Remarkable mimicry

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Spider that mimics a frog in our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

I’ve been away again, this time gone for almost three weeks with a great group of students from Stanford University led by Dr Margaret (Minx) Fuller. We spent most of our time in the Amazonian lowland rainforest, but I also took them to EcoMinga’s Rio Zunac and Rio Anzu Reserves. Throughout the trip we found amazing examples of mimicry. The most unusual mimic was this spider, which was found by students Dylan Moore and Natalia Espinoza on our Rio Zunac trip. At first they thought it was a frog. It holds its forelegs in a position reminiscent of the hind legs of a frog, and its abdomen mimics a frog head, complete with eyes. I imagine that small birds or insects that would catch a spider might not want to waste energy or risk their lives trying to catch a frog.This spider seems to be related to the famous “bird poop spiders” but I don’t really know. If an arachnologist reads this, perhaps he or she could add some information about this?

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Above and below: Spider that mimics a frog in our Rio Zunac Reserve. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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Note added July 26 2017: Andreas Kay in nearby Puyo reports that he has also found this spider twice, and thinks it is in the genus Stephanopis; see his picture here:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/andreaskay/31583234000/in/photolist-Q7UkjN-Q7Uk8f-HpMphQ-HpRUzt-JkQCzc-JkQCbr-HBPABf-HEcfA6-eXy7XX-eXy7Ta-eXKv1S-egc5ed-dmufYw-dmucGX-bVDV1V-bPbYgn-bPbYeX

It is always a pleasure to browse his site, Ecuador Megadiverso.

I found another exquisite mimic in our Rio Anzu Reserve the next day. This leaf-mimic katydid would have passed unnoticed except that when we walked past, it went into its hiding pose and moved its two antennae together so that they appeared as one. That motion caught my attention, but it still took me a minute to see the katydid.

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A leaf-mimic katydid in our Rio Anzu Reserve. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The best way to see exotic katydids, grasshoppers, and crickets is to walk in the forest at night. Here are some others we found in the eastern lowlands on this trip.

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Dead-leaf katydid in the Amazon. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMnga.

 

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Grasshopper in the Amazon. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

 

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Amazonian nymph katydid. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMimnga.

Mimicry is not limited to insects and arachnids, though. Birds can can also disguise themselves. The hardest birds to spot in these forests are the potoos, which look like dead stubs on tree branches. When some species of potoo sense danger, they even lift their heads to point straight up, enhancing the illusion. They sit all day on their chosen perch, and only hunt at night, sallying for large flying insects. The females lay their single egg carefully balanced on the broken-off tip of a branch, and the baby grows up looking just like an extension of the branch.

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Great Potoo. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

 

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Common Potoo. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Thanks for looking,

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation.

Ladyslippers 2: Conservation

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Phragmipedium fischeri, one of the most endangered plants in Ecuador. Photo: Luis Baquero and Gabriel Iturralde.

As I mentioned in a recent post, ladyslippers as a group are the most endangered of all orchids. More than 37% of the world’s critically endangered orchid species are slipper orchids,  even though they make up less than 2% of orchid species worldwide. Our EcoMinga reserves are fortunate to host at least six slipper orchids in the genus Phragmipedium. Some of these are among the most critically endangered orchids in the world.

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Phragmipedium lindenii near Banos. Photo: Lou Jost.

The most common of our slipper orchids is the one species that doesn’t have a slipper, Phragmipedium lindenii. It grows in drier habitats in some of our Banos-area reserves. A fortunate mutation in the distant past changed the symmetry of the flower, so that instead of two normal petals and a slipper, it has three normal petals. In slipper orchids there is an anther above each normal petal, and in this mutation the third petal also has an anther, which grows straight into the stigma, always fertilizing the flower.

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Phragmipedium pearcei in our Rio Anzu Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost.

Our Phragmipedium pearcei is another widespread slipper orchid. In remote places where people do not strip it, this species forms immense colonies along streams which pass through limestone outcrops at the base of the eastern Andes, on the edge of the Amazon basin. Our Rio Anzu reserve protects several large colonies.

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Phragmipedium pearcei is often underwater. Photo: Lou Jost.

Several slipper orchids are also found in the vicinity of our Dracula Reserve mosaic in northwest Ecuador. Widespread Phragmipedium longifolium can be found on moist roadside cliffs . There is also a more unusual species whose flowers we have not seen yet, but judging from the leaves, it must be a long-petaled species, perhaps the endangered  Phrag. caudatum.

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Phragmipedium longifolium in our Dracula Reserve. Photo: Luis Baquero and Gabriel Iturralde.

