Carnegie Airborne Observatory visits our area

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Carnegie Airborne Observatory image of rainforest trees; different colors represent different spectral fingerprints. Click picture to enlarge. Image: Carnegie Institution for Science.

The Carnegie Institution for Science is a unique private organization devoted to advanced study of the earth, life, and the universe. The pioneer cosmologist Edwin Hubble (“Hubble constant”), geologist Charles Richter (“Richter scale”), geneticist Barbara McClintock, and many Nobel laureates from several different disciplines are or were Carnegie investigators. The institution has instruments orbiting Mercury, is a lead partner in constructing the world’s biggest telescope in Chile, and has one of the world’s most sophisticated ecological monitoring devices, the Carnegie Aerial Observatory (CAO). This is a two-engine 20-passenger plane that Greg Asner and colleagues has fitted with millions of dollars worth of specially-designed lasers and spectrometers. It can sample hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest per day, using LIDAR to build a 3-dimensional model of the forest’s trees with 8 cm resolution. At the same time as it acquires LIDAR data, it also samples the spectral properties of light reflected from the vegetation, gathering reflectance information at hundreds of different wavelengths (colors). This spectral data gives information about the chemical and physical properties of the leaves, and also provides a spectral fingerprint that can later be matched to field-collected spectral fingerprints from known species of trees. Some  trees have such distinctive fingerprints that they can be identified to species with this data; more commonly, they can be identified to genus, though sometimes only to family. The detailed structural, chemical and taxonomic data acquired by the CAO would be impossible to gather at the landscape level by any other method, and Greg’s work is dramatically expanding the range of questions that ecologists can ask about forest ecosystems.

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Carnegie aerial observatory rainforest image: 3-D Lidar combined with spectral signal. Image: Carnegie Institution for Science.

Last year Greg had planned to use our mosaic of forests as reference sites for a study of Andean forests on different geological substrates and elevations.  Greg and his partner Robin Martin visited our Rio Zunac Reserve, his flight plans got approved by the Ecuadorian authorities, and everything seemed ready to go, but in the end he was not allowed to bring the plane into the country. This year, however, Greg was able to bring the plane in for a more modest ten-day study of Amazonia. The plane’s home for those ten days was the military base in Shell, a town in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed near our Rio Anzu Reserve. One of the CAO’s flight transects covered a two-kilometer wide strip from west to east (high to low) through our area, perhaps including parts of up to four of our reserves. This will be a very valuable data set that will teach us a great deal about the structure and diversity of these forests. However, it will take about a year to fully process the data, so we’ll have to be patient.

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The Carnegie Airborne Observatory parked at the Shell military base. Our reserves are in the mountains in the background. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

The president of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Matt Scott, is a well-known geneticist and serious photographer. He came t0 Ecuador last month to fly with Greg, but first he wanted to visit some of our reserves. Our endangered Black-and-chestnut Eagles (Spizaetus isidori) were nesting again in our Rio Zunac Reserve after last year’s tragic nest failure, so this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe the species as it went about its business.

I picked him up in the Quito airport. The trip from Quito to Banos was picturesque as always. The glacier of Cotopaxi was covered in a layer of fresh volcanic ash, and small puffs of ash and vapor were still rising up from the crater as we drove past it.

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Cotopaxi’s glaciers covered in fresh ash. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

 

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Close to sunset as we neared Banos after passing through a rainstorm. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

The next day we had an appointment with the Black-and-chestnut Eagles at 10am-11am. Our guards told us the parents  usually brought prey to the baby at that time, but were otherwise rarely seen around the nest. The nest is about 3-4 hours away from the road, after a forty minute drive from Banos, so we had to get up early and rush out there. It was hard to keep up  a good pace, since beautiful things kept distracting us. Still, we managed to get to the nest observation spot at almost exactly 11:00, and sure enough, there was the adult in the nest, along with the chick and something dead. The adult flew off almost immediately but shortly returned to feed on the prey item while the sated chick slept. The other adult was also nearby and both called frequently. We spent an hour watching them. It was a wonderful thing to see.

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This was the view when Matt got to my house to start our trip to the Rio Zunac. Volcan Tungurahua with a lenticular cloud against a crystal sky, a great way to start the day. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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Morning fog over the Rio Pastaza. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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Black-and-chestnut Eagle (Spizaetus isidori) at its nest in our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Matt Scott.

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We saw several Highland Motmots. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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Torrent Ducks on the Rio Zunac distracted us throughout the day. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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We found this crazy katydid at the end of our walk. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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Butterflies and hesperids taking salts from the sand along the Rio Zunac. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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Matt chills out in the Rio Zunac after our hike. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost.

 

The next day we went to our Rio Anzu Reserve near the Shell airport and the CAO. That reserve is not very rich in big stuff, but there are so many interesting small things that it is hard to take ten steps without stopping for photos. We eventually got to the Rio Anzu river and the magnificent fossil-bearing limestone formations capped with ladyslipper orchids (Phragmipedium pearcei). Though it was getting late, Matt asked to stay longer. I always like to hear that from a visitor!!

