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Orchid Hunters

April 24, 2019

Local orchid hunter and bird expert, Rudy Gelis, and local herpetologist, Eric Osterman, and I went out for a hike into Reserva Las Tangaras. We trekked slowly through the forest to get to the reserve, listening to the birds enjoy the last rays of morning sunshine and searching for the local monkey troop as they paraded through the canopy. The purpose of our hike was to hunt down and photograph orchids to contribute to the extensive database that Rudy has been contributing to for the past year.

Ecuador alone contains 4,032 described orchid species, and 1,710 of those species are endemic to the country. These statistics help note the high diversity within this family and the rapid hybridization rates. Due to the epiphytic nature of orchids, deforestation jeopardizes their survival; 98% of the endemic species of orchids are threatened.

As an introduction to orchid anatomy, we’ll cover the most interesting and visible parts of an orchid. First, the sepals are located further back on the flower – analogous with the green structures beneath a rose but are much more predominant in the case of orchids. The petals follow and consist of two normal petals and one lip petal, the part that serves as a pollinator landing strip. In the center of the flower is the column, where all the magic happens. There are two types of root structure amongst orchids, the first hug the host tree and the second has roots that grow upwards and outwards posing as a baseball glove waiting to catch falling organic material.  For orchids to take root, a mycorrhizae fungal relationship needs to take place. This fungus attaches itself to uptake water and nutrients from decaying wood and other nearby organic material.

Continuing our walk, as we reached the footbridge leading to the reserve, Rudy spotted a pair of beautiful, creamy colored orchids, Trigonidium riopalenquense, dangling above the rushing Rio Nambillo in a flowering Sietecueros tree (Tibouchina lepidota). Continuing alongside the river, we encountered a delicate Stellis spp. with purple sepals and petals arranged along a beautiful flower stalk.

Following the Barbudos trail, we discovered an orchid heaven among the intersection of four of our trails. This point is located on a ridge which, as we learned from Rudy, creates a microclimate perfect for orchids. The ridge structure enables emerging clouds to shed moisture as they climb the mountains, and the angle of sunlight can filtrate easier through canopy vegetation to feed epiphytes.  In this spot, we discovered Scaphosepalum beluosum, a dramatic yellow and pink-spotted flower with basket roots. This is a species of orchids that continue to flower throughout the year regardless of seasonality. Our next encounter was a Pleurothallis conicostigma, a delicate translucent-yellow flower that looked like two Russian dolls. The Pleurothallis genus is identifiable by the flowers growing out from within the leaf base, rather than creating a long stalk for flowers.  Following that, we discovered a bundle of Onicidium hapalotyle. An orchid that sends out a long and large flower peduncle arranged with bright yellow sepals and petals.  The last orchid that we saw, Platystele spp., had flowers that were smaller than the metal tip of a pen. The genus Platystele, is famous for possessing microscopic flowers – most people while looking at a tree, would not even see this tiny plant.

The orchid family is far from being well-understood. Countless new species are being discovered, and with good reason – imagine climbing to the canopies of ancient trees to find a plant the size of a coin! By preserving 50 hectares of ideal habitat for epiphytes, Reserva Las Tangaras can be considered an orchid paradise – and an orchid-hunter paradise.

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Trigonidium riopalenquense

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Stellis spp.

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Scaphosepalum beluosum

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Pleurothallis conicostigma

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Onicidium hapalotyle

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Platystele spp.

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