Guest post: The fascination of trees

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[Editor’s note: This guest post is by Lane Davis. Lane is a former School for International Training student who spent a semester in Ecuador and did her independent study project with us. She then won a Fulbright scholarship to return to set up three research plots in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve,  at 2000m,  2500m, and 3000m. By identifying every tree in each plot, she has generated data which can help us quantify and understand not only the diversity of our forests, but also the important differences in composition between our forests at different altitudes, and between the Cerro Candelaria forests and others locally and globally. This kind of data provides a much-needed step towards understanding the deeper underlying causes  biodiversity – LJ]

Photos courtesy Lane Davis unless otherwise noted.

“And this?” Javier asks with anticipation as he opens the folded newspaper sheet labeled #47. I open my warped, mud-covered Rite in the Rain field notebook and look up the number. “Canopy tree, no latex or odor but the bark slash oxidized from white to brown. Do you want to see the live photos?” I ask. Javier shakes his head no and picks up a hand lens. I do the same and we each lift into the light a pressed and dried branch and examine it with our hand lenses.

Under the 30x magnification, the underside of the leaf shimmers with thousands of little scales. “What is it?” I ask him. Javier shrugs his shoulders almost jubilantly, muttering “Incredible,” and places the sample in a growing stack of unidentified plants. Later, we will scour Alwyn H. Gentry’s cinder block of a book “A Field Guide to the Families and Genera of Woody Plants of Northwest South America” and Walter Palacio’s “Árboles del Ecuador” (Trees of Ecuador) for families and genera of dicots with simple, opposite, alternate leaves; entire margins; and peltate trichomes (those shimmery scales) that could match sample #47. In this way, we will shrink the unknown stack, labeled “Desconocidos,” moving each plant we identify instead to piles of taxonomically related plants. But we will only make significant headway into the “Desconocidos” stack when we meet with another botanist, Walter Palacios. Yes, the same Walter Palacio’s I mention above who quite literally wrote the book on identifying trees in Ecuador. Javier and Walter are friends. Ecuador is a small country and its scientific community smaller, so pretty much all botanists know one another (which made it a little embarrassing when I asked for Walter’s signature on my copy of “Árboles del Ecuador,” but it was worth it).

But for now, Javier plunges back into the samples we haven’t reviewed at all yet. He grows more incredulous yet ecstatic each time he peels open one of the newspapers in which I have carefully pressed and dried tree clippings.  Sometimes he takes one look and proclaims the tree’s family, “Fabaceae” or “Lauraceae,” or even the genus, “Inga” or “Ocotea,” and I record this proclamation in my Microsoft Excel database and in the corner of the newspaper. But around half the time the sample remains with only a number to identify it.

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One of my samples identified to family level. This is a member of one of the largest neotropical plant families, the Melastomataceae.

 

This uncertainty thrills Javier, a talented botanist, biologist, and the Executive Director of Fundación EcoMinga, the conservation organization I am affiliated with for my Fulbright work and which owns the forest where my dried tree clippings once grew. He has spent an unknowable number of hours traipsing through Ecuadorian forests; if he doesn’t recognize the plant, it must be at least somewhat rare. Javier also gets excited any time my pile of pressed plants yields a species he hasn’t seen in my samples yet, regardless of whether or not he knows what it is. With the discovery of each unique species, tree diversity goes up. The diversity of my plot, the 40m x 40m section of the forest where I gathered my plant samples, goes up in an absolute sense – one definition of diversity is simply the number of species present in a given area. But the implied diversity of the forest surrounding my plot shoots up even faster. My small plot cannot possibly capture the full diversity of the cloud forest, but we can use my data to estimate it. This calculation is based on the number of singletons, or species for which we have found only one individual tree in the plot. If singletons make up a large portion of the data, then we know the data isn’t representing the forest’s diversity well and there must be many yet undiscovered species outside of my plot. (For more on these calculations, see Chao and Jost 2012 and Chao et al. 2014).

For my part, the identifications and repetitions of plant groups are just as exciting as the unknown and new species; with each familiar sample and identifiable family characteristic, my own ability to identify cloud forest trees expands and solidifies. Unlike Javier, I have spent a knowable number of hours in the Ecuadorian cloud forest – to date, about 275 (not including evening and night hours when I slept in the field). Almost all of this time I spent collecting the plants piled in front of us, or walking to one of my three plots to do so.

