Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera)

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Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera). Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

One of the most emblematic Andean birds is the Sword-billed Hummingbird, Ensifera ensifera. We have them in most of our reserves, but they are elusive and hard to photograph when we are hiking around. A few days ago, however, one of these wonderful birds landed in front of my kitchen window and stayed long enough for me to get my camera, so I finally got a picture of it. This species has co-evolved with several species of cloud forest plants with long tubular flowers; this hummingbird is the only organism able to pollinate these plant species. This particular individual may have been attracted to two of these co-evolved species, Passiflora mixta and Passiflora tarminiana, which both grow wild around my house (though this hummingbird is also perfectly able to feed from regular flowers too).

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Passiflora tarminiana. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

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Passiflora mixta (“Taxo”). Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A large hummingbird like this needs lots of nectar for fuel, and each of the flower species that have co-evolved with this hummingbird have large nectaries loaded with sweet liquid.  Below I’ve made cross-sections of both these passionflower species, so you can see the nectar chambers at the base of the tubes:

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Left: P. tarminiana; right, P. mixta. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

All that nectar is a big temptation of other species too. Since  other species don’t have tongues long enough to reach the nectar, they have to rob the nectar by breaking into the nectaries, drilling or biting holes in the back of the flower. Nectar -robbing doesn’t pollinate the flower, so the robbed nectar is wasted as far as the plant is concerned. Flower variations that happen to be more resistant to robbers will have more nectar to offer the Sword-billed Hummingbird,  and will therefore get visited more often by it, and  will get pollinated more often and leave more descendants. Thus natural selection will eventually lead to flowers whose backsides are somewhat protected against robbers. The thickened “armored” walls of the nectaries are visible in the above cross-sections.

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The base of this passionflower has been pierced multiple times by nectar robbers, probably flowerpiercers. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Still, some robbers get through. Several entire genera of nectar-robbing birds have evolved to take advantage of this resource. The most dedicated thieves are the eighteen bird species belonging to the genus Diglossa, the Flower-piercers. They often have sharp hooks on their bill tips to rip holes in the backs of flowers. Some of the species that rob these particular passionflowers are the White-sided Flower-piercer, the Masked Flower-piercer, and the Glossy Flower-piercer. Many short-billed hummingbirds also drill holes in the backs of the flowers, or use the holes made by flower-piercers. Bees also rob the nectar by biting holes in the back of the flowers, and butterflies steal their share by visiting the holes made by all these other thieves. Some passionflower species put tiny nectaries on the backs of their flowers to attract ants and wasps, which might deter some of these thieves.

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Black Flowerpiercer feeding on Fuchsia. Photo courtesy Roger Ahlman.

The Slater Museum of Natural History of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington kindly gave me permission to show their scan of the skeleton of this bird, surely one of the weirdest of all vertebrate skeletons. Note the huge keel of the breastbone (sternum), where the powerful wing muscles are attached in the living bird. Note also the bony base of the enormous tongue circling underneath and behind the head, and the little feet pointing backwards:

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Sword-billed Hummingbird skeleton, scan courtesy of the Slater Museum of  Natural History.

The Sword-billed Hummingbird occurs in most of our Banos-area EcoMinga reserves, at elevations from about 2000m to 3400m: Cerro Candelaria Reserve, Viscaya Reserve, Naturetrek Reserve, Rio Verde Reserve, Rio Zunac Reserve, Rio Machay Reserve, and Chamana Reserve. Our lowland Rio Anzu Reserve is too low for it.

Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga

Bear update and puma problems too

Camera trap video of a Spectacled Bear eating a bull carcass near El Placer, Ecuador, next to our Machay and Naturetrek Reserves.  The bear first sniffs the camera, then eats. Video set up by Juan Pablo Reyes and Santiago Recalde, EcoMinga.

It has been a while since we’ve posted here. Readers might imagine that this means there is not much news to report, but in fact the opposite is true. We have been so busy, with so much going on, that we have not had time to sit back and write about what we are doing. I have just returned from Taiwan to give a talk about the mathematics of biodiversity and to work on the textbook that Anne Chao and I are writing. I finally have a bit of time to sit and write, and that is what I will try to do for the next few days…

Before I write posts on some of the new things, I’ll finish the bear story that I had left hanging in my last posts (here and here).

As regular readers may recall, one or more Spectacled Bears near our Cerro Candelaria, Naturetrek, and Machay reserves had been eating the crops of the local people and apparently killing a few of their cattle. We brought in a bear expert, Andres Laguna, to talk to the local people and take appropriate action. A bull had just recently died (possibly killed by the bear) and this gave us the chance to film and trap the bear.