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 Phragmipedium caudatum. Photo: Wikipedia.

The species I’ve mentioned so far are fairly widespread, though they are rapidly disappearing as a result of habitat destruction and plant collectors. Much more important for conservation are two slipper orchids which have very limited distributions centered around our Dracula Reserve: Phragmipedium hirtzii and Phragmipedium fischeri.

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Phragmipedium hirtzii. It is easily distinguished from Phragmipedium longifolium by the lack of black “eyelashes” on its staminode (the shield-like green thing covering the entrance to the pouch). Photo: Luis Baquero and Gabriel Iturralde.

Phragmipedium hirtzii is classified as “Endangered” in the IUCN Red List, and is only known from a few sites in extreme southwest Colombia and adjacent extreme northwest Ecuador. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) reports that there are only three sites covering a total of 12 sq. kilometers. It is under heavy pressure by plant collectors. One of the populations is in our target area for expansion of the Dracula Reserve.

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Critically endangered Phragmipedium fischeri in its natural habitat. Photo: Luis Baquero and Gabriel Iturralde.

Phragmipedium fischeri is even more threatened than Phragmipedium hirtzii. It is endemic to a very small area near our existing Dracula Reserve in extreme northwest Ecuador, and nearby southwest Colombia. It is classified by the IUCN as “Critically Endangered,” and they estimate the total area of occupied habitat is only around 4 sq. kilometers. The IUCN estimates there may be fewer than 100 adult individuals, and reports that even this small number is rapidly declining. If this is true, the species is on the brink of extinction and it is among the most endangered plants in Ecuador.

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Fallen Phragmipedium fischeri and Phragmipedium longifolium gathered at the P.  fischeri site. Photo: Luis Baquero and Gabriel Iturralde.

This beautiful orchid urgently needs protection. We are therefore assuming the responsibility to buy and conserve the only known Ecuadorian location for this species. Because of its importance and because increasing demand for the species from collectors, we have taken the unusual step of temporarily securing the property using borrowed money, which we must replace quickly.

The Orchid Conservation Alliance is committed to help us  extend the Dracula Reserve to include this Phragmipedium fischeri site, a Phragmipedium hirtzii site, and additional unusual habitats rich in rare and undescribed orchids and other plants and animals. We urge readers interested in slipper orchids to donate to the Orchid Conservation Alliance for this project. Please make sure you specify “Dracula Reserve” when you contact them– they support many projects, including other projects of ours. Write to tobias@scripps.edu

or send a check to

Peter Tobias, Orchid Conservation Alliance

564 Arden Drive

Encinitas, CA 92024 USA

Thanks!

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation

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Luis Baquero photographing Phragmipedium fischeri in its natural habitat. Photo: Gabriel Iturralde.

List of IUCN Critically Endangered Slipper Orchids:

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

 

 

A brief hike in our Rio Anzu Reserve


A couple of weeks ago I made a short visit to our lowest-elevation reserve, the Rio Anzu Reserve (1100-1200m elevation) in the Amazon basin, to mark some special orchids for a visiting student to study. Lowland Amazonia is the richest habitat on earth for birds and trees, and also hosts a seemingly never-ending parade of crazy insects. A trip to this reserve is always a mind-boggling experience, even though the reserve is very small and lacks larger birds and diurnal mammals due to indigenous hunting pressure in the surrounding area. (However, black jaguars stalk this forest unseen by human eyes, but recorded in several different camera traps…)


For a minute or two I saw this Fulvous Shrike-tanager (Lanio fulvus), a core species of mixed-species insectivorous bird flocks here. Lou Jost/ EcoMinga.

For a minute or two I saw this Fulvous Shrike-tanager (Lanio fulvus), a core species of mixed-species insectivorous bird flocks here. Lou Jost/ EcoMinga.

Quite often at the trail entrance of this reserve there will be a big mixed flock of mostly-insectivorous birds scouring the branches and leaves of the forest. On this trip I met with the flock as soon as I got out of the taxi-truck that brought me there. The flock and I seemed to follow the same forest path for a long way, and I enjoyed their noisy company. A particularly sharp bird call alerted me to the “leader” of the flock, a Fulvous Shrike-tanager (Lanio fulvus) an uncommon bird which does not occur at our higher elevation reserves. This is one of the famous “liar” birds (not to be confused with Lyre-birds!) that watches for hawks, etc, and warns mixed flocks of danger, but will sometimes “freeze” the flock with a false alarm call when it sees a bird flush a particularly appetizing insect. It then grabs the insect for itself (Munn 1986). In spite of its occasional duplicity, the presence of this species allows the other flock members to find more food, since they don’t have to waste as much time looking around for danger (they rely on the Shrike-tanager to do that). So a flock will generally cluster around the local pair of Shrike-Tanagers, and they move together through the forest.

