Bear update and puma problems too

Camera trap video of a Spectacled Bear eating a bull carcass near El Placer, Ecuador, next to our Machay and Naturetrek Reserves.  The bear first sniffs the camera, then eats. Video set up by Juan Pablo Reyes and Santiago Recalde, EcoMinga.

It has been a while since we’ve posted here. Readers might imagine that this means there is not much news to report, but in fact the opposite is true. We have been so busy, with so much going on, that we have not had time to sit back and write about what we are doing. I have just returned from Taiwan to give a talk about the mathematics of biodiversity and to work on the textbook that Anne Chao and I are writing. I finally have a bit of time to sit and write, and that is what I will try to do for the next few days…

Before I write posts on some of the new things, I’ll finish the bear story that I had left hanging in my last posts (here and here).

As regular readers may recall, one or more Spectacled Bears near our Cerro Candelaria, Naturetrek, and Machay reserves had been eating the crops of the local people and apparently killing a few of their cattle. We brought in a bear expert, Andres Laguna, to talk to the local people and take appropriate action. A bull had just recently died (possibly killed by the bear) and this gave us the chance to film and trap the bear.

We succeeded in the filming the bear visiting the carcass during the day (above) and also at night (below).

Spectacled Bear at night munching on rotten bull meat near El Placer. Video set up by Juan Pablo Reyes and Santiago Recalde, EcoMinga.

This was our chance to trap the bear. Unfortunately Andres was not able to return to our area in time, in spite of our promises to the community. We don’t have enough experience to trap the bear ourselves, so in the end we missed the opportunity to do something about it. Fortunately we have not received any new reports of dead cattle, but bears are still eating our neighbors’ corn.

Now the same people who are losing their cattle and corn to bears are starting to lose their chickens to puma. Two puma have been spotted with some regularity in the area, and recently puma tracks were found very close to homes.

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A puma caught by a camera trap in our reserve near El Placer. Credit: Karima Lopez.

Our conservation successes are negatively affecting the local people, and if this continues, they will certainly take matters into their own hands and kill the offending animals….I am not sure what the solutions are. One obvious thing we can do is pay compensation for confirmed losses. We are also trying to involve the community with the reserve, to make them proud of it and to find ways that they can benefit economically from it. Then they may be able to overlook the  lost corn and chickens, though cattle are so valuable that no one can accept losing them.

Lou Jost/EcoMinga Foundation

 

 

 

 

First photos of our third Magnolia species

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

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

Lou Jost
EcoMinga

Second trip to our Rio Machay Reserve: Orchids, magnolias, tortoise beetles, and toxic trees

Chrysomelid beetle feet in action.  Video: Lou Jost

Chrysomelid beetle feet in action. Video: Lou Jost

A few weeks ago I visited the east ridge of our new Rio Machay Reserve, and found lots of interesting things. I also seemed to get through the visit without touching any Toxicondendron trees (same genus as poison ivy but more virulent), which had caused grave problems to my students and I a decade ago. Encouraged by this, I visited again last week, to search for new Magnolia species and interesting, biogeographically-informative orchids.

I picked a perfect almost-rainless day. The forest was beautiful in the sun, with lots of butterflies and other insects. Right at the start, at about 1600m, I found another beautiful chrysomelid beetle from the tribe Cassidini, a “tortoise beetle” similar to the fancy species I wrote about recently (“An insect that uses its own feces to build a statue of an insect or spider on its back”). This one had a more colorful pattern, which had no obvious function.

The beetle's back pattern. Note the transparent sections of its shell. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The beetle’s back pattern. Note the transparent sections of its shell. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The feet of these Cassidinae beetles are very unusual, with mop-like pads of long oily flattened hairs that stick tightly to even the smoothest surface. When the beetle feels threatened, it sticks tightly to its leaf with these fancy feet, and pulls its shell tight against the leaf surface. The shell extends beyond the feet so there is no place to get a grip on this slippery dome. It can hang on against a force 100 times greater than its body weight.