We succeeded in the filming the bear visiting the carcass during the day (above) and also at night (below).

Spectacled Bear at night munching on rotten bull meat near El Placer. Video set up by Juan Pablo Reyes and Santiago Recalde, EcoMinga.

This was our chance to trap the bear. Unfortunately Andres was not able to return to our area in time, in spite of our promises to the community. We don’t have enough experience to trap the bear ourselves, so in the end we missed the opportunity to do something about it. Fortunately we have not received any new reports of dead cattle, but bears are still eating our neighbors’ corn.

Now the same people who are losing their cattle and corn to bears are starting to lose their chickens to puma. Two puma have been spotted with some regularity in the area, and recently puma tracks were found very close to homes.

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A puma caught by a camera trap in our reserve near El Placer. Credit: Karima Lopez.

Our conservation successes are negatively affecting the local people, and if this continues, they will certainly take matters into their own hands and kill the offending animals….I am not sure what the solutions are. One obvious thing we can do is pay compensation for confirmed losses. We are also trying to involve the community with the reserve, to make them proud of it and to find ways that they can benefit economically from it. Then they may be able to overlook the  lost corn and chickens, though cattle are so valuable that no one can accept losing them.

Lou Jost/EcoMinga Foundation

 

 

 

 

Spectacled Bear sightings Part 2

Yesterday I posted a Spectacled Bear video taken by one of our rangers near his home town of El Placer, close to our Naturetrek Reserve. Today I received more videos of the same sighting, taken from the village schoolhouse. All the kids got to see the bear! You can hear their excitement in the background.

And the video from yesterday, taken by the people who appear in the last few seconds of the above video:

 

These bears are damaging the people’s crops, but perhaps we can turn this problem into an advantage for the village. If the bears came often enough, it may be possible for the village to earn some money from tourism. Perhaps the village could actually plant crops for the bears. The challenge will be to find an equitable way to ensure that enough tourism money goes to the farmers who do that.

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation

Spectacled Bear successes and challenges

A few days ago one of our rangers  filmed this large male Spectacled Bear in cultivated fields near his village, close to our Naturetrek Reserve.

This year we have been thrilled to see a dramatic increase in Spectacled Bear (Tremarctos ornatus) sightings around our Naturetrek, Cerro Candelaria, and Machay reserves, which together form the “Forests in the Sky” wildlife corridor between the Llanganates and Sangay national parks. We have been protecting these bears and their habitat for ten years now, and apparently we have been quite successful.

However, this brings new challenges as bears and people  begin to compete for the same food. As one example, bears love the corn that the local people grow, and they can systematically destroy a farmer’s crop, as we showed in this camera-trap video:

In the last few weeks we have heard reports of a more serious conflict, perhaps with the big male bear filmed in the video at the top of this post. The reports, which are not confirmed, blame bears for killing several calves. There was one well-known case of a rogue Spectacled Bear killing calves in northern Ecuador a few years ago, and I have seen a camera-trap photo of a Spectacled Bear attacking a grown Mountain Tapir, so this is not impossible, though it is very rare. Our rangers are investigating these reports. If they turn out to be true, we have a challenging problem on our hands. The owners of these calves are not big ranchers with hundreds of head; these are poor individuals with only a handful of cows at any one time.A calf is a very big deal for its owner, not something whose loss can be easily absorbed.

On the other hand, many reports elsewhere of cattle deaths due to bears have been based on circumstantial evidence and may have actually been cases of scavenging bears. For now, we can only gather the facts as carefully as possible. We hope that these latest reports will prove to be unfounded….I’ll write more when we know more facts.

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation

Two of our new Magnolias are spotlighted in the Ecuadorian national press; and a fourth new species of Magnolia is found in our Dracula Reserve

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Magnolia vargasiana with flea beetle pollinator. Click caption to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Over the weekend one of the largest newspapers in Ecuador ran a nice story about the two new species of Magnolia discovered in our Rio Zunac Reserve some years ago. The article quotes David Neill explaining the remarkable story of the recent explosion of Latin American discoveries in this genus: “As of two years ago only five species of magnolia were known from Ecuador; now there are 23.”

The article notes that Fundacion EcoMinga protects the two newly-discovered species, M. llanganatensis and M. vargasiana. Our “Keepers of the Wild” reserve guards played a crucial role in their discoveries and are co-authors of the scientific articles describing these species.

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Magnolia llanganatensis. Click caption to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost.

David mentions that many Magnolia species are endangered, but that these two species are safe thanks to our foundation.

The article only mentions two of our species, but as readers of this blog know, our guards had recently found a third undescribed species, in our new Forests in the Sky reserve near Banos, very close to the Rio Zunac Reserve where the other two Magnolias were found. That species had originally been discovered somewhat north of there, and is currently being described.

But that’s still not the end of it! Last month Alvaro Perez of the Universidad Catolica found a new population of an undescribed Magnolia in our Dracula Reserve in northwest Ecuador. That species was originally discovered near Mindo in west-central Ecuador. I suspect we will still discover one or two more new species in our reserves. But even just these four make our reserve system one of the richest in South America for this genus.

Here is the Spanish text of the article:

En Ecuador se descubrieron dos magnolias

” Científicos de la Universidad Estatal Amazónica (UEA) y de la Fundación Ecominga descubrieron dos especies de plantas del género magnolia. Este grupo de árboles es uno de los antepasados más antiguos de las plantas con flor (angiospermas). Son fósiles vivientes que colonizaron la Tierra en la era de los dinosaurios, hace 70 millones de años.
Los árboles miden entre 11 y 27 metros de altura.

Tienen flores grandes que pueden alcanzar los 30 cm de ancho y algunas tienen hasta 50 pétalos, aunque el número varía entre especies e individuos. 
¿Por qué tantos pétalos? Las primeras flores evolucionaron de una especie de piñas características de las plantas de la época del Cretácico. Así lo explicó David Neill, uno de los investigadores del estudio.
 El descubrimiento de especies de magnolia es esencial para estudiar el origen y la evolución de las plantas con flor. En el mundo existen alrededor de 170 especies de este género. 
En la última década, se ha descubierto un gran número de especies neotropicales. Ahora las magnolias que se encuentran en el Nuevo Mundo han aumentado de un tercio a casi la mitad de todos los especímenes a escala mundial.

“Hace dos años se conocían apenas cinco especies de magnolia en Ecuador; ahora son 23”, cuenta Neill. Agrega que esta es una demostración de las pocas investigaciones que se han realizado del género.
 El Ecuador es el país neotropical con más especímenes por área. En especial la región de Zamora Chinchipe, la cual alberga nueve especies por ­cada 10 000 km². 
El descubrimiento de los dos nuevos árboles fue inesperado. Los científicos habían encontrado las flores de los especímenes durante un muestreo en la Cordillera de los Llanganates, en el 2014. Las archi­varon, guardando su secreto en el herbario de la UEA.

Meses más tarde, el botánico mexicano Antonio Vázquez las identificó como dos nuevas especies de plantas únicas en el mundo. A la primera, los científicos la llamaron Magnolia vargasiana, nombrada en honor al rector de la UEA, Julio César Vargas. Las segunda recibió el nombre del lugar donde la encontraron: Magnolia llanganatensis. 
Magnolia vargasiana tiene hojas más puntiagudas que la llanganatensis. Esta última, publicada recientemente como nueva especie, tiene frutos rojos, su flor mide 3 centímetros y posee seis pétalos.

Las dos especies son endémicas de un área limitada de la cordillera central de los Llanganates. Es decir, no se encuentran en ninguna otra parte del mundo. 
Ambas habitan dentro de un área protegida por la Fundación Ecominga, por lo que según Neill no presentan ninguna amenaza, al contrario de otras especies.

Un estudio -realizado por Vázquez y sus colegas- afirma que un 26% de las magnolias del neotrópico se encuentra amenazado de extinción, según la Lista Roja de la Unión Internacional para la Conservación (UICN).
El género magnolia es de origen norteamericano. Este migró a Europa, Asia y Sudamérica. Después de miles de años se extinguió en Europa, dejando solo restos fósiles de su existencia.

Actualmente, debido a la degradación del hábitat, muchas especies de estos fósiles vivientes ya no existen en estado natural . 
En Asia y América, este grupo de árboles tiene una importancia económica y cultural. Su madera es cotizada por ser dura. Muchas especies 
se siembran con fines ornamentales. Otras se utilizan para la industria farmacéutica y la de perfumes.”

Este contenido ha sido publicado originalmente por Diario EL COMERCIO en la siguiente dirección: http://www.elcomercio.com/tendencias/ecuador-descubrieron-magnolias-flora.html. ElComercio.com
Lou Jost
Fundacion EcoMinga