Shrew-opossums, our strangest mammals

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The shrew-opossum Caenolestes sangay, not exactly cute and cuddly! Photo: Jorge Brito.

Most mammals, including us, are placental mammals. There are two smaller groups of mammals: egg-laying monotremes like the platypus, and marsupials like the opossum and kangaroo. These groups diverged more than a hundred million years ago from the lineage that became the placental mammals, and though they are minor players in the world today, both were more important in the distant past.  Marsupials in particular were once much more important and much more diverse. Marsupials apparently originated in the northern continent that became Asia and North America. About 65Mya marsupials moved from North America into South America, which at this time was also connected to Antarctica and Australia. Around 50-35Mya, at least one species of marsupial made it to what is now Australia via Antarctica, setting the stage for the later diversification of marsupials on that continent as it moved away from Antarctica and into its splendid isolation in the remoteness of the Pacific Ocean.

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South American saber-toothed marsupial carnivore Thylacosmilus. Photo: Wikipedia CC.

Fossil evidence shows that ancient South America of 10-40Mya had a rich and ecologically diverse marsupial fauna. Some of them were the size of bears, and others were large predators with two saber-like teeth like those of the famous saber-toothed cats. Some were hopping animals similar to the kangaroo rat, some resembled the present-day North American opossum, and some were arboreal animals resembling primates. There was also a rich and varied group of small and mid-sized rat-like marsupials belonging to the order Paucituberculata, which included both carnivorous and plant-eating genera.

Over time, these strange marsupials slowly disappeared. Only a few species in the order Paucituberculata, and one species (or species complex) in the order Microbiotheria (which may have been  a reverse migrant from the early marsupial diversification in Australia), survive today.

Our reserves protect two of these survivors, the “shrew-opossums” Caenolestes convelatus in our Dracula Reserve and Caenolestes sangay in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve (see Technical Note 1 below). Both shrew-opossums are in the order Paucituberculata and both are mainly predators, feeding on insects, other arthropods, worms, frogs, and small mammals, but they also sometimes eat fruit and fungi. They have two distinctive lower incisors that point straight ahead, like daggers. Caenolestes sangay is a new species described in 2013 by a group of scientists that included our collaborator Jorge Brito. It is exciting to add a previously unknown descendant of this lonely lineage, which diverged from other marsupials 55Mya.

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Caenolestes sangay skull, note the dagger-like lower incisors. From Ojala-Barbour et al (2013) A new species of shrew-opossum (Paucituberculata: Caenolestidae) with a phylogeny of extant caenolestids, Journal of Mammology 94: 967-982.

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The shrew-opossum Caenolestes sangay. Photo: Jorge Brito.

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The shrew-opossum from our Dracula Reserve, Caenolestes convelatus. Photo: Jorge Brito.

In our Dracula and Cerro Candelaria reserves, the resident species of Caenolestes is the sole representative of its order, and this makes its conservation especially important. Conservationists tend to think in terms of species diversity, but we should also pay attention to higher-level diversity. All else being equal, a reserve that contained sloths, manatees, monkeys, bats, and deer would be far more important than a reserve that protected only a set of rodents, even if the number of species were the same in each of the two reserves. A reserve with one species of rat and one species of shrew-opossum is far more diverse and important than an otherwise identical reserve with two species of rat and no species of shrew-opossum. The first reserve protects more unique evolutionary history than the second. I believe this should be the guiding principle of conservation: maximize the amount of unique evolutionary history protected.

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Phylogenetic tree of the major mammal groups (orders). The order Paucituberculata, which contains the shrew-opossums, is highlighted in red. Modified from https://www.palaeontologyonline.com/articles/2012/fossil-focus-marsupials/

The amount of unique evolutionary history represented in a given locality is called its “phylogenetic diversity”. In this age of DNA analysis we have reasonably accurate phylogenetic trees for many plant and animal groups. For any given natural group — mammals, for example — the simplest measure of the amount of unique evolutionary history protected at a locality is the total length of all the branches in the phylogenetic tree (including the “trunk” that connects the group to the rest of the organisms in the reserve) of the species found there (see Technical Note 2 for other ways of measuring this). In the case of our shrew-opossum, it has been evolving on its own unique branch for at least 55 million years, so it contributes quite a lot of  phylogenetic diversity to our Cerro Candelaria and Dracula reserves. The shrew-opossums are among the most interesting mammals in our reserves, even though almost no one has ever heard of them.

Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga

Technical notes:

  1. The name “Shrew-opossum” can be misleading. Strictly speakimg, the opossums are marsupials in a different order than this animal. I think a better English name for these would be “marsupial shrew”.
  1. My colleagues Anne Chao, CH Chiu, and I have developed some more advanced measures of phylogenetic diversity and differentiation: Chao A, Chiu CH, Jost L (2010) Phylogenetic diversity measures based on Hill numbers, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 365:3599–3609 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/47566303_Phylogenetic_diversity_measures_based_on_Hill_numbers

Pigs!

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White-lipped Peccaries in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

[Traduccion a Espanol abajo]

My colleagues and I have been exploring what is now the Naturetrek and Cerro Candelaria Reserves for decades, and the El Placer community has been exploring it for a century. We thought we knew all the large mammal species that could be found there. But a few weeks ago our wardens were astonished to find a large herd of White-lipped Peccaries (Tayassu pecari) in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve. These are very large and rowdy wild pigs, much larger than the more common Collared Peccary (Pecari tajacu). Collared Peccaries are known from cloud forests and paramos near Banos, but these White-lipped Peccaries are much more at home in Amazonian rainforests, and this new record from Cerro Candelaria Reserve is near the highest elevation ever recorded for the species.

White-lipped Peccaries in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve. Video: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

Subsequent interviews with  the local people revealed that this herd had come through our Naturetrek Reserve from the foothill forests farther to the east, near Rio Negro and Cumanda, where biologists from the Universidad Estatal Amazonica (including our manager Juan Pablo Reyes) had earlier detected a population using camera traps.

These are challenging animals to conserve, because they range very widely. They tend to get into trouble with humans.  This herd apparently destroyed a neighbor’s crop field in a single hour, and when the owner tried to chase them out, they reacted aggressively. In the Amazon they often travel in herds of 200 or more, and such herds have been known to kill even jaguars in defense of their young.  I’ve occasionally had to climb trees to escape those Amazonian herds.

I’ve heard that fourteen of the pigs in this herd have been shot and eaten when they were off our reserve. This rate of attrition is not sustainable, but it will be very hard to control. The herd certainly won’t stay on our reserves, because we have very little area at low enough elevations. They may get themselves into trouble with humans, but on the other hand they may head deep into the jungle, far from hunters, returning only periodically.

A few years ago, in the lowland Amazonian rainforests of Peru, I filmed a herd of White-lipped Peccaries feeding at a clay salt lick:

White-lipped Peccaries in Peru. Video: Lou Jost

We have salt licks here in our reserves too. Maybe some day we will be treated to a sight like this here!

Lou Jost

EcoMinga Foundation

 

Cerdos
Mis colegas y yo hemos estado explorando lo que ahora son las Reservas Naturetrek y Cerro Candelaria por décadas, y la comunidad El Placer ha estado explorandola por un siglo. Pensamos que conocíamos todas las grandes especies de mamíferos que se podrían encontrar por aquí. Pero hace unas pocas semanas, nuestros guardias se sorprendieron al encontrar una gran piara de Pecaríes de Labio Blanco (Tayassu pecari) en nuestra Reserva Cerro Candelaria. Estos son cerdos salvajes muy grandes y ruidosos, mucho más grandes que el Pecarí de Collar (Pecari tajacu). Los pecaríes de collar son conocidos de los bosques nublados y páramos cerca de Baños, pero este Pecarí de Labio Blanco se encuentran mucho más en casa en las selvas amazónicas, y este registro de la Reserva Cerro Candelaria está cerca de las elevaciones más altas alguna vez registradas para la especie.
Entrevistas subsecuentes con la gente local reveló que esta piara ha venido de nuestra Reserva Naturetrek de los bosques de las estribaciones más al este, cerca de Rio Negro y Cumanda, donde los biólogos de la Universidad Estatal Amazónica (incluyendo nuestro gerente Juan Pablo Reyes) ha detectado tempranamente una población usando cámaras trampa.
Aquí hay animales desafiantes para conservar, porque varían mucho. Tienden a meterse en problemas con los humanos. Aparentemente, esta manada destruyó un campo de cultivo vecino en una hora, y cuando el dueño intentó expulsarlos, reaccionaron agresivamente. En el Amazonas a menudo viajan en manadas de 200 o más, y se sabe que tales manadas incluso matan jaguares en defensa de sus crías. De vez en cuando he tenido que trepar árboles para escapar a estas piaras Amazónicas.
He escuchado que 14 de los cerdos en esta piara han sido disparados y comidos cuanto estuvieron fuera de nuestra reserva. Esta tasa de deserción no es sustentable, pero será muy difícil de controlar. La piara ciertamente no permanecerá en nuestras reservas, porque tenemos muy poca área a elevaciones lo suficientemente bajas. Pueden meterse en problemas con los humanos, pero por otro lado, pueden adentrarse en la jungla, lejos de los cazadores, regresando solo periodicamente.
Hace unos pocos años, en las tierras bajas de la selva amazónica del Perú, filmé una piara de Pecaríes de Labio Blanco alimentandose con una sal de arcilla:
Tenemos sal de arcilla aquí en nuestra reserva también. Tal vez un día seremos tratados aquí con algo así.
Lou Jost, Fundación EcoMinga
Traducción: Salomé Solórzano- Flores

