How to land a fixed-wing drone in a dense forest

Answer: Giant butterfly nets!

Ryan Lynch and Sebastian Kohn have been using an expensive fixed-wing drone, owned and operated by  Pablo Melo and Diego Andrade of Drone And GIS, to map our Manduriacu Reserve in exquisite detail. I’ll show some of those results later as they are processed and assembled. Fixed-wing drones can travel much farther than electric helicopter-drones. But there are some practical difficulties to this work. How do you land one of these fragile multi-thousand-dollar things in a forest full of trees? This is the technique that Pablo and Diego and Sebastian and Ryan used. So far it has worked.


The drone rides a mule to the launch site. Photo: Sebastian Kohn.


The small clearing around the Manduriacu cabin is big enough to launch the drone but not big enough, or flat enough, to land it. Photo: Sebastian Kohn.


Off it goes! Photo: Sebastian Kohn.


The drone takes detailed photos of the canopy. Courtesy Sebastian Kohn.

Thanks to Pablo Melo and Diego Andrade and their company, Drone And GIS, for their hard work to map this reserve.


More posts on the Manduriacu Reserve:

Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga

Jaguar returns to our Manduriacu Reserve

Jaguar rear end as it walks past Sebastian Kohn’s camera trap last month.

A few months ago Sebastian Kohn’s camera trap at Manduriacu Reserve in western Ecuador had a close brush with a jaguar– so close that all we could see were some blurred black spots on a light background. It happened at night so there was no color either. Was this jaguar just passing through or was it a resident? Was it a healthy animal? We couldn’t tell. But this new video provides evidence that jaguars are regularly using the Manduriacu Reserve, and this one looks quite healthy. It is probably eating the Collared Peccaries that Sebastian has frequently recorded in his camera traps, such as these (which I’ve posted before):


Though jaguars have a wide distribution in Latin America and are not yet globally endangered, they are one of the first animals to disappear with human impacts. Jaguars are killed directly buy humans, but humans also hunt the jaguar’s prey species to local extinction. Large predators such as jaguars need very large home ranges, so they are also severely affected by habitat fragmentation, as deforestation leaves isolated forest patches that are too small to support viable populations of predator and prey.

In western Ecuador deforestation is extreme. We often drive for hours through endless banana and oil palm plantations without ever seeing a patch of native vegetation. Almost all of the lowland rainforest in western Ecuador is gone, and much of the foothill and cloud forest is also gone or severely fragmented. Based on satellite imagery, scientists now estimate that 90% of the original natural vegetation of western Ecuador has been removed. The effect of this is catastrophic for a large predator like a jaguar.

A recent study surveyed the Machalilla National Park in western Ecuador and concluded that the jaguar has been extirpated there. The four largest forest patches remaining in western Ecuador were also recently surveyed for jaguars and White-Lipped Peccary, by Zapata-Rios et al (2013). They used camera traps, field work, and interviews with local people.  They only found evidence of jaguars in one of those four patches, the  Cotocachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve. The density of jaguars recorded was very low;hey only captured nine independent jaguar photos in 2500 trap-nights.  The authors conclude that “it appears both species [jaguars and White-lipped Peccaries] have been extirpated already in the other three large forest remnants in the region, and their long-term persistence depends on immediate conservation actions in the Cotocachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve.” Our Manduriacu Reserve borders this national reserve, and acts as  a forested corridor between it and Los Cedros Reserve.

We still need help to buy the core lot in this reserve, which is also the only known site in the world for the Tandayapa Andean Toad Rhaebo olallai; please write me (loujost at yahoo com) for more info.

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation

Manduriacu Reserve from the air

In my last two posts (here and here) I discussed our new Manduriacu Reserve and its inhabitants. Today I present Sebastian Kohn’s drone video which shows the reserve from above. Note the high misty ridgeline in the background at around the 2:40 mark– the reserve extends to that ridgeline at around 2000m.

Thanks, Sebastian, for making this video!