Heliconius butterfly in the Rio Anzu. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This Heliconius butterfly sat on the trail in the Rio Anzu reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Throughout the day fancy butterflies filled the air. My favorite (at least on this day) are the Heliconius butterflies. These butterflies have larva that feed on poisonous passionflower (Passiflora sp.) leaves, and they themselves thus become poisonous to birds. The adults have strong warning colors and patterns, which show a very complex but interesting geographical variation. In any given area, often two different Heliconius species will share exactly the same pattern, but in a different region, the same two species can share a completely different pattern. The geographical variants are intensely studied to give clues about the process of incipient speciation, the possible locations of wet “refugia” during past hot dry epochs, etc. I saw many species that day, but only managed to photograph one.

Passionflower in the forest understory. Photo" Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Passionflower in the forest understory. Photo:Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Appropriately I soon found a giant passionflower plant nearby. This species is a canopy liana but has specialized short clambering flowering stems that often come out near the ground. They are pollinated by hummingbirds.

The crown of white pointy “tentacles” in the center of the flower have an important function. Flowers that attract hummingbirds generally produce a lot of nectar, and this nectar is a tempting resource for other creatures, including many that play no role in pollination. Flowers with better defenses against nectar robbery will leave more descendants than those that don’t, so very elaborate defenses have evolved in many hummingbird flowers, including this one. The white spikes protect the nectar below them. They are easily parted by a hummingbird’s needle-like beak, but a clumsy ant or bee can’t get its head close to the nectar.

The back of the flower also has a defense against nectar robbers. The bracts surrounding the base of the flower have “extrafloral nectaries”, glands that produce a bit of nectar themselves. Ants and wasps like to hang out there and drink this nectar, and these nasty bugs scare away other kinds of bugs that could chew through the back to get to the big store of nectar inside.

The day was full of grasshoppers. I photographed an especially flashy one, but many more escaped my lens. One of the grasshoppers I did manage to photograph was carrying two parasitic mites (ticks) on one leg. Mites are commonly seen on insects in the tropics, but I don’t know much about them.

Mites (one healthy, one dead) on a grasshopper's leg in the Rio Anzu. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Mites (one healthy, one dead) on a grasshopper’s leg in the Rio Anzu. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Along with the grasshoppers were many katydids. Most North American katydids eat leaves, but in the tropics things are more complicated. I found a nasty carnivorous katydid munching the severed torso of a walking stick [male of the genus Oreophoetes, according to Yannick Bellanger’s Comment below], while the walking stick’s mate another walking stick [possibly a new species according to Yannick Bellanger’s Comment below] sat and watched, motionless. The juices of the half-eaten walking stick, in turn, attracted tiny gnats which gathered under the katydid’s head waiting for a chance to steal a mouthful. It was a miniature Serengeti. The annoyed katydid repeatedly swatted the gnats with its forelegs, just like I was swatting the slightly larger gnats that were bugging me. [Edited Dec 1 to reflect my growing doubts that these two walking sticks really belong to the same species. They seem too different from each other. Any experts out there with an informed opinion? Edit June 22 2016: Thanks Yannick Bellanger for the IDs and for answering this question in the Comments. Both are males, of different genera.]

I found this carnivorous katydid munching on a walking stick while the walking stick's mate looks on. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

I found this carnivorous katydid munching on a walking stick while the walking stick’s mate another walking stick looks on. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Victim's head. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Victim’s head. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This walking stick looked on while the katydid ate the other one.

This walking stick looked on while the katydid ate the other one Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

After a couple of hours I reached the Rio Anzu itself, an easy 15-minute walk if I had ignored the interesting bugs. This is where the ladyslipper orchid Phragmipedium pearcei grows on the wet riverside limestone. The plants are often submerged when the river rises. On this day the river was low and there were many individuals in flower.