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Matt photographing the limestone. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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The limestone formations along the Rio Anzu, covered with orchids. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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Phragmipedium pearcei, a ladyslipper orchid, on the limestone. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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Riodinid butterfly in the Rio Anzu Reserve. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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Large hairy caterpillar. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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Me in bamboo forest along the Rio Anzu. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

Then we went to the military base to see the CAO. Security was tight and the military were not eager to let a pair of muddy rubber-booted gringos walk through their installations. Nevertheless we were able to talk our way through the multiple layers of officials who scrutinized us. But we didn’t want to ruffle any feathers so when we finally got to the plane, we just took a quick look at it and went back (still under military escort, but actually a very friendly one).

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CAO at the military base. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

By the time we got to Greg and Robin’s hotel in nearby Puyo it was already dark. Greg was sitting at a table outside working on maps in his laptop, and he showed me the transects he had flown so far. I went back to Banos that night but Matt stayed and got to fly in the CAO over the following days. Lucky man!

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Matt (left) and Greg happy to be in the air. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

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The Rio Pastaza broadens and meanders as it leaves our mountains and enters Amazonia. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

 

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The Amazon basin from the CAO. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

 

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More of the Amazon basin from the CAO. Click picture to enlarge. Photo: Matt Scott.

Matt, thanks very much for your visit! It was an honor for us to show you our forests.

Lou Jost

Fundacion EcoMinga

 

 

El Observatorio Aerotransportado Carnegie visita nuestra área

 

IMG 01 – Imágenes del Observatorio Aerotransportado Carnegie de árboles de bosque lluvioso; diferentes colores representan diferentes firmas espectrales. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar.
 
El Instituto para la Ciencia Carnegie es una organización privada única dedicada al estudio avanzado de la tierra, la vida y el universo. El cosmólogo pionero Edwin Hubble (“constante de Hubble”), el geólogo Charles Ritcher (“Escala de Ritcher”), la genetista Bárbara McClintock y muchos otros premios Nobel de diversas disciplinas son o fueron investigadores de Carnegie. La institución tiene instrumentos orbitando Mercurio, es un patrocinador líder en la construcción del telescopio más grande del mundo  en Chile, y tiene uno de los más sofisticados dispositivos de monitoreo ecológico, el Observatorio Aéreo Carnegie (CAO). Este es un avión bimotor de veinte pasajeros que Greg Asner y sus colegas han adaptado con millones de dólares en láseres y espectrómetros especialmente diseñados. Puede muestrear cientos de miles de hectáreas de bosque por día, usando LIDAR para construir un modelo tridimensional de los árboles del bosque con 8 cm de resolución. Al mismo tiempo que adquiere datos LIDAR, también toma muestras de las propiedades espectrales de la luz reflejada por la vegetación, recolectando información de reflectancia en cientos de diferentes longitudes de onda (colores). Estos datos espectrales brindan información acerca de las propiedades físicas y químicas de las hojas, y también provee una firma espectral que puede ser después emparejada para las firmas espectrales colectadas en campo de especies de árboles conocidas. Algunos árboles tienen firmas distintivas que pueden ser identificadas a nivel de especies con estos datos; más comúnmente, ellos pueden identificar el género, aunque a veces solo a familia. Los datos estructurales, químicos y taxonómicos detallados obtenidos por la CAO serían imposibles de recopilar a nivel de paisaje por cualquier otro método, y el trabajo de Greg está ampliando drásticamente la gama de preguntas que los ecologistas pueden hacer acerca de los ecosistemas forestales. 
 
IMG 02 – Imagen del bosque lluvioso del Observatorio Aéreo Carnegie: Lidar 3-D combinado con la firma espectral. Imagen: Instituto para la ciencia Carnegie
 
El año anterior, Greg había planeado usar nuestro mosaico de bosques como sitios de referencia para un estudio de los bosques Andinos en diferentes sustratos geológicos y elevaciones. Greg y su compañero Robin Martin visitaron nuestra Reserva Río Zuñac, su vuelo planeaba ser aprobado por las autoridades ecuatorianas, y todo parecía estar listo para arrancar, pero al final no fue permitido traer el avión al país. Este año, de todos modos, Greg pudo traer el avión en un estudio más modesto de diez días de la Amazonía. El hogar del avión durante esos diez días fue la base militar en Shell, una ciudad en la cuenca alta del río Pastaza, cerca de nuestra Reserva Río Anzu. Uno de los transectos de vuelo de CAO cubrió una banda de dos kilómetros de ancho de este a oeste (alto a bajo) a través de nuestra área, quizás incluyendo partes de más de cuatro de nuestras reservas. Este será un conjunto de datos muy valioso que nos enseñará mucho acerca de la estructura y diversidad de estos bosques. De todos modos, tomará casi un año para procesar los datos completamente, así que tendremos que ser pacientes. 
 
