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

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!

Two new scientific papers coauthored by EcoMinga staff

In the last few days two new papers were published which had EcoMinga staff as coauthors:

Magnolia vargasiana (Magnoliaceae), a new Andean species, and a key to Ecuadorian species of subsection Talauma, with notes in its pollination biology J. Antonio Vasquez-Garcia, David A. Neill, Mercedes Asanza & Luis Recalde

Eager to get the flower buds of these magnolias, Luis Recalde and Fausto Recalde climbed high into the canopy. Here Luis climbs the hemiepiphyte root hanging from the right-hand side of the magnolia trunk; click to enlarge since he is so high he is almost invisible. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Eager to get the flower buds of these magnolias, Luis Recalde and Fausto Recalde climbed high into the canopy. Here Luis climbs the hemiepiphyte root hanging from the right-hand side of the magnolia trunk; click to enlarge since he is so high he is almost invisible. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Luis Recalde, one of our reserve caretakers whose photographic work appears often on this blog, was coauthor of this paper. It describes one of two new species of Magnolia discovered recently in our Rio Zunac Reserve. These Magnolias open mainly at night, so buds need to be collected from high in the canopy during the day and brought to earth for observation. Luis risked his life multiple times to obtain flower buds from the canopy of this tree, free-climbing a thick aerial root of a hemi-epiphyte growing high in the tree’s crown. The effort exhausted him, the first time I’d ever seen him tired.

Luis’ salary is financed by the World Land Trust’s “Keepers of the Wild” program, thanks to a donation to the WLT from Puro Coffee. Thanks very much, WLT and Puro!!

Expected Shannon Entropy and Shannon Differentiation between Subpopulations for Neutral Genes under the Finite Island Model Anne Chao, Lou Jost, T. C. Hsieh, K. H. Ma, William B. Sherwin, Lee Ann Rollins

This paper derives some fundamental results on the relationship between Shannon entropy and evolution. Shannon entropy is an important theoretical quantity in many sciences, including physics and information theory. It can be partitioned into within- and between-group components, and these components can be used to contruct a measure of the degree of genetic differentiation between two or more subpopulations of a species. Unlike previously-used measures of genetic differentiation, this one has mathematical properties that make it always increase when a gene in one subpopulation mutates into a new gene. That is how speciation starts–two subpopulations that don’t mix very much will gradually accumulate new mutations and so become genetically distinct. Thus the entropy-based measure of differentiation can accurately describe the beginnings of the speciation process.

But we’d like not only to merely describe the degree of differentiation between subpopulations, but to know the causal role of the genetic and demographic factors (subpopulation size, number of subpopulations, migration rate between subpopulations, mutation rate, strength of natural selection ) that control the process. To figure that out, geneticists use a simple mathematical model of the subpopulations, ignoring natural selection for now. This model is called the “finite island model”. Subpopulations that obey this model always reach an equilibrium amount of genetic differentiation that is completely determined by the genetic and demographic parameters of the model. The challenge, then, is to figure out the formula for the equilibrium amount of differentiation in terms of the model parameters.

The first step is to figure out a formula for the entropy of a single population at equilibrium. Some progress had been made on that problem by William Sherwin and his colleagues, but the breakthrough came when Anne Chao discovered that the entropy at equilibrium was given by a very elegant mathematical function (called the digamma function) of a certain combination of the model parameters. From there it was possible to formulate the entropy of a subdivided population, and the entropy of the subpopulations. And from this we could derive the entropy-based measure of genetic differentiation in terms of the model parameters. The result showed that under a broad range of conditions, the main factor determining the amount of differentiation at equilibrium was the ratio of migration rate to mutation rate. Under other conditions, other factors also had important effects. This result can help us better understand the mechanisms of speciation.

The paper contains many other interesting results, including a novel test to check if a set of genes is being acted on by natural selection, and a novel connection between different mutation models. Interested readers can get the paper free on PLoS1. I’d like to thank my coauthors for a really wonderful and productive collaboration. I’d also like to thank Tom Leinster and the Centre de Recerca Matematica, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, Catalunya, for hosting Bill and I as visiting fellows for a month and for bringing Anne as well to the wworld’s first Mathematics of Biodiversity conference there.

Lou Jost
http://www.loujost.com

TWO new Magnolia species discovered in our Rio Zunac Reserve!

I’m excited to announce two of the most spectacular plant discoveries made so far in our reserves: two magnificent new species of Magnolia trees!