I’ve been wondering how the beetle detaches the sticky feet from the surface when it wants to walk. From looking at the feet of the previous species, I inferred that the two long claws between the pads could act as a lever to separate the pads from the leaf surface. However, I made that inference based on microscopic observations of the dead beetle’s claws. This new beetle gave me the chance to observe the feet in action.

First I made some microphotos of the feet. The beetle sometimes stood still long enough to take the several hundred photos required to make each final image, though this required a lot of luck and patience. These feet had bigger secondary pads than those of the other species. Then I made a couple of videos of the feet in action. They are too big to include here, but I include a small reduced gif above, and I may put an additional one in a separate post, to keep this post from getting too heavy.

The full-sized video clearly shows that my earlier inference was wrong. The claws aren’t being used as a lever, at least not in the way that I imagined. The feet also pivot freely at times, as if the pads are not always sticky, though sliding might be easy since the surface tension isn’t broken (it is easy to slide a wet piece of glass over another piece of glass, but hard to pull them apart). Some articles had suggested that the beetle can produce the sticky liquid quickly when needed, and that the pads were normally not so sticky. Other people were skeptical of this, and the permanently-wet pads of the other species I photographed suggested that they were always sticky. I still don’t really know.

A miniature woodpecker, Lafresnaye's Piculet, just 9 cm long, smaller than some cigarettes! Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

A miniature woodpecker, Lafresnaye’s Piculet, just 9 cm long, smaller than some cigarettes! Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Also early in my climb I saw a pair of adorable Lafresnaye’s Piculets, tiny little woodpeckers that specialize in pecking the thin terminal twigs of branches where bigger woodpeckers can’t go.

This orchid, Sphyrastylis dalstromii, has unusual leaves and flowers. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This orchid, Sphyrastylis dalstromii, has unusual leaves and flowers. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

An unusual orchid, Sphyrostylis dalstromii, first discovered by my friend Stig Dalstrom, hung down from a trunk on the side of the trail. These plants have iris-like dagger-shaped leaves and the stem grows continuously from its tip, unlike most New World orchids which make successive short growths from a rhizome.

Later in my climb to the magnolia trees we’d recently discovered, I found one of the most spectacular Pleurothallis orchids in the world, P. (Elongatia) excelsa. I’d only seen this once before in my life. Most species in this artificial genus have tiny, dull flowers. John Jearrard writes this about the genus: “There is a strange fascination to Pleurothallis which are some of the dullest flowering plants imaginable. There are hundreds of them, actually more than 1000 at present but the number varies as more are found. The number reduces every time a botanist decides that a group aren’t really dull enough to belong, and shunts them off into a new genus. They are confusing, they are dull and they are fascinating.”

This species breaks all the rules of this group of orchids. It is huge, imposing, and spectacular. The plant is several feet tall and the pendant flower stalk is also several feet long. The flowers are enormous compared to the usual species. This plant was apparently not known from Ecuador until I found it here in the 1990’s. It was a real pleasure to see it again. (In a future post I might talk about its proper generic classification, which turns out to be very complicated. I think it is best placed in Elongatia, not Stelis, and certainly not Pleurothallis in any sense of that genus. See my article here for an introduction to problems of the old genus Pleurothallis, and see Wilson et al and Karremans for more technical discussion on the position of this species and its close relatives like “P.” restrepiodes.)