IMG 03 – El Observatorio Aerotransportado Carnegie estacionado en la base militar de Shell. Nuestras reservas están en las montañas del fondo *del último plano*. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
El presidente del Instituto para la Ciencia Carnegie, Matt Scott, es un genetista bien conocido y un fotógrafo serio. Él vino a Ecuador el mes anterior para volar con Greg, pero primero quiso visitar algunas de nuestras reservas. Nuestra Águila Andina (Black-and-chestnut Eagles / Spizaetus isidori) estaba anidando de nuevo en nuestra Reserva Río Zuñac después del trágico fracaso del nido del año pasado, así que esta fue una oportunidad única en la vida para observar la especie mientras realizaba sus actividades *mientras estaba en lo suyo*. 
 
Lo recogí del aeropuerto de Quito. El viaje de Quito a Baños fue pintoresco como siempre. El glaciar de Cotopaxi fue cubierto en una capa de fresca ceniza volcánica, y pequeñas bocanadas de ceniza y vapor todavía se elevaban desde el cráter cuando lo pasamos
 
IMG 04 – Glaciares del Cotopaxi cubiertos con ceniza reciente. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
IMG 05 – Cerca de la puesta de sol a medida que nos acercábamos a Baños, después de pasar a través de una tormenta lluviosa. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
Al siguiente día tuvimos una cita con el Águila Andina entre las 10 am y 11 am. Nuestros guardabosques nos dijeron que los padres usualmente traían presas al pichón a esa hora, pero de otra forma rara vez se veían alrededor del nido. El nido está a unas tres o cuatro horas de la carretera, después de un viaje de cuarenta minutos en coche desde Baños, así que tuvimos que levantarnos temprano y salir corriendo. Era difícil mantener un buen ritmo, ya que las cosas bonitas nos distraían. Aún así, logramos llegar al lugar de observación del nido casi exactamente a las 11:00 y, efectivamente, estaba el adulto en el nido, junto con el polluelo y con algo muerto. El adulto voló casi de inmediato, pero regreso prontamente para alimentarse de la presa mientras el polluelo dormía. El otro adulto también estaba cerca y ambos llamaban con frecuencia. Pasamos una hora mirándolos. Fue maravilloso de ver.
 
IMG 06 – Esta era la vista cuando Matt llegó a mi casa para comenzar nuestro viaje al Río Zuñac. El volcán Tungurahua con una nube lenticular contra un cielo cristalino, una excelente manera de comenzar el día. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
IMG 07 – La niebla matutina sobre el Río Pastaza. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
IMG 08 – Águila andina (Black-and-chestnut Eagles / Spizaetus isidori) en su nido en nuestra Reserva Río Zuñac. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
IMG 09 – Vimos bastantes Momotos montañeros (Highland Motmots / Momotus aequatorialis). Fotografía: Lou Jost / EcoMinga
 
IMG 10 – Patos torrenteros (Torrent Ducks / Merganetta armata) en Río Zuñac nos distrajeron a lo largo del día. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
IMG 11 – Encontramos este loco saltamontes longicorno (katydid) al final de nuestra caminata. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Lou Jost / EcoMinga
 
IMG 12 – Mariposas y hespéridos tomando sales de la arena a lo largo del Río Zuñac. Fotografía: Lou Jost / EcoMinga
 
IMG 13 – Matt se relaja en el Río Zuñac después de nuestra caminata. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Lou Jost
 
Al día siguiente fuimos a nuestra Reserva Río Anzu cerca del aeropuerto de Shell y el CAO. Esa reserva no es muy rica en cosas grandes, pero hay tantas cosas pequeñas interesantes que es difícil dar diez pasos sin detenerse a tomar fotos. Finalmente llegamos al Río Anzu y las magníficas formaciones de piedra caliza con fósiles coronadas con orquídeas zapatito (Phragmipedium pearcei). Aunque se estaba haciendo tarde, Matt pidió quedarse más tiempo. ¡Siempre me gusta escuchar eso de un visitante!
 
