Readers’ wildlife photos

July 26, 2021 • 8:00 am

Lou Jost, who’s been absent from this site for a while doing biology in Ecuador, where he lives, has returned with some lovely photos of orchids, including some new and undescribed species. His captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

It’s been wonderful to read about your exploits as a duck foster dad. I am answering your call for photos.

The orchid genus Dracula has a modified petal (the “lip”) that imitates a mushroom, and smells like one too. They are pollinated by female fungus gnats looking for mushrooms to lay their eggs on. Here is an undescribed Dracula species that I discovered in our Rio Zunac Reserve in eastern Ecuador.

Lepanthes lophius is a tiny orchid flower pollinated by male fungus gnats who think the flower is a female gnat. These orchids emit female gnat pheromones, and the male gnats follow the pheromone trail upwind to the flower. The gnats actually mate with the flower, and even deposit sperm on the fake female genitalia on the underside of the flower. This is a huge genus of over a thousand species, many of them very local endemics.

I spent a lot of time mapping the ranges of the hundred or so Lepanthes species that live in the Rio Pastaza watershed where I live. This led to the discovery of some new species. Lepanthes ruthiana is one of my first discoveries.

While my friend Stig Dalstrom and I were exploring a poorly known forest in the Amazonian foothills, we discovered two new species of orchids in the genus Masdevallia, including this one. This was a beautiful tall forest full of unusual plants, including several other new species. My colleagues and I are currently working to make this forest into a reserve.

Andinia hippocrepica used to be included in the genus Lepanthes. DNA analyses by my friend Mark Wilson showed that the traits which had led taxonomists to classify it as a Lepanthes were actually cases of convergent evolution, rather than evidence for common descent.  DNA analyses have been shaking up the taxonomy of all groups of organisms over the last twenty years; it has been an exciting time now that we have the ability to trace out the actual paths of evolution.

Bomarea longipes is a climbing plant related to Alstroemeria (often sold as cut flowers). These are the only plants I know whose leaves are built “upside down”. As the erect leaf develops in the bud, in most plants the side of the leaf facing the stem will be the top, and the side facing away from the stem would be the underside of the leaf, with lots of stomata. In Bomarea the leaves are still erect, but they have the bottom side facing the stem. When the leaf is deployed, the leaf stem twists around so that the stomata face the ground. This particular species of Bomarea had been lost to science and was believed extinct for a hundred and fifty years.

21 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

  1. What a marvelous job to have: seeking out previously undescribed species in a truly wild space! Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. Thanks Paul. I should have mentioned that these Lepanthes and Andinia orchids are really tiny, The Andinia above is only a couple of millimeters tall, just barely larger than the “moss” (which are really foliose liverworts).

  2. Beautiful photos! (The sweetgrass Hierochloe occidentalis also has leaves that twist basally. In most grasses with leaf blades that spread laterally, the ventral / adaxial surface is up and the dorsal / abaxial surface is down, but that’s reversed in this species.)

    1. Thanks for that observation! These special cases are not widely known, but they are the key to understanding the genetic mechanisms which determine the “up” and “down” sides of leaves.

  3. Amazing photos. Am I alone in thinking that more regular postings of Lou’s work would be highly desirable? Like John Avise’s regular postings of bird photos, I’d quite selfishly love at least occasional notes from Ecuador, allowing me to live vicariously through the posts since I failed to follow my childhood dreams and become a scientist. You are living my dream, Lou.

  4. Thanks for these beautiful photos and the interesting commentary and biology. I recently heard that Ecuador has lost something like 95% of its rainforest. Scary. It’s nice to know you’re trying to create much needed preserves.

    1. Mark, thanks.That figure must refer to western Ecuador, where the lowlands are nearly completely deforested. The rainforests are mostly replaced by oil palm and banana plantations.It is dreadful. We have two reserves on that side of the country.

      1. Yes, it was western Ecuador. There is a guy there from New York (I think he was a wall street exec.) that moved there 15 years ago (iirc) and has set up a reserve. You’re doing great work; from what I’ve seen (never been there) it is a beautiful country, extremely rich in biodiversity.

  5. Your text with the last one particularly caught my attention. How dependably do these orchids bloom in your location? If quite sporadic of course I suppose that that could account in part for its 1.5 centuries of disappearance.

    The reason any of that occurs to me is that when I arrived on my post-doc in Stockholm in July 1981 one of the first events was a trek to my mentor’s summer place out on the archipelago. There were six different orchids in bloom just on the lot that their cabin sat on – a couple acres at best. I know that there were six because I photographed each one and made prints for him. I spent three more summers there and AFAIK orchids never bloomed during those summers – the climate apparently has to be just right.

  6. Check out my Comment 7; this is not an orchid, and it flowers often. The reason it was lost to science was that, like many Andean plants, it has a very small range in difficult topography.. Botanists with enough field knowledge to distinguish unusual plants from everyday plants are thin on the ground, and much depends on luck.

    Going back to your original question, though, some temperate-zone terrestrial orchids are notoriously irregular bloomers. These orchids have a close relationship with mychorrhizal fungi, and they can live underground for years. In fact some orchids never make leaves and have no chlorophyll.

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