Cloud forest images from our Rio Zunac Reserve, and canopy access at last

 

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Aroids in our Rio Zunac cloud forest. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

Last week our rangers and I went on a  camping trip in the wet cloud forests of our Rio Zunac Reserve. We were on a mission to put climbing ropes into the canopies of some of our Magnolia trees, so that we (and other researchers) could study their reproduction, and perhaps protect the seed capsules from insect predators, and try other techniques to help them reproduce. We never see very young plants of these species, so we are a bit worried about their future.

I also used the opportunity to capture some better photos of the complex interior of this beautiful cloud forest. The ridgetop forest above 1700m is very special, one of the wettest forests in Ecuador, with plant life bursting from every available surface, plants piled on other plants. We didn’t have many photos of this forest.

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Rio Zunac cloud forest, 2000m. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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Rio Zunac cloud forest, 2000m. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

 

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Rio Zunac cloud forest, 2000m. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A grant from BGCI allowed us to buy mountain-climbing rope and harnesses. In the 1990s I used to spend a lot of time climbing tropical rain forest trees, and I still had my powerful bow and arrows and fishing reel; with this I can shoot a fishing line over a chosen branch. Then the fishing line pulls up a heavier line, and then  a heavier line, and after a series of between three and six successively heavier lines, I can pull up the mountain-climbing cord.

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Preparing the bow and arrows. The arrows, dragging the fishing line behind them through the moss and leaves, have a hard time coming down through all the vegetation. So I use heavy fishing arrows, and I put weights on their tips. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

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Shooting a newly-described Magnolia vargasiana. Accidental photo of the exact millisecond when the arrow leaves the bow– a minor miracle. I think we could try a million times without ever managing to repeat this feat.  Click image to enlarge. An arrow can be shot with fair accuracy over a particular branch, though what happens after it passes the branch is partly up to chance…The arrows are easy to lose, and I lost two of my three remaining arrows (unobtainable in Ecuador) on this trip. The one I’m firing in this picture was one of them–it got embedded in the tree (even though it has a flat tip) and did not come down. Photo:Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

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Shooting another tree, an unidentified species of Magnolia which Fausto Recalde had found the day before. It is not either of the two species previously found here (M. vargasiana and M. llanganatensis, which are both new species recently described by Dr Antonio Vazquez and his collaborators from specimens found on this ridge of the Rio Zunac cloud forest).  This is my last remaining arrow, bent and tattered, but it  worked. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

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Pulling up heavier line. This is delicate work, as the knot sometimes gets caught on stuff. I tape the knots with electric tape to minimize that. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

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While I pull from the far side of the  tree, our rangers release the mountain-climbing cord from the other side. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

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The mystery Magnolia with the climbing rope in place. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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I dress for the climb: harness and helmet. I have a rule that everyone must use gloves on the rope, to keep the rope free of salts from our sweat. In a place with lots of animals, it is important that the rope not attract gnawing critters looking for salt. As a further precaution we normally take the rope down between uses (leaving a cheap string in its place), which also protects it from UV light degradation. But even when stored in the forest or in camp, rodents wouldfind the salt and cause potentially fatal damage. This happened to my rope in Costa Rica. Of course we also inspect the rope before each use…Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

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Climbing the mystery Magnolia. It is thin but tall, and couldn’t be free-climbed. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

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Our rangers below me at the base of the Magnolia. Click to enlarge.  Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

 

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Here’s a flower of the mystery Magnolia. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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There are many other beautiful trees in this forest. Here is Meriania pastazana, similar to our recently-discovered Meriania aurata but without the yellow wings on the ovaries.

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Flower of Meriania pastazana. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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The anthers of Meriania pastazana. These are hollow and contain their pollen on the inside. The pollen comes out through small pores (one pore is visible on the top purple tip of the rightmost anther) when the anther is shaken rapidly by a bee or other agent. Click image to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

EcoMinga would like to thank Joachim Gratzfeld and Botanical Gardens Conservation International for a grant which enabled us to purchase climbing ropes and harnesses. I also want to thank our rangers, who risk their lives free-climbing some of the trees.

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation

 

 

Visit to our Rio Zunac magnolias

 

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Trunk of one of our Magnolia trees. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

I’ve written often about our exciting new magnolia species. Our first two undescribed species were discovered in our Rio Zunac Reserve, and they were recently described by Dr Antonio Vazquez (Mexico) as Magnolia vargasiana and M. llanganatensis.

We got a grant from Botanical Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), London, to try to enrich our populations of these species, which do not appear to be reproducing well. Last month Dr Joachim Gratzfeld of BGCI came to see our famous Magnolias for himself. He was guided by our  reserve caretakers Luis and Fausto Recalde, who are also co-authors with Dr Vazquez on the scientific papers describing the new Magnolias.

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Joachim Gratzfeld photographing plants in the reserve. Photo: Fausto Recalde/EcoMinga.