IMG 14 – Matt fotografiando la piedra caliza. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Lou Jost / EcoMinga
 
IMG 15 – Las formaciones de piedra caliza a lo largo de Río Anzu, cubierto con orquídeas. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
IMG 16 – Phragmipedium pearcei, una orquídea zapatito, en la piedra caliza. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
IMG 17 – Mariposa Riodinida en la Reserva Río Anzu. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
IMG 18 – Oruga de pelos largos.  Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
IMG 19 – Yo en el bosque de bambú a lo largo del Río Anzu.  Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
Entonces fuimos a la base militar para ver el CAO. La seguridad era estricta y los militares no estaban ansiosos por dejar que un par de gringos embarrados con botas de goma caminaran por sus instalaciones. Sin embargo, pudimos seguir nuestro camino a través de las múltiples capas de funcionarios que nos escudriñaron. Pero no queríamos agitaragitar el gallinero, así que cuando finalmente llegamos al avión, le echamos un rápido vistazo y regresamos (todavía bajo la escolta militar, pero muy amistosa en realidad)
 
IMG 20 – CAO en la base militar.  Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
Cuando llegamos al hotel de Greg y Robin en el cercano Puyo, ya estaba oscuro. Greg estaba sentado en una mesa fuera trabajando en mapas en su computadora portátil, y me mostró los transectos que había volado hasta ese momento. Volví a Baños esa noche, pero Matt se quedó y pudo volar en el CAO durante los días siguientes. ¡Hombre con suerte!
 
IMG 21 – Matt (izquierda) y Greg felices de estar en el aire. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
IMG 22 – El Río Pastaza se ensancha y serpentea al dejar nuestras montañas y entrar en la Amazonía. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
IMG 23 – La cuenca amazónica desde el CAO. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
IMG 24 – Más de la cuenca amazónica desde el CAO. Haga click en la imagen para agrandar. Fotografía: Matt Scott.
 
Matt, ¡muchas gracias por tu visita! Fue un honor para nosotros mostrarles nuestros bosques
 
Lou Jost, Fundación EcoMinga
Traducción: Salomé Solórzano Flores

In the London high-fashion district, supermodels and superstars and even Superman come to learn about EcoMinga’s miniature orchids!

A couple of years ago our major UK supporters, the World Land Trust, sent a team of creative professionals– Jonny Lu, Jeremy Valender, and Vava Ribiero–to our Cerro Candelaria Reserve to make a short film about its new species of orchids. Jonny Lu’s studio does mainly fashion work, with clients like Victoria Beckham, Givenchy, and Louis Vuitton, so I was initially a bit worried about their intention to spend day after day climbing high muddy mountains in pouring rain. I needn’t have worried– they did it in style and with real pleasure! The results of their four-day trip were presented last Tuesday at the famous Bourdon House in London, once the home of the Duke of Westminster and now home to the Alfred Dunhill fashion house. Fabrizio Cardinali, CEO of Dunhill, graciously opened this house to us at no charge and donated the catering for the event. Sir David Attenborough, the great natural history presenter whose voice is instantly recognized around the world, came to the screening and also appeared in the film’ introductory segment. Thanks to Jonny’s and Emma Beckett’s and the WLT’s hard work and personal connections, an amazing set of people, including not only Sir David but many well-known British stars and supermodels, came to this event.

I gave a short talk to them about our orchids. It was an unusual venue and audience for an orchid talk, but it went well, and everyone was genuinely interested.

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Embed from Getty Images

The audience even attracted paparazzi and the British tabloid press!

Film maker Jonny Lu, right, and Brooklyn Beckham, the paparazzi’s main target:
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David Attenborough and Henry Cavill (aka Superman):
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One of the main purposes of the event was to raise funds for the conservation of the forests where these special orchids live. We are in the process of naming some of our new species of orchids after our major donors, past and present, as a way of thanking them for their help. In this event we attempted to encourage new donors by offering to name some additional species after them or after a loved one. Several donors came forward, and the World Land Trust has set up a website where the remaining un-named species can be viewed by potential donors:
http://www.wlt-orchids.com/donate
This site will be updated as the orchids are named.

The site also contains the story of Jonny’s, Jeremy’s, and Vava’s challenging trip to our Cerro Candelaria mountain to film these orchids in their extraordinary remote habitat. The photos nicely capture the ambiance and the challenges of working in this area.

Click to enlarge. Jonny Lu, Jeremy Valender, and Vava Ribiero filming in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/Ecominga.

Click to enlarge. Jonny Lu, Jeremy Valender, and Vava Ribiero filming in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve.
Photo: Lou Jost/Ecominga.

Lou Jost

En el distrito de alta moda de Londres, los supermodelos y las superestrellas e incluso Superman vienen a aprender sobre las orquídeas miniatura de EcoMinga
 
Un par de años atrás, nuestros principales partidarios del reino unido, el World Land Trust, envió un equipo de profesionales creativos – Jonny Lu, Jeremy Valender, y Vava Ribiero – a nuestra Reserva Cerro Candelaria para hacer una película corta sobre sus nuevas especies de orquídeas. El estudio de Jonny Lu hace en su mayoría trabajo de moda, con clientes como Victoria Beckam, Givenchy, y Luis Vuitton, de modo que inicialmente yo estaba un poco preocupado por su intención de pasar el día después de trepar montañas muy embarradas en la lluvia torrencial. No tenía que preocuparme – ¡lo hicieron con estilo y verdadero placer! Los resultados de su viaje de cuatro días fueron presentados el ultimo martes en la famosa Bourdon House en Londres, una vez el hogar del Duque de Westminster y ahora hogar de Alfred Dunhill casa de modas. Fabricio Cardinali, CEO de Dunhill, graciosamente abrió esta casa para nosotros sin cargo y donó el catering para el evento. Sir DAvid Attenborough, el gran presentador de historia natural cuya voz es instantáneamente reconocida alrededor del mundo, llegó a la proyección y también apareció en el segmento introductorio de la película. Gracias a Jonny y Emma Beckett y el trabajo duro de la WLT y conexiones personales, una increíble cantidad de personas, incluyen no solo Sir David pero también muchas estrellas bien conocidas y supermodelos, vinieron a este evento. 
 