Lou Jost

The pacarana (Dinomys branickii)

Surely the strangest animal of our new Manduriacu Reserve is the Pacarana (Dinomys branickii), the world’s third-largest rodent in terms of length (after the capybara and the beaver). It is almost a meter long and weighs up to 15 kg (more than 30 lbs). It is a rare, slow-moving nocturnal animal whose natural history was until very recently almost completely unknown. None of us has ever seen it, but several grainy infrared images captured by Sebastian’s camera traps prove its presence in Manduriacu.

It was first discovered in Peru in 1873, and immediately recognized as belonging to a new family of mammals never seen before. It had many odd features, such as four-toed paws rather than the usual five. No more individuals reached the scientific community (though surely many reached the cooking pots of local campesinos) until 1904, when a captive pair was given to a Brazilian zoo. In 1921 the first pacarana from Colombia was found and described as a distinct species (D. gigas); later, once the variation within populations was better understood, this form was lumped with the original D. branickii.

Captive animals turned out to be tame and affectionate. Karl Shuker notes that “…They actively seek out their human visitors to nuzzle them and rub themselves against their legs almost like cats, or even to be picked up and carried just like playful puppies.”

Nevertheless the scientific name of the genus comes from one of the same Greek words as the term “dinosaur”, which means “terrible (or terrifying) lizard”. “Dinomys” literally means “terrible mouse”! Before you laugh at this apparent oxymoron, though, let’s get some historical perspective on this guy’s relatives. Dinomys branickii is the sole survivor of an ancient and once very diverse family of South American rodents, the Dinomyidae, which split off from other rodent families about 17-21 million years ago. The family descended from a caviomorph rodent which probably drifted to South America from Africa 40 million years ago. (It is thought that the ancestor of all South American monkeys arrived from Africa the same way, at around the same time.) When these ancestral rodents got to South America, they found an island continent with many unfilled or inefficiently-filled ecological niches. They diversified to fill these niches, apparently out-competing many weird endemic South American mammals. They eventually evolved into several different rodent familes, including the Dinomyidae.

The living Pacarana (Dinomys branickii, below) and its extinct relative, Josephoartigasia monesi. Figure 3 from Rinderknecht and Blanco (2008).

The living Pacarana (Dinomys branickii, below) and its extinct relative, Josephoartigasia monesi. Figure 3 from Rinderknecht and Blanco (2008).

As the Dinomyidae diversified into new ecological niches, they also diversified in body size. The smallest of the fifty known fossil Dinomyidae species, Myoprocta, had a mass of only 1 kg. But most of the diversification wasa towards larger body sizes. Some of these “mice” had body sizes approaching those of hippopotamus, rhinoceros, and buffalo!!! “Terrible mouse” indeed! The largest Dinomyid, Josephoartigasia monesi, weighed about 1000 kg (one ton), the largest rodent that ever lived. Its front incisors were disproportionately huge, and may have been used to dig, or to fight. South America was full of buffalo-sized rats until continental drift linked it to Central America, introducing new forms that could in turn out-compete or eat these giants, just as the Dinomyids had outcompeted many of the earlier South American endemic mammals. The same wave of Central American newcomers (eventually including humans) also eliminated the giant ground sloths and many other strange endemic South American mammals and birds, probably helped along by a change to a drier climate.

As the Pleistocene ended, the only Dinomyid that survived all these changes was our unassuming Pacarana. It still has a large range, mostly on the eastern slopes of the Andes and adjacent Amazonia, with a narrow almost-disjunct population in the foothills on the west side of the Andes (where Manduriacu is located). Limited gene flow between the west and east populations, coupled with the different selective pressures on each side, may have led to genetic differentiation between them, but this has not yet been studied.

Pacarana range map, from IUCN Red List (

Even though the range is large, individuals are seldom seen, and they are hunted intensely for their meat. Their rate of reproduction is very slow compared to that of other rodents: its gestation period is 220-280 days, and it only bears one or two young at a time. This slow rate of reproduction means that even very light hunting pressure will exterminate it from an area.