New Magnolia sp. #2. The stamens fell off onto the petals as the flower opened. A  pollinating beetle is visible near the tip of the lower-right petal. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

New species, Magnolia vargasiana ined. The stamens fell off onto the petals as the flower opened. A pollinating beetle is visible near the tip of the lower-right petal. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

New Magnolia species #1. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

New species, Magnolia llangantensis ined. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Everyone who knows about trees has heard of magnolias, and most people have seen the stately white-flowered Magnolia grandiflora tree, iconic symbol of the southeastern US, and widely grown around the world as an ornamental. It is hard to imagine that trees in this dramatic genus remain undiscovered. The discovery of two new magnolia species in one small area in the Rio Zunac Reserve is a testament to the very special character of the very wet Cordillera Abitagua, semi-isolated granite mountains separating the main body of the Andes from the immense flat Amazon basin. These two new magnolia species are on the same trail as the spectacular new tree Meriania aurata which was discovered here a few years ago.

The magnolia discoveries were first made by botanists John Clark (University of Alabama), David Neill (Universidad Estatal Amazonica), and their students, who came to our Rio Zunac field station in May 2014 to set up two research plots in the forest:

University of Alabama students, Universidad Estatal Amazonica students, Drs John Clark and David Neill, and our guards at our Rio Zunac field station.  John is center bottom in white shirt, David is directly behind him. Photo: John Clark.

University of Alabama students, Universidad Estatal Amazonica students, Drs John Clark and David Neill, and our guards at our Rio Zunac field station. John is center bottom in white shirt, David is directly behind him. Photo: John Clark.

Their goal was to identify and tag every tree over 10 cm in diameter in each of these two quarter-hectare plots, one plot at 1850 m elevation and the other 2 km away at about 2000m elevation. In the process of identifying each tree in the two plots, they found a few individuals of trees that were vegetatively identifiable as magnolias. Some of them were among the biggest trees in the forest, but they were completely unknown to the local people, who did not have a name for them. Surprisingly, the magnolias in the first plot had quite different leaves from the ones in the second plot. Since there were no known magnolia species in the area at those elevations, David and John suspected these both might be new species. But flowers or fruits were needed in order to be sure.

Some of John Clark's and David Neill's students setting up the boundaries of their study plots in our Rio Zunac Reserve, assisted by EcoMinga's Luis Recalde (light blue-gray shirt). Photo: John Clark.

Some of John Clark’s and David Neill’s students setting up the boundaries of their study plots in our Rio Zunac Reserve, assisted by EcoMinga’s Luis Recalde (light blue-gray shirt). Photo: John Clark.

John Clark is an expert on gesneriads (the African Violet family). While he was in our reserve with his students he discovered this new species of gesneriad, a Columnea, on the same trail as the magnolias and the Meriania aurata. Photo: John Clark.

John Clark is an expert on gesneriads (the African Violet family). While he was in our reserve with his students he discovered this new species of gesneriad, a Columnea, on the same trail as the magnolias and the Meriania aurata. Photo: John Clark.

Enter Antonio Vazquez, a Mexican scientist who is the world expert on Neotropical (New World tropical) magnolias. It just so happened that the Ecuadorian government had hired him as a visiting professor for a year at David Neill’s university, the Universidad Estatal Amazonica, just a few dozen kilometers from our reserve! So of course in September when he arrived in Ecuador Dr Vazquez went to the reserve to visit these magnolias, staying in our Rio Zunac field station. The plots with the magnolias are another day’s hike up from the station. Our guards Luis, Jesus, Santiago, and Fausto Recalde went with him and climbed the magnolia trees to search for flowers, fruits, and buds. They found a partially open flower on one tree, and a seed pod on another tree.

Flower pictures of the Neotropical magnolia species are always elusive, because the flowers open at night and close by morning. A given flower does this for two nights in a row, and on the third morning it remains open and the petals fall. Dr Vazquez and our crew had a stroke of luck with the flower of Magnolia vargasiana ined. They found a three-day-old flower that had been held together by insect webs, so that the petals didn’t fall off as they normally would. Here are some of their first photos of Magnolia vargasiana ined., before and after freeing the petals from the webs.

Left: The first flower ever seen of Magnolia species #2 was falling apart and held together by insect or spider webs. Right: The flower opened partially after loosening the webs. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

Left: The first flower ever seen of Magnolia vargasiana ined. was falling apart and held together by insect or spider webs. Right: The flower opened partially after loosening the webs. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

Dr Antonio Vazquez in the magnolia forest of our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

Dr Antonio Vazquez in the magnolia forest of our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

I was excited by these discoveries and made my own trip to the site to see them, with two students of Dr Vazquez and our forest caretakers/parabiologists Luis and Fausto Recalde. After much effort we found advanced buds of both species, which Luis and Fausto managed to collect by free-climbing these very tall trees.