 

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]

[Traduccion a Espanol abajo]

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.

 

Post de invitado: La fascinación de los árboles
Nota de editor: Este post de invitados es realizado por Lane Davis. Lane es una ex estudiante de la escuela de Capacitación Internacional que pasó un semestre en Ecuador e hizo su proyecto de estudio independiente con nosotros. Después ganó la beca Fullbright para regresar a configurar las parcelas de investigación en árboles en nuestra Reserva Cerro Candelaria, a 2000 m, 2500 m y 3000 m. Identificando cada árbol en cada parcela, ella ha generado datos que nos pueden ayudar a cuantificary entender no sólo la diversidad de nuestros bosques, pero también la importante diferencia en composición entre nuestros bosques a diferentes altitudes, y entre los bosques del Cerro Candelaria y otros local y globalmente. Este tipo de datos proveen un paso muy necesario para comprender las causas subyacentes más profundas de la biodiversidad. -LJ]
 
Fotografía de cortesía Lane Davis a menos que se indique lo contrario.
¿Y esto?, pregunta Javier con anticipación en cuanto abre la hoja de noticias #47. Yo abro mi cuaderno de campo Rite in the Rain deformado y cubierto de lodo, y busco el número. “Árbol de dosel sin látex ni olor, pero la corteza se oxida de blanco a marrón. ¿Quieres ver las fotos en vivo?” pregunto. Javier niega con la cabeza y toma un lente de mano. Hago lo mismo y levantamos cada uno hacia la luz una rama prensada y seca y la examinamos con nuestras lentes de mano.
Bajo la magnificación 30x, el envés de la hoja brilla con miles de pequeñas escamas. “Qué es?” Le pregunto. Javier se encoje de hombros casi jubilosamente, murmurando “increíble”, y coloca la muestra en una creciente pila de plantas no identificadas. Después, limpiamos  el bloque de ceniza de un libro Alwyn H. Gentry’s “Guía de campo de las Familias y Géneros de de plantas maderables del Noroeste de Sudamérica” y “Árboles del Ecuador” de Walter Palacios para familias y géneros de dicotiledóneas con hojas simples, opuestas, alternas, margenes enteros; y tricomas peltados (aquellos con escamas brillantes) que podrían empatar con la muestra #47. En esta forma, encogeremos las pilas desconocidas, etiquetadas como “Desconocidos” moviendo cada planta que identificamos en lugar de pilas de plantas relacionadas taxonómicamente. Pero solo avanzaremos significativamente en la pila de “Desconocidos” cuando nos reunamos con otro botánico, Walter Palacios. Sí, el mismo Walter Palacios que mencioné antes, quien literalmente escribió el libro de identificando árboles en Ecuador. Javier y Walter son amigos. Ecuador es un país pequeño y su comunidad científica aún más, casi todos los botánicos se conocen (lo que hace un poco vergonzoso cuando pregunto por la firma de Walter en mi copia de “Árboles del Ecuador”, pero valió la pena).
Pero por ahora, Javier vuelve a sumergirse en las muestras que no hemos revisado del todo. El se vuelve más incrédulo pero extático cada vez que abre uno de los periódicos en los que he presionado y secado cuidadosamente los recortes de árboles. A veces toma una mirada y proclama la familia del árbol “Fabaceae” o “Lauraceae” o incluso el género,  “Inga” o “Ocotea,” y yo registro esa proclamación en mi base de datos de Microsoft Excel y en la esquina del periódico. Pero al rededor de la mitad del tiempo, esta muestra se mantiene sólo con un número para identificarla.
Una de mis muestras identifican al nivel de familia. Este es miembro de una de las plantas neotropicales más grandes, la Melastomataceae.
Esta incertidumbe emociona a Javier, un talentoso botánico, biólogo y Director Ejecutivo de la Fundación EcoMinga, la organización de conservación a la que estoy afiliada con mi trabajo en Fullbright y a la cual pertenece el bosque donde mis recortes de árboles secos crecieron una vez. Él ha pasado un gran número de horas recorriendo los bosques ecuatorianos, si el no reconoce la planta, debe ser algo raro. Javier también se emociona cualquier momento que mi montón de plantas prensadas producen una especie que aún no ha visto en mis muestras, independientemente de si sabe o no lo que es. Con el descubrimiento de cada especie única, la diversidad de árboles aumenta. La diversidad de mi parcela, la sección de 40x40m del bosque donde recogí mis muestras de plantas, aumenta en sentido absoluto: una definición de diversidad es simplemente el número de especies presentes en un área dada.