Jorge Brito, expert in Ecuadorian mammals, reports that he once found a hunter with a Pacarana carcass in what is now our Dracula Reserve in western Ecuador near the Colombian border, so these animals once existed there. We have no evidence of their continued presence, though they might still be there somewhere. We have also not seen any Pacarana in our extensive camera trap surveys of our upper Rio Pastaza reserves, though Jorge Brito once caught a glimpse of one in nearby Parque Nacional Sangay. That is the only individual that Jorge ever saw, so this is a very rare and/or hard-to-detect mammal. Undoubtedly it has been eliminated near human settlements.

It may be useful to look for the animal’s scat and foraging damage. A study in Colombia by Carlos A. Saavedra-Rodríguez1, Gustavo H. Kattan, Karin Osbahr, and Juan Guillermo Hoyos (2012), Multiscale patterns of habitat and space use by the pacarana Dinomys branickii: factors limiting its distribution and abundance, in the journal Endangered Species Research vol 16:273–281, Supplementary Material, contains photos of these signs of Pacarana presence:

<img src="" alt="Pacarana foraging marks. From Supplementary Material, Carlos A. Saavedra-Rodríguez1, Gustavo H. Kattan, Karin Osbahr, and Juan Guillermo Hoyos (2012), Multiscale patterns of habitat and space use by the pacarana Dinomys branickii: factors limiting its distribution and abundance, in the journal Endangered Species Research, vol 16:273–281. Fair Use license. ” width=”584″ height=”373″ class=”size-full wp-image-2220″ /> Pacarana foraging marks. From Supplementary Material, Carlos A. Saavedra-Rodríguez1, Gustavo H. Kattan, Karin Osbahr, and Juan Guillermo Hoyos (2012), Multiscale patterns of habitat and space use by the pacarana Dinomys branickii: factors limiting its distribution and abundance, in the journal Endangered Species Research, vol 16:273–281. Fair Use license.

Since conservation resources are limited, global resource managers must always think carefully about which animals and ecosystems they should protect. One important criterion for protection is “evolutionary distinctiveness”. An animal that has no close living relatives carries many genes that are not found in any other animals, and may have unique biochemical and ecological traits, so it should have a higher conservation value than an animal with many close relatives. An ecosystem with such a phylogenetically distinct animal is more valuable than a community with the same number of species but less phylogenetic diversity. (My colleague Anne Chao and I have developed mathematical methods for quantifying the phylogenetic diversity of an ecosystem; see below for citation.) The pacarana, last survivor of the once terrible Dinomyidae, adds much to the conservation value of Manduriacu.

See this site for more information about the living species, and this one for some information about the extinct ones.

For the mathematics of diversity measures that incorporate phylogenetic diversity, see Chao, Chiu, and Jost 2010.

Lou Jost
Fundacion EcoMinga

A “lost” toad rediscovered: We join the effort to protect Rhaebo olallai

Fig. 4. Andinophryne ollalai
Juvenile Rhaebo olallai, a “lost” amphibian recently rediscovered after a 43 year disappearance. Photo by one of the rediscoverers, Ryan Lynch.

In my last post I wrote about the amphibian experts who had secluded themselves in a remote cloud forest lodge, San Isidro, in order to work on updating the IUCN Red List status of 200 Ecuadorian frog species. They have finished their task, but the proposed threat categories for each species still need to be reviewed by other specialists. The categories assigned to each species will only become official after this review.

Nevertheless for some species, conservation can’t wait, and I will write a few posts here about some species that we believe are likely to be officially classified as Endangered or Critically Endangered, and which require urgent conservation action.

