Dr Vazquez this question, and he told me that no, Magnolia llanganatensis and Magnolia vargasiana were in fact fairly distant relatives, which must have diverged many millions of years ago. I hope some day a DNA-based phylogeny of Magnolia will be constructed so we can discover some of the details of how these ancient species got here.

Because of these recent Magnolia discoveries in our Rio Zunac Reserve, and the discovery of additional new species in the lowlands immediately to the east of that reserve, our tiny little region is now considered (Perez 2015) one of the richest in the world for Magnolias (maybe THE richest, for its size)!

The research station that made these discoveries possible was built under a grant from the IUCN-Netherlands and the Netherlands Postcode Lottery. Without this station these trees would not have been discovered.


Perez Castaneda, A. J. (2015). Taxonomía y conservación de la familia Magnoliaceae en el Ecuador. Thesis, Universidad Catolica, Quito.

Lou Jost
EcoMinga Foundation

Earth Day: High school students from Aldo Leopold’s alma mater spend a week in our Cerro Candelaria forest

Aldo Leopold’s 1949 book, “A Sand County Almanac”, was one of the first voices of the environmental consciousness that began to awaken in response to the post-World War II rise of man’s destructive power. The founder of Earth Day, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, was deeply influenced by his writings.

Aldo Leopold wanted humanity to develop a land ethic, one that respected plants and non-human animals. He wrote:

“When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence.”

“This hanging involved no question of propriety. The girls were property. The disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expediency, not of right and wrong. Concepts of right and wrong were not lacking from Odysseus’ Greece: witness the fidelity of his wife through the long years before at last his black-prowed galleys clove the wine-dark seas for home. The ethical structure of that day covered wives, but had not yet been extended to human chattels. During the three thousand years which have since elapsed, ethical criteria have been extended to many fields of conduct, with corresponding shrinkages in those judged by expediency only.”

“…There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.”

Perhaps (just perhaps) our ethical sphere has been extended a bit since Leopold wrote those words, but we have a long way to go. We spend less and less time in nature, to the point where most people today do not even know what real nature is. Intact ecosystems are now so rare that the vast majority of people will never experience them, much less fall in love with them. This visceral love of nature is the only thing that can drive people to sacrifice their own comforts to protect it.

Dr John L. Clark, who holds the Aldo Leopold Distinguished Teaching Chair at The Lawrenceville School, Aldo Leopold’s alma mater in New Jersey, is as much in love with nature as anyone I know. He has started a program to bring his high school biology students (ranging in age from 15-18 years old) to our reserves in Ecuador, to try to ignite this passion for real nature in the next generation.

John is an old friend of mine who used to be a Peace Corps volunteer here in the 1980s. He is now a famous botanist specializing in gesneriads, the African Violet family. He has published several monographs on gesneriad genera and has discovered many new species. Two years ago, as a professor at the University of Alabama, he brought a college biology class to our Rio Zunac Reserve to set up two quarter-hectare plots, in which every tree bigger than 10 cm in diameter was sampled, tagged, and identified. Dr David Neill from the Universidad Estatal Amazonica helped set up that plot and identified the trees. In the process they found what turned out to be two new species of Magnolia trees, and John discovered a new gesneriad in the genus Columnea.

Now in his new position at The Lawrenceville School, he has done the same thing with a dozen of his high school students, joining with David Neill again to set up a quarter-hectare plot in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve last month. It was a daring project, very unusual for an American high school.

Some of his students wrote about their experience. Here is Kaimansa Sowah’s essay, which she titled “Botanizing!”:

“Never had I seriously considered ecology or botany or even entomology as a field of interest until our trip to Cerro Candelaria on the eastern slopes of the Andes in Ecuador. Arriving in Quito on a Saturday morning with many missionary groups crowding the lines at immigration, I questioned if our work in Ecuador would have any real impact on the community. How could plant identification transcend traditional community service? It would not be until I was sitting around a fire at our high camp sipping tea made from recently collected crushed foliage of a Lauraceae we had found earlier, barely communicating sufficiently in my middle school Spanish that I managed to realize the profound importance of our trip to Ecuador.”

