Cryptic new orchid from our Rio Zunac Reserve, Neooreophilus chaoae, published this week

 Neooreophilus chaoae from our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost.

Neooreophilus chaoae from our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost.

A few days ago the journal Lankestariana published the description of a new species of orchid I discovered thirteen years ago in what is now our Rio Zunac Reserve in central Ecuador. My friend Sebastian Vieira independently discovered another population of the same species near Sibundoy in southern Colombia, and we wrote the article together. This orchid, which we named Neooreophilus chaoae, is a tiny but beautiful orchid with a very unusual growth habit. A nearly universal rule about plants is that they grow toward the light. For reasons unknown, the genus Neooreophilus defies this rule: its growing tip points downward, toward the ground, so that the newest leaves are lower than the older leaves. The chains of tiny roundish leaves usually hang from a branch or trunk. The chain of leaves looks a lot like some of the small pendant fern fronds that grow in the same habitat. The fern rhizome grows towards the light, like most self-respecting plants, so that each new frond is higher than the last, but each individual frond unfolds downward on a weak stem, just like the orchid.

Left, a climbing fern. Right, a Neooreophilus orchid. Both plants were on the same tree. The resemblance is striking and the orchid may be mimicking the much more common fern.

Left, a climbing fern. Right, a Neooreophilus orchid. Both plants were on the same tree. The resemblance is striking and the orchid may be mimicking the much more common fern.

The resemblance between the orchid and the fern may not be an accident. If there are herbivorous insects that eat orchids and that use their eyes to spot potential hosts, they may have a hard time finding these orchids amid the much more common ferns. The presence of such herbivores would drive the evolution of orchids that mimic other more common plants. In our area there are other orchids that do this, such as certain Elleanthus species that mimic bamboo. (I think plant mimicry of other plants is more common than people realize, and I’ll devote a later post to this topic, complete with local examples.)

Maybe the resemblance to these common ferns also fools field botanists. Members of this very rich genus are rarely noticed or collected by non-specialist botanists, so they are poorly represented in the world’s herbaria. It doesn’t help that they are often partly covered by moss. They are also very fussy about where they grow. They need wet but bright and airy cloud forests, and even within such forests their distributions are patchy, occupying only a small percentage of the seemingly-suitable habitat. The patch size is often just a few meters, but curiously there are often many different species of Neooreophilus in a given patch. Many orchid biologists suspect that this genus-level patchiness is probably due to the presence of a particular fungus in the patch. Orchid seeds need to form relationships with specific fungi in order to germinate, and if the right fungus for Neooreophilus is present in an area, seeds of all the species in the region will eventually fall there and germinate.

Sebastian Vieira's beautiful illustration of our new species. From our paper: Vieira, S., and Jost, L. (2015) A colorful new species of Neooreophilus (Orchidaceae: Pleurothallidinae) from the eastern Andes of Colombia and Ecuador. Lankesteriana 15(3): 213–217.

Sebastian Vieira’s beautiful illustration of our new species. From our paper: Vieira, S., and Jost, L. (2015) A colorful new species of Neooreophilus (Orchidaceae: Pleurothallidinae) from the eastern Andes of Colombia and Ecuador. Lankesteriana 15(3): 213–217.

Sebastian’s discovery of a second population of this species in Colombia, more than 250 km to the north of the population I found, was very surprising. He was on a conservation trip with directors of the Orchid Conservation Alliance (US); the trip led the Alliance to fund the establishment of a new reserve in that area. Sebastian’s discovery was especially interesting because there is another rare and local orchid species shared between Sibundoy and our Rio Zunac Reserve, Dracula exasperata. Neither of these two species are known from any other places in between these two reserves. In the case of N. chaoae, the forms appear to be absolutely identical in the two locations, suggesting that there may be connecting populations somewhere in the poorly-known mountains between the reserves. The Dracula populations, on the other hand, show quite significant differences between the two reserves, and several of my Dracula specialist friends think that the Zunac population should be described as a new species. I’ll write more about this later.