Andinophryne ollalai
Another view of Rhaebo olallai, the Tandayapa Andean Toad. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

One of the most dramatic frog conservation stories involves the Tanadayapa Andean Toad, Rhaebo (formerly Andinophryne) olallai. This species was first discovered in 1970 near the town of Tandayapa about 50 kms west of Quito, but then it disappeared. The area has become a very popular ecotourism destination and is often visited by scientists, so its disappearance from the area seems to be real and not the result of lack of searching. In fact the area was searched multiple times by trained herpetologists looking specifically for this toad, for a total of at least 150 hours of search effort, without success. Another Ecuadorian member of the genus, R. colomai, also disappeared shortly after its discovery, and the current IUCN Red List notes that R. colomai may be extinct.

In 2012 biologists Ryan Lynch and Sebastian Kohn (whose parents are EcoMinga board members) were surveying the forest of Manduriacu, 40 kms north of the site where R. olallai had been discovered forty-three years earlier. They were surprised to find an unusual fancy toad during their night walks, and immediately realized this was something special. Upon investigation they realized that they had rediscovered R olallai! And not just a few individuals. They eventually found large numbers of them, in all age categories. Their photos were the first ones ever published of live individuals. They also were the first humans to see the fancy color pattern of the juveniles, as shown in Ryan’s photos at the top of this post. As they mature they lose their pattern, as shown in the photo below. These dramatic color changes are not found in most other species of the genus.

Andinophryne ollalai
Adult Rhaebo olallai. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

The rediscovery was described in a scientific article, and also in article for the Amphibian Survival Alliance. The latter article explains the conservation situation of this toad:

Its scarcity earned the species a spot on the World’s “Lost Frogs” List by Conservation International. “This is a truly exciting and important rediscovery,” stated Dr. Robin Moore who launched the Global search for Lost Frogs, adding “In order to prioritize what and where to protect, it is imperative to know whether rare species such as this still exist. Hopefully this remarkable find will lead to some concrete conservation actions to ensure the species stays off the Lost Frogs List.”…

The article continues:

The region surrounding Manduriacu has received attention by conservationists in recent years due to the expansion of hydroelectric, mining, and logging activities, all of which could threaten the well-being and survival of unknown numbers of rare and endangered species such the Tandayapa Andean Toad in the region. “The last time we visited the property we encountered a freshly clear-cut plot of land less than a kilometer from the rediscovery site, which is home to the only currently known population of the species” stated Lynch, adding “so land preservation in the region can’t come quick enough.”

Santiago R. Ron from Museo de Zoología QCAZ, Universidad Católica del Ecuador, who oversees ongoing population studies of Andinophryne [Note added by LJ: that genus is now included in Rhaebo] in Ecuador stated “The discovery of the Tandayapa Andean Toad in Manduriyacu demonstrates that the forests have unique properties and, presumably, unique communities”, adding “so the study and conservation of this area should be considered a priority for both the Ecuadorian government and the international conservation community.” In addition to the Tandayapa Andean Toad, four threatened amphibian species have been recorded in Manduriacu…

Fig. 1. Manduriyacu Location
Map of Manduriacu.

The habitat of Rhaebo olallai in Manduriacu. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

One of the other threatened amphibian species of Manduriacu is the Darwin-Wallace Poison Dart Frog, Epipedobates darwinwallacei, recently described by Diego Cisneros-Heredia and EcoMinga director Mario Yanez. It is endemic to foothill forests just west of Quito, in Pichincha, Santo Domingo, and Cotopaxi provinces. Poison dart frogs are unusual among frogs for the care they give to their offspring; the adults sometimes carry their tadpoles on their backs to put them in new pools of water in the canopy, often bromeliad crowns. Females of some species visit these pools and lay infertile eggs in them to feed their offspring. The first photo below shows an adult carrying tadpoles.