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Fausto Recalde with rotten magnolia buds. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

 

These Magnolia species, like many other neotropical Magnolias, have flowers that open briefly at night and then close before dawn, trapping their pollinator inside. The next night, the flower opens again and releases its pollinator, now thoroughly covered in pollen. This secret drama unfolds each night in the top of the forest canopy, unseen by human eyes. The only way a visitor can see the process is for someone to climb the trees and bring down some ready-to-open buds. These can be kept in water and will open the following night if they are mature enough.

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The buds of Magnolia llanganatensis high in the canopy. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

 

Luis and Fausto are expert tree climbers, and were able to climb our giant trees to bring Joachim some buds of each species. (By the way, our grant from BGCI is for buying static climbing rope and harnesses to set up a safe system, so that anyone can reach the canopy of these magnolias and work on their pollination and propagation. We will deploy this system in late December.)

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Luis and Fausto Recalde examining the crown of a tree with their camera zoom. The gold tubes attach together and have clippers at their tip, which can be pulled closed by a string. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

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Luis Recalde climbing a magnolia. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

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Luis Recalde (right) and Fausto Recalde studying magnolia buds. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

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Magnolia vargasiana bud starts to open. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

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As the flower opens it frees its trapped pollinators, such as the flea beetle at the base of this flower. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

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Magnolia vargasiana  opening. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

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Magnolia vargasiana fully open. Only a handful of humans have ever seen this. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

A trip to the Rio Zunac Reserve always has surprises in store, no matter what a visitor comes for. Joachim’s visit was no exception. He  had to climb some gentle mountains to reach the Magnolias, and at his highest point he had reached a poorly-known forest where other trees besides the Magnolias were newly-discovered or, in a few cases, still unknown to science. By chance Joachim came across a tree with large intense wine-purple flowers in the genus Meriania, a member of the large and important family known to botanists as the Melastomataceae. We had first seen this species a few years ago in the same area, and I sent pictures to experts but no one could identify it. There was also another species in the same genus, Meriania, which David Neill and I had discovered in this same forest fourteen years ago. This was Meriania aurata, one of the most spectacular trees in the world, which I have written about before.

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Meriania aurata. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

In addition to exciting trees, Joachim visited our Black-and-chestnut Eagle (Spizaetus isidori) nest and saw the baby, nearly ready to leave the nest.

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Black-and-chestnut Eagle adult and young at their nest in the reserve. Photo: Fausto Recalde/EcoMinga.

There were lots of other birds, and many species came to feed on the fruits of some melastomes that the guards had planted around our cabin and in old pastures:

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Immature male Green-and-black Fruiteater eating melastome berries. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga

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Golden Tanager eating melastome berries. The guards planted these melastomes here to attract birds. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

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Golden-winged Manakin, rarely seen in the reserve. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

Joachim found an unusual fern, Ophioglossum palmatum. It makes big rubbery hand-shaped leaves that look nothing like a typical fern, with club-shaped spore-bearing structures growing from the leaf margins. This fern is very seldom encountered here, but it has a very wide distribution that even reaches into southern Florida in the US.

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The weird fern Ophioglossum palmatum. Note the spore-bearing finger-like projections where the leaf tapers into its stem. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

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The forest interior. Photo: Joachim Gratzfeld.

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

First photos of our third Magnolia species

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My last post described the wave of unexpected new discoveries of Magnolia species in the Neotropics, and celebrated the publication of our second new Magnolia species, M. llanganatensis. In an earlier post I had mentioned a possible third species of Magnolia that our guards Luis and Fausto Recalde had found in our new “Forests in the Sky” reserve (see also here). Well, Luis and Fausto were at last able to photograph an open flower of this Magnolia. Dr Antonio Vazquez of Mexico has confirmed that it is indeed different from our other two new Magnolia species (M. llanganatensis and M. vargasiana); it is an as-yet-undescribed species that had been discovered recently in Antisana National Park just north of our area. Dr Vazquez is in the process of describing it as Magnolia mercedesiarum ined. The guards’ flower photos are the first ever taken of a live flower of this species! The flower that Dr Vazquez had used in his scientific description was a bud that he had boiled in order to open it.

I bet we still have more unknown Magnolia species in our reserves….

Lou Jost
EcoMinga

Our second new Magnolia is now officially described and published: Magnolia llanganatensis

I’ve written often here (see this, this, and this) about the tree genus Magnolia. Until very recently, everyone thought that the center of diversity of the family Magnoliaceae was Asia, and that Latin America was an evolutionary backwater with relatively few species. Only five species were known from Ecuador in 1999 (Perez 2015). Nevertheless, adventurous botanists are suddenly finding, over the last twenty years, that the unexplored mountains and forests of Latin America are peppered with rare, locally endemic Magnolia species. It now looks like Latin America may have as many Magnolia species as Asia. Ecuador alone now has at least 23 species (Perez 2015), with 17 of these new species discovered just since 2012! Our Banos-area reserves are good examples of this trend. On a single trail in our Rio Zunac Reserve, as of 2014 there were three undescribed species of Magnolia, all very rare.

The first of these three to be described was Magnolia vargasiana, published in late 2015 by Dr Antonio Vazquez, visiting from Mexico, and his colleagues. Our reserve guard, Luis Recalde, was a coauthor on that paper. Now the second species, named Magnolia llanganatensis after the Llanganates mountains, has just been published by Dr. Vazquez’ team. This time our forest guardian Fausto Recalde is one of the coauthors. Both of the Recaldes earned the honor, since they risked their livese to free-climb these tall trees to obtain the flower buds needed for their identification and description. These particular neotropical Magnolia (section Talauma, subsection Talauma) only flower at night, so flower buds have to be brought down and nurtured and watched until, at dusk, they pop open and fill our scientific station with an exotic fragrance like some imaginary tropical fruit.

We now know quite a bit more about the population of this tree, thanks to an independent study project done a few months ago by Jaelyn Bos, a student from the US who participated in the biology program of the School for International Training here in Ecuador. She and our reserve caretaker Fausto Recalde spent two weeks searching within 20 meters on either side of our trails near the known trees of this species, hoping to find more. Only four new trees was found, bringing the total to ten, in three clusters separated from each other by up to a kilometer. Strikingly, all of these trees were found in a narrow band of elevation from 1730m to 1860m. The elevation band from 1799-1820m contained seven of the ten individuals. A previous survey by John Clark, David Neill, and University of Alabama students (who found the original M. llanganatensis trees) carefully sampled a quarter-hectare of forest at 2100m elevation just up the trail from the original M. llanganatensis site, and did not find any there, though they did find two other, different new Magnolias in that higher plot. Magnolia llanganatensis thus appears to be extremely fussy about the elevation where it will grow. The two species found in the 2100m plot also seem to be hyper-specialists in a particular elevation, since no individuals of those species were found in the elevation band occupied by M. llanganatensis. This is a surprising degree of altitudinal specialization for cloud forest trees, though we see this same pattern in many of the area’s orchids and other non-woody species.

Jaelyn attempted to characterize the trees’ locations using climate and physical data, and then use ArcGIS computer software to predict where else the species might occur. Unfortunately this didn’t work, probably because of the small and highly nonrandom sample size. She also identified some of the individual Magnolia llanganatensis crowns in some aerial photos of the forest, in case their particular shade of green might be distinctive enough to identify other Magnolia crowns in the aerial photos. Unfortunately the leaves were not distinctive enough to be used for this purpose.

Jaelyn measured the trees she found. Some are canopy giants; the largest had a diameter of 59.4cm. No trees smaller than 13cm diameter were located. This may suggest that the tree is not successfully reproducing, or it could mean that the juvenile trees have leaves so different from the adults that they were not recognized by Jaelyn or Fausto. That often happens in Neotropical magnolias. In any case the tree is so rare that we are attempting to propagate it to augment the population and to get it into cultivation in botanical gardens. We have a grant from Botanical Gardens Conservation International to help us do it. We will rig the trees with climbing ropes and try to collect seeds before they are removed by predators.

Meanwhile Jaelyn and Fausto happened to find a large fallen branch from one of our big M. llanganatensis (maybe the same branch that Luis Recalde climbed to collect the original flower bud). The branch was full of capsules with ripe seeds! Some of these seeds were collected and sent to the Universidad Estatal Amazonica for propagation. I don’t yet know if they have sprouted.

Part of the massive fallen M. llanganatensis branch which Jaelyn Bos and Fausto Recalde found. This contained many fruits with seeds, which were rescued for the Universidad Estatal Amazonica's attempt at propagation of this species.

Part of the massive fallen M. llanganatensis branch which Jaelyn Bos and Fausto Recalde found. This contained many fruits with seeds, which were rescued for the Universidad Estatal Amazonica’s attempt at propagation of this species. Photo: Jaelyn Bos.

Magnolias have existed as a coherent, easily recognizable group for at least 100 million years. That gives them a lot of time to move around the globe and speciate. How did this particular species end up here and nowhere else? The locally endemic orchids that inhabit the same forest belong to young genera only ten million years old at best, and we have often found sets of local species that are more closely related to each other than to distant species. In other words, in these groups, speciation is so recent that the there has not been time for dispersal beyond their original area. The local high-elevation species of the genus Teagueia are good examples; the entire group is strictly endemic to the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. So I wondered whether our two new species of Magnolia were each other’s closest relatives. Was this a local evolutionary radiation? I asked Dr Vazquez this question, and he told me that no, Magnolia llanganatensis and Magnolia vargasiana were in fact fairly distant relatives, which must have diverged many millions of years ago. I hope some day a DNA-based phylogeny of Magnolia will be constructed so we can discover some of the details of how these ancient species got here.

Because of these recent Magnolia discoveries in our Rio Zunac Reserve, and the discovery of additional new species in the lowlands immediately to the east of that reserve, our tiny little region is now considered (Perez 2015) one of the richest in the world for Magnolias (maybe THE richest, for its size)!

The research station that made these discoveries possible was built under a grant from the IUCN-Netherlands and the Netherlands Postcode Lottery. Without this station these trees would not have been discovered.

Reference

Perez Castaneda, A. J. (2015). Taxonomía y conservación de la familia Magnoliaceae en el Ecuador. Thesis, Universidad Catolica, Quito.

Lou Jost
EcoMinga Foundation