Les di una corta charla sobre nuestras orquídeas. Fue un lugar y una audiencia inusuales para una charla sobre orquídeas, pero salió bien y todos estaban realmente interesados. 
 
La audiencia incluso atrajo paparazzis y la prensa sensacionalista británica!
 
IMG – El cineasta Johny Lu, a la derecha, y Brooklyn Beckham, el principal objetivo de los paparazzi:
 
IMG – David Attenborough y Henry Cavill (aka Superman):
 
Uno de los principales propósitos del evento fue captar fondos para la conservación de los bosques donde estas orquídeas especiales viven. Estamos en el proceso de nombrar algunas de nuestras especies de orquídeas en honor a nuestros principales donantes, pasado y presente, como una manera de agradecerles por su ayuda. En este evento intentamos alentar nuevos donantes ofreciendo donar algunas especies adicionales después de ellas o de un ser querido. Varios donantes se presentaron y World Land Trust ha creado un sitio web donde los posibles donantes pueden ver las especies restantes sin nombre: http://www.wlt-orchids.com/donate. Este sitio será actualizado a medida que las orquídeas son nombradas. 
 
El sitio también contiene la historia del viaje de Jonny, Jeremy y Vava a nuestra montaña Cerro Candelaria para filmar estas orquídeas en su extraordinario hábitat remoto. Las fotografías capturan muy bien el ambiente y los desafíos de trabajar en esta área.
 
IMG – Click para agrandar. Jonny Lu, Jeremy Valender, y Vava Ribiero filmando en nuestra Reserva Cerro Candelaria. Fotografía: Lou Jost/EcoMinga. 
 
Lou Jost, Fundación EcoMinga
Traducción: Salomé Solórzano-Flores

Endemic Orchids Part 2: Special microhabitats. From a conference on endemic plants of Ecuador, Yachay, Ecuador, June 24-26, 2015.

The Cordillera Abitagua, first line of mountains facing the Amazon basin. Photo taken from my house in Banos high in the Andes, far to the west.  A solid bank of clouds from the Amazon basin flows over the peaks of the Cordillera Abitagua; these are the habitats of its unique orchids. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The Cordillera Abitagua, first line of mountains facing the Amazon basin. Photo taken from my house in Banos high in the Andes, far to the west. A solid bank of clouds from the Amazon basin flows over the peaks of the Cordillera Abitagua; these are the habitats of its unique orchids. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

In my previous post I talked about the way orchids dominate the endemic flora of Ecuador, and about some of the biological reasons for their diversity and local endemism. In this post I will give some examples from EcoMinga’s focal area illustrating just how fussy some of these endemic orchids can be about their habitat.

Our main focal area, the upper Rio Pastaza watershed, is a remarkable place with more locally endemic plant species (those found only in this watershed and nowhere else in the world) than the famous Galapagos Islands, even though the upper Rio Pastaza watershed covers a much smaller area than the Galapagos. About half of our local endemics are orchid species, mostly in the hyper-diverse genus Lepanthes, which I discussed in my last post, and the genus Teagueia, which I discussed in an earlier post.

The upper Rio Pastaza watershed, my study area. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The upper Rio Pastaza watershed, my study area. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Over the last twenty years I’ve tried to map the distributions of these two genera in our area. I was very surprised by the narrow distributions of most of our Lepanthes species. For example, I found Lepanthes ruthiana only in a thin north-south strip along the foot of the first line of mountains facing the Amazon:

Lepanthes ruthiana. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes ruthiana. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Distribution of Lepanthes ruthiana, a thin band at the foot of the first mountain range facing the Amazon basin. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Distribution of Lepanthes ruthiana, a thin band at the foot of the first mountain range facing the Amazon basin. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Here’s Lepanthes lophius and its distribution, another thin north-south band, but farther from the Amazon:

Lepanthes lophius. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes lophius. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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And here is Lepanthes decurva and its distribution, a thin north-south band at high elevations on the western edge of my area:

Lepanthes decurva. Photo: Lou Jost/Ecominga.

Lepanthes decurva. Photo: Lou Jost/Ecominga.

