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

 

 

 

 

Earth Day: High school students from Aldo Leopold’s alma mater spend a week in our Cerro Candelaria forest

Aldo Leopold’s 1949 book, “A Sand County Almanac”, was one of the first voices of the environmental consciousness that began to awaken in response to the post-World War II rise of man’s destructive power. The founder of Earth Day, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, was deeply influenced by his writings.

Aldo Leopold wanted humanity to develop a land ethic, one that respected plants and non-human animals. He wrote:

“When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence.”

“This hanging involved no question of propriety. The girls were property. The disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expediency, not of right and wrong. Concepts of right and wrong were not lacking from Odysseus’ Greece: witness the fidelity of his wife through the long years before at last his black-prowed galleys clove the wine-dark seas for home. The ethical structure of that day covered wives, but had not yet been extended to human chattels. During the three thousand years which have since elapsed, ethical criteria have been extended to many fields of conduct, with corresponding shrinkages in those judged by expediency only.”

“…There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.”

Perhaps (just perhaps) our ethical sphere has been extended a bit since Leopold wrote those words, but we have a long way to go. We spend less and less time in nature, to the point where most people today do not even know what real nature is. Intact ecosystems are now so rare that the vast majority of people will never experience them, much less fall in love with them. This visceral love of nature is the only thing that can drive people to sacrifice their own comforts to protect it.

Dr John L. Clark, who holds the Aldo Leopold Distinguished Teaching Chair at The Lawrenceville School, Aldo Leopold’s alma mater in New Jersey, is as much in love with nature as anyone I know. He has started a program to bring his high school biology students (ranging in age from 15-18 years old) to our reserves in Ecuador, to try to ignite this passion for real nature in the next generation.

John is an old friend of mine who used to be a Peace Corps volunteer here in the 1980s. He is now a famous botanist specializing in gesneriads, the African Violet family. He has published several monographs on gesneriad genera and has discovered many new species. Two years ago, as a professor at the University of Alabama, he brought a college biology class to our Rio Zunac Reserve to set up two quarter-hectare plots, in which every tree bigger than 10 cm in diameter was sampled, tagged, and identified. Dr David Neill from the Universidad Estatal Amazonica helped set up that plot and identified the trees. In the process they found what turned out to be two new species of Magnolia trees, and John discovered a new gesneriad in the genus Columnea.

Now in his new position at The Lawrenceville School, he has done the same thing with a dozen of his high school students, joining with David Neill again to set up a quarter-hectare plot in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve last month. It was a daring project, very unusual for an American high school.

Some of his students wrote about their experience. Here is Kaimansa Sowah’s essay, which she titled “Botanizing!”:

“Never had I seriously considered ecology or botany or even entomology as a field of interest until our trip to Cerro Candelaria on the eastern slopes of the Andes in Ecuador. Arriving in Quito on a Saturday morning with many missionary groups crowding the lines at immigration, I questioned if our work in Ecuador would have any real impact on the community. How could plant identification transcend traditional community service? It would not be until I was sitting around a fire at our high camp sipping tea made from recently collected crushed foliage of a Lauraceae we had found earlier, barely communicating sufficiently in my middle school Spanish that I managed to realize the profound importance of our trip to Ecuador.”

“The hike up to camp was brutal to say the least. Many of us had never hiked before and mounted on our backs were 50-pound packs with silica gel for preparing museum specimens, M&Ms (which would be our lunch for several days), and personal belongings. Our frequent stops for “Botanizing!” only heightened the difficulty level. Our expedition leader Dr. John Clark lights up at a fallen Gesneriaceae leaf, so throughout the hike and the trip as a whole, he was never short of excitement as our paths were lined with rare and new species. Fortunately, the view of mountains perfectly scattered, parting only for the rapids leading to and from waterfalls, fuelled our strenuous walk to the camp. The view never ceased to amaze us, and many of us still fail to believe its reality.”

“It was not until we began work on the plots that each of our own individual love for botany and plant life was established. Divided into groups of three, we established and inventoried tree diversity in a 0.25-hectare permanent plot. With the help of Tito, our guide, friend, and resident tree climber, we identified trees based on vegetative features (e.g., leaf patterns, leaf arrangement, smell), recorded DBH (diameter breast height), tree height, and tagged each tree with an aluminum label. Our field journals appeared something like this: “tree 4, subplot 5, 25 meter height, 18 cm DBH, simple-alternate leaves with milky sap (Moraceae?).” On the first day we found a cherry tree (Prunus sp.) that had never been observed by our resident scientist and tree expert, Dr. David Neill who is a professor of biology at the Universidad Estatal Amazónica. Many of the trees were challenging to identify, which only further affirmed how much biodiversity surrounded us. During a lunch break, we played a plant identification game where we were divided into teams and given Al Gentry’s book “A Field Guide to the Families and Genera of Woody Plants of North west South America.” Each team was timed in their ability to identify foliage to family. All of us being extremely competitive, we quickly held our leaves to the light using our hand lenses, crushing and smelling, and rapidly blurting out names like “Piperacae!” Euphoribacae!” “Melostomatacae!””

“Along with our own Dr. Clark were resident entomologists and ecologists who shared their love of biology. We also met the director and founder of the EcoMinga foundation, Lou Jost who is a theoretical mathematician, ecologist, and botanist who specializes in the study of orchids. We were surrounded by vast amounts of unique talent, which greatly sparked our own interests. Besides the fieldwork, we were able to connect and talk with our guides. They soon became our friends, and it was through conversations with them that we realized how grateful they were for our interest in visiting their reserve. No, as a sixteen-year-old girl, I had never thought of biodiversity research as one of my interests. And I cannot say whether it was our guide giving us hints during the scavenger hunt with his ability to identify plant families from meters away, or the sheer look of ecstasy when “Ranger”, also known as Dr. Clark, and Dr. Neill sat around their pressed leaves dumbfounded at a new species, or Darwin [Recalde]’s ability to navigate the maze-like mountains and carting us up steep hills. Nonetheless, this trip has piqued my interest and I suspect that botany and biodiversity will play a large role in my future.”

Eloise White wrote of her experience:

“…When I first signed up to travel to Ecuador with the School, I expected a week of light hiking, bonding with new friends, and great food, all coupled with the occasional botanical reference. While the food was indeed fantastic, the intensity of the trip took us all by surprise on the first day in the field, when we embarked on a challenging four-hour hike to our camp. It was not until after we finished showering in the beautiful waterfall and sat down at dinner to prepare our field notebooks for our work in the tree plots the next morning that I realized the importance of the work that we would accomplish during our time in the forest.”

“When we reached the plots bright and early the next day, we received instructions, and my group quickly fell into a rhythm of tagging trees with bright orange tape and communicating with our local guides who were climbing to the canopy of the trees, a task that gradually became easier as our Spanish improved. Each time that our guide, usually some 30 feet high in a tree, would cry “Ten cuidado!” the three students in my group would jump back and wait for an unidentified specimen to come crashing to the ground. That first day, in the moments that I spent with Dr. Clark, tagging and pressing plant samples into pages of newspaper, his excitement surrounding new and rare species was absolutely contagious. I found myself eager to memorize the names of plant species, to identify which types of bark had latex, and to distinguish simple leaves from compound leaves. Even now, I find myself so grateful to Dr. Clark and the other scientists accompanying us in the forest because they showed me what it means to be passionate about a specific field of study, something that I hope to do as I move forward in my Lawrenceville career, the college process, and my life.”

“…My Spanish teachers at The Lawrenceville School have always stressed the importance of experiencing the language abroad in order to truly further my understanding… Between trying to ask our guides to scale a certain tree to obtain a specimen and sitting around our campfire late in the night, telling ghost stories and jokes with Jordi and Darwin, I was constantly speaking Spanish. The pure exposure to the language coupled with the locals’ willingness to help me practice provided me with a unique opportunity to further an area of interest which I had not previously devoted much attention to. Furthermore, partially overcoming the language barrier opened the group up to an irreplaceable chance to form lasting friendships with locals, a memory that I will forever treasure. Lawrenceville constantly stresses the importance of expanding our horizons, and I can attest that in communicating with and working alongside unfamiliar faces, the twelve of us expanded our own world views significantly.”

“Before embarking on our journey, our teachers made it clear that our accommodations would be far from luxurious. We were told us that we would be perpetually damp, sweaty, and dirty, all of which later proved true. However, I will be the first to say that the view from our wooden cabin base camp without windows, doors, or even walls was extraordinary, rivaling that from any mountain getaway or island. When we summited Cerro Candelaria (3800+ m), while it was extremely challenging and put both our bodies and minds to the test, the breathtaking outlook from the top instantly made our hard work worth it.”

“Overall, my work and experiences in Ecuador were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. They opened my eyes up to an entirely new scope of interests, people, and awareness. For example, as I previously planned on dropping out of Spanish for my senior year, I have changed my mind and will continue to advance my understanding of the language, hopefully into college. As I begin the college search, I have been relentlessly pestering my counselor about which schools have the best programs to study abroad while working with the science department. I attribute these shifts in my interests to my recent experience in Ecuador.”

Vivienne Gao expresses the very real physical challenges of this trip:

“Honestly, if I had known our expedition to Ecuador involved so much hiking, I probably would not have signed up. I’ve always been more comfortable in the water; I prefer swimming over running and am generally more athletic when I am not on land, so the minute I found out that our first hike to low camp would take roughly four hours, I definitely had my doubts…The day was hot, but not unpleasant, but I still kept my hair in braids to keep it off my neck. Once we began our hike however, the physical exertion made the heat borderline unbearable. We all carried large Osprey backpacks with our personal belongings, and these bags were not only heavy but also didn’t breathe well. Sweat happily gathered between my back and my pack, soaking through my shirt so that when I finally peeled the pack off, my shirt still clung to me as a dog’s fur clings to it, dripping, rinsed after a soapy bath in the backyard. The hike was mostly uphill, but the terrain varied. We were slopping through mud, climbing over rocks, and wading through streams, sometimes on level ground and sometimes on downhill slopes, but everything led us upwards eventually.”

“I remember seeing the cabin for the first time after three or so hours of hiking and thinking that this was the best moment of my life. I had fallen behind with a couple friends, so the rest of the group was already in the cabin waiting for us. As I slowly trudged up the hill, humoring the impressive cramp in my right calf that had formed over the duration of the hike, I congratulated myself for completing the hike, a feat that I considered the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Little did I know that in the days to come, I would experience hikes many times more difficult than this one, a prospect far beyond my wildest imaginations…”

“Twenty minutes before we reached low camp, my small group of hiking companions and I had come across waterfall, the same waterfall that would host our daily shower and laundry trips. After reaching camp, everyone, me included, was excited to wash the salt and dirt off their bodies. The idea of showering in a waterfall enticed me, but my legs caved at the thought of hiking another twenty minutes to the waterfall, yet I went anyways. The waterfall became my favorite place and I went everyday after that.”

“I came back from Ecuador having learned more about my physical and mental limits, surprised at how hard I could actually push myself. I lost eleven pounds but earned so much more in experience and memories. The trip is something I will never forget, and who knows, maybe someday I’ll return, ready to face the challenges I faced this time and conquer them.”

As his students noticed, John Clark was at least as excited as they were:

“I am often asked how I know when something I come across is a new species. It is important to note that describing a new species is a process that is collections-based, requires several formal criteria outlined by the International Code of Nomenclature (ICN), and is contingent on a peer-reviewed publication. It is considered by some biologists (e.g., L.E. Skog who co-chaired my PhD committee) as “bad botanical etiquette” to say something is new without data. Nevertheless, outlined here are four species that I am confident have not been previously described. My doctoral dissertation resulted in a monographic revision of Glossoloma (Clark 2005). This is a group of plants that I dedicated more than a decade studying and when finished, I expected that there would be an occasional new species that would represent something that was not included in the monograph (Clark 2005). For example, Karyn Cichocki observed a new species of Glossoloma in 2007 when assisting me on an expedition in Ecuador. An additional new species was described with a student as a result of an expedition in Colombia (Rodas & Clark 2014). What I did not expect to find in Cerro Candelaria was a new species of Glossoloma every 500 meters in elevation change. I found three new species of Glossoloma between our base camp and the high camp. We also discovered a an undescribed species of Drymonia, which is a group that Laura Clavijo and I have studied together for more than eight years. I directed Laura’s dissertation committee (2007 to 2015) and together we have published more than eight papers on Drymonia. Thus, the four undescribed species featured in Figure 1 [below] are based on ongoing studies of museum specimens, extensive fieldwork, and comprehensive review of taxonomic literature. The remarkable discovery of biodiversity featured in Figure 1 is an example of the urgency and need for additional studies in the Neotropics.”

“There are also rare species from Cerro Candelaria that I did not expect to find. Two collections represent populations that were not previously known. The rarest plant that we found was Columnea bivalvis (photo below, D and E), which was previously only known from a single population (Amaya-Márquez & Clark 2011). [Note added by LJ: That original population was found in what is now our Rio Machay Reserve.] Drymonia ignea (photo below, A and B) is endemic to the eastern slopes of the Andes and was previously only known from 5 populations (Clark 2013). Never have I seen more than a few individuals of Drymonia ignea growing together and along the ridgeline there were multiple areas of ten or more individuals.”

The Lawrenceville School students not only gave us their friendship and enthusiasm but also brought the gift of electricity to our research stations. I’ll save that story for a separate post.

The Lawrenceville School staff who visited us: Baptiste Bataille, Jennifer Mayr (her husband is related to famous evolutionary biologist Ernest Mayr!) and John L. Clark.

The Lawrenceville School staff who visited us: Baptiste Bataille, Jennifer Mayr (her husband is related to famous evolutionary biologist Ernest Mayr!) and John L. Clark.

The essay excerpts used here are from John’s fuller version of this story which will soon be published by the magazine “Gesneriads”. They are used here with John’s, the school’s, and the magazine editor’s permission. Thanks John, and thanks Lawrenceville School students, for a wonderful cultural exchange and exciting scientific discoveries! Your enthusiasm and that of your students inspires us and makes our work feel worth the trouble. Lawrenceville School students, you literally walk in the footsteps of the great Aldo Leopold, and I hope that like him, some of you can help the earth face the challenges that your own generation will witness.

EcoMinga also thanks the World Land Trust and their donors Puro Coffee, Naturetrek, and PricewaterhouseCoopers for funding the Cerro Candelaria Reserve, and their donor Noel McWilliam for the funds to build the research station where these students, and many other students and scientists, stayed.

The World Land Trust’s “Forests in the Sky” appeal continues to expand the protection of this area.

Lou Jost

Landscape-level conservation becomes a reality for EcoMinga


We’ve recenty signed the papers and made the down payment for a key six-hundred-hectare property that protects virtually the entire watershed of the Rio Machay, from the high peak of Cerro Mayordomo (3400m) in the Llanganates National Park down almost to the Rio Pastaza. This property adjoins the other large purchases (about 1000 ha) we made a few months ago (see this post) on the same mountain. We’ll call this the Rio Machay Reserve. This enormous block of forest, twice as large as our Rio Zunac Reserve, connects to our Naturetrek Reserve on the south side of the Rio Pastaza, which in turn connects to our largest reserve, Cerro Candelaria, which stretches south to the border of Sangay National Park.

We had been working since our inception ten years ago to complete this connection between the two major national parks, Llanganates and Sangay. This wildlife corridor was first proposed by the the World Wildlife Fund and the now-defunct Fundacion Natura many years ago to allow wildlife to pass between the national parks. Corridors from low to high elevations, such as this one, also help bird species which move to different elevations at different times of year, such as some tropical hummingbirds and some fruit-eating birds. Corridors across elevation gradients also provide some insurance against climate change; as the climate warms, species can move up the mountains to keep pace with the changes. All these things require unfragmented, continuous stretches of forest across a wide range of elevations.

The high alpine paramo boundary between our Cerro Candelaria Reserve and Sangay National Park. Photo: Recalde brothers/EcoMinga.

The high alpine paramo boundary between our Cerro Candelaria Reserve and Sangay National Park. Photo: Recalde brothers/EcoMinga.

This proposed corridor was incorporated into the strategic plan of the local municipal governments (Banos, Mera, Palora) in 2002, even before we existed as a foundation (though we played a role in this process as private individuals back then). Unfortunately the declaration existed only on paper, and there were no new regulations on land use. Initially I tried to get Fundacion Natura and the local municipal governments to buy and to make the corridor a reality, but they argued that they did not have the funds. This is one of the reasons we formed EcoMinga; it seemed that we would have to do it ourselves rather than get other entities to do it. So in 2006 we began to make it real with actual land purchases, financed by the World Land Trust. There are still some bottlenecks and small gaps, but we have now finished the hard part, the uncertain part, the part that required a small miracle to complete. That miracle was the World Land Trust’s choice of EcoMinga as the beneficiary of their annual October Big Match fund drive, and the generous support that this fund drive received. Thanks to WLT and to the many donors who helped make this corridor a reality, including Sam Crothers, Mark Wilson, Dan Thompson, Julie Wassermann, Paul and Katy and Al Jost, and Richard and Katie Brindle. Most of the donors made donations directly to WLT so we cannot thank them by name, but they have made a huge and very positive impact on the landscape here.

Teagueia alyssana, which I discovered on Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost

Teagueia alyssana, which I discovered on Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost

The addition of Cerro Mayordomo to our reserve system is exciting. The peak has inspired oral legends of enchanted lakes with ducks made of gold, and angry spirits that keep humans out by sending frightening thunderstorms when someone tries to enter. But the reality is even more fantastic than the legends. The highest forest of this mountain is the place where I first discovered the spectacular Teagueia orchid radiation that I described in last year’s Darwin Day post. The many Teagueia species on this mountain are completely different from the sixteen species of Teagueia at the other end of this new corridor, on Cerro Candelaria, even though Cerro Candelaria and Cerro Mayordomo have seemingly-identical climates and are only 13 km apart. No one knows why they are different.

The view from near the top of Cerro Mayordomo, looking southwest towards Volcan Tungurahua, the snow-capped peak on the left, and Chimborazo, the snow-capped peak on the right. Chimborazo is the highest point on earth, higher than Everest in terms of distance from the earth's center. Photo: Lou Jost.

The view from near the top of Cerro Mayordomo, looking southwest towards Volcan Tungurahua, the snow-capped peak on the left, and Chimborazo, the snow-capped peak on the right. Chimborazo is the highest point on earth, higher than Everest in terms of distance from the earth’s center. Photo:Lou Jost.

For this latest purchase, the World Land Trust went out on a limb for us. WLT still has to raise the money to make the final payment for this purchase in January 2017. Please help them if you can!

Lou Jost

Black-and-chestnut Eagle (Spizaetus isidori) again, in a different reserve

Black-and-chestnut Eagle (Spizaetus isidori) in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve. Photo: Fausto Recalde/EcoMinga.

Black-and-chestnut Eagle (Spizaetus isidori) in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve. Photo: Fausto Recalde/EcoMinga.


Lately Black-and-chestnut Eagles have been much on our minds, with a newly-found nest in our Rio Zunac Reserve. Now Fausto Recalde has managed to get some magnificent photos of an adult Black-and-chestnut Eagle in one of our other reserves, Cerro Candelaria. This adult is caring for a recently-fledged bird (see my video of this young bird here).
Photo: Fausto Recalde/EcoMinga.

Photo: Fausto Recalde/EcoMinga.

Darwin Day Special: Some of Ecuador’s evolutionary radiations

The Beagle in the Galapagos.

The Beagle in the Galapagos.

When Charles Darwin first landed on Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands in 1835, he was not impressed:

“The black rocks heated by the rays of the Vertical sun, like a stove, give to the air a close & sultry feeling. The plants also smell unpleasantly. The country was compared to what we might imagine the cultivated parts of the Infernal regions to be… I proceeded to botanize & obtained 10 different flowers; but such insignificant, ugly little flowers…” —Diary

“Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves, and crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted, sun-burnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life… With the exception of a wren with a fine yellow breast, and of a tyrant-flycatcher with a scarlet tuft and breast, none of the birds are brilliantly coloured….All the plants have a wretched, weedy appearance, and I did not see one beautiful flower. The insects, again, are small-sized and dull-coloured…. I took great pains in collecting the insects, but excepting Tierra del Fuego, I never saw in this respect so poor a country.”—Voyage of the Beagle

Galapagos scene. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Galapagos scene. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Still, as was his custom, he collected specimens of as many distinct plants and animals as he could. There was as yet no evolutionary insight, just curiosity. He wrote in his diary at the time

“It will be very interesting to find from future comparison to what district or “centre of creation” the organized beings of this archipelago must be attached.”

His first flash of insight about the nature of the Galapagos flora and fauna came after the Beagle had already left the islands to go to Tahiti. During the long travel days with blank seascapes stretching in all directions, he worked on his specimens. It was only then that he noticed something surprising. Ten years later (in his second edition of “Journal of Researches” p. 394) he wrote about that moment on the Beagle:

“My attention was first thoroughly aroused, by comparing together the numerous specimens, shot by myself and several other parties on board, of the mocking-thrushes [mockingbirds], when, to my astonishment, I discovered that all those from Charles Island belonged to one species (Mimus trifasciatus); all from Albemarle Island to M. parvulus; and all from James and Chatham Islands (between which two other islands are situated, as connecting links) belonged to M. melanotis. These two latter species are closely allied, and would by some ornithologists be considered as only well-marked races or varieties; but the Mimus trifasciatus is very distinct. Unfortunately most of the specimens of the finch tribe were mingled together…”

“This bird which is so closely allied to the Thenca [mockingbirds] of Chili … is singular from existing as varieties or distinct species in the different islands.

“…I never dreamed that islands about 50 or 60 miles apart, and most of them in sight of each other, formed of precisely the same rocks, placed under a quite similar climate, rising to a nearly equal height, would have been differently tenanted ….”

“It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner to discover what is most interesting in any locality, than they are hurried from it; but I ought, perhaps, to be thankful that I obtained sufficient materials to establish this most remarkable fact in the distribution of organic beings.”—-Zoology notes p. 298

Gould's plate of Darwin's Finches. Creative Commons

Gould’s plate of Darwin’s Finches. Creative Commons

When he eventually returned to England, he gave his plant and animal specimens to specialists who could distinguish which ones were new species, and could figure out how they were related to each other. The great ornithologist Gould was the first to finish this task. His report to Darwin was quite a shock. Darwin had rather casually collected many dingy birds on the Galapagos. As he mentions in the excerpt above, he didn’t even bother to label some of them with the names of the specific islands where they had been collected. (Luckily some of his shipmates did make properly-labeled specimens, so their distributions were eventually sorted out.) He thought some of these dingy birds were finches, some were warblers, some were wrens, and some were blackbirds (icterids). Ornithology was not one of Darwin’s strong points. (He once ate an important new species of rhea before realizing that it was the bird he had long been searching for!) Gould, however, was a good ornithologist, and recognized that all these different birds actually belonged to twelve closely-related species of a single subfamily, not found anywhere else in the world at the time, known today as Darwin’s finches (later one additional species was discovered on Cocos Island off Costa Rica). This was an astonishing discovery, that birds with such outwardly-different beaks and habits would all be so closely related, and that there would be different sets of them on different islands.

Leaf shapes of different species of Scalesia . From U. Eliasson (1974) Studies in Galápagos Plants. XIv. The Genus Scalesia Arn. Opera Botanica 36: 1–117, under Fair Use.

Leaf shapes of different species of Scalesia . From U. Eliasson (1974) Studies in Galápagos Plants. XIv. The Genus Scalesia Arn. Opera Botanica 36: 1–117, under Fair Use.

The same turned out to be true of Darwin’s Galapagos plants, which he had first given to his old teacher Henslow and then to his close friend Hooker. Hooker discovered that many of Darwin’s plants belonged to a single genus, Scalesia, found nowhere else in the world. Just like the birds, there were different species of Scalesia on different islands. Darwin wrote:

“Scalesia, a remarkable arborescent genus of the Compositae, is confined to the archipelago: it has six species: one from Chatham, one from Albemarle, one from Charles Island, two from James Island, and the sixth from one of the three latter islands, but it is not known from which: not one of these six species grows on any two islands.”

“The distribution of the tenants of this archipelago would not be nearly so wonderful, if, for instance, one island had a mocking-thrush, and a second island some other quite distinct genus, — if one island had its genus of lizard, and a second island another distinct genus, or none whatever; — or if the different islands were inhabited, not by representative species of the same genera of plants, but by totally different genera, as does to a certain extent hold good: for, to give one instance, a large berry-bearing tree at James Island has no representative species in Charles Island. But it is the circumstance, that several of the islands possess their own species of the tortoise, mocking-thrush, finches, and numerous plants, these species having the same general habits, occupying analogous situations, and obviously filling the same place in the natural economy of this archipelago, that strikes me with wonder.”

“Although the species are thus peculiar to the archipelago, yet nearly all in their general structure, habits, colour of feathers, and even tone of voice, are strictly American.”

“… Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact – that mystery of mysteries – the first appearance of new beings on this earth…..one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends…..”

These patterns, which would now call “evolutionary radiations”, were some of the most important clues in Darwin’s intellectual journey towards his theory of evolution. In 1837 he wrote in a private notebook:

“In July opened first note-book on ‘transmutation of species.’ Had been greatly struck from about month of previous March on character of South American fossils, and species on Galapagos Archipelago. These facts origin (especially latter), of all my views.”

The plant and animal radiations on the Galapagos Islands went on to become icons of evolutionary theory. Later explorers pushed the number of species of Darwin’s finches to about fourteen. New Scalesia species continued to be discovered until as recently as 1986, pushing the total Scalesia species to fifteen, with up to four species on a single island. The total number of plants that are unique to the Galapagos Islands, and not found anywhere else in the world, is now about 175-180 species. Because of its immense scientific importance it was made a national park by the Ecuadorian government and declared a World Heritage site by the UN.

Even today, seeing these kinds of evolutionary radiations leaves one with a palpable sense of direct contact with Darwin’s “mystery of mysteries”, the evolution of new species. I got my first taste of this feeling in the Ecuadorian Andes around Banos twenty years ago, as I explored the mountains of the upper Rio Pastaza watershed looking for new orchid species.

The upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Photos: Andreas Kay.

The upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Photos: Andreas Kay.

Evolutionary radiation of Lepanthes orchids in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Left: a widespread species, L. mucronata. Middle and right: two new species I discovered here, closely related to L. mucronata. These are L. abitaguae (middle) and L. pseudomucronata (right). Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Evolutionary radiation of Lepanthes orchids in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Left: a widespread species, L. mucronata. Middle and right: two new species I discovered here, closely related to L. mucronata. These are L. abitaguae (middle) and L. pseudomucronata (right). Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

At first I discovered lots of little radiations, mostly in the orchid genus Lepanthes–two or three new closely related species, sometimes different “sister species” on each mountain, as if these mountains were acting like islands in the clouds. In other cases, I found sets of closely-related new species all living together on a single mountain, analogous to the multiple species of Scalesia that lived on some individual Galapagos islands. Slowly, over the years of hiking, patterns began to emerge from the maps I made of the distributions of these species. It was like watching the construction of a stained-glass window, each beautiful fragment adding more detail until order began to triumph over chaos.

Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Then in the year 2000 everything changed. After a year of failed attempts, I finally figured out how to get up a high unexplored mountain between Banos and Puyo. It was called “Mayordomo” on the maps. After two day’s climb, I reached a beautiful mossy cloud forest at 3100m. I looked down and at my feet I saw little orchid plants creeping through the thick moss, with single leaves widely spaced on a thin stem. I began to find a few with flowers, but still I had no idea what they were. I couldn’t even recognize their genus –quite embarrassing for me, who claimed to be an orchid expert! The strangest thing was that there were four clearly-different species of these strange creeping orchids right here in one square meter of moss. How could such a big group of species be unfamiliar to me?

Mysterious Teagueia orchids creeping through moss on Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Mysterious Teagueia orchids creeping through moss on Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

I could hardly wait to get home and look them up in books. But there was nothing like them in any book. I sent them to the world’s specialist in miniature orchids, Carl Luer, and he wrote back excitedly that these were all new to science, and belonged to a tiny genus of orchids called Teagueia. Up until that moment, there had been only six species of Teagueia known in the whole world, three from Ecuador and three more from Colombia, all very local endemics. In my one square meter of moss I had more than doubled the number of species of Teagueia in Ecuador. Most interesting was that all of my new species were long-stemmed creeping plants, unlike any of the previously-known Teagueia species. The new species also shared floral traits not found in any of the previously-known species. Such clues suggested that these new species had evolved right here, from a recent common ancestor, just like Darwin’s finches or his Scalesia plants in the Galapagos. Carl quickly described the new species: Teagueia sancheziae (after my friend Carmen Sanchez who climbed the mountain with me), T. alyssana (after my dear friend Alyssa Roberts who helped support my research), T. cymbisepala (a Greek word referring to the shape of the flower), and T. jostii, which Carl decided to name after me.

Teagueia alyssana, one of the new Teagueia species I discovered on Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Teagueia alyssana, one of the new Teagueia species I discovered on Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The discovery of this evolutionary radiation raised an obvious question: How many more of these species might be hidden on this and the many other unexplored mountaintops around my town of Banos? I eventually returned to Mayordomo and got higher up the mountain on a long camping trip with my hiking companions Robert and Daisy Kunstaetter. There was no rain during the whole trip, so we had to use rainwater I had collected and stored in a big plastic bag at an old campsite of mine several years earlier. It was still good, thanks to a few drops of iodine I had added when I stored it. When that ran out we were forced to squeeze dew out of moss; this was horrible, though I discovered a new Maxillaria orchid while collecting the moss. We had to abort the trip early, but we still managed to find three or four more new Teagueia species! All had long creeping stems and shared floral characteristics with my previous discoveries. This unexpected evolutionary radiation of plant species was turning out to be bigger than I could have imagined.

Some Mayordomo Teagueia species. Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Some Mayordomo Teagueia species. Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A year or so later, Robert and Daisy came back from the next mountain to the west of Mayordomo with an interesting leaf to show me. They thought it might be from a Lepanthes, but it was another of these creeping Teagueia species! I went up that mountain and found it covered with creeping species of Teagueia. Some were the same species as on Mayordomo, but many of them new to science. All of these new one were clearly related to the ones on Mayordomo.

One of the new Teagueia species I discovered on the mountain just west of Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

One of the new Teagueia species I discovered on the mountain just west of Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Unexplored mountains south of the Rio Pastaza. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Unexplored mountains south of the Rio Pastaza. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Did every mountain around here have its own new species of Teagueia? I sometimes give a guest lecture to visiting biology students at the School for International Training, in Quito the capital of Ecuador. After I talked about these Teagueias, two students, Pailin Wedel and Anderson Shepard, volunteered to do an independent study project on the genus. They wanted a challenging project, so I trained them to recognize Teagueia plants (Andy discovered a fantastic new Teagueia on one of his training trips!) and then I sent them off with a local guide for a week to look for Teagueia on a mountain south of the Rio Pastaza that I had never explored. Andy was a mountain rescue guide from Colorado so I figured they’d be alright. The deep valley of the Rio Pastaza separated this mountain from both Mayordomo and my other Teagueia mountain, so none of us knew what to expect.

The students survived, though they said it was the hardest thing they had ever done, and Pailin lost a toenail from the long muddy climb. They didn’t mind; they had found eight or nine species of creeping Teagueia, each new to science! None of the species on their mountain were shared with the two mountains on the other side of the Rio Pastaza valley. This was unexpected, since the other orchids I had studied showed a different distribution pattern.

A new Teagueia discovered by Andy and Pailin. I'll name this one after Pailin. Photo: Andreas Kay.

A new Teagueia discovered by Andy and Pailin. I’ll name this one after Pailin. Photo: Andreas Kay.

Another new ,em>Teagueia discovered by Andy and Pailin. I'll name this one after their local guide Ali Araujo. Photo: Andreas Kay.

Another new Teagueia discovered by Andy and Pailin. I’ll name this one after their local guide Ali Araujo. Photo: Andreas Kay.

There was still one more big unexplored mountain between Banos and the Amazon lowlands, known on the maps as Cerro Candelaria. It rose to 3860m, much higher than the other mountains we had looked at. It was like a magnet. My friends the Kunstaetters and I finally climbed all the way to the top at the end of 2002. It was a difficult nine day camping trip, eased somewhat by the help of some local people (who later became EcoMinga’s forest guards) whom we hired to carry our packs the first (and steepest) day. This mountain not only had all the new Teagueia species my students had found on their mountain, but also another six Teagueia species that were completely new! For a magnificent photographic album of Cerro Candelaria, including many Teagueia species, see Andreas Kay’s Cerro Candelaria Flickr album.Highly recommended!

Some of the new creeping Teagueia species discovered by my students and I in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. All flowers are photographed at the same magnification so relative sizes are accurately shown. Click to enlarge! Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Some of the new creeping Teagueia species discovered by my students and I in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. All flowers are photographed at the same magnification so relative sizes are accurately shown. Click to enlarge! Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

As a result of these expeditions, we now know that this evolutionary radiation of Teagueia species contains almost double the number of species of the famous Galapagos radiations, even though the Galapagos islands are much bigger and more numerous than these four mountains, and even though geographic isolation here is much less complete than in the Galapagos. And unlike any island in the Galapagos, a single mountain here can have 8-15 Teagueia species growing together. (In a future post I’ll write about what DNA analysis tells us regarding the speed of this evolutionary radiation relative to that of the Galapagos Scalesia radiation.) Counting these new Teagueia species, there are now about 190 unique endemic plant species in our upper Rio Pastaza watershed. That is more locally endemic species than there are in all of the Galapagos. This is a region that has much to tell us about the mysteries of speciation, maybe even more than the Galapagos.

Teagueia distribution in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Teagueia distribution in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Conservation can have many motives, but one of mine is to preserve enough of the earth’s legacy that future generations will still be able to unravel those fundamental mysteries that we have not yet been able to figure out. The answer to the question of the origin of species is written here in these mountains, but we are tearing up the pages before we have learned how to read them. One of the reasons my friends and I founded EcoMinga was to save some of those pages, hopefully the most strategic ones. Thanks to our partner the World Land Trust, we have now bought the mountain that has sixteen species of Teagueia; it also turns out to have many other unique newly-discovered species of orchids, trees, frogs, and more. Thanks to them and many other donors (Rainforest Trust, Orchid Conservation Alliance, University of Basel Botanical Garden, Montreal Botanical Garden, and some generous individual donors to EcoMinga) we have also begun to buy land on Mayordomo, and other places where unusual evolutionary forces have led to high concentrations of new, locally endemic species of plants and animals. Not only do we want to preserve the biodiversity of these places, we also want to preserve the clues they contain to the origin of biodiversity itself.

Can't have a Darwin Day post without including a picture taken by our own Darwin Recalde. Darwin is Jesus' son and a great young naturalist. Here he has managed to photograph an elusive Rufous Antpitta standing on a bunch of Teagueia. Photo: Darwin Recalde/EcoMinga.

Can’t have a Darwin Day post without including a picture taken by our own Darwin Recalde. Darwin is Jesus Recalde’s son and a great young naturalist. Here he has managed to photograph an elusive Rufous Antpitta standing on a bunch of Teagueia. Photo: Darwin Recalde/EcoMinga.

Lou Jost