Pero la diversidad implicada del bosque que rodea mi parcela de 40 x 40 m del bosque donde recogí mis muestras de plantas, aumenta en sentido absoluto: una definición de diversidad es simplemente el número de especies presentes en un área determinada. Pero la diversidad implícita del bosque que rodea mi parcela se dispara aún más rápida. Mi pequeña parcela posiblemente no puede representar toda la diversidad del bosque nuboso, pero podemos usar mis datos para estimarlo. Este cálculo esta basado en el número de singletons, o especies para las cuales hemos encontrado solo un árbol individual en la parcela. Si los singletons hacen una gran porción de datos, entonces sabemos que los datos no están representando bien la diversidad del bosque y debe haber muchas especies sin descubrir fuera de mi parcela (Para más de estos cálculos, ver Chao y Jost 2012 y Chao et al. 2014).
De mi parte, la identificación y repetición de los grupos de plantas son tan emocionantes como las especies nuevas y desconocidas; con cada muestra familiar y de característica familiar identificable, mi propia habilidad para identificar los árboles de bosque nublado se expande y solidifica. A diferencia de Javier, yo he invertido muchas horas en el bosque nublado ecuatoriano – a la fecha, cerca de 275 (sin incluir horas de tardes y noches que dormí en el campo). Casi todo este tiempo, lo utilicé colectando montones de plantas frente a nosotros, o caminando en uno de mis tres parcelas para hacer eso.
Durante la recolección de datos, viví en la villa de 250 personas El Placer en la base de Cerro Candelaria, la reserva de bosque propiedad de la Fundación EcoMinga donde colecté las muestras ahora prensados y secas. Cada mañana me pongo en camino a las 7:00 am, a menudo pero no siempre acompañado de un guardabosque, y escalamos a una de mis tres parcelas en la reserva. Cuando escribí mi propuesta para la beca Fullbright para estudiar la vulnerabilidad de los bosques andinos para el cambio climático, planeé hacerlo por aprendizaje de la distribución altitudinal de diferentes especies usando ocho parcelas diferentes de 10 x 100 m ascendiendo las faldas de la montaña en Candelaria. Las especies que crecen en sólo una banda altitudinal estrecha tendrán más dificultades para mantenerse al día con sus condiciones ideales de crecimiento – a medida que el cambio climático cambia esas condiciones cuesta arriba – que las especies que están adaptadas a las condiciones en un grán área geográfica. Este rápidamente se vuelve claro de mono que no tengo suficiente tiempo en los 10 meses del periodo de subvención para tomar datos en un área tan grande, y Javier y yo decidimos modificar nuestra metodología para que coincida con la Evaluación Nacional Forestal (National Forest Evaluation) que se llevará a cabo en 2018, que utiliza parcelas cuadradas. De este modo, el Ministerio de Ambiente de Ecuador podría usar nuestros datos en su estudio también.
Vista de y desde El Placer
Como resultado, cada mañana lejo El Placer para llegar a una de las tres parcelas de 40 x 40 m, localizados a 2000 m (6562 pies), 2500 m (8202 pies), o 3000 m sobre el nivel del mar (9843 pies). Empezando de 1400 m (4593 pies), mi conmutador requiere 2 horas y una ganancia de elevación muy empinada de 1969 pies a mi primera parcela, 3 horas y unos  aplastantes 3609 pies para ganar mi segunda parcela, o 6 horas y una  desmoralizante ganancia de 5250 pies a mi tercera parcela. Consecuentemente, a menudo acampo en el campo cuando trabajo en mi segunda parcela y siempre lo hice en mi trama más alta.
Lugar de acampada y vista de mi parcela a 3000 metros (Cerca de 10 000 metros sobre el nivel del mar).
Escalé a través de los bosques Andinos, los cual usualmente significa escalar a través de un bosque sumergido en nubes. Los bosques nublados existen en las montañas cerca de las tierras bajas de humedad atmosférica – usualmente el océano pero en este caso el Bosque lluvioso amazónico. Los patrones climáticos predominantes empujan esta humedad por las laderas, donde se enfría y se condensa en nubes de bajo nivel, niebla o lluvia, lo que conduce a la presencia frecuente de precipitaciones en una de estas formas.
Nubes en el bosque nublado.