During data collection, I lived in the 250-person village of El Placer at the base of Cerro Candelaria, the forest reserve owned by Fundación EcoMinga where I collected the now pressed and dried tree samples. Each morning I set out at 7:00 am, often but not always accompanied by a guardabosque (a forest ranger), and hiked to one of my three plots in the reserve. When I wrote my Fulbright grant proposal to study the vulnerability of Andean cloud forest trees to climate change, I planned to do so by learning about the altitudinal distributions of different trees species using eight different 10m x 100m plots ascending the mountain slope in Candelaria. Species growing in only a narrow altitudinal band will likely have a tougher time keeping up with their ideal growing conditions – as climate change shifts those conditions upslope – than species that are adapted to the conditions in a large geographic range.  It quickly became clear that I would not have enough time in the 10-month grant period to take data in such a large area, and Javier and I decided to modify our methodology to match that of the Evaluación Nacional Forestal (National Forest Evaluation) taking place in 2018, which uses square plots. That way, the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment could use our data in their study, too.

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Views from and of El Placer

As a result, each morning I left El Placer to arrive at one of three 40m x 40m plots, located at 2000 m (6562 ft), 2500 m (8202 ft), or 3000 m above sea level (9843 ft).  Beginning from 1400 m (4593 ft), my commute required 2hrs and a very steep 1969 ft elevation gain to my first plot, 3 hrs and a crushing 3609 ft gain to my second plot, or 6 hrs and a demoralizing 5250 ft gain to my third plot. Consequently, I often camped in the field when I worked at my second plot and always did at my highest plot.

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Campsite in and views from my plot at 3000 meters (nearly 10,000 ft above sea level).

I hiked through the Andean cloud forest, which usually meant hiking through a forest submerged in clouds. Cloud forests exist on mountains near lowland sources of atmospheric moisture – usually the ocean but in this case the Amazon Rainforest. Prevailing weather patterns push this moisture up the slopes, where it cools and condenses into low-level clouds, mist, or rain, leading to the frequent presence of precipitation in one of these forms.

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Clouds in the cloud forest.

When I first began taking data in the cloud forest, I had no idea how to identify the trees around me, and with good reason. Though I took Field Botany at Williams College and identified plants as part of my senior Biology thesis, there are only a little over 70 species of trees in the state of Massachusetts (Butler 2016). In comparison, 131 different species of trees exist in the 4,000 square meters (slightly less than 1 acre) of cloud forest I have examined. Working to identify these trees using my dried samples, photos, books, the internet, the collections at the National Herbarium (a library of preserved plant samples), and significant help from professional botanists, I have slowly learned to recognize the defining characteristics of my plots’ most common families, genera, and species. Now when I walk through the forest, morphological features of plants capture my attention, often provoking a scientific name to come to mind. Large conical stipules, ring scars, and latex scream Moraceae; interpetiolar stipules insinuate Rubiaceae; and petiolar sheaths with a sweet soapy smell proclaim their identity – Hedyosmum.

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Photo: Fausto Recalde/EcoMinga.

 

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Cloud forest diversity is not confined to its trees. Far from it. For example, in the past 10 years, around 40 new species of orchid and 10 new species of frog have been discovered in EcoMinga’s reserves in one relatively small section of the Ecuadorian cloud forest. Above, a few photos of the incredible non-tree diversity of the cloud forest.

These trees and the billions of organisms that live on, under, and around them, ranging from soil microorganisms to Howler monkeys, as well as the inorganic features of the landscape like rocks and soil, make up the cloud forest ecosystem. This intricate network provides critical services to the human populations that make their home in the Andes Mountains. For example, cloud forest soil and epiphytes (plants that live on other plants and draw water and nutrients from the air rather than the soil) filter and regulate the flow of the glacial water which services millions of people in rural and urban Andean communities (Anderson et al. 2011). The extensive cloud forest root system helps hold soil in place, preventing erosion and landslides (Anderson et al. 2011). Climate change will disrupt these and other services, threatening human and ecosystem health and safety. For example, more intense rains combined with tree die-offs will increase erosion and landslides, which threaten human safety and water supply. In Quito in 2017, a landslide blocked the city’s main water channel, leaving 600,000 people without water for several days (Manetto 2017). In El Placer landslides occasionally cover pipes and cut off water; in my six months living there, this occurred once. [Editor’s note: See my previous post.]

Disruption of water supply is just one example of the myriad potential ways climate change and the resulting deterioration of the cloud forest ecosystem may affect El Placer and other similar communities nestled in Andean valleys. Better understanding the cloud forest’s fate under climate change will allow for targeted approaches to climate change preparation, for instance by creating emergency water delivery systems. Given the imminence of climate change, however, it is critical to implement strategies that decrease vulnerability to a wide range of climate change outcomes. I recently wrote a paper for Fulbright’s Regional Enhancement seminar on the how Fundación EcoMinga and El Placer’s partnership may do just that. I argued that EcoMinga bolsters El Placer’s climate resiliency by providing economic activities to the community that are less likely to be impacted by climate change than those that are otherwise available to them.

The main way EcoMinga does this is by employing community members as forest rangers in its reserves. The forest rangers build and maintain trails and cabins, assist visiting scientists and students with their research, and serve as keen eyes that often discover new species and other interesting biodiversity. My own work would have been out of reach (literally) without the help of Darwin Recalde, Jesús Recalde, Tito Recalde, Santiago Recalde, Jordy Salazar, and Andy Salazar. These men climbed 30-meter tall trees to reach leaves and flowers at the very top – those same leaves and flowers that now sit preserved in the National Herbarium in Quito and that make up the rows of my datasheets with which I will try to say something about the forest’s future.

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Darwin Recalde climbing a tree to cut a sample of its leaves.

In fact, this goal – to assess the forest’s future under climate change – has morphed throughout my grant period. As with any interesting scientific study, this one has produced more questions than it will answer. Based on the calculations I mentioned earlier, though I took samples from 73 different tree species in my lowest altitude and most diverse plot, these represent less than half of the total number of species in the forest at that altitude.  What other species does the forest in this area contain? What allows the most common species I found to thrive? How will climate change affect its strategy? How will the forest’s response to climate change compare with my predictions? Will adaption differ in different locations within the cloud forest? Do these responses correspond with different microclimates? How do other aspects of the tree’s environment, like soil type and slope, affect forest adaption?

Many of these questions will only be answerable with a long-term research project. I have recently learned that my work will become part of just that. Fundación EcoMinga and the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (National Institute of Biodiversity, or INABIO) are beginning a long-term forest monitoring collaboration. The study will comprise a network of plots in the Ecuadorian cloud forest including my three, a few other existing plots in EcoMinga’s reserves, and several more yet to be established. Tree growth, climate, and forest composition will be monitored regularly in these areas, and the data from my 2017-2018 study will form the baseline to which future measurements from my plots will be compared. While EcoMinga and INABIO are still determining details, the research will shed light on many of the questions my study has produced. In addition to providing baseline data, there are other ways I can help move this project forward. For one, I am striving to make the R (a statistical program) code I am writing to analyze my own data easily reproducible so other researchers and students can use it for quick analysis of data from all the plots.

This is an aerial view of Lane’s Plot 1 at 2000m elevation in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve. We fly over the 40m x 40m plot in the first few seconds, and then continue down the ridge to hover above our research station. Video by Lou Jost.

This is an aerial view of Lane’s Plot 2 at 2500m elevation in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve. We break through the clouds and fly straight to the 40m x 40m plot in the first few seconds, heading upslope. Then we turn around and float slightly downslope over and past the plot. Video by Lou Jost

I can also help by recruiting more students to continue the study. So much exciting work remains to be done. In addition to expanding and monitoring my plots, ample opportunities to personalize the project exist. For instance, you (yes, you!) could explore using drone imagery to identify trees from the air, investigate the role of rodents in seed dispersal, study the timing of tree sexual reproduction (phenology), or look at the genetics of cloud forest tree diversity – and how each of these impacts the forest’s adaption to climate change. All of these are areas in which EcoMinga currently works or would like to pursue. Whatever interests you, you will find enthusiastic scientists in Ecuador to support you. And if none of this attracts you but you know of others who it might, please send this post along to them.

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Example of aerial images of my plots that could be used to identify trees. Thanks to Lou Jost and his excellent drone piloting for these images! 

Finally, we can all support EcoMinga, its work conserving the cloud forest, partnership with El Placer, and scientific collaboration with INABIO by donating to the Foundation through the Orchid Conservation Alliance (US), the World Land Trust (UK) and Rainforest Trust (US). (Make sure you specify that the funds are for EcoMinga.) Contact Lou Jost (loujost@gmail.com) for more information about donating.

Thank you for reading! If you are interested in continuing this work and/or in hearing more about it, please do not hesitate to contact me:

Lane Davis

lanedavis17@gmail.com

(404) 805-2234 (WhatsApp or iMessage only until I am back in the US on May 11, 2018)

The opinions and information reported here are my own and do not represent those of the Fulbright Ecuador Commission, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, or the U.S. Department of State.

 

References

Anderson, E.P., Marengo, J., Villalba, R., Halloy, S., Young, B., Cordero, D., Gast, F., Jaims, E., and Ruiz, D. Consequences of Climate Change for Ecosystems and Ecosystem Services in the Tropical Andes. In Climate Change and Biodiversity in the Tropical Andes; Herzog, S.K., Martinez, R., Jørgensen, P.M., Tiessen, H., Eds.; Inter-American Institute           for Global Change Research (IAI): MOtevideo, Uruguay; Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE): Amstelveen, The Netherlands, 2011; pp 1-19.

Butler, B. J. 2016. Forests of Massachusetts, 2015. Resource Update FS-89. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 4 p.

Chao, A., Gotelli, N.J., Hsieh, T.C., Sander, E.L., Ma, K.H., Colwell, R.K., and Ellison, A.M. 2014. Rarefaction and extrapolation with Hill numbers: a framework for sampling and estimation in species diversity studies. Ecological Society of America 84 (1): 45-67. https://doi.org/10.1890/13-0133.1

Chao, A. and Jost, L. 2012. Coverage-based rarefaction and extrapolation: standardizing samples by completeness rather than size. Ecology 93:2533−2547. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/11-1952.1.

Manetto, F. 2017. Un derrumbe deja a 600.000 personas sin agua potable en Quito.” El Pais, December 8. https://elpais.com/internacional/2017/12/07/ america/1512681483_601181.html.

 

Visit to our Rio Zunac magnolias

 

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Trunk of one of our Magnolia trees. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

I’ve written often about our exciting new magnolia species. Our first two undescribed species were discovered in our Rio Zunac Reserve, and they were recently described by Dr Antonio Vazquez (Mexico) as Magnolia vargasiana and M. llanganatensis.

We got a grant from Botanical Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), London, to try to enrich our populations of these species, which do not appear to be reproducing well. Last month Dr Joachim Gratzfeld of BGCI came to see our famous Magnolias for himself. He was guided by our  reserve caretakers Luis and Fausto Recalde, who are also co-authors with Dr Vazquez on the scientific papers describing the new Magnolias.

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

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Fausto Recalde with rotten magnolia buds. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

 

These Magnolia species, like many other neotropical Magnolias, have flowers that open briefly at night and then close before dawn, trapping their pollinator inside. The next night, the flower opens again and releases its pollinator, now thoroughly covered in pollen. This secret drama unfolds each night in the top of the forest canopy, unseen by human eyes. The only way a visitor can see the process is for someone to climb the trees and bring down some ready-to-open buds. These can be kept in water and will open the following night if they are mature enough.

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The buds of Magnolia llanganatensis high in the canopy. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

 

Luis and Fausto are expert tree climbers, and were able to climb our giant trees to bring Joachim some buds of each species. (By the way, our grant from BGCI is for buying static climbing rope and harnesses to set up a safe system, so that anyone can reach the canopy of these magnolias and work on their pollination and propagation. We will deploy this system in late December.)

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Luis and Fausto Recalde examining the crown of a tree with their camera zoom. The gold tubes attach together and have clippers at their tip, which can be pulled closed by a string. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

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Luis Recalde climbing a magnolia. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

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

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

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

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Magnolia vargasiana  opening. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

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Magnolia vargasiana fully open. Only a handful of humans have ever seen this. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

A trip to the Rio Zunac Reserve always has surprises in store, no matter what a visitor comes for. Joachim’s visit was no exception. He  had to climb some gentle mountains to reach the Magnolias, and at his highest point he had reached a poorly-known forest where other trees besides the Magnolias were newly-discovered or, in a few cases, still unknown to science. By chance Joachim came across a tree with large intense wine-purple flowers in the genus Meriania, a member of the large and important family known to botanists as the Melastomataceae. We had first seen this species a few years ago in the same area, and I sent pictures to experts but no one could identify it. There was also another species in the same genus, Meriania, which David Neill and I had discovered in this same forest fourteen years ago. This was Meriania aurata, one of the most spectacular trees in the world, which I have written about before.

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Meriania aurata. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

In addition to exciting trees, Joachim visited our Black-and-chestnut Eagle (Spizaetus isidori) nest and saw the baby, nearly ready to leave the nest.

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Black-and-chestnut Eagle adult and young at their nest in the reserve. Photo: Fausto Recalde/EcoMinga.

There were lots of other birds, and many species came to feed on the fruits of some melastomes that the guards had planted around our cabin and in old pastures:

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

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

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Golden-winged Manakin, rarely seen in the reserve. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

Joachim found an unusual fern, Ophioglossum palmatum. It makes big rubbery hand-shaped leaves that look nothing like a typical fern, with club-shaped spore-bearing structures growing from the leaf margins. This fern is very seldom encountered here, but it has a very wide distribution that even reaches into southern Florida in the US.

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

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The forest interior. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation.

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

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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.

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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: http://www.elcomercio.com/tendencias/ecuador-descubrieron-magnolias-flora.html. ElComercio.com
Lou Jost
Fundacion EcoMinga

First photos of our third Magnolia species

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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
EcoMinga

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.

Reference

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

Lou Jost
EcoMinga Foundation