In January orchid enthusiasts Peter Tobias, Kathi McCord, Steve Beckendorf, Mary Gerritsen, and Spiro Kasomenakis came to visit our Dracula Reserve in northwest Ecuador, near the town of Chical on the Colombian border. Peter, Steve, and Mary are founders and board members of the Orchid Conservation Alliance, which has been raising money for EcoMinga’s conservation work since its inception in 2006. Lately they have been major supporters of our Dracula Reserve, and they were eager to see it for themselves. They were especially interested in the orchid tribe that make up the bulk of the orchid diversity here, Pleurothallidinae, a group of mostly-miniature orchids that includes genera like Masdevallia (Mary had even written a book about that genus with Ron Parsons, and another book about miniature orchids in general), Lepanthes, Stelis, Pleurothallis, and of course Dracula. Perfect guests for a reserve established specifically to conserve those orchids!
The long drive from Quito to the reserve is depressing. On the central inter-Andean plateau we pass through a barren, eroded landscape almost entirely lacking in large trees. Then we turn west to descend the Mira valley, which once had tall dry forest near the river and cloud forest on the upper slopes. Now there are only large expanses of treeless slopes swept repeatedly by deliberately-set fires. But by mid-afternoon we begin our climb on side roads into the high mountains. In the transition zone between destruction and paradise we reach the beautiful hacienda La Primavera where we will stay. We have three days to explore our four reserve units, the nearest about a half-hour’s drive from the hacienda.
The rain falls constantly, since the morning of the first day. The cool temperatures and 100% humidity are deadly for electronics and optics, and nearly everyone’s cameras (some of them professional quality Nikons and Canons) begin to fail electronically, while even the ones that don’t fail have fogged lenses. Nevertheless everyone is in good spirits because this is exactly the right climate for the miniature orchids we seek.
The most diverse genus is Lepanthes. I’ve posted about Lepanthes from this area before; they have tiny but intricate flowers that attract male fungus gnats which mate with the flower, thinking it is a female fly. The flower makes female fly pheromones to lure the males in. There are over 300 species of Lepanthes in Ecuador, and our Dracula Reserve parcels seem to have an endless variety of them. Many are recently discovered species, apparently found only here in the vicinity of our reserve, though some of these surely reach into nearby Colombia. We try to photograph as many as we can, but the rain makes this an exercise in frustration. Try balancing an umbrella on your shoulder while steadying a tiny flower with one hand and a heavy camera in the other, to take a nearly-microscopic photo whose depth of field at these magnifications can be as little as a couple of millimeters. If we are able to see the flower through our wet glasses and fogging lenses, we watch it go in and out of focus uncontrollably as we try to hold still, and if the flower is in focus at the moment we press the shutter, it’s pure luck.
Already from the first moment we find our focal genus, Dracula. The sinister convoluted Dracula andreettae is the most spectacular thing we find the first day. Dracula gigas in the same area is also stunning. Dracula plants without flowers are more common than those with them; ironically, our local reserve caretaker Hector Yela explains that this is because there was a weeks-long unseasonably dry spell just preceding our soggy visit.
Dracula and most other orchids here are epiphytes, growing in the trees. But many of the most interesting and overlooked orchids are terrestrial species related to temperate-zone North American orchids. I pay special attention to these, and our guest Spiro also has an exceptionally good eye for them. On this trip we find two apparently-different species of the terrestrial orchid Psilochilus, a genus related to the elusive Triphora trianthophora of North America. Triphora is partly saprophytic, a vulture-like plant living on decaying material (in symbiosis with fungi) rather than making its own food with its leaves. Psilochilus has more nearly normal leaves and probably does not need decaying material. But like Triphora, Psilochilus has flowers that only last a day or two, so it takes good timing to find one in flower. Most orchid scientists never notice them. My fieldwork has shown that there are far more species of Psilochilus in Ecuador than the very few officially-described species. Maybe one or both of these forms are new, or at least new for Ecuador. Several new species were recently described from nearby Colombia.