“The hike up to camp was brutal to say the least. Many of us had never hiked before and mounted on our backs were 50-pound packs with silica gel for preparing museum specimens, M&Ms (which would be our lunch for several days), and personal belongings. Our frequent stops for “Botanizing!” only heightened the difficulty level. Our expedition leader Dr. John Clark lights up at a fallen Gesneriaceae leaf, so throughout the hike and the trip as a whole, he was never short of excitement as our paths were lined with rare and new species. Fortunately, the view of mountains perfectly scattered, parting only for the rapids leading to and from waterfalls, fuelled our strenuous walk to the camp. The view never ceased to amaze us, and many of us still fail to believe its reality.”

“It was not until we began work on the plots that each of our own individual love for botany and plant life was established. Divided into groups of three, we established and inventoried tree diversity in a 0.25-hectare permanent plot. With the help of Tito, our guide, friend, and resident tree climber, we identified trees based on vegetative features (e.g., leaf patterns, leaf arrangement, smell), recorded DBH (diameter breast height), tree height, and tagged each tree with an aluminum label. Our field journals appeared something like this: “tree 4, subplot 5, 25 meter height, 18 cm DBH, simple-alternate leaves with milky sap (Moraceae?).” On the first day we found a cherry tree (Prunus sp.) that had never been observed by our resident scientist and tree expert, Dr. David Neill who is a professor of biology at the Universidad Estatal Amazónica. Many of the trees were challenging to identify, which only further affirmed how much biodiversity surrounded us. During a lunch break, we played a plant identification game where we were divided into teams and given Al Gentry’s book “A Field Guide to the Families and Genera of Woody Plants of North west South America.” Each team was timed in their ability to identify foliage to family. All of us being extremely competitive, we quickly held our leaves to the light using our hand lenses, crushing and smelling, and rapidly blurting out names like “Piperacae!” Euphoribacae!” “Melostomatacae!””

“Along with our own Dr. Clark were resident entomologists and ecologists who shared their love of biology. We also met the director and founder of the EcoMinga foundation, Lou Jost who is a theoretical mathematician, ecologist, and botanist who specializes in the study of orchids. We were surrounded by vast amounts of unique talent, which greatly sparked our own interests. Besides the fieldwork, we were able to connect and talk with our guides. They soon became our friends, and it was through conversations with them that we realized how grateful they were for our interest in visiting their reserve. No, as a sixteen-year-old girl, I had never thought of biodiversity research as one of my interests. And I cannot say whether it was our guide giving us hints during the scavenger hunt with his ability to identify plant families from meters away, or the sheer look of ecstasy when “Ranger”, also known as Dr. Clark, and Dr. Neill sat around their pressed leaves dumbfounded at a new species, or Darwin [Recalde]’s ability to navigate the maze-like mountains and carting us up steep hills. Nonetheless, this trip has piqued my interest and I suspect that botany and biodiversity will play a large role in my future.”

Eloise White wrote of her experience:

“…When I first signed up to travel to Ecuador with the School, I expected a week of light hiking, bonding with new friends, and great food, all coupled with the occasional botanical reference. While the food was indeed fantastic, the intensity of the trip took us all by surprise on the first day in the field, when we embarked on a challenging four-hour hike to our camp. It was not until after we finished showering in the beautiful waterfall and sat down at dinner to prepare our field notebooks for our work in the tree plots the next morning that I realized the importance of the work that we would accomplish during our time in the forest.”