Click here to enlarge.  The mysterious Magnolia tree I found here. I cleared out some of the bamboo which was beginning to overtake it. Some day we may see it flower so we can figure out what it is. Meanwhile we will include it in the laboratory Magnolia propagation project we are doing in collaboration with the Jardin Botanico de Quito and the Universidad Estatal Amazonica, financed by a grant from Botanical Gardens Conservation International. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Click here to enlarge. The mysterious Magnolia tree I found here. I cleared out some of the bamboo which was beginning to overtake it. Some day we may see it flower so we can figure out what it is. Meanwhile we will include it in the laboratory Magnolia propagation project we are doing in collaboration with the Jardin Botanico de Quito and the Universidad Estatal Amazonica, financed by a grant from Botanical Gardens Conservation International. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Above that, at 2200m, I found a couple more of the giant-leaved mystery Magnolia trees I had come for. These have much bigger and more tapering leaves than the adult plants of our two new species of Magnolias from our nearby Rio Zunac Reserve. I strongly suspect they are different species, and hence probably new to science. [Note added April 30: Dr Antonio Vazquez, magnolia expert, and Eduardo Calderon, who has grown many Colombian magnolia species from seed, both say that juvenile magnolia trees often have much bigger leaves than adults, so I now think these forms are probably juveniles of the smaller-leaved species that Juan Pablo Reyes and our caretakers found on their visit here a few weeks ago. That may or may not be M. vargasiana, one of the new species from the Rio Zunac Reserve.] However w We do not know the juveniles of the new Magnolia species from the Rio Zunac, so we cannot rule out the possibility that one of those species has giant leaves when the tree is young. I could find no flowers, which would have settled the issue.


On my way down I was accosted by two Black-billed Mountain-Toucans (Andigena nigrirostris). These big toucans are always brave and curious in wild areas where nobody goes. These two came very close at eye level, rattling their beaks at me. But they were moving around too fast for good pictures. I got a few shots of one of them behind a tree. I include a better picture recently taken by Fausto Recalde in one of our other reserves. The Andigena toucans are among the most beautiful of the world’s toucans; besides this species, we are lucky to have two others in our reserves.

It was a wonderful day, but the next day I felt sick. The day after, I felt worse, and saw why. My right arm and the right side of my face was covered with a red rash. By the third day my right eye was swelling shut. I knew immediately what was wrong…

This time the toxic tree Toxicodendron, whose local name is "alubillo", got me again. This is the earliest stage. If left untreated my whole body would be covered with bursting yellow pustules in a week or two....Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

This time the toxic tree Toxicodendron, whose local name is “alubillo”, got me again. This is the earliest stage. If left untreated my whole body would be covered with bursting yellow pustules in a week or two….Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

In my post from last week about this trail, I wrote “From 1996 to about 2004 I spent a lot of time exploring the western arm of the horseshoe, but only visited the eastern arm once or twice. A poisonous tree called Toxicodendron (same genus as American poison ivy) is common near the beginning of the trail up the eastern arm, and I developed a nasty allergy to it. A week after my last trip there (2004?), my eyes were swollen shut and yellow liquid dripped from my earlobes, and I nearly clawed my skin off from itching…. Since then I thought it best to avoid that ridge.”

I did not have problems after my trip two weeks ago. but this time, in spite of my care, I had apparently brushed against the dreaded Toxicodendron tree known here as Alubillo, which I had worried about in my earlier post. I knew that by next week, my whole body would be covered with this rash, and by the week after that, my eyes would be swollen shut and yellow liquid would be dripping from my ears. I don’t know what would happen after that— by the fourth week I had found a doctor who knew the cure (after many stupid doctors who prescribed nonsense). So I have now begun taking that cure, prednisone, and already I am better. (Added note: My friends who are reading this, please don’t worry about me, this is a common routine for me…)

[AApril 30: Photos of the Toxicodendron added below. Note to self: Learn to avoid!!]

Lou Jost
EcoMinga Foundation

Exploring the “Forests in the Sky”: our new Rio Machay Reserve, east ridge

Our new Rio Machay Reserve near Banos and the Rio Pastaza protects Cerro Mayordomo, in the Llanganates mountains of the eastern Andes of Ecuador. Cerro Mayordomo is shaped like a horseshoe with the open end facing south; the Rio Machay runs through the center of the “horseshoe”. From 1996 to about 2004 I spent a lot of time exploring the western arm of the horseshoe, but only visited the eastern arm once or twice. A poisonous tree called Toxicodendron (same genus as American poison ivy) is common near the beginning of the trail up the eastern arm, and I developed a nasty allergy to it. A week after my last trip there (2004?), my eyes were swollen shut and yellow liquid dripped from my earlobes, and I nearly clawed my skin off from itching…. Since then I thought it best to avoid that ridge. (Note: I now know there is a simple cure: Prednisone, which cures me completely in less than half an hour!)