Another terrestrial, a species of Cleistes, catches our attention each day as we pass the clearing where it grows. On the first day the buds looked ready to pop open, so each time we pass, we eagerly get out of our vehicle and check them. Day after day they just sit there, the petals and sepals slightly ajar like the flowers are about to unfold, but they never do. At first I thought it might be self-pollinating, and the plants had many seed capsules, which is often a sign of self-pollination.But when I dissected one, I found it had functional nectar glands at the base of its lip (a modified petal). I tasted it to be sure. Very sweet!
On the last full day, the rain is worse than usual. We visit a site we would like to purchase, home of some of the rarest Dracula species. But when we arrive we find some of the forest has been cut down. The fallen trees show us the otherwise-hidden diversity of the canopy orchids in this forest.
Luckily the rare Dracula we had come to see, the recently-described Dracula trigonopetala, was a few dozen meters from the clearing, still in good shape. Now some especially waterlogged participants turn back towards the road, but a few of us continue on. After a long cold wet hike, we reach an area with Lepanthes everywhere, of many different species.
Those of us whose cameras are still semi-functional manage a few shots in the rain, and then we turn back. But as we head back, thinking of warm food and dry clothes, our caretaker Hector looks back towards us and spots an enormous Dracula above our heads. It’s a magnificent Dracula terborchii, a species that was discovered in captivity in Europe, exported from somewhere in Ecuador, mislabelled as a different species of Dracula. For a long time no one knew where in Ecuador it actually lives, but recently Ecuadorian orchid specialists like Alex Hirtz, Luis Baquero (who also co-described D. trigonopetala, along with Gary Meyer) and Francisco Tobar had begun to find a few plants of it in this region. I’d never seen it before in the wild. Its sepals were patterned like a Persian carpet, and against the dark forest it glowed in spite of the gloom. This was the most magnificent find of the trip. We vow to try to purchase this property as soon as possible to keep it from being cleared further. This will not be easy–we’d tried buying it before, but there were conflicting land titles that complicated things. Still, we’ve resolved worse problems. We all agreed this is clearly worth protecting.
As the rains defeat the last of the cameras, we head for home. Mudslides begin to fall into the mountain road, but we get through them. Hot showers and good food and company await us in the hacienda, a nice end to a beautiful trip.
Many thanks to the Orchid Conservation Alliance, whose donations to the Dracula Reserve were matched by the Rainforest Trust, a key partner in this initiative. Thanks also to Vera Lee Rao, Steven K. Beckendorf and Cynthia L. Hill, and Mark Wilson for their major donations to this project. Heinz Schneider and the University of Basel Botanical Garden, which was the initial sponsor of the Dracula Reserve and is still our energetic partner in the project, also deserves special thanks, along with Susann Zeigler and Max Annen, Beat and Urs Fischer and the many other donors named in the U. of Basel Botanical Garden web page.
A special thanks to the Asociacion de Orquideologia de Quito, Ecuador, who raised money for conservation in Ecuador over several years and donated it all to us for this project.
I’ve just returned from a wonderful conference on the conservation status of Ecuador’s endemic plants, and the role of botanical gardens in conserving them. It was wonderful to see my colleagues, and to see that some of my former students have turned into good professional scientists. The location of the conference, Yachay, was also inspiring. This is a new university and city being built from scratch in the middle of nowhere, with top faculty and luxurious facilities, all intended to offer free top-level education to the best and brightest Ecuadorian students. Entry will be based only on merit and everyone who enters will receive room and board free as well. After the second year, classes will all be given only in English, forcing all students to become bilingual. It is a dramatic vision; we all hope it works out!
I spoke on the Biogeography and conservation of Ecuador’s endemic orchids, a talk that also should be credited to my friend Lorena Endara who kindly let me use her graphics and research results. Plants that are “endemic to Ecuador” are species that are found exclusively in Ecuador and nowhere else in the world; they are the species most in need of conservation efforts in Ecuador. There are about 4500 species of endemic plants in Ecuador, and 1706 of them (38%) are orchids! The family with the next-highest number of endemic species is Asteraceae, the daisy family, with only 361 endemic species (8% of all endemic species), so the orchids clearly dominate the endemic flora of this country. That’s why we at EcoMinga pay so much attention to them.