A ladyslipper orchid, Phragmipedium pearcei, on the limestone of the Rio Anzu. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A ladyslipper orchid, Phragmipedium pearcei, on the limestone of the Rio Anzu. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The Rio Anzu. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The Rio Anzu. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

At first glance the texture of this ladyslipper orchid flower is unremarkable. It looks smooth like any other flower. I had never given it a second look until that day. A microscope revealed that the flower was a complex mosaic of textures, hairs, glands and stuff I still don’t understand. The hairs were clearly guides for the insect pollinators, which must first land on the white flat rim of the orchid’s pouch or “slipper” (the pouch is called the “lip” in orchid terminology). This white rim has a row of random green spots, and another loosely organized row of larger brown spots. When magnified, the green spots turn out to be many long parallel dark green ridges, separated by greenish brown “valleys”. The effect is almost iridescent. Edit Dec 1: In response to Lisa’s question below, I did some research and found that the pollinator is a female fly that thinks these green spots are actually aphids, the prey of the fly larvae. The female lands on the flower to lay eggs among the “aphids”, and falls into the pouch. My speculations about the spots looking like fly eyes were wrong.

Top view of the "slipper" or lip of the ladyslipper orchid Phragmipedium pearcei. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Top view of the “slipper” or lip of the ladyslipper orchid Phragmipedium pearcei. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The staminode above the "slipper" or lip. At this magnification the green spots on the lip begin to show their true complexity. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The staminode above the “slipper” or lip. At this magnification the green spots on the lip begin to show their true complexity. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

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Under higher magnification the green spots on the lip reveal complex textures and stiff hairs. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Under higher magnification the green spots on the lip reveal complex textures and stiff hairs. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Remarkably complex surface details of the green spots. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Remarkably complex surface details of the green spots. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Closer view of the green spots reveal they are not just smooth spots of color. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Closer view of the green spots reveal they are not just smooth spots of color. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Eventually the pollinator must fall into the pouch (perhaps drugged by the orchid). Once the pollinator enters the pouch, it finds itself trapped, with limited ways out. Most of the inner surface of the lip is only lightly hairy, but one strip is carpeted with long hairs, and this strip leads the insect up to an escape route that passes directly under the stigma and anthers. The insect thus is forced to pollinate the flower if it wants to get out of there.

A cross-section view of the "slipper". Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A cross-section view of the “slipper”. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Closer cross-sectional view. Note the various kinds of hairs. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Closer cross-sectional view. Note the various kinds of hairs. Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The variety of textures on this flower make me eager to look more closely at other flowers. Expect to see many more micro-photos here in the future!

A jumping spider watched me photographing the grasshoppers. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A jumping spider watched me photographing the grasshoppers. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lou Jost
EcoMinga

References

Munn, C. A. 1986. Birds that ‘cry wolf.’ Nature 319: 143-145.

A walking fish from our Rio Anzu Reserve

Armored catfish. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

Armored catfish. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

Sometimes people think evolution only happened in the past. A species of fish evolved legs hundreds of millions of years ago and these eventually evolved into land mammals. Much later, some land mammals re-entered the water and these evolved into whales, etc. Skeptics about evolution often ask why we don’t see the same thing happening today. Or, what good is a half-fin, half-leg? But in fact everything is always evolving, even today, and we do see all kinds of transitional forms in our current world, just as we do in the fossil record. We see mammals today with a wide spectrum of adaptations for water, for example. Polar bears, otters, beavers, hippos, seals, and sea lions show all stages of adaptation to water, from very rudimentary to exquisite, with feet and ears and other body parts nicely covering the range between those of typical land mammals and typical fully-aquatic ones. Similarly there are many fish today that have a range of transitional features giving them some ability to move on land.

Armored catfish detail. Note spiky fish hairs on the tips of the enlarged spines of the pectoral fins.  Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

Armored catfish detail. Note spiky fish hairs on the tips of the enlarged spines of the pectoral fins. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

This armored catfish found in our Rio Anzu Reserve is a weird example. It has four modified fins that give the fish support as it climbs on rocks near water. Note the hair-like spiky growths near the tips of the fish’s pectoral fins. If the world were not already populated with terrestrial tetrapods, these fish might have evolved in the future to fill the vacant niches on land.

Detail of "hairs" on the spine of the pectoral fin. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

Click to enlarge. Detail of “hairs” on the spine of the pectoral fin. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

The fish’s mouth does most of the work, though, acting as a suction cup that keeps the fish attached to the rock.

Armored catfish underside closer. Photo: Luis Recalde/EcoMinga.

Armored catfish underside closer. Photo: Juan Pablo Reyes/EcoMinga.

These things can climb near-vertical surfaces:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/05/150506-cave-climbing-fish-animals-science-ecuador/

It grazes on algae, with a rasping mouth. like a snail’s.

This fish was found during a fish investigation of our Rio Zunac and Rio Anzu reserves by Ernesto Rodríguez, partly supported by a science grant from Henri Botter and Ardy van Ooij. When I get the final report of this investigation I’ll post more fish pictures, something we don’t often get on this blog!

Lou Jost

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