“When we reached the plots bright and early the next day, we received instructions, and my group quickly fell into a rhythm of tagging trees with bright orange tape and communicating with our local guides who were climbing to the canopy of the trees, a task that gradually became easier as our Spanish improved. Each time that our guide, usually some 30 feet high in a tree, would cry “Ten cuidado!” the three students in my group would jump back and wait for an unidentified specimen to come crashing to the ground. That first day, in the moments that I spent with Dr. Clark, tagging and pressing plant samples into pages of newspaper, his excitement surrounding new and rare species was absolutely contagious. I found myself eager to memorize the names of plant species, to identify which types of bark had latex, and to distinguish simple leaves from compound leaves. Even now, I find myself so grateful to Dr. Clark and the other scientists accompanying us in the forest because they showed me what it means to be passionate about a specific field of study, something that I hope to do as I move forward in my Lawrenceville career, the college process, and my life.”

“…My Spanish teachers at The Lawrenceville School have always stressed the importance of experiencing the language abroad in order to truly further my understanding… Between trying to ask our guides to scale a certain tree to obtain a specimen and sitting around our campfire late in the night, telling ghost stories and jokes with Jordi and Darwin, I was constantly speaking Spanish. The pure exposure to the language coupled with the locals’ willingness to help me practice provided me with a unique opportunity to further an area of interest which I had not previously devoted much attention to. Furthermore, partially overcoming the language barrier opened the group up to an irreplaceable chance to form lasting friendships with locals, a memory that I will forever treasure. Lawrenceville constantly stresses the importance of expanding our horizons, and I can attest that in communicating with and working alongside unfamiliar faces, the twelve of us expanded our own world views significantly.”

“Before embarking on our journey, our teachers made it clear that our accommodations would be far from luxurious. We were told us that we would be perpetually damp, sweaty, and dirty, all of which later proved true. However, I will be the first to say that the view from our wooden cabin base camp without windows, doors, or even walls was extraordinary, rivaling that from any mountain getaway or island. When we summited Cerro Candelaria (3800+ m), while it was extremely challenging and put both our bodies and minds to the test, the breathtaking outlook from the top instantly made our hard work worth it.”

“Overall, my work and experiences in Ecuador were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. They opened my eyes up to an entirely new scope of interests, people, and awareness. For example, as I previously planned on dropping out of Spanish for my senior year, I have changed my mind and will continue to advance my understanding of the language, hopefully into college. As I begin the college search, I have been relentlessly pestering my counselor about which schools have the best programs to study abroad while working with the science department. I attribute these shifts in my interests to my recent experience in Ecuador.”

Vivienne Gao expresses the very real physical challenges of this trip:

“Honestly, if I had known our expedition to Ecuador involved so much hiking, I probably would not have signed up. I’ve always been more comfortable in the water; I prefer swimming over running and am generally more athletic when I am not on land, so the minute I found out that our first hike to low camp would take roughly four hours, I definitely had my doubts…The day was hot, but not unpleasant, but I still kept my hair in braids to keep it off my neck. Once we began our hike however, the physical exertion made the heat borderline unbearable. We all carried large Osprey backpacks with our personal belongings, and these bags were not only heavy but also didn’t breathe well. Sweat happily gathered between my back and my pack, soaking through my shirt so that when I finally peeled the pack off, my shirt still clung to me as a dog’s fur clings to it, dripping, rinsed after a soapy bath in the backyard. The hike was mostly uphill, but the terrain varied. We were slopping through mud, climbing over rocks, and wading through streams, sometimes on level ground and sometimes on downhill slopes, but everything led us upwards eventually.”

“I remember seeing the cabin for the first time after three or so hours of hiking and thinking that this was the best moment of my life. I had fallen behind with a couple friends, so the rest of the group was already in the cabin waiting for us. As I slowly trudged up the hill, humoring the impressive cramp in my right calf that had formed over the duration of the hike, I congratulated myself for completing the hike, a feat that I considered the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Little did I know that in the days to come, I would experience hikes many times more difficult than this one, a prospect far beyond my wildest imaginations…”

“Twenty minutes before we reached low camp, my small group of hiking companions and I had come across waterfall, the same waterfall that would host our daily shower and laundry trips. After reaching camp, everyone, me included, was excited to wash the salt and dirt off their bodies. The idea of showering in a waterfall enticed me, but my legs caved at the thought of hiking another twenty minutes to the waterfall, yet I went anyways. The waterfall became my favorite place and I went everyday after that.”