In my work I focus on the orchid genera with the highest number of endemic species, especially the genus Lepanthes. There are more than 1000 Lepanthes species in Latin America, including over 300 Ecuadorian species; 240 of those species are endemic to the country. These are miniature orchids with very specific habitat requirements and typically very limited distributions, so they provide a rich “language” for making fine distinctions between cloud forests that, to a casual observer, might appear identical.
Hunting these tiny inconspicuous epiphytes in the forest is an adventure in sensory immersion. Botanists normally don’t collect plants that are not in flower, but the flowers of Lepanthes are mostly hidden under the leaves, so botanists unfamiliar with the genus don’t pay attention to them. The famous Scottish botanist Richard Spruce, who lived for six months in my town in 1857 and discovered many of the flowers, ferns, mosses, and liverworts of this area, never noticed even a single one of the more than a hundred species of Lepanthes that live here.
No one understood the flowers of Lepanthes until just ten years ago, when Mario Blanco and Gabriel Barboza discovered that a Costa Rican species was imitating the sexual organs and the pheromones of a female fungus gnat, luring male gnats to mate with the flower! It appears that each species of Lepanthes is pollinated by a single species of fungus gnat. Here and here are more erotic photos of fungus gnats having sex with Lepanthes flowers, taken by my friend Sebastian Vieira in Colombia. This discovery explains the unusual anatomy of most Lepanthes flowers, especially the “appendix”, a complex species-specific organ that taxonomists had often used to distinguish the species. It apparently mimics the female genitalia of a specific fungus gnat.
Since Lepanthes flowers are so often invisible, botanists need a strong search image for their vaguely-distinctive leaves, and especially their thin stems covered with characteristic trumpet-shaped sheaths. Picking these out from the clutter of moss and other epiphytes requires an almost zen-like diffuse concentration, an openness to an odd shape in the periphery of vision, a peculiar non-verbal reliance on subconscious image processing that takes years to develop. The excitement of the hunt comes from knowing that so many species are new to science—every time I turn over an unfamiliar Lepanthes leaf to look at the flower, a little adrenaline rush splashes through my body. But even the now-familiar species are a treat to find, for the beauty of their weird colors and shapes, but also for the interesting biogeographical relationships they reveal about the forests where I find them.
These are orchids that absolutely require misty wet forests that don’t experience long dry periods. The best Lepanthes habitats are bathed many times each day by mist, but are also exposed to lots of air movement and light. They are often nearly absent on the lower slopes of a mountain, but become common and diverse above the well-defined elevation at which clouds form on, or collide with, the mountain’s slope. The zone of Lepanthes richness and diversity often also has an upper limit, where solar insolation on clear days dries out the forest too much for them.
The Lepanthes-rich elevations differ from mountain to mountain. In the upper Rio Pastaza watershed, my area, the winds generally come from the Amazon basin to the east. As you might expect, they carry immense amounts of water vapor. When these wet winds brush up against the Cordillera Abitagua, the first line of mountains facing the Amazon, the water condenses and forms a cloud layer beginning at about 1700m-1800m. Lepanthes, Neooreophilus, and many other orchid genera suddenly become abundant and diverse above that elevation level. There are more than 34 species of Lepanthes on that front range!
Just twenty kilometers to the west lies the next major range of mountains. On that range the Lepanthes start in earnest at about 2200m. Maybe the Cordillera Abitagua clips the cloud layer below that elevation. This second mountain range has more than 28 species of Lepanthes, but less than 1/3 of them are shared with the Cordillera Abitagua! The farther west we go in this watershed, the farther we get from the Amazon basin, the drier it gets. Even though the forest in this second range is very mossy and wet, it is slightly less so than the Cordillera Abitagua, and these hyper-diverse orchid genera appear to be sensitive to these small differences in moisture.
