Teagueia Explosion!


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The cloud forests of the eastern Andes of Ecuador are the richest in the world for orchids. Warm wet winds blowing from the Amazon basin caress these mountains and are forced upward, cooling and releasing their moisture as they rise.  The moisture condenses into nearly permanent fog blankets, covering the mountain peaks so thickly and so consistently that some of them have never been mapped, and appear on topographical maps only as mysterious white holes labelled “no aerial photos available”. In this nurturing environment tiny, delicate orchid species have evolved, species with flowers so fragile they would collapse