Ranges of Lepanthes decurva and L. lophius. The range of Lepanthes decurva, like that of L. lophius is a narrow north-south band at a fixed elevation and fixed distance from the Amazon basin. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Ranges of Lepanthes decurva and L. lophius. The range of Lepanthes decurva, like that of L. lophius is a narrow north-south band at a fixed elevation and fixed distance from the Amazon basin. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Remember (see my last post) that orchid seeds are wind-dispersed and can travel long distances, so these patterns aren’t due to limitations of seed dispersal. Similar distribution patterns are found for many other orchids here.

I think the shape of these distributions is caused by the humid the east-to-west winds hitting successive mountain ranges perpendicular to the winds. When the winds hit the first mountain range and are pushed upward, the air cools and much of its water condenses out as fog and rain. Now a little less humid, those winds hit the next range, and drop more of their water. By the time they hit the third or fourth chain of mountains, there is not much water left to condense out. Hence the moisture gradient, and the differences between microclimates from one chain of mountains to the next as we go from east to west.

Wet winds come from the east (the Amazon Basin) and successively hit each north-south chain of mountains.  Mountains at a given distance from the Amazon get about the same amount of rain. So orchids tend to be distributed in north-south bands, sharing species across the Rio Pastaza valley. Species tend not to be shared eastward or westward, because those mountains have different amounts of rain. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Wet winds come from the east (the Amazon Basin) and successively hit each north-south chain of mountains. Mountains at a given distance from the Amazon get about the same amount of rain. So orchids tend to be distributed in north-south bands, sharing species across the Rio Pastaza valley. Species tend not to be shared eastward or westward, because those mountains have different amounts of rain. Map: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This habitat specificity might seem like bad news for conservation. Do we have to conserve every little microclimate variation? That would be almost impossible. Luckily for conservationists, it turns out that the most localized and specialized endemic orchids tend to occur together in the same microhabitat. The Cordillera Abitagua in our study area is an excellent example of this (see photo at top of this post). Most of the locally endemic orchids occur on ridgelines (which get more air movement and mist than valley floors) in a narrow band of elevations from 1800m to 2300m. There appears to be some differentiation of species from ridge to ridge within that elevation band, but most of the endemic species seem to occur on ridgelines throughout that band. Our strategically-located Rio Zunac Reserve protects the lower parts of this elevation band, and the Los Llanganates National Park protects the upper part. (It’s worth noting that this section of the national park is not patrolled by park guards, so our reserve and our own guards also protect the park.)

The Cordillera Abitagua as seen from an observation point high above the Amazon basin, looking west towards the Pacific Ocean. The red outlines show our reserves.

The Cordillera Abitagua as seen from an observation point high above the Amazon basin, looking west towards the Pacific Ocean. The red outlines show our reserves. Best to click on the image and enlarge it.

Some orchid species unique to the Cordillera Abitagua, all living between 1700m and 2300m. Left to right within rows: Lepanthes abitaguae, L. pseudomucronata, Maxillaria sp. nov., Masdevallia delhierroi, L. spruceana, L. sp.nov., L. zunagensis, Dracula fuligifera, Neooreophilus viebrockianus, Scaphosepalum jostii, Trichosalpinx zunagensis, Teagueia zeus. To appreciate their details, click to enlarge. Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

Some orchid species unique to the Cordillera Abitagua, all living between 1700m and 2300m. Left to right within rows: Lepanthes abitaguae, L. pseudomucronata, Maxillaria sp. nov., Masdevallia delhierroi, L. spruceana, L. sp.nov., L. zunagensis, Dracula fuligifera, Neooreophilus viebrockianus, Scaphosepalum jostii, Trichosalpinx zunagensis, Teagueia zeus. To appreciate their details, click to enlarge. Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga

A similar but less diverse cluster of locally-endemic species (some of them sister species of the Cordillera Abitagua endemics) occurs on the next line of mountains westward, which include Cerro Candelaria and Cerro Mayordomo. These mountains are only about 10-15 km west of the Cordillera Abitagua but have quite different orchid floras, at least in the hyper-diverse genera like Lepanthes. We protect a fairly good subset of these endemic species in our Cerro Candelaria and Naturetrek Reserves. We are actively expanding these to include more of these endemic species.

Our reserves in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Click to enlarge.

Our reserves in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Click to enlarge.

Lepanthes mayordomensis. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes mayordomensis. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The next line mountains westward from Cerro Candelaria and Cerro Mayordomo also has a set of endemic species of Lepanthes, mostly at higher elevations. We have two small reserves in this range as well.