Cuando empecé a tomar los datos en el bosque nublado, no tenía idea de como identificar los árboles a mi alrededor, y con buena razón. Aunque tomé Field Botany en Williams College e identifiqué plantas como parte de mi tesis de biología, solo hay un poco más de 70 especies en árboles en el estado de Massachusetts (Butler 2016). En comparación, 131 especies diferentes de árboles existen en los 4000 metros cuadrados (ligeramente menos de un acre) de bosque nublado que he examinado. Trabajando para identificar estos árboles, usando mis muestras secas, fotos, libros, el internet, las colecciones del Herbario Nacional (una biblioteca de muestras de plantas preservadas), y la gran ayuda de botanicos profesionales, he aprendido lentamente a reconocer las características definitorias de las familias, géneros y especies más comunes de mis parcelas. Ahora, cuando camino por le bosque, las características morfológicas de las plantas captan mi atención, a menudo provocando que se me ocurra un nombre científico. Las estípulas largas y cónicas, escamas en anillo, y látex gritan Moraceae; las estípulas interpeciolares insinúan Rubiaceae; y vainas peciolares con un olor dulce y jabonoso proclaman su identidad: Hedyosmum.
Diversidad del bosque no se restringe a los árboles. Lejos de eso. Por ejemplo, en los pasados 10 años, cerca de 40 nuevas especies de orquídeas y 10 nuevas especies de ranas han sido descubiertas en las Reservas de EcoMinga en una sección relativamente pequeña del bosque nublado Ecuatoriano.  Encima, unas pocas e increíbles fotos de la diversidad de plantas no arbóreas del bosque nublado.
Estos árboles y los billones de organismos que viven en, abajo, y alrededor de ellos, que van desde microorganismos del suelo hasta monos aulladores, así como las características inorgánicas del paisaje como rocas y suelo, forman un ecosistema nuboso. Esta red intrincada provee servicios críticos para la población humana que hace su hogar en las montañas andinas. Por ejemplo, el suelo de los bosques nublados y las epífitas (plantas que viven en otras plantas y recogen agua y nutrientes del aire en lugar del suelo) filtran y regulan el flujo del agua glacial que sirve a millones de personas en las comunidades andinas urbanas y rurales andinas (Anderson et al 2011). El extenso sistema de raíces del bosque nublado ayuda a mantener el suelo en su lugar, previniendo la erosión y los deslizamientos de tierra (Anderson et al 2011). El cambio climático interrumpirá este y otros servicios, amenazando la salud y seguridad humana y del ecosistema. Por ejemplo, las lluvias más intensas combinadas con la muerte de los árboles aumentarán la erosión y deslizamientos de tierra, lo que amenaza la seguridad humana y el suministro de agua. En Quito, en 2017, un deslizamiento de tierra bloqueó el canal principal de agua de la cuidad, dejando a 600 000 personas sin agua por muchos días (Manetto 2017). En El Placer, los deslizamientos de tierra ocasionalmente cubren tuberías y cortan el agua, en mis seis meses viviendo ahí, esto ocurrió una vez.
La interrupción del suministro de agua es sólo un ejemplo de innumerables formas posibles en que el cambio climático y el deterioro resultante del ecosistema del bosque nuboso pueden afectar a El Placer y otras comunidades similares enclavados en los valles andinos. Mejor entendimiento del destino del bosque nuboso bajo el cambio climático permitirá enfoques específicos para la preparación del cambio climático, por ejemplo, creando sistemas de suministro de agua de emergencia. Dada la inminencia del cambio climático, sin embargo, es crítico implementar estrategias que disminuyen la vulnerabilidad de un amplio rango de resultados de cambio climático. Recientemente escribí un paper para el seminario Mejora Regional Fullbright acerca de cómo Fundación EcoMinga y El Placer pueden hacer exactamente eso. Argumenté que EcoMinga refuerza la resiliencia climática de El Placer al proporcionar actividades económicas a la comunidad que tienen menos probabilidades de verse afectadas por el cambio climático que aquellas que de otro modo estarían disponibles para ellos.