It makes sense that moisture-loving epiphytic orchids, exposed to the wind and without any connection to the soil, would be more sensitive to moisture gradients than terrestrial herbaceous plants and trees. Epiphytes would also be more sensitive to subtle variations in the frequency of mist and rain, even if the total amount of water were the same. Soil stores water and averages out those variations. To a tree rooted in soil, it makes no difference whether it rains 1.0 cm once a week, or 0.5 cm twice a week. But it makes a great deal of difference to a delicate plant with little water-storage capacity, whose roots are exposed to the air. The mean and maximum number of consecutive mist-less days are probably key parameters controlling the distributions of such orchids. Judging from the very restricted distributions of many Lepanthes species, it seems they specialize in particular fog/wind/rain regimes, perhaps more than any other flowering plants.
For many plants this extreme degree of specialization on unique microclimates might be a fatal evolutionary dead-end, as climates change and move around over geological time. Plants that are poor dispersers would get trapped by climate change and become extint if their preferred climate moved from one mountain range to the next. Orchids, though, have the smallest seeds of any flowering plant, naked embryos surrounded by a little cellular net. These seeds are blown long distances by the wind, so a species can explore large areas for suitable habitat. I think this dispersal ability is one of the key reasons why orchids, more than any other plants, can evolve hyper-specialization without becoming extinct.
In a few days, Part 2 will discuss the distributions of Lepanthes and other endemic orchids in our upper Rio Pastaza watershed, and how these distribution patterns can (mostly) be understood in terms of specialization on specific microclimates. It also turns out that the most locally endemic species are concentrated in very specific areas with unique microclimates; finding these areas is the key to protecting the endemic species from extinction. Unfortunately we are shockingly ignorant about the country-wide distributions of endemic orchids, as I will demonstrate with some surprising examples.
I’m compiling a list of all the plant and animal species discovered by our reserve manager Juan Pablo Reyes, our director Javier Robayo, myself, and our students and co-investigators in and around our EcoMinga reserves near Banos, Ecuador. In this first installment, I’ll deal with the plants. (I’ll be saving some major as-yet-unpublished plant discoveries for a later post.) Nearly all of these species are still known only from our immediate area and nowhere else in the world. Adding these new discoveries to the previously-known locally endemic plants of the area, there are now more plant species unique to this area (the upper Rio Pastaza watershed) than there are in the world-famous Galapagos Islands! This is one reason why we are so committed to its conservation.
I’ll start with two spectacular new species of trees in the melastome family, Meriania aurata and Blakea attenboroughii. Meriania aurata (above) is the most spectacular tree I have ever seen. Imagine big heavy inflorescences half a meter across whose stems look as if they are made of bright shiny yellow plastic, each yellow winged stem carrying an orange rosebud, which becomes a short-lived bright salmon flower 7 cm across with a bizarre row of anthers lined up under the stigma. I first noticed fallen buds of this species here in the Banos area in the 1990s, but that was before I realized just how special the area was. I wrongly assumed that such a dramatic flower must be well-known. By 2001 I understood the area better, and I organized a 15-man expedition to reach new elevations in the Rio Zunac watershed (now part of our Rio Zunac Reserve). David Neill, the renowned Ecuadorian tree expert, came along. We saw this tree; he recognized it as a new species (the sister species of the also-beautiful Meriania hernandoi) and published its description (co-authored by Carmen Ulloa). Even so, we did not find a fresh, fully-opened flower, so the paper does not include a full flower drawing (see below). It was only recently that I finally was able to make these close-up photos of the open flowers (with the help of EcoMinga’s agile tree-climbing guards).
The next species, Blakea attenboroughii from the same family (Melastomataceae) was discovered by Javier Robayo, myself, and Andy Orchard of Puro Coffee, donor to the World Land Trust for the first purchases of our Cerro Candelaria Reserve. I am not an expert in this plant group (I’m an orchid taxonomist), but as soon as I saw it I realized it was something I’d never seen before anywhere. Expert Darin Penneys confirmed it was a new species. We decided to name it after World Land Trust patron and famous BBC TV presenter and conservationist Sir David Attenborough, to thank him for his support for our conservation efforts. I had the pleasure of presenting a picture of it to him at a World Land Trust event in the Linnaean Society headquarters in London, where the centuries-old specimens of Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, are carefully kept. Sir David is a wonderful man.