Lepanthes staatsiana. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes staatsiana, endemic to the next line of mountains to the west of Cerros Mayordomo and Candelaria. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This east-west climate gradient, and the corresponding changes in locally endemic species, pertain mostly to elevations below 3100m. Remarkably, something different seems to happen above that elevation. The Lepanthes species almost disappear, and they are replaced by another orchid genus, Teagueia, in the same subtribe (subtribe Pleurothallidinae). I’ve discussed this genus elsewhere. This genus has undergone an amazing local evolutionary radiation on the high mountaintops here, with about thirty locally endemic species, all new to science. Their distribution pattern is almost the opposite of the pattern shown by Lepanthes and related genera at lower elevations. Teagueia species, unlike Lepanthes, do not cross the valley of the Rio Pastaza, and this barrier seems to have been fairly effective even in the deep evolutionary past. These high-elevation Teagueia species also seem to have wider east-west distributions than the lower-elevation Lepanthes species.

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We don’t understand why this high-elevation genus behaves so differently from the lower-elevation genera. But one clue may be provided by the crazy zigzag ash cloud of our local volcano, Tungurahua. Wind directions at different elevations can be wildly different, as this cloud reveals. Regardless of the reason for this pattern of distribution, we’ve been able to protect a very large part of this radiation in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve, which holds all 16 species that occur south of the Rio Pastaza, and we have protected another portion of this radiation in our Rio Valencia Reserve on the north side of the Rio Pastaza.

Complexity of wind and cloud formation is illustrated by this picture of our erupting Tungurahua volcano. Strong surface winds are coming from the left, pushing the ash cloud (which emerged from near the top of the volcano) to the right. Then, as the ash cloud rose, it reached a layer of air moving more slowly to the right. Then it hit a higher layer of relatively calm air and went straight up, until hitting a layer of air moving strongly from right to left. Then the ash cloud reached a layer of calm air and began to billow straight up.  In contrast the lenticular cloud of water vapor covering the volcano's summit is in dynamic equilibrium, giving the appearance of not moving, in spite of the surface winds. It is constantly being created on its leading (left) edge and destroyed on its trailing edge.  Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Complexity of wind and cloud formation is illustrated by this picture of our erupting Tungurahua volcano. Strong surface winds are coming from the left, pushing the ash cloud (which emerged from near the top of the volcano) to the right. Then, as the ash cloud rose, it reached a layer of air moving more slowly to the right. Then it hit a higher layer of relatively calm air and went straight up, until hitting a layer of air moving strongly from right to left. Then the ash cloud reached a layer of calm air and began to billow straight up.
In contrast the lenticular cloud of water vapor covering the volcano’s summit is in dynamic equilibrium, giving the appearance of not moving, in spite of the surface winds. It is constantly being created on its leading (left) edge and destroyed on its trailing edge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Stay tuned for the next section of this talk in a few days…..

Lou Jost
And I hope you consider donating to EcoMinga’s fund for our reserves!

Endemic Orchids Part 1: The importance of orchids. From a conference on endemic plants of Ecuador, Yachay, Ecuador, June 24-26, 2015.

Left to right: Lepanthes spruceana, endemic to the Cordillera Abitagua, L. neillii , endemic to the Cordillera del Condor, and L. llanganatensis, a species endemic to the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Left to right: Lepanthes spruceana, endemic to the Cordillera Abitagua, L. neillii , endemic to the Cordillera del Condor, and L. llanganatensis, a species endemic to the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Photos: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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.

Some Lepanthes orchids of the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Painting: Lou Jost.

Some Lepanthes orchids of the upper Rio Pastaza watershed. Painting: Lou Jost.

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.

A typical Lepanthes species, with flowers hidden under the leaves. This seems to be an undescribed species. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A typical Lepanthes species, with flowers hidden under the leaves. This seems to be an undescribed species Note added July 7 thanks to commenter kligo: this may be L. tracheia. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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.

This Lepanthes shows the continuous flowering habit typical of the genus. The fishbone-like structures are old flower stems. Each time a flower falls off, a new one opens on the continuously-extending inflorescence. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This Lepanthes shows the continuous flowering habit typical of the genus. The fishbone-like structures are old flower stems. Each time a flower falls off, a new one opens on the continuously-extending inflorescence. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes ornithocephala, which I named for the distinctive large white appendix (fake female fly genitalia; see text), resembling a bird's head and beak. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes ornithocephala, which I named for the distinctive large white appendix (fake female fly genitalia; see text), resembling a bird’s head and beak. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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.

This new species, Lepanthes aprina Luer and Jost from what is now our Cerro Candelaria Reserve, shows the characteristic "lepanthiform" trumpet-shaped sheathes on the leaf stems. This species also has polymorphic leaves; the narrow canoe-shaped flower-bearing leaves rotate 180 degrees so that the flower stem, growing on the top (adaxial) surface of the leaf, ends up facing the substrate, with the leaf blade above it. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This new species, Lepanthes aprina Luer and Jost from what is now our Cerro Candelaria Reserve, shows the characteristic “lepanthiform” trumpet-shaped sheathes on the leaf stems. This species also has polymorphic leaves; the narrow canoe-shaped flower-bearing leaves rotate 180 degrees so that the flower stem, growing on the top (adaxial) surface of the leaf, ends up facing the substrate, with the leaf blade above it. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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.