“I came back from Ecuador having learned more about my physical and mental limits, surprised at how hard I could actually push myself. I lost eleven pounds but earned so much more in experience and memories. The trip is something I will never forget, and who knows, maybe someday I’ll return, ready to face the challenges I faced this time and conquer them.”

As his students noticed, John Clark was at least as excited as they were:

“I am often asked how I know when something I come across is a new species. It is important to note that describing a new species is a process that is collections-based, requires several formal criteria outlined by the International Code of Nomenclature (ICN), and is contingent on a peer-reviewed publication. It is considered by some biologists (e.g., L.E. Skog who co-chaired my PhD committee) as “bad botanical etiquette” to say something is new without data. Nevertheless, outlined here are four species that I am confident have not been previously described. My doctoral dissertation resulted in a monographic revision of Glossoloma (Clark 2005). This is a group of plants that I dedicated more than a decade studying and when finished, I expected that there would be an occasional new species that would represent something that was not included in the monograph (Clark 2005). For example, Karyn Cichocki observed a new species of Glossoloma in 2007 when assisting me on an expedition in Ecuador. An additional new species was described with a student as a result of an expedition in Colombia (Rodas & Clark 2014). What I did not expect to find in Cerro Candelaria was a new species of Glossoloma every 500 meters in elevation change. I found three new species of Glossoloma between our base camp and the high camp. We also discovered a an undescribed species of Drymonia, which is a group that Laura Clavijo and I have studied together for more than eight years. I directed Laura’s dissertation committee (2007 to 2015) and together we have published more than eight papers on Drymonia. Thus, the four undescribed species featured in Figure 1 [below] are based on ongoing studies of museum specimens, extensive fieldwork, and comprehensive review of taxonomic literature. The remarkable discovery of biodiversity featured in Figure 1 is an example of the urgency and need for additional studies in the Neotropics.”

“There are also rare species from Cerro Candelaria that I did not expect to find. Two collections represent populations that were not previously known. The rarest plant that we found was Columnea bivalvis (photo below, D and E), which was previously only known from a single population (Amaya-Márquez & Clark 2011). [Note added by LJ: That original population was found in what is now our Rio Machay Reserve.] Drymonia ignea (photo below, A and B) is endemic to the eastern slopes of the Andes and was previously only known from 5 populations (Clark 2013). Never have I seen more than a few individuals of Drymonia ignea growing together and along the ridgeline there were multiple areas of ten or more individuals.”

The Lawrenceville School students not only gave us their friendship and enthusiasm but also brought the gift of electricity to our research stations. I’ll save that story for a separate post.

The Lawrenceville School staff who visited us: Baptiste Bataille, Jennifer Mayr (her husband is related to famous evolutionary biologist Ernest Mayr!) and John L. Clark.

The Lawrenceville School staff who visited us: Baptiste Bataille, Jennifer Mayr (her husband is related to famous evolutionary biologist Ernest Mayr!) and John L. Clark.

The essay excerpts used here are from John’s fuller version of this story which will soon be published by the magazine “Gesneriads”. They are used here with John’s, the school’s, and the magazine editor’s permission. Thanks John, and thanks Lawrenceville School students, for a wonderful cultural exchange and exciting scientific discoveries! Your enthusiasm and that of your students inspires us and makes our work feel worth the trouble. Lawrenceville School students, you literally walk in the footsteps of the great Aldo Leopold, and I hope that like him, some of you can help the earth face the challenges that your own generation will witness.

EcoMinga also thanks the World Land Trust and their donors Puro Coffee, Naturetrek, and PricewaterhouseCoopers for funding the Cerro Candelaria Reserve, and their donor Noel McWilliam for the funds to build the research station where these students, and many other students and scientists, stayed.

The World Land Trust’s “Forests in the Sky” appeal continues to expand the protection of this area.

Lou Jost