The story of N. chaoae’s twin discoveries highlights our poor level of knowledge about east Andean orchid distributions. Orchid specialists had visited both the Sibundoy and Zunac populations multiple times over the past thirty years, as indicated by the early discoveries of Dracula exasperata in Sibundoy, and Dracula fuligifera, Lepanthes zunagensis, and many others in the Rio Zunac area. Yet none of these specialists noticed N. chaoe. After the first population of N. chaoae was finally found, it took another ten years to find a second population. It is one of many cryptic, often-undetected species in these mountains. A similar story surrounds the discovery of another member of the genus, Neooreophilus (ex Lepanthes) exiguus. Stig Dalstrom and I discovered this species at a remote site in extreme southern Ecuador. Many years later my student Stella Copeland and I found a second population 150 km away in our Rio Zunac Reserve (the same area where I had found N. chaoae). The existence of so many species known from only a few widely separated sites suggests that many new species remain to be discovered in the eastern Andes of Ecuador and Colombia.

Neoorephilus exiguus, another new species I discovered in this genus. Photo: Lou Jost.

Neooreophilus exiguus. Photo: Lou Jost.

My colleague Anne Chao is famous for showing that this relation between the number of rare species and the number of still-undetected species can actually be made precise. She proved that when individuals are randomly sampled, the number of undetected species in the population is expected to be greater than
\frac {f_1^2} {2f_2}  ,
where f_1 is the number of species represented by only a single individual in the sample, and f_2 is the number of species represented by exactly two individuals in the sample. Her formula is widely used in biology and is known as the Chao estimator. Thus it is particularly appropriate that Sebastian and I named our cryptic, often-undetected new species in honor of Anne.

The genus Neooreophilus is very diverse and deserves more attention from botanists. Since I’ve started paying attention to them I’ve been able to discover several new species besides N. chaoae: N. exigua, N. viebrockiana, N. ariasii, and several others that I have not yet published. I am sure there are many more waiting to be discovered!

Neooreophilus viebrockianus, which I discovered about eighteen years ago in what is now our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost.

Neooreophilus viebrockianus, which I discovered about eighteen years ago in what is now our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost.

Incidentally, my earlier Neooreophilus discoveries were published under the genus Lepanthes, subgenus Brachycladium, where they had originally been placed (Reichenbach 1856, Luer 1996). The flower structure and the characteristics of the sheaths around the leaves and stems suggested this placement. However, recent DNA analyses by Mark Wilson, Alec Pridgeon, and coauthors have clearly shown that these plants are not particularly closely related to Lepanthes, and belong in a completely different branch of the orchid family tree. [Note added Nov 17 2015: The flowers look like Lepanthes flowers because they use the same pollination method: pseudocopulation. The distinctive sheaths apparently evolved independently in the two groups as good solutions to some unknown environmental challenge in wet cloud forests.] Scientists recently proposed the replacement names Brachycladium and Oreophilus for this group, but both these names violate the careful rules of botanical nomenclature, and are hence illegitimate; they were replaced by the new name Neooreophilus which follows the rules and is legitimate. In a few days Mark, Alec, Sebastian, Frank Graham, and I will submit an extensive article about the correct phylogenetic placement of these orchids and their relatives. I’ll post a link here after acceptance.

Lou Jost

Nueva orquídea críptica de nuestra Reserva Río Zuñac, Neooreophilus chaoae, publicada esta semana
 
IMG – Neooreophilus chaoae de nuestra Reserva Río Zuñac. Fotografía: Lou Jost
 
Unos pocos días atrás, el journal Lankestariana publicó la descripción de una nueva especie de orquídea que descubrí treinta años atrás en lo que ahora es la Reserva Río Zuñac en el centro de Ecuador. Mi amigo Sebastian Vieira independientemente descubrió otra población de la misma especie cerca de Sibundoy en el sur de Colombia, y escribimos un artículo juntos. Esta orquídea, a la cual nombramos Neooreophilus chaoae, es una orquídea pequeña pero hermosa con un crecimiento inusual. Una regla casi universal sobre las plantas es que crecen hacia la luz. Por razones desconocidas, el género Neooreophilus desafía esta regla: su punta de crecimiento apunta hacia abajo, hacia el suelo, de modo que las hojas más nuevas son más bajas que las hojas más viejas. Las cadenas diminutas de hojas redondeadas suelen colgar de una rama o tronco. La cadena de hojas se parece mucho a algunas de las pequñas hojas de helechos colgantes que crecen en el mismo hábitat. El rizoma del helecho crece hacia la luz, como la mayoría de las plantas que se precian, de modo que cada nueva hoja es más alta que la anterior, pero cada hoja individual se despliega hacia abajo en un tallo débil, al igual que la orquídea 
 
IMG – A la izquierda, un helecho colgante. A la derecha, una orquídea Neooreophilus. Ambas plantas estaban en el mismo árbol. El parecido es sorprendente y la orquídea puede estar imitando al helecho mucho más común. 
 
El parecido entre la orquídea y el helecho puede no ser un accidente. Si hay insectos herbívoros que comen orquídeas y que usan sus ojos para detectar posibles huéspedes, es posible que tengan dificultades para encontrar estas orquídeas en medio de los helechos mucho más comunes. La presencia de estos herbívoros impulsaría la evolución de las orquídeas que imitan a otras plantas más comunes. En nuestra zona existen otras orquídeas que hacen esto, como ciertas especies de Elleanthus que imitan al bambú. (Creo que la imitación de plantas de otras plantas es más común de lo que la gente cree, y dedicaré una publicación posterior a este tema, con ejemplos locales). 
 
Tal vez el parecido con estos helechos comunes también engañe a los botánicos de campo. Los miembros de este género muy rico son raramente observados o colectados por botánicos no especialistas, así que están pobremente representados en los herbarios del mundo. No ayuda que a menudo estén parcialmente cubiertos de musgo. También son muy exigentes acerca de donde crecen. Necesitan bosques nubosos húmedos pero luminosos y aireados, e incluso dentro de esos bosques su distribución es irregular, ocupando solo un pequeño porcentaje del hábitat aparentemente adecuado. El tamaño del parche suele ser de unos pocos metros, pero curiosamente, a menudo hay muchas especies diferentes de Neooreophilus en un parche determinado. Muchos biólogos de orquídeas sospechan que este parche a nivel de género probablemente se deban a la presencia de un hongo particular en el parche. Las orquídeas necesitan formar relaciones con hongos específicos para poder germinar, y si el hongo adecuado para Neooreophilus está presente en un área, las semillas de todas las especies de la región eventualmente caerán allí y germinarán. 
 
IMG – Bellas ilustraciones de Sebastián Vieira de nuestras nuevas especies. De nuestro artículo: Vieira, S. y Jost, L. (2015) Una nueva especie colorida de Neooreophilus (Orchidaceae: Pleurothallidinae) del occidente de los Andes de Colombia y Ecuador. Lankesteriana 15(3): 213-217
 
El descubrimiento de Sebastían de una segunda población de esta especie en Colombia, mas de 25 km al norte de la población que encontré, fue muy sorprendente. Él estaba en un viaje de conservación con los directores de la Alianza para la Conservación de Orquídeas (US); el viaje llevó a la Alianza a financiar el estalecimiento de una nueva reserva en esa zona. El descubrimiento de Sebastián fue especialmente interesante porque hay otra especie de orquídea local y rara compartida entre Sibundoy y nuestra Reserva Río Zuñac, Dracula exasperata. Ninguna de estas dos especies se conoce en ningún otro lugar entre estas dos reservas. En el caso de N. chaoae, las formas parecen ser absolutamente idénticas en los dos lugares, lo que sugiere que puede haber poblaciones conectadas en algún lugar de las montañas poco conocidas entre las reservas. Las poblaciones de Drácula, por otro lado, muestran diferencias bastantes significativas entre las dos reservas, y varios de mis amigos especialistas en Drácula piensan que la población de Zuñac debería describirse como una nueva especie. Escribiré más sobre esto más tarde. 
 
La historia de los descubrimientos gemelos de N. chaoae destaca nuestro bajo nivel de conocimiento sobre la distribución de las orquídeas en los Andes orientales. Los especialistas de orquídeas han visitado las poblaciones de Sibundoy y Zuñac varias veces durante los últimos treinta años, como lo indican los primeros descubrimientos de Dracula exasperata en Sibundoy, y Dracula fuligifera, Lepanthes zunagensis y muchos otros en el área de Río Zuñac. Sin embargo, ninguno de estos especialistas notó N. chaoe. Después de que finalmente se encontró la primera población de N. chaoae, se necesitaron otros diez años para encontrar una segunda población. Es una de las muchas especies crípticas que a menudo no se detectan en estas montañas. Una historia similar rodea el descubrimiento de otro miembro del género, Neooreophilus (ex Lepanthes) exiguus. Stig Dalstrom y yo descubrimos esta especie en un sitio remoto en el extremo sur de Ecuador. Muchos años después, mi estudiante Stella Copeland y yo encontramos una segunda población a 150 km en nuestra Reserva Río Zuñac (la misma área donde encontré N. chaoae). La existencia de tantas especies conocidas de unos pocos sitios muy separados sugiere que quedan muchas especies nuevas por descubrir en los Andes orientales de Ecuador y Colombia.
 
Neooreophilus exiguus. Fotografía: Lou Jost
 
Mi colega Anne Chao es famosa por mostrar que esta relación entre el número de especies raras y el número de especies no detectadas todavía, se puede precisar. Ella probó que cuando los individuos son muestreados aleatoriamente, el número de especies no detectado en la población es mayor que
\frac {f_1^2} {2f_2}  ,
donde f_1 es el número de especies representadas sólo por un individuo en la muestra, y f_2 es el número de especies representadas por exactamente dos individuos en la muestra. Su fórmula es ampliamente usada en biología y es conocida como el estimador de Chao. Por lo tanto es particularmente apropiado que Sebastián y yo nombráramos a nuestra nueva especie críptica, a menudo no detectada, en honor a Anne. 
 
El género Neooreophilus es muy diverso y merece más atención de los botánicos. Desde que empecé a poner atención a ellos, he sido capaz de descubrir varias nuevas especies además N. chaoae: N. exigua, N. viebrockiana, N. ariasii, y muchas otras que no he publicado todavía. ¡Estoy seguro de que hay mucho más por ser descubierto!
 
IMG – Neooreophilus viebrochianus, que descubrí hace unos dieciocho años en lo que hoy es nuestra Reserva río Zuñac. Fotografía: Lou Jost
 
Incidentalmente, mis descubrimientos tempranos de Neooreophilus fueron publicados bajo el género Lepanthes, subgénero Brachycladium, donde han sido ubicados originalmente (Reichenbach 1856, Luer 1996). La estructura de la flor y las vainas alrededor de las hojas y los tallos sugirieron esta ubicación. Sin embargo, los análisis de ADN recientes por Mark Wilson, Alec Pridgeon y coautores han mostrado claramente que estas plantas no son particularmente cercanas a Lepanthes, y pertenecen a una rama completamente diferente del árbol genealógico de las orquídeas. [Nota añadida en Nov 17 2015: Las flores se ven como Lepanthes porquue usan el mismo método de polinización: pseudocopulación. Las vainas distintivas aparentemente evolucionaron de forma independiente en dos grupos como buenas soluciones para algunos cambios ambientales en su bosque nublado]. Los científicos recientemente propusieron el reemplazo de los nombres Brachycladium y Oreophilus para este grupo, pero ambos de estos nombres violan las cuidadosas reglas de la nomenclatura botánica, y por tanto son ilegítimos; fueron reemplazados por el nuevo nombre Neooreophilus que sigue las reglas y es legítimo. En unos pocos días, Mark, Alec, Sebastian, Frank, Graham y yo enviaremos un artículo extenso sobre la correcta ubicación filogenética de estas orquídeas y sus parientes. Publicaré un enlace aquí después de la aceptación. 
 
Lou Jost, Fundación EcoMinga
Traducción: Salomé Solórzano-Flores

Quick visit to our Rio Zunac field station

Note: This post has more images than most. It may take longer than usual to download.

The Rio Zunac forest in the morning mists. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The Rio Zunac forest in the morning mist. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.


I’ve just come back from a three-day trip to our field station in the Rio Zunac Reserve. It was a very rainy three days, but there are always interesting things to see in this reserve, even in the rain.

The station is four and a half to five hour’s hike from the road when carrying a heavy pack. This entrance hike is always exciting, especially now that we know a certain segment of the entrance trail is guarded by a large, deadly pit viper, Bothrocophias microphthalmus. On this trip I had to work hard to control my nerves as I hiked through the spot where he lived. I’m happy to report that my search image for this species is now much better tuned than it was when I unwittingly walked right past him, almost touching him, on Dec 11. That was the first time anybody had seen the species on this trail. Now that I know what to look for, I am spotting him every time I come here, always within a few meters of the original spot where I almost stepped on him. This time he was easy to spot, because he was moving slowly. It was an interesting movement, a slow crawl in a straight line rather than a curving motion. Then he gracefully tied himself into a coil in a fascinating motion worthy of the special effects in a Hobbit or Harry Potter movie. Here he is after making this coil:

Bothrocophias microphthalmus, the Small-eyed Toad-headed Pit Viper, the same individual as in last week's post, on the Rio Zunac entrance trail again. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Bothrocophias microphthalmus, the Small-eyed Toad-headed Pit Viper, the same individual as in last week’s post, on the Rio Zunac entrance trail again. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

It was a relief to get past that spot. After that, the skies were sunny, Andean Cocks-of -the-Rock were everywhere, and I enjoyed a beautiful hike. About an hour and a half from the station, I saw a miniature orchid belonging to the genus Neooreophilus , formerly called Oreophilus, and before that Brachycladium, and before that Lepanthes. Mark Wilson, Sebastian Vieira, and I are working on DNA analysis of this group to settle some of the species-level and genus-level uncertainties. More about that in a future post. For now I just want to show the crazy flower (N. hippocrepicus):

Neooreophilus hippocrepica, a miniature orchid. The green leafy thing in the left front of the image is actually a tiny blade of moss. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Neooreophilus hippocrepica, a miniature orchid. The green leafy thing in the left front of the image is actually a tiny blade of moss. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

When I got to the station, I found a tame Russet-crowned Warbler (Basileuterus coronatus) foraging in our yard. Warblers are generally active arboreal birds, but this particular individual was often on the ground, nearly at my feet. At first I thought it might be sick, but its acrobatics suggested good health.

Russet-crowned Warbler at the Rio Zunac field station. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Russet-crowned Warbler at the Rio Zunac field station. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Russet-crowned Warbler at the Rio Zunac field station. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Russet-crowned Warbler at the Rio Zunac field station. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

These warblers are in the same family (Parulidae) as the colorful migrant warblers that excite North American birdwatchers. (They are not closely related to the birds Europeans call “warblers”.) Those North American warblers actually spend most of their lives here in Latin America; the more northerly breeders spend only three to five months on their breeding grounds in the north. A recent DNA-based warbler phylogeny seems to show that the permanent resident South American warblers, like this Russet-crowned Warbler, evolved from migratory warblers who got sick of making the long trip. However, I think this is still a debatable issue. It will be interesting to look at the ages of these lineages, to see how they match the geological history of continent movements.

Nightfall at the station brought a torrential rain, three inches of water, most of it falling in just a half hour of deafening noise, complete with thunder and lightning. Then slowly a new sound rose up from the ground itself, like many parallel trains running past the cabin on noisy tracks…the rocks in the nearly riverbed were being carried by the rising floodwaters and were crashing into each other, making a continuous staccato of peculiar dull hollow banging sounds. This train of boulders kept streaming past for an hour or two, until slowly that sound died out and was replaced by the more familiar roar of raging rapids.

It rained a lot the next day too, so I didn’t see much except Cocks-of-the-Rock, all in poor light. One poor photo I took:

Cock-of-the-Rock in the rain. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Cock-of-the-Rock in the rain. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

It is hard to beat Juan Pablo Reyes’ Cock-of-the-Rock photo in the banner for this blog, but he has other good ones too, and in honor of all the Cocks-of-the-Rock I saw on this trip, I put another of his great shots here:

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock in the Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Juan Pablo Reyes/EcoMinga.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock in the Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Juan Pablo Reyes/EcoMinga.

I also saw a new bird for our reserve, a Grallaricula antpitta, a small inconspicuous insectivore. I just barely saw it; there was so little light in the rainy understory where it perched that I couldn’t even make out any color or pattern, just its distinctive silhouette. My electronic camera, however, managed to capture an image. The bird and camera both moved too much to make a decent picture, but the resulting ghosted image conveys some information about its species identity. It’s an Ochre-breasted Antpitta, Grallaricula flavirostris. I placed the blurry photo alongside a real photo of the Ochre-breasted Antpitta taken by Roger Ahlman (http://www.pbase.com/ahlman/news), who kindly gave permission for us to use his photos on this blog.

Ochre-breasted Antpitta. Left photo: Roger Ahlman. Right photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Ochre-breasted Antpitta. Left photo: Roger Ahlman. Right photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

While waiting for the rains to stop, I saw an interesting experiment our guards had tried. In May John Clark and David Neill found a curious hemiepiphytic Blakea (Melastomataceae) with big fragrant flowers. (A hemiepiphyte is a tree that starts life as an epiphyte growing in the branches of another tree, eventually sending its roots to the ground). As part of our “Protecting the Fragrances of the Amazon” program financed by Reckitt-Benkiser (Airwick), we wanted to try to propagate this plant to study its pollinators and its fragrance. This can’t easily be done when the flowers are tens of meters above the ground, so our creative guards Luis and Fausto Recalde, using their experience as arborists, grafted buds of the Blakea onto stems of related trees growing around our station. I was pleased to see that at least one of these buds has survived and is now growing! If this works generally, it opens new possibilities for propagating the fancy melastomes we have been discovering in our reserves, like Blakea attenboroughii and Meriania aurata.

As-yet-unidentified large fragrant Blakea species from the Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: John Clark.

As-yet-unidentified large fragrant Blakea species from the Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: John Clark.

A sprig of the unidentified fragrant Blakea grafted into the trunk of another melastome by our guards, Luis and Tito Recalde. This graft was made over a month ago, and appears to be growing. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A sprig of the unidentified fragrant Blakea grafted into the trunk of another melastome by our guards, Luis and Fausto Recalde. This graft was made over a month ago, and appears to be growing. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The next day it was already time to go back home. Once again Cocks-of-the-Rock were scattered through the forest like Christmas ornaments. On the trail home I found a rock with a broken snail shell on it. I think this was the work of the Giant Antpitta, Grallaria gigantea, a close relative of the little Ochre-breasted Antpitta I had seen the day before.

Giant Antpitta in the Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

Giant Antpitta in the Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

The Giant Antpitta is a rare bird whose east Andean race (the one found here) is only known from three or four localities. They generally eat earthworms, especially the meter-long Giant Earthworm, but I have seen them here hammering at snail shells that they wedge into suitable hollows in rocks. Our guards have found some rocks with large piles of broken shells, suggesting re-use of these special rocks. This bird appears to use the rock as a tool, just like the rock anvils used by the capuchin monkeys to crack palm nuts in my earlier post. The capuchins add an additional layer of complexity, since they need to use a second rock to break the shells of their nuts. The antpittas just use their beaks. Still this simple use of an anvil is an important indication of cognitive plasticity in the antpittas. A similar use of a stone anvil to break snail shells was recently documented in a related bird, the Great Antshrike (Taraba major). (The conclusion of the Great Antshrike study was that this behavior was recently learned in response to the accidental introduction of non-native land snails to the area. There are many native snails in most forests inhabited by this antshrike, so I don’t believe that part of the study’s conclusion.)

Broken snail shell on an anvil rock used by the Giant Antpitta. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Broken snail shell on an anvil rock (used by the Giant Antpitta ?). Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Anvil rock used by the Giant Antpitta to crack snail shells. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Anvil rock used (by the Giant Antpitta?) to crack snail shells. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

About an hour later a Highland Motmot (Momotus aequatorialis) at close range took my breath away. It was doing an odd tail display I had never seen before. As usual when I see beautiful things, I had recently packed my camera into my waterproof backpack to protect it from the rain. I knew the motmot wouldn’t just stay there watching me and doing its display while I took off my pack, unpacked the camera, etc, but I did it anyway, and the bird stayed! In a minute I found out what may have caused the display, as a small monkey, the Saddle-backed Tamarin, made an alarm call just above me. The bird may have been making a threat display at the monkey. My pictures of the monkey were worthless but the motmot photos were decent.

Highland Motmot displaying in the Rio Zunac. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Highland Motmot displaying in the Rio Zunac. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.


Highland Motmot in the Rio Zunac. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Highland Motmot in the Rio Zunac. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Here’s a Wikipedia image of the monkey species that seemed to have been triggering the motmot’s display:

Saddle-back Tamarin. Wikipedia commons.

Saddle-back Tamarin. Wikipedia commons.

When I got to the footbridge over the Rio Zunac, I could get a feel for how much the river must have risen at the height of the flood two days ago. Crushed vegetation and washed-up logs showed the water level must have been about four meters higher than now, and the present level was itself a meter higher than when I entered.

Rio Zunac two days after the downpour. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

Rio Zunac two days after the downpour. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

The same segment of the Rio Zunac during normal times. Photo: Recalde/EcoMinga.

The same segment of the Rio Zunac during normal times. Photo: Recalde/EcoMinga.

But this was nothing— three times in the twenty years I have been here, the river rose so high it washed over the bridge and carried off its floor. Such a big flood seemed unbelievable as I stood on Bridge 3.0, eight meters above the water, but the bent cement bridge supports still tell the tale:

Footbridge over the Rio Zunac. The cement posts were bent in earlier catastrophic flash floods. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

Footbridge over the Rio Zunac. The cement posts were bent in earlier catastrophic flash floods. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

Finally the moment I had been dreading, the Field Biology Final Exam. Would I spot the pit viper on the side of the trail and pass, or would he be hidden beneath leaves and strike me? It was now doubly unnerving. Probably if I didn’t know he was there, I’d walk briskly past like I always had, and most likely I wouldn’t get bit. But now that I knew he was there, it took me ages to cross through that segment, because I stopped after every little step to try to find him. Sure enough, there he was, just a meter or two from where I left him two days earlier, moving faster than normal, apparently heading for shelter as the rain began again. It was always a relief to see him, since a seen snake can’t kill. Two days ago I had regretted not making a video of his fascinating coiling movement, so this time I was ready. The snake didn’t make any great moves, and soon went under a log to avoid the rain, but I still got decent video in spite of the conditions (bad light, camera shake, autofocus getting tricked by leaves and blades of grass). The background noise is a rushing stream a few meters away (I set the default in Youtube to “Mute” so you don’t have to listen to it):

A few minutes after I left the spot, I ran into a family of local people heading into the forest. An old man, who had a finca up the trail, plus his daughter and her 7 or 8 year old kid. A kid who would die in seven hours if bit by this snake (Campbell and Lamar 2004 p 329). I explained the issue to them, and I think they got the message, since the kid decided to ride on his grandpa’s shoulders. But they didn’t seem to understand my description of the exact place. So I walked with them through the spot; the snake was unseen, still beneath its log. I am sure the next time that family crosses the spot, they will see the snake too, and kill it.

Note added Dec 29: We all agree we have to move this snake. If it were inside our reserve boundary it would be alright, but since it is in a public trail often used by clueless people, someone will surely get bit if it stays there.

Lou Jost
www.loujost.com
www.ecominga.com

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New species discovered by EcoMinga staff and co-workers, Part 1: Plants

Meriania aurata, a tree species we discovered in what is now EcoMinga's Rio Zunac Reserve. Flower is large, about 7 cm across. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

Meriania aurata, a tree species we discovered in what is now EcoMinga’s Rio Zunac Reserve. Flower is large, about 7 cm across. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

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).

Meriania aurata, from the scientific description of the species, Ulloa, Fernandez, and Neill (2007),  Meriania aurata (Melastomataceae), una Especie Nueva de los Llanganates, Ecuador. Novon 17: 525-528.

Meriania aurata, from the scientific description of the species, Ulloa, Fernandez, and Neill (2007), Meriania aurata (Melastomataceae), una Especie Nueva de los Llanganates, Ecuador. Novon 17: 525-528.

Meriania aurata inflorescence. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

Meriania aurata inflorescence. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

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.

Blakea attenboroughii, from our Naturetrek and Cerro Candelaria Reserves. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Blakea attenboroughii, from our Naturetrek and Cerro Candelaria Reserves. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Me presenting Sir David Attenborough with a photo of his tree, Blakea attenboroughii, in London. Photo: Nigel Simpson.

Me presenting Sir David Attenborough with a photo of his tree, Blakea attenboroughii, in London. Photo: Nigel Simpson.

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!

Some of the thirty new species of Teagueia orchids my students and I discovered on the mountaintops here. You can see a high-resolution printed version of this picture on p 2545 of the Dec 2012 issue of the journal Ecology. Click to enlarge.

Some of the thirty new species of Teagueia orchids my students and I discovered on the mountaintops here. You can see a high-resolution printed version of this picture on p 2545 of the Dec 2012 issue of the journal Ecology. Click to enlarge.

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.

Teagueia puroana, from our Cerro Candelaria Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Teagueia puroana, from our Cerro Candelaria Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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.

My painting of Lepanthes (now Neooreophilus) viebrockiana from our Rio Zunac Reserve.

My painting of Lepanthes (now Neooreophilus) viebrockiana from our Rio Zunac Reserve.

Lepanthes ruthiana. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes ruthiana. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes pseudomucronata from our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes pseudomucronata from our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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.

Masdevallia stigii. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Masdevallia stigii. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Masdevallia (Alaticaulia) loui, discovered by Stig Dalstrom and myself. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Masdevallia (Alaticaulia) loui, discovered by Stig Dalstrom and myself. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Stellilabium jostii. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Stellilabium jostii. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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.

Lou Jost
http://www.ecominga.com
http://www.loujost.com