This image shows the peculiar trumpet-shaped sheaths on the leaf stems of Lepanthes mooreana. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This image shows the peculiar trumpet-shaped sheaths on the leaf stems of Lepanthes mooreana. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes mooreana in habitat, partly covered with moss. This species is a recent discovery, now protected by our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes mooreana in habitat, partly covered with moss. This species is a recent discovery, now protected by our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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.

Andean landscape. Photo: Lou Jost.

Andean landscape. Photo: Lou Jost.

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.

A Maxillaria orchid exposed to the atmosphere in the cloud forest of Abitagua. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A Maxillaria orchid exposed to the atmosphere in the cloud forest of Abitagua. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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.

There can be more than a million seeds in a single orchid pod. They weigh almost nothing and blow long distances. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

There can be more than a million seeds in a single orchid pod. They weigh almost nothing and blow long distances. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Most of the orchid species in the Galapagos are the same species as those on the mainland, suggesting gene flow via seed dispersal over 800km of open ocean. Graphic: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Most of the orchid species in the Galapagos are the same species as those on the mainland, suggesting gene flow via seed dispersal over 800km of open ocean. Graphic: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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.

Lou Jost

Darwin Day follow-up: Speciation, Darwin’s “mystery of mysteries”

Darwin’s and Wallace’s theory of evolution had to answer two fundamental questions. Why are species’ traits so well adapted to their environment? And why might a species diverge into two or more new species? Both men answered the first question by showing how heritable variation plus natural selection necessarily caused a population to adapt to its environment.

The Galapagos Islands. NASA image.

The Galapagos Islands. NASA image.

Darwin and Wallace both soon realized that this also provided a partial solution to the second problem. If a population became split by some barrier, and environmental conditions were different on each side of the barrier, then natural selection would eventually sculpt the two subpopulations into different forms, each adapted to its own environment. Darwin thought this is why the Galapagos mockingbirds differed from mainland forms. He also thought that because each island differed slightly from its neighbors in environmental conditions, natural selection would cause the forms on each island to be distinctive.

The San Cristobal (Chatham) Mockingbird (top), Espanola (Hood) Mockingbird (middle), and Galapagos Mockingbird (bottom). Mockingbirds are not strong flyers, and have speciated on different island groups. Photos courtesy Roger Ahlman.

The San Cristobal (Chatham) Mockingbird (top), Espanola (Hood) Mockingbird (middle), and Galapagos Mockingbird (bottom). Mockingbirds are not strong flyers, and have speciated on different island groups. Photos courtesy Roger Ahlman.

Darwin and Wallace realized that for speciation to occur, the barrier between the subpopulations (like open water or a mountain range) had to be effective enough to keep the members of one subpopulation from interbreeding freely with the other. A small island very close to a continent would generally not have bird species distinct from the nearby continental forms, because birds regularly flew between the continent and island. Islands farther from a continent were more likely to evolve forms distinct from their continental relatives. For the same reason, island organisms with poor dispersal ability would be more likely to diverge from their mainland counterparts than organisms with good dispersal abilities.

We can see this pattern on the Galapagos. Mockingbird do not often fly long distances, and they did speciate on different groups of islands. However, the Galapagos plant and animal species that are good dispersers have not speciated on the different islands. The swallow-tailed gull (Creagrus furcatus), for example, is a strong flyer and has not speciated on different islands.

The strong-flying Swallow-tailed Gull is endemic to the Galapagos but is the same on all the islands. Photo courtesy of Roger Ahlman.

The strong-flying Swallow-tailed Gull is endemic to the Galapagos but is the same on all the islands. Photo courtesy of Roger Ahlman.

Plants in the Galapagos show the same pattern. Plants with poorly dispersing seeds are different from island to island, and also different from their relatives on the mainland. Plants that are really good dispersers not only fail to differentiate on different islands, they don’t even differentiate from their peers on the mainland. Orchids are examples of this. Of all the plant families, orchids have the smallest seeds, spore-like naked embryos without endosperm, which are wind-dispersed over long distances. It should come as no surprise, then, that twelve of the fifteen Galapagos orchid species are also mainland species. It appears enough seeds are blowing across 500 miles of open ocean to maintain gene flow (enough to prevent differentiation, anyway) between the Galapagos and the mainland.

Even though the Galapagos Islands are 500 miles from the continent, they share most of their orchid species, because orchids are good dispersers.

Even though the Galapagos Islands are 500 miles from the continent, they share most of their orchid species, because orchids are good dispersers.

But this raises something of a mystery, as I discuss in this short clip from a talk I gave at the Carnegie Institution for Science, at Stanford University, in December 2014:

In later posts I’ll try to explain this mystery, based on what I’ve learned from studying the orchid distributions of EcoMinga’s main area of focus, the upper Rio Pastaza watershed near Banos, Ecuador.

Lou Jost