Another rare and local endemic is Lepidoblepharis conolepis, restricted to Pichincha and Cotopaxi provinces:

Lepidoblepharis conolepis
Lepidoblepharis conolepis. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Some other reptiles and amphibians of Manduriacu, all from Ryan Lynch’s website:

Anolis gemmosus
Anolis gemmosus. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Anolis aequatorialis
Anolis aequatorialis. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Pristimantis muricatus
Pristimantis muricatus. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Diaphorolepis wagneri
Diaphorolepis wagneri. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Centrolene peristictum
Centrolene peristictum. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Espadarana prosoblepon
Espadarana prosoblepon. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Hyloscirtus cf. alytolylax
Hyloscirtus cf alytolylax. Note that this species is hiding under a leaf while calling, exactly like the Hyloscirtus I had photographed in our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Pristimantis scolodiscus
Pristimantis scolodiscus. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Since this is the only known place in the world where the Tandayapa Andean Toad exists, and since other very rare species are also present there, clearly this threatened forest should be preserved. Sebastian Kohn has long been committed to conserving this forest, and he was able to buy several lots in the Manduriacu watershed where the toad lives. These lots total 969 acres and range in elevation from 1100 to 2100m. He enrolled these properties in the Ecuadorian government’s SocioBosque program, which pays the owner to conserve the forest. Sebastian uses all of the annual government payment to fund the salary of a permanent forest guard, who happens to also be the president of the local community.

Shortly after they rediscovered the toad, Ryan and Sebastian approached us for help in protecting this watershed, and we agreed. The Manduriacu lots protected by Sebastian are now under our control. Sebastian has turned them over to us to manage, and will give us all the money he receives from the SocioBosque program, to pay our costs for that management, so that there is no cost to us. In addition he has generously agreed to donate all of his land to EcoMinga when his SocioBosque contract ends. (We do not want him not to donate it to us now, because that would cut off the SocioBosque management money; the SocioBosque program applies only to individuals and communities, not to foundations.) So we are proud to announce that Manduriacu becomes EcoMinga’s newest reserve, with Sebastian’s original purchases as its core!

However, there is still a 325 acre property in the middle of this watershed that has not been bought. It splits our protected forest in half. EcoMinga has still not been able to find all the funding for this purchase. We have promises of about $10,000 but need another $63,000 for the lot. (We may be able to buy it with less money if we can find an entity that would match the donated funds; we have sometimes been able to do this in the past.) This property contains excellent primary forest and lots of wildlife, including big cats, peccaries, and much else. The highest parts, at 2000m elevation, have not yet been explored but should contain a very high diversity of Dracula orchid species (and these would mostly be different species from those in our Dracula Reserve, which is much farther north near the Colombian border). If there are any US readers who would like to help us with this purchase, the Orchid Conservation Alliance can accept donations and give tax deductions. Please specify that your donation should go to EcoMinga/Manduriacu, and also write me to let me know.

Note added July 28 2016: Something seems to be wrong with the Orchid Conservation Alliance Paypal button; it will be better to send a check directly to them and write an email to the president, Peter Tobias, with copy to me, advising him that the donation is for EcoMinga/Manduriacu:
Peter Tobias, President
Orchid Conservation Alliance
564 Arden Drive
Encinitas, CA 92024
Thanks Jim Knight for bringing the problem to my attention.

The Manduriacu forest contains important mammals like the Brown-headed Spider Monkey, listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, and many other species. Below is a herd of Collared Peccaries (Pecari tajacu) eating its way through the Manduriacu undergrowth at night:

and a Brocket Deer (Mazama species):

And here is a potential predator of the peccaries and deer, a Puma (Felis concolor):

There is also evidence that jaguars use the forest, including this camera-trap photo:

Apparently a Jaguar (Panthera onca) passing close to Sebastian's camera trap in Manduriacu.

Apparently a Jaguar (Panthera onca) passing close to Sebastian’s camera trap in Manduriacu.

But the weirdest animal of all is the Pacarana (Dinomys branickii), which will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

For more inspiration see all of Ryan Lynch’s beautiful photos of the reptiles and amphibians of Manduriacu Reserve:

More info on Ecuador’s amphibians:
Amphibians of Ecuador, Universidad Catolica de Quito:

Lou Jost
Fundacion EcoMinga