La principal forma en que EcoMinga hace esto es mediante los miembros de la comunidad como guardabosques en sus reservas. Los guardabosques construyen y mantienen senderos y cabañas, ayudan a los científicos y estudiantes visitantes con su investigación y sirven como ojos agudos que a menudo descubren nuevas especies y más biodiversidad interesante. Mi propio trabajo hubiera estado fuera de alcance (literalmente) sin la ayuda de Darwin Recalde, Jesús Recalde, Tito Recalde, Santiago Recalde, Jordy Salazar y Andy Salazar. Estos hombres escalan árboles altos de 30 metros de alto para alcanzar hojas y flores en la cima – aquellas mismas hojas y flores que ahora se preservan en el Herbario Nacional en Quito y eso forma las filas de mis hojas de datos con las cuales trataré de decir algo sobre el futuro del bosque.
Darwin Recalde escalando un arbol para cortar muestras de sus hojas.
De hecho, este objetivo – evaluar el futuro del bosque bajo el cambio climático se ha transformado a lo largo de mi periodo de beca. Como en cualquier estudio científico interesante, este ha producido más preguntas de las que responderá. Como en cualquier estudio científico interesante, este ha producido más preguntas de las que responderá. Con base en los cálculos que mencioné antes, aunque tomé muestras de 73 diferentes especies de árboles en la parcela de menor altitud y mayor diversidad, esto representó menos de la mitad del número total de especies en el bosque a esa altitud. ¿Qué otras especies contiene el bosque en esta área? ¿Qué permite a las especies más comunes prosperar? ¿Cómo afectará el cambio climático a su estrategia?  ¿Cómo se comparará la respuesta del bosque al cambio climático con mis predicciones? ¿Difiere la adaptación en diferentes localidades dentro del bosque nublado? ¿Estas respuestas se corresponden con diferentes microclimas? ¿Cómo afectan otros aspectos del entorno del árbol, como el tipo de suelo y la pendiente, la adaptación del bosque?
Muchas de estas preguntas sólo son respondidas con un proyecto de investigación de largo tiempo. Recientemente he aprendido que mi trabajo será parte de eso. Fundación EcoMinga y el Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INABIO) están comenzando un monitoreo colaborativo del bosque de larga duración. El estudio incluirá una red de parcelas en el bosque nublado ecuatoriano incluyendo mis tres, otras pocas existiendo parcelas en las reservas EcoMinga, y muchas mñas aún por establecerse. El crecimiento de árboles, clima y composición del bosque será monitoreada regularmente en estas áreas, y el dato de mi estudio en 2017-2018 será la línea base para la cual las futuras medidas de mis parcelas serán comparadas. Mientras EcoMinga e INABIO están determinando detalles, la investigación arrojará luz sobre muchas de las preguntas que ha producido mi estudio. En adición a proveer la linea base hay otras vías por las cuales puedo ayudar a avanzar este proyecto. Por ejemplo*, me esfuerzo por hacer que el código R (un programa estadístico) que estoy escribiendo analice mis propios datos facilmente reproducibles de modo que otros investigadores y estudiantes pueden usar para análisis rápidos de datos de todas las parcelas.
Puedo ayudar reclutando más estudiantes para continuar el estudio. Mucho trabajo empocionante falta por hacer. En adición a expander y monitorear mis parcelas, existen amplias oportunidades para personalizar el proyecto. Por ejemplo, tu (sí, tu!) puedes explorar usando imágenes de dron para identificar árboles desde el aire, investigar el rol de los ratones en la dispersión de semillas, estudiar la sincronización de la reproducción sexual de árboles (fenología), o mirar la genética de la diversidad de árboles de bosque nublado – y cómo cada uno de estos impacta la adaptación del bosque al cambio climático. Todas estas son áreas en las cuales EcoMinga trabaja normalmente o le gustaría adquirir. Cualquier interés que tengas, encontrarás científicos entusiastas en Ecuador para apoyarlo. Y si nada de esto te atrae pero conoces a otras personas a las que podría atraerles, envíales esta publicación.
Finalmente, podemos apoyar a EcoMinga, su trabajo conservando el bosque nublado, en asociación con El Placer, y colaboración científico con INABIO donando a la Fundación a través de la Alianza para la Conservación de Orquídeas (US), the World Land Trust (UK) y Rainforest Trust (US). (Asegurate de especificar que los fondos son de EcoMinga). Contacta a Lou Jost () para mas información sobre donaciones.
Gracias por leer! Si estás interesado en continuar este trabajo o en escuchar más acerca del mismo, por favor no dude en ponerse en contacto conmigo:

Lane Davis

lanedavis17@gmail.com

(404) 805-2234 (WhatsApp o iMessage sólo hasta que regrese a los EEUU en Mayo 11, 2018)

Las opiniones e información reportada aquí, son de mi propiedad y no representan aquellas de Fulbright Ecuador Commission, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, o la U.S. Department of State.

Traducción: Salomé Solórzano Flores

 

Our guards and townspeople heroically rescue survivors of a landslide

It has been pouring rain here for several days, after a long drought. That’s a recipe for disaster in these steep mountains. The roads here necessarily pass across nearly vertical slopes, and roads are often blocked by landslides in weather like this. It is pure luck whether a vehicle gets hit by these landslides. Yesterday a bus full of students on a school outing was hit by one of multiple landslides that fell on the Banos-Puyo road that goes past most of our reserves. The bus accident happened at El Placer, the town where our guards live. Two people were killed and many were injured. Darwin Recalde, one of our reserve wardens, was quoted by an Ecuadorian newspaper in their story about what happened:

“A eso de las 10:00 se escuchó un fuerte estruendo cosa que nos hizo asustar mucho, cuando salimos a ver qué es lo que había pasado la montaña se ha ido abajo, lo que le ha arrastrado a un bus de la cooperativa Huambaló fuera de la carretera (Baños-Puyo), entonces con los vecinos acudimos a brindar ayuda a los heridos que en medio del fango se lamentaban del dolor”

“At 10:00 we heard a very loud sound that scared us a lot; when we ran out to see what happened. the mountain had come down and pushed a Huambalo bus off the road, so with our neighbors we went to help the injured  who were in the middle of the mud crying out in pain.”

https://www.eluniverso.com/noticias/2018/04/28/nota/6735900/deslizamiento-tierra-provoca-cierre-banos-puyo

Ambulances could not get there quickly because of the landslides, and professional rescue workers had to arrive on foot.

Apparently the bus was first hit by a small amount of material. The bus stopped (probably because the road ahead had been blocked) and people left the bus to go to safety. At that moment more material came down and carried the bus and passengers off the road.

Darwin and his neighbors knew that more material could fall on them at any time during the rescue, but this is the kind of people they are, willing to risk their lives to help others.

The road remains closed and rains continue.

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Darwin a few years ago at the top of our Cerro Candelaria Reserve.

 

Family visit

Last week two of my brave family members from the US visited some of EcoMinga’s reserves with me.  My sister Lorie Koessl and my brother Brad’s 17-year-old daughter Saige Jost are both nature-lovers and hikers, so they were perfect companions. Here are some of the things we saw in and around our reserves in six days of hiking.

Mammal encounters are rare here. Usually we only see them in our camera trap videos, or we find their tracks or scat. But on our visit to EcoMinga’s Rio Anzu Reserve in the Amazonian foothills, we were sitting on rocks along the river when we heard a strange call,  not quite bird-like….a few seconds later two tayra (Eira barbara) appeared on the opposite bank, jumping from rock to rock. These are relatives of the wolverine and mink, fairly large muscular omnivores that are capable of killing large birds and mid-sized mammals. This was one of the best views I have ever had of them. They were not concerned by our presence. My sister had borrowed one of my cameras for the day and she managed to snap a few pictures of them as they went along.

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Tayra (Eira barbara) on the limestone along the shore of the Rio Anzu. Click on image to enlarge. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

Of course there were many invertebrates in the Rio Anzu Reserve. Here is a colorful grasshopper photographed by Saige on her cell phone:

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Grasshopper. Photo: Saige Jost.

In our Rio Zunac Reserve, we encountered a couple of rodents. One especially cute individual had made a nest in an abandoned cabin that used to belong to our park ranger Fausto Recalde before we bought the land from him:

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Albuja’s Climbing Rat (Rhipidomys albujai). Photo: Lorie Koessl.

Incredibly, this turned out to be a recently discovered new species of mammal,  Albuja’s Climbing Rat (Rhipidomys albujai), that was only described a few months before our visit, by our friend Jorge Brito and coauthors:

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23766808.2017.1292755

From the Climbing Rat’s cabin Lorie spotted our magnificent pair of Black-and-chestnut Eagles, though they were too far away to photograph. This cabin is just below their former nesting site, but it seems they are not currently nesting there. Perhaps they are still caring for last year’s fledgling.

On a day hike to our Cerro Candelaria and Naturetrek Reserves, we were able to spend time watching the well-named Torrent Duck (Merganetta armata) feeding in a raging whitewater stream that would have quickly killed almost any other bird or mammal.

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Female Torrent Duck resting on a rock in the rapids. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

This is a very distinctive duck appears not to be closely related to the familiar north temperate duck species, but its position in the tree of life is still uncertain.

On the day of the Torrent Duck sighting, our ranger Fausto Recalde brought his 5-year-old daughter Amy along. She was an excellent guide, who found several interesting things that we had not noticed. She was also very playful; she did this controlled falling trick about 20 times in succession, laughing all the while:

Amy Recalde playing.

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A spider (genus Gasteracantha?) along the river of the Torrent Duck. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

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A plant with irritating spines, Nasa (Loasaceae), along the river of the Torrent Duck.

Night hikes are always special in the tropics. We took a night hike during our three-day stay in EcoMinga’s Rio Zunac Reserve, and in the space of less than a half hour we saw a non-stop show of fascinating insects, arachnids, frogs, and sleeping lizards:

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A tropical harvestman (“daddy longlegs” to US readers). Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

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Frog at night. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

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Sleeping lizard. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

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Exuberant antennae. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

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One of many variations on this theme seen during our night walk. Parobrimus sp. (could be Parobrimus horridus) according to a comment below by Yannick. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

There were neat invertebrates during the day too along the Rio Zunac. On our return home we saw these:

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Walking stick. Male Oreophoetes sp (maybe a new species) according to Yannick in the comments below. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

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A water bug. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

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Saige plays with a millipede. Photo: Lorie Koessl.

Some of the invertrebates were less welcome. There was an eruption of biting horseflies in the Zunac Reserve that week, and here are some that we killed while they bit us during a quick dinner:

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Dead horseflies killed as they tried to bite us during dinner. This is about a quarter of the total number we killed during that dinner; most were completely squished….Photo: Lou Jost.

On the same rock wall where we piled the dead horseflies, there was a fascinating construction of waxy tubes made by large black bees:

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This is an open cell under construction. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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This is a sealed cell with larva inside. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

 

Lorie and Saige, thanks for your visit! It was fun to show you EcoMinga’s reserves!

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Myself, Saige, and Lorie at the Pailon Del Diablo waterfall just below EcoMinga’s Naturetrek Reserve. Photo: unknown stranger.

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Approach to Quito’s airport. Photo: Saige Jost.

Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga.