Mountain Tapir video with baby!!!

[Editorial note: I’ve been in the field and otherwise occupied lately with urgent work, so posting here has been light. There have been many exciting developments in the last month, including new species of frogs and orchids, new wildlife sightings, and big new purchases! I will try to report them here as soon as I can, beginning today, and I will also try to return soon to the posts about our interesting student projects.]


This is a fairly high-quality video, so if your internet connection is decent, you may want to watch this at a larger size– click on the Youtube icon or the full-screen icon once the video starts.

Mountain tapirs (Tapirus pinchaque) are our most endangered mammals. They use many of our Banos-area reserves, mostly in areas far from humans. However there are also still Mountain Tapirs in the mountains right next to the town of Banos itself. The high Chamana valley just a few kilometers away from Banos, is connected to Parque Nacional Sangay via a long narrow ridge. Mountain Tapirs travel down this ridge to visit the Chamana river and the natural salt licks there. Unfortunately there are also cattle in the valley, setting up a potential conflict. These are the most vulnerable tapirs in the area, since they are more exposed to hunting pressure and habitat loss. These tapirs belong to the same population as the ones in our more distant reserves, so it is important to make sure that the Banos area does not become a “sink” that bleeds animals from the main population.

This is the lost world of Chamana....similar in size and shape to Yosemite's Half Dome in California. The Chamana valley just out of the picture, off to the upper left just beyond the rainbow. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This is the lost world of Chamana….similar in size and shape to Yosemite’s Half Dome in California. The Chamana valley is on the top of this mountain just out of the picture, off to the upper left just beyond the rainbow. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Several years ago our reserve manager, Juan Pablo Reyes, who studies Mountain Tapirs intensively and is passionately involved in their conservation, used much of his EcoMinga salary to purchase and protect some of the primary forest tapir habitat above the cattle pastures in the Chamana valley. He has also been defending this area against hunters, once even confronting two armed hunters and confiscating their guns and the dead bird they had shot.

We have recently joined his efforts to buy up the cattle pastures and surrounding primary forest and return this valley to the native herbivores. Our first purchase a few years ago was made possible by a donation from my colleague in mathematical biology, Dr. Anne Chao. Now Natalia Espinza, president of Quito’s La Condamine High School student council (2014-2015), has raised funds towards buying the last remaining cattle pasture in the valley, along with and its surrounding primary forest, and she has donated these funds to us. Quito’s Centro de Estudios Internacionales donated additional funds to us for this purchase. The US-based Rainforest Trust then generously matched these donations, enabling us to finish the purchase. Thanks very much Natalia, Centro de Estudios, and Rainforest Trust!!

Click to enlarge in order to read the text labels. This is a computer-generated scene of the Chamana reserve in relation to Banos. Lou Jost.

Click to enlarge in order to read the text labels. This is a computer-generated scene of the new Chamana reserve (outlined in red) in relation to Banos.

With the help of our EcoMinga forest caretakers (funded by the World Land Trust’s Keepers of the Wild program), the Proyecto Conservacion del Tapir Andino, and the Fundacion Oscar Efren Reyes, Juan Pablo has been placing camera traps in the Chamana valley to monitor the tapirs and other wildlife there. A few days ago he excitedly sent me the latest videos from these camera traps. The videos showed a beautiful mother Mountain Tapir with a small baby! The same mother-and-child pair of tapirs appear on several of the videos, both coming and going. The images were taken just 800m upstream from our new properties, and tracks show that the tapirs use the new properties as well. These rare images tell us that protection is working and the tapirs are not only surviving but reproducing.

The tapir videos are not the only ones Juan Pablo made. A camera also monitored another site inside the forest, where a small log crossed a trail. The camera revealed the surprising variety of secretive inhabitants of the forest interior. Some of the highlights are the shy Barred Ant-thrush (Chamaeza mollissima), the recently-described and rarely seen Western Mountain Coati (described in the genus Nasuella but probably best placed in the same genus as the other coatis, Nasua), some rodents, a White-throated Quail-dove (Geotrygon frenata), and a Tawny-breasted Tinamou (Nothocercus julius) which none of us has ever encountered in real life. There is also a Great Thrush and an opossum species.

This forest is not just home to rare animals and birds. It has a different set of orchids than the parallel ridges to the east, because of its slightly drier and more seasonal climate. The rarest of these orchids is Lepanthes elytrifera. Only one plant of this species has ever been found in the whole world, and that plant was found just a few hundred meters from our new properties. We hope that it occurs somewhere in the primary forests in our new properties. I’ll report back if we find it.

The only known plant of Lepanthes elytrifera. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The only known plant of Lepanthes elytrifera. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lou Jost
EcoMinga Foundation

Endemic Orchids Part 2: Special microhabitats. From a conference on endemic plants of Ecuador, Yachay, Ecuador, June 24-26, 2015.

The Cordillera Abitagua, first line of mountains facing the Amazon basin. Photo taken from my house in Banos high in the Andes, far to the west.  A solid bank of clouds from the Amazon basin flows over the peaks of the Cordillera Abitagua; these are the habitats of its unique orchids. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The Cordillera Abitagua, first line of mountains facing the Amazon basin. Photo taken from my house in Banos high in the Andes, far to the west. A solid bank of clouds from the Amazon basin flows over the peaks of the Cordillera Abitagua; these are the habitats of its unique orchids. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

In my previous post I talked about the way orchids dominate the endemic flora of Ecuador, and about some of the biological reasons for their diversity and local endemism. In this post I will give some examples from EcoMinga’s focal area illustrating just how fussy some of these endemic orchids can be about their habitat.

Our main focal area, the upper Rio Pastaza watershed, is a remarkable place with more locally endemic plant species (those found only in this watershed and nowhere else in the world) than the famous Galapagos Islands, even though the upper Rio Pastaza watershed covers a much smaller area than the Galapagos. About half of our local endemics are orchid species, mostly in the hyper-diverse genus Lepanthes, which I discussed in my last post, and the genus Teagueia, which I discussed in an earlier post.

The upper Rio Pastaza watershed, my study area. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The upper Rio Pastaza watershed, my study area. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Over the last twenty years I’ve tried to map the distributions of these two genera in our area. I was very surprised by the narrow distributions of most of our Lepanthes species. For example, I found Lepanthes ruthiana only in a thin north-south strip along the foot of the first line of mountains facing the Amazon:

Lepanthes ruthiana. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes ruthiana. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Distribution of Lepanthes ruthiana, a thin band at the foot of the first mountain range facing the Amazon basin. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Distribution of Lepanthes ruthiana, a thin band at the foot of the first mountain range facing the Amazon basin. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Here’s Lepanthes lophius and its distribution, another thin north-south band, but farther from the Amazon:

Lepanthes lophius. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes lophius. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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And here is Lepanthes decurva and its distribution, a thin north-south band at high elevations on the western edge of my area:

Lepanthes decurva. Photo: Lou Jost/Ecominga.

Lepanthes decurva. Photo: Lou Jost/Ecominga.

Ranges of Lepanthes decurva and L. lophius. The range of Lepanthes decurva, like that of L. lophius is a narrow north-south band at a fixed elevation and fixed distance from the Amazon basin. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Ranges of Lepanthes decurva and L. lophius. The range of Lepanthes decurva, like that of L. lophius is a narrow north-south band at a fixed elevation and fixed distance from the Amazon basin. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Remember (see my last post) that orchid seeds are wind-dispersed and can travel long distances, so these patterns aren’t due to limitations of seed dispersal. Similar distribution patterns are found for many other orchids here.

I think the shape of these distributions is caused by the humid the east-to-west winds hitting successive mountain ranges perpendicular to the winds. When the winds hit the first mountain range and are pushed upward, the air cools and much of its water condenses out as fog and rain. Now a little less humid, those winds hit the next range, and drop more of their water. By the time they hit the third or fourth chain of mountains, there is not much water left to condense out. Hence the moisture gradient, and the differences between microclimates from one chain of mountains to the next as we go from east to west.

Wet winds come from the east (the Amazon Basin) and successively hit each north-south chain of mountains.  Mountains at a given distance from the Amazon get about the same amount of rain. So orchids tend to be distributed in north-south bands, sharing species across the Rio Pastaza valley. Species tend not to be shared eastward or westward, because those mountains have different amounts of rain. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Wet winds come from the east (the Amazon Basin) and successively hit each north-south chain of mountains. Mountains at a given distance from the Amazon get about the same amount of rain. So orchids tend to be distributed in north-south bands, sharing species across the Rio Pastaza valley. Species tend not to be shared eastward or westward, because those mountains have different amounts of rain. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This habitat specificity might seem like bad news for conservation. Do we have to conserve every little microclimate variation? That would be almost impossible. Luckily for conservationists, it turns out that the most localized and specialized endemic orchids tend to occur together in the same microhabitat. The Cordillera Abitagua in our study area is an excellent example of this (see photo at top of this post). Most of the locally endemic orchids occur on ridgelines (which get more air movement and mist than valley floors) in a narrow band of elevations from 1800m to 2300m. There appears to be some differentiation of species from ridge to ridge within that elevation band, but most of the endemic species seem to occur on ridgelines throughout that band. Our strategically-located Rio Zunac Reserve protects the lower parts of this elevation band, and the Los Llanganates National Park protects the upper part. (It’s worth noting that this section of the national park is not patrolled by park guards, so our reserve and our own guards also protect the park.)

The Cordillera Abitagua as seen from an observation point high above the Amazon basin, looking west towards the Pacific Ocean. The red outlines show our reserves.

The Cordillera Abitagua as seen from an observation point high above the Amazon basin, looking west towards the Pacific Ocean. The red outlines show our reserves. Best to click on the image and enlarge it.

Some orchid species unique to the Cordillera Abitagua, all living between 1700m and 2300m. Left to right within rows: Lepanthes abitaguae, L. pseudomucronata, Maxillaria sp. nov., Masdevallia delhierroi, L. spruceana, L. sp.nov., L. zunagensis, Dracula fuligifera, Neooreophilus viebrockianus, Scaphosepalum jostii, Trichosalpinx zunagensis, Teagueia zeus. To appreciate their details, click to enlarge. Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

Some orchid species unique to the Cordillera Abitagua, all living between 1700m and 2300m. Left to right within rows: Lepanthes abitaguae, L. pseudomucronata, Maxillaria sp. nov., Masdevallia delhierroi, L. spruceana, L. sp.nov., L. zunagensis, Dracula fuligifera, Neooreophilus viebrockianus, Scaphosepalum jostii, Trichosalpinx zunagensis, Teagueia zeus. To appreciate their details, click to enlarge. Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

A similar but less diverse cluster of locally-endemic species (some of them sister species of the Cordillera Abitagua endemics) occurs on the next line of mountains westward, which include Cerro Candelaria and Cerro Mayordomo. These mountains are only about 10-15 km west of the Cordillera Abitagua but have quite different orchid floras, at least in the hyper-diverse genera like Lepanthes. We protect a fairly good subset of these endemic species in our Cerro Candelaria and Naturetrek Reserves. We are actively expanding these to include more of these endemic species.

Our reserves in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Click to enlarge.

Our reserves in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Click to enlarge.

Lepanthes mayordomensis. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes mayordomensis. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The next line mountains westward from Cerro Candelaria and Cerro Mayordomo also has a set of endemic species of Lepanthes, mostly at higher elevations. We have two small reserves in this range as well.

Lepanthes staatsiana. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes staatsiana, endemic to the next line of mountains to the west of Cerros Mayordomo and Candelaria. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This east-west climate gradient, and the corresponding changes in locally endemic species, pertain mostly to elevations below 3100m. Remarkably, something different seems to happen above that elevation. The Lepanthes species almost disappear, and they are replaced by another orchid genus, Teagueia, in the same subtribe (subtribe Pleurothallidinae). I’ve discussed this genus elsewhere. This genus has undergone an amazing local evolutionary radiation on the high mountaintops here, with about thirty locally endemic species, all new to science. Their distribution pattern is almost the opposite of the pattern shown by Lepanthes and related genera at lower elevations. Teagueia species, unlike Lepanthes, do not cross the valley of the Rio Pastaza, and this barrier seems to have been fairly effective even in the deep evolutionary past. These high-elevation Teagueia species also seem to have wider east-west distributions than the lower-elevation Lepanthes species.

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We don’t understand why this high-elevation genus behaves so differently from the lower-elevation genera. But one clue may be provided by the crazy zigzag ash cloud of our local volcano, Tungurahua. Wind directions at different elevations can be wildly different, as this cloud reveals. Regardless of the reason for this pattern of distribution, we’ve been able to protect a very large part of this radiation in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve, which holds all 16 species that occur south of the Rio Pastaza, and we have protected another portion of this radiation in our Rio Valencia Reserve on the north side of the Rio Pastaza.

Complexity of wind and cloud formation is illustrated by this picture of our erupting Tungurahua volcano. Strong surface winds are coming from the left, pushing the ash cloud (which emerged from near the top of the volcano) to the right. Then, as the ash cloud rose, it reached a layer of air moving more slowly to the right. Then it hit a higher layer of relatively calm air and went straight up, until hitting a layer of air moving strongly from right to left. Then the ash cloud reached a layer of calm air and began to billow straight up.  In contrast the lenticular cloud of water vapor covering the volcano's summit is in dynamic equilibrium, giving the appearance of not moving, in spite of the surface winds. It is constantly being created on its leading (left) edge and destroyed on its trailing edge.  Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Complexity of wind and cloud formation is illustrated by this picture of our erupting Tungurahua volcano. Strong surface winds are coming from the left, pushing the ash cloud (which emerged from near the top of the volcano) to the right. Then, as the ash cloud rose, it reached a layer of air moving more slowly to the right. Then it hit a higher layer of relatively calm air and went straight up, until hitting a layer of air moving strongly from right to left. Then the ash cloud reached a layer of calm air and began to billow straight up.
In contrast the lenticular cloud of water vapor covering the volcano’s summit is in dynamic equilibrium, giving the appearance of not moving, in spite of the surface winds. It is constantly being created on its leading (left) edge and destroyed on its trailing edge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Stay tuned for the next section of this talk in a few days…..

Lou Jost
And I hope you consider donating to EcoMinga’s fund for our reserves!

Terrifying beauty once again

An hour or so after the main explosion. The setting sun and thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide gas turn the vapor clouds yellow-orange, while the thick ash clouds remain black. Photo: Lou Jost

An hour or so after the main explosion. The setting sun and thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide gas turn the vapor clouds yellow-orange, while the thick ash clouds remain black. Photo: Lou Jost

A month ago today our volcano, Tungurahua, exploded with so much energy the debris reached 47,000 ft into the sky. It was one of the most magnificent events in its recent history. And unlike the July event, which was invisible to us because of low clouds, this eruption pierced a crystal blue sky, near sunset. Everything came together to make this one of the most beautiful yet terrifying scenes imaginable.

The first moments of the blast. The ground shook below me as I took this. Photo: Lou Jost

The first moments of the blast. The ground shook below me as I took this. Photo: Lou Jost

The ash cloud from this eruption was especially thick. It fell as far away as Quito a hundred miles to the north, and Cuenca several hundred miles to the south, closing the Cuenca airport. Our reserves once again received only a light dusting of ash, as most of it flew high above our heads. I watched from my house five miles from the crater, and got no ash at all. Juan Pablo Reyes, our reserve manager, was on the next mountain to the east, Chamana, where we have a small reserve, and where he has his own property (which he also runs as a reserve). From there he witnessed the glowing mouth of the volcano as the sun set.

From the Chamana ridge just east of the volcano, the lava still glows as night falls. Photo: Juan Pablo Reyes.

From the Chamana ridge just east of the volcano, the lava still glows as night falls. Photo: Juan Pablo Reyes.

Spectacular though it was from the perspective of a singe human lifetime, this eruption was just a burp, from a geological perspective. At least twice in geological history this volcano has completely self-destructed: once about 3000 years ago, and once about 75000 years ago. Such massive eruptions would have destroyed all life on the upper parts of the volcano, probably down to 2500-3000m (the current volcano summit is at 5020m). Since evolution takes longer than that to make a new species, we’d expect there should not be species of plants strictly endemic to the high parts of the volcano. Nevertheless a few new species had been discovered there. One, discovered in 1984 by Alex Hirtz, was named after the volcano: Lepanthes tungurahuae. As expected, I eventually found it at high elevations on many of the surrounding mountains, and even much farther away.