Now that we own it, we’ve begun to explore it once more, with eyes that have been trained by ten additional years of exposure to interesting plants in our area. Juan Pablo Reyes, Fausto Recalde, and Luis Recalde went up last week, and came back safe and sound without developing rashes. They went as far as they could in one day, clearing the old trail from 1500m to 2200m. They stopped for lunch at the highest point. As Luis was eating he looked at the ground and noticed a fallen bract, which to almost anyone else would have been completely meaningless. But Luis shouted “Magnolia!” and he was right. It was a piece of a Magnolia flower that had fallen from the canopy. He had recognized it because he had worked many weeks with Dr Antonio Vazquez and students, studying two newly discovered Magnolia tree species in the Rio Zunac Reserve in the Cordillera Abitagua, just 15 km to the east of this ridge. Luis, Fausto, and Juan Pablo looked around and found two Magnolia trees near the trail. Here is their photo of the leaves and flower bud:

This was a remarkable discovery. The local people here do not know these plants (except for our men); they have no local name. Apparently Magnolias have always been very rare here. I sent pictures of these leaves to Dr Vazquez, who said it was Magnolia vargasiana, one of the two new species discovered in the Rio Zunac Reserve. Luis, however, felt the flower bud was much smaller than that species. Perhaps the flower bud was very immature.

Fausto Recalde now has a great eye for the orchid genus Dracula, and he found some there near the lunch spot. This was also exciting news for us, as we had never found any Dracula species in the Banos area on any of the mountains except the easternmost one, the Cordillera Abitagua. Unfortunately he couldn’t find any flowers, so we didn’t know which species it was.

The three men also found one of my favorite orchid species, Masdevallia teagueii. Up to now this plant had only been found in our area on the Cordillera Abitagua and other mountains to the east. This strange flower has a trap mechanism like a Venus’ Flytrap; when a small Drosophila-like fly lands on the lip, the lip of the flower instantly snaps shut, trapping the fly. In order to escape, the fly has to squeeze past the stigma and anther of the orchid, thus ensuring pollination (if the fly had pollinia previously attached to it) and deposition of its own pollinia (which are waxy chunks of pollen attached to sticky plunger-like pads that glue themselves to the insect). After twenty minutes the lip opens and the flower can do it again.

There are very few orchids that have active lips like this. Three other orchid genera in our area have independently evolved this ability: Acostaea, Porroglossum, and Condylago (all in the Pleurothallidinae, the same subtribe as Masdevallia teagueii). Incredibly, each of the four genera evolved a completely different engineering solution to accomplish the motion. In Masdevallia teagueii the heavy lip is attached to the rest of the flower by a thin concave strip of tissue. When stimulated, it instantly changes concavity, flipping the lip upward. The stimulus signal may be electrical.

I discovered the sensitivity of the lip in the 1990s. Prior to that discovery the plant seemed like a normal Masdevallia, where it had been placed originally. But after the discovery of this extraordinary snapping ability, and the unusual structures underlying it, the world expert in these orchids, Dr Carl Luer, decided to establish a new genus for this plant. He named the genus after me, “Jostia“. But later molecular phylogenies based on DNA showed that this plant was embedded in the same branch of the orchid family tree as the normal Masdevallia species. So “my” genus got sunk and the plant is now once again called Masdevallia teagueii. (By the way, the specific name honors the same Walter Teague who was honored by the genus Teagueia, which I have discussed extensively elsewhere.)