On to the new orchids! First and foremost was an amazing evolutionary radiation my students and I discovered on the tops of the highest mountains in the area. At the time I started exploring, the orchid genus Teagueia had only six species in the world, three in Ecuador and three in Colombia. But here on these few mountaintops around Banos we discovered THIRTY new species of this genus!
One single mountain, which eventually became our Cerro Candelaria Reserve, had 16 of these new species! They are currently the subject of several ecological and evolutionary studies. It is an unprecedented local speciation event. So far taxonomist Carl Luer and I have described six of the thirty species, including one named after Puro Coffee and another named after the mother of Albertino Abela, in honor of their very important donations to the World Land Trust for EcoMinga, which let us preserve these mountain peaks for posterity.
There are lots more new orchids….here are the citations for some of the first ones I discovered in the Banos area, published in Dr Carl Luer’s many volumes of orchid monographs for the Missouri Botanical Garden. (Note: Carl decided to name some of them after me…NOT my idea, though I am honored!)
Luer, C. A. 2002. Icones Pleurothallidinarum XXIV: A First Century of New Species of Stelis of Ecuador, Part 1. St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden:
Lepanthes exigua Luer and Jost, p. 94.
Luer, C. A. 2000. Icones Pleurothallidinarum XX: Sytematics of Jostia, Andinia, Barbosella, Barbodria, and Pleurothallis subgen. Antilla, subgen. Effusia, subgen. Restrepioidia. St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden:
New genus Jostia Luer, p. 1.
L. tetrachaeta Luer and Jost, p. 119.
Teagueia alyssana Luer and Jost, p. 131.
T. cymbisepala Luer and Jost, p.132.
T. jostii Luer, p. 132.
T. sancheziae Luer and Jost, p. 133.
Luer, C. A. 1999. Icones Pleurothallidinarum XVIII: Sytematics of Pleurothallis subgen. Pleurothallis sect. Pleurothallis subsect. Antenniferae, subsect. Longiracemosae, subsect. Macrophyllae-Racemosae, subsect. Perplexae, subgen. Pseudostelis, subgen. Acuminatia. St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden:
Lepanthes abitaguae Luer and Jost, p. 139.
L. aprina Luer and Jost, p. 139.
L. barbigera Luer and Jost, p. 140.
L. elytrifera Luer and Jost, p. 140.
L. hispidosa Luer and Jost, p.141.
L. hydrae Luer and Jost, p. 141.
L. jostii Luer, p. 142.
L. marshana Luer and Jost, p. 142.
L. privigna Luer and Jost, p. 143.
L. ruthiana Luer and Jost, p. 147.
L. staatsiana Luer and Jost, p. 147.
Luer, C. A. 1998. Icones Pleurothallidinarum XVII: Sytematics of Subgen. Pleurothallis sect. Abortivae, sect. Truncatae, sect. Pleurothallis subsect. Acroniae, subsect. Pleurothallis, subgen. Dracontia, subgen. Unciferia. St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden:
Lepanthes ariasiana Luer and Jost, p.104.
L. mooreana Luer and Jost, p. 106.
L. serialina Luer and Jost, p. 107.
L. viebrockiana Luer and Jost, p. 108.
Scaphosepalum jostii Luer, p.116.
Some more recent discoveries or co-discoveries of mine in the Banos area include Masdevallia stigii, M. loui, Stellilabium jostii, Trichosalpinx jostii, Lepanthes spruceana, L. ornithocephala, L. mayordomensis, L. pseudomucronata, and quite a backlog of species I still haven’t had time to describe and publish.
All these discoveries in an area only 20 km x 40 km (12.5 miles x 25 miles), smaller than many cities! A paradise for botanists. And as we’ll see in the next installment, a paradise for herpetologists too.