To get the flower buds of these magnolias, Luis Recalde and Fausto Recalde climbed into the canopy. Here Luis climbs the hemiepiphyte root hanging from the right-hand side of the magnolia trunk; click to enlarge since he is so high he is almost invisible. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

To get the flower buds of these magnolias, Luis Recalde and Fausto Recalde climbed into the canopy. Here Luis climbs the hemiepiphyte root hanging from the right-hand side of the magnolia trunk; click to enlarge since he is so high he is almost invisible. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

As evening approached we watched the buds open. The bud from Magnolia llanganatensis ined. was damaged by insects and failed to open normally, but the bud from Magnolia vargasiana ined. opened beautifully by 5:00 pm, filling the area with a wonderful fruity smell.

Opening flower of Magnolia species #2. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Opening flower of Magnolia vargasiana ined . Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

We noticed that there were already four little beetles inside it, probably trapped there from the night before. We had discovered the pollinator of this magnolia! The beetles were coated with pollen and were rather tipsy. One fell off the flower, and when I tried to pick it up it jumped away as if spring-loaded. Later, as we looked at the photos, we saw that the hind legs of these tiny beetled were modified for powerful jumping. These observations suggested that these little guys belonged to the group of chrysomelid beetles known as the”flea beetles”.

This is the chrysomelid "flea beetle" (so named because of its powerful rear jumping legs) we found inside the magnolia flower as it opened. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This is the chrysomelid “flea beetle” (so named because of its powerful rear jumping legs) we found inside the magnolia flower as it opened. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Dr. Vazquez’s papers describing these new species were recently submitted to the appropriate journals. These exciting magnolia discoveries are part of a continent-wide trend. In the 1990s there were only four species of the genus Magnolia known from all of South America. As biological exploration in the neotropics has intensified in the last few decades, small numbers of new locally endemic Magnolia species have been turning up in remote locations all over the continent, as well as in Central America (see here and here for an exciting example in Mexico, in a reserve run by my friend Roberto Pedrazo; Dr Vazquez was also the expert who described those new species). Neighboring Colombia now has about 33 described species of Magnolia, almost all very localized and rare, many in danger of imminent extinction. For example M. espinallii is known from fewer than 50 individuals, and Magnolia wolfii is known from only five trees in one remnant patch of surviving forest surrounded by coffee plantations. Our own new species might very well be endemic to the Cordillera Abitagua. The two species seem to be very fussy about where they will grow, since they did not grow together in the same plots, even though the two plots were separated by only 2 km and about 200m of elevation.

Apart from their conservation importance, these recent magnolia discoveries highlight some interesting biogeographic issues. Magnolia trees are an ancient lineage; their family goes back 100 million years, and trees that we might recognize as magnolia relatives lived alongside the dinosaurs. The South American lineage that our trees belong to Magnolia section Talauma, is the oldest lineage of the genus, diverging from the rest of the magnolias around 40 million years ago (Azuma et al 2001). The current theory is that these species got to South America via North America, which had close connections to Eurasia in the past. At that time North America would have had a tropical climate.

Phylogenetic tree of selected Magnolia species. M dodecapetala, M. ovata, M. mexicana, and M. minor represent the Neotropical species. Figure 1 from Azuma et al (2001), The molecular phylogeny of the Magnoliaceae: The biogeography of tropical and temperate disjunctions. American Journal of Botany 88(12): 2275–2285.

Phylogenetic tree of selected Magnolia species. M dodecapetala, M. ovata, M. mexicana, and M. minor represent the Neotropical species. Figure 1 from Azuma et al (2001), The molecular phylogeny of the Magnoliaceae: The biogeography of tropical and temperate disjunctions. American Journal of Botany 88(12): 2275–2285.

So when did our species, and the many other South American magnolias, diverge from each other? Are they all old species that began to diverge already in North America, or are they recent species that diverged close to their current locations? Figure 1 in Azuma et al (2001) seems to show that the South American and Lesser Antillean species of magnolia in the Talauma group diverged at least 9 million years ago. The Central American + Cuban species and South American + Lesser Antillean species they analyzed appear to have diverged about 20 million years ago. These divergences are earlier than the currently-accepted (but still somewhat uncertain) date when North America became connected to South America. So it might be that our species are very old, and last shared a common ancestor somewhere in North America, not in South America. This is a very different situation from most other within-genus evolutionary radiations here in the Andes, which are often only 2-3 million years old.

Uncirc1

These kinds of questions will be discussed in detail at the upcoming First International Conference on Neotropical Magnoliaceae, which will be held right here in the shadow of the Cordillera Abitagua at the Universidad Estatal Amazonica from May 27 to June 2, 2015. Please write to Antonio Vazquez, jvazquez@cucba.udg.mx, for more information.

Many thanks to John Clark, David Neill, Antonio Vazquez, and their students for choosing to work in our reserve! And thanks to Luis, Fausto, Santiago, and Jesus Recalde for their enthusiasm in the field.

Lou Jost
www.loujost.com
www.ecominga.com

Please consider donating to keep these reserves protected.