Lepanthes tungurahuae was discovered on the lower slopes of Tungurahua volcano, but that population would have been periodically wiped out by eruptions. I found that it actually had a much wider distribution. Photo: Lou Jost.

Lepanthes tungurahuae was discovered on the lower slopes of Tungurahua volcano, but that population would have been periodically wiped out by eruptions. I found that it actually had a much wider distribution. Photo: Lou Jost.

These infrared and visible-light photos of the eruption were taken by the Instituto Geofisico of the Escuela Politecnica Nacional from their monitoring station in Guadalupe, near Banos. The upper part of the volcano was essentially sterilized by the heat. Photo: IGEPN.

These infrared and visible-light photos of the eruption were taken by the Instituto Geofisico of the Escuela Politecnica Nacional from their monitoring station in Guadalupe, near Banos. The upper part of the volcano was essentially sterilized by the heat. Photo: IGEPN.

Geology and history often limit the possibility of strict endemism in the high parts of these mountains. Not only volcanic eruptions but also climate change can push incipient new species off these mountains. The layered, datable pollen record at the bottom of Andean lakes (such as Laguna Yaguarcocha in northern Ecuador) shows in detail how vegetative zones moved up and down these mountains in the recent past, by as much as 500-1000 meters. Species that require high elevations would be eliminated from the peaks of the highest mountains during warm times (one such warm period occurred just 2000 years ago). On the other hand, species from slightly lower elevations would be able to spread off a single peak and reach neighboring peaks during the cold periods, as vegetation bands lowered and patches of cold-loving montane forests coalesced at less-fragmented lower elevations. All of these processes, and more, affect the distribution of endemic species in today’s forests. We are trying to sort them out by looking closely at the evolutionary radiations of species endemic to our area. I’ll write more about this in later posts.

Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan (Andigena hypoglauca)


The four species of Andigena toucans are some of the most dramatic birds of middle and high elevation cloud forests in South America. We have two species in our reserves, the Black-billed Mountain-Toucan (Andigena nigrirostris) and the one featured in this video, the Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan (Andigena hypoglauca). The Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan lives at very high elevations, from about 2400m all the way up to timberline. It mostly eats fruit, but may also use its long beak to reach into other birds’ nest holes and gobble their chicks.

The video was taken by Manuel Chapungal (a resident of the area, and volunteer caretaker of this mountain) near our seventh and newest reserve, a 15 ha forest bought through a donation by my friend and colleague Anne Chao. This reserve is adjacent to the 100 ha Chamana Reserve, owned by Juan Pablo Reyes, whom we have hired as manager of EcoMinga’s reserve system. The mountain valley protected by these two reserves is very beautiful though partly deforested due to past cattle ranching. It still hosts Mountain Tapir, Spectacled Bear, wild cats, and many many birds.

Our Chamana reserve is in the leftmost patch of sunlight. Click to enlarge. Photo Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Our Chamana reserve is in the leftmost patch of sunlight. Click to enlarge. Photo Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This forest gets a lot of hunting pressure due to its nearness to the town of Banos. One day Juan Pablo’s sister was in that area alone, checking her automatic cameras for her study of tapirs, when she ran into two illegal sport hunters with shotguns. She was afraid but slipped away and called Juan Pablo on her cell phone. Juan Pablo, his family, and Manuel Chapungal climbed the mountain and found the hunters. Though Juan’s group was unarmed, they somehow managed to disarm the hunters, confiscating their guns and the bird they had shot. That’s one reason why Juan Pablo is our reserve manager!

Guns and dead guan confiscated  in Chamana by Juan Pablo Reyes, family, and friends. Juan Pablo is at far right, Manuel (who made the toucan video) at far left.

Guns and dead guan confiscated in Chamana by Juan Pablo Reyes, family, and friends. Juan Pablo is at far right, Manuel (who made the toucan video) at far left.

Thanks to Anne Chao for her support for this, to Manuel for sharing his video, and to IdeaWild for donating the video camera to Manuel via the Fundacion Oscar Efren Reyes.

Lou Jost