Of course I wanted to see all these exciting finds of Juan Pablo, Luis, and Fausto. I waited a few days to make sure the rangers and Juan Pablo didn’t swell up and drip yellow liquid from their ears. They didn’t, so I dared to go up myself, especially to try to find a flower of the Magnolia, and to look more closely at the Dracula plants. I made an extra effort not to touch the trunks of any tree along the trail, to avoid the poison tree. The climb was more difficult than I had remembered from twenty years ago….I hate getting old!!!….but I did make it to the point where the earlier group had turned around. I was pleased to find one of the species I had discovered on the west arm of Mayordomo decades earlier, Lepanthes aprina. It also turns up on Cerro Candelaria to the south (same climate), but not on the cordilleras to the east (wetter) or to the west (drier). I also found Lepanthes jackinpyxa (latin for “jack-in-the-box”, named by Carl Luer), which I had never seen before on this mountain. It was previously known in this area only from the Cordillera Abitagua, where it grows in the same forest as Magnolia vargasiana.

Lepanthes aprina, endemic to the second line of mountains facing Amazonia in our area, first discovered in what is now our Rio Machay Reserve. The name "aprina" means "tusks". Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes aprina, endemic to the second line of mountains facing Amazonia in our area, first discovered in what is now our Rio Machay Reserve. The name “aprina” means “tusks”. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes jackinpyxa in the Rio Machay Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lepanthes jackinpyxa in the Rio Machay Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

I tried hard to find the Magnolia that our rangers had found, but couldn’t locate it in the heavy rain that struck just then (meanwhile Banos itself was sunny all day). As I was leaving, disappointed, something subconscious called my attention to a tree some distance from the trail. It turned out to be a Magnolia! But it was very different from the one the guards had found. This one had much longer, tapered leaves, and long slender petioles. I really don’t know why I went to look at it—that was the only tree of the thousands I passed that day which caught my eye like that. Dr Vazquez thinks that my individual may be a juvenile leaf of M. vargasiana, or an undescribed species. It had no flower buds. I’ll have to go back.

Then I found some Dracula plants! It looked like there might be two species here, based on the leaf shapes. I examined many plants until I managed to find a flower. It was Dracula fuligifera, which had always been considered a Cordillera Abitagua endemic. Very exciting!

These recent discoveries reinforced my impression of twenty years ago that for orchids, this eastern ridge of Cerro Mayordomo is a transition zone between the flora of the eastern Cordillera Abitagua and flora of the more westerly main body of the Andes. It will be exciting to push these explorations upwards to the top of Mayordomo at 3400m. Maybe much of the as-yet-unknown flora of the high Cordillera Abitagua will also be found on the eastern high ridges of Cerro Mayordomo, as we’ve just seen at middle elevations. We could get to the top of Cerro Mayordomo and back on a five-day camping trip, I think. This is far easier than getting to similar elevations on the Cordillera Abitagua (summit at 3200m). That would take two weeks or more, if we started at our Rio Zunac station. We look forward to trying this.

The World Land Trust still needs to raise some of the funds to make our final payment on the Rio Machay Reserve. Help them if you can!

Lou Jost
EcoMinga Foundation

More info:
https://ecomingafoundation.wordpress.com/2015/10/04/world-land-trust-big-match-campaign-for-ecominga-forests-in-the-sky-october-1-to-15/
https://ecomingafoundation.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/first-piece-of-the-forests-in-the-sky-is-now-protected/
https://ecomingafoundation.wordpress.com/2016/03/05/landscape-level-conservation-becomes-a-reality-for-ecominga/

A military footnote: A US military manual for soldiers in Ecuador warns of the Toxicodendron tree: “Plants most important to military personnel are Toxicodendron spp. and Anacardium occidentale (cashew nut)…These are abundant at many CONUS installations, often causing skin reactions that require soldiers to be placed “on quarters” or occasionally in the hospital. The seriousness of lesions caused by poison ivy or poison oak is exacerbated in the tropics…”

Landscape-level conservation becomes a reality for EcoMinga


We’ve recenty signed the papers and made the down payment for a key six-hundred-hectare property that protects virtually the entire watershed of the Rio Machay, from the high peak of Cerro Mayordomo (3400m) in the Llanganates National Park down almost to the Rio Pastaza. This property adjoins the other large purchases (about 1000 ha) we made a few months ago (see this post) on the same mountain. We’ll call this the Rio Machay Reserve. This enormous block of forest, twice as large as our Rio Zunac Reserve, connects to our Naturetrek Reserve on the south side of the Rio Pastaza, which in turn connects to our largest reserve, Cerro Candelaria, which stretches south to the border of Sangay National Park.

We had been working since our inception ten years ago to complete this connection between the two major national parks, Llanganates and Sangay. This wildlife corridor was first proposed by the the World Wildlife Fund and the now-defunct Fundacion Natura many years ago to allow wildlife to pass between the national parks. Corridors from low to high elevations, such as this one, also help bird species which move to different elevations at different times of year, such as some tropical hummingbirds and some fruit-eating birds. Corridors across elevation gradients also provide some insurance against climate change; as the climate warms, species can move up the mountains to keep pace with the changes. All these things require unfragmented, continuous stretches of forest across a wide range of elevations.

The high alpine paramo boundary between our Cerro Candelaria Reserve and Sangay National Park. Photo: Recalde brothers/EcoMinga.

The high alpine paramo boundary between our Cerro Candelaria Reserve and Sangay National Park. Photo: Recalde brothers/EcoMinga.

This proposed corridor was incorporated into the strategic plan of the local municipal governments (Banos, Mera, Palora) in 2002, even before we existed as a foundation (though we played a role in this process as private individuals back then). Unfortunately the declaration existed only on paper, and there were no new regulations on land use. Initially I tried to get Fundacion Natura and the local municipal governments to buy and to make the corridor a reality, but they argued that they did not have the funds. This is one of the reasons we formed EcoMinga; it seemed that we would have to do it ourselves rather than get other entities to do it. So in 2006 we began to make it real with actual land purchases, financed by the World Land Trust. There are still some bottlenecks and small gaps, but we have now finished the hard part, the uncertain part, the part that required a small miracle to complete. That miracle was the World Land Trust’s choice of EcoMinga as the beneficiary of their annual October Big Match fund drive, and the generous support that this fund drive received. Thanks to WLT and to the many donors who helped make this corridor a reality, including Sam Crothers, Mark Wilson, Dan Thompson, Julie Wassermann, Paul and Katy and Al Jost, and Richard and Katie Brindle. Most of the donors made donations directly to WLT so we cannot thank them by name, but they have made a huge and very positive impact on the landscape here.

Teagueia alyssana, which I discovered on Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost

Teagueia alyssana, which I discovered on Cerro Mayordomo. Photo: Lou Jost

The addition of Cerro Mayordomo to our reserve system is exciting. The peak has inspired oral legends of enchanted lakes with ducks made of gold, and angry spirits that keep humans out by sending frightening thunderstorms when someone tries to enter. But the reality is even more fantastic than the legends. The highest forest of this mountain is the place where I first discovered the spectacular Teagueia orchid radiation that I described in last year’s Darwin Day post. The many Teagueia species on this mountain are completely different from the sixteen species of Teagueia at the other end of this new corridor, on Cerro Candelaria, even though Cerro Candelaria and Cerro Mayordomo have seemingly-identical climates and are only 13 km apart. No one knows why they are different.

The view from near the top of Cerro Mayordomo, looking southwest towards Volcan Tungurahua, the snow-capped peak on the left, and Chimborazo, the snow-capped peak on the right. Chimborazo is the highest point on earth, higher than Everest in terms of distance from the earth's center. Photo: Lou Jost.

The view from near the top of Cerro Mayordomo, looking southwest towards Volcan Tungurahua, the snow-capped peak on the left, and Chimborazo, the snow-capped peak on the right. Chimborazo is the highest point on earth, higher than Everest in terms of distance from the earth’s center. Photo:Lou Jost.

For this latest purchase, the World Land Trust went out on a limb for us. WLT still has to raise the money to make the final payment for this purchase in January 2017. Please help them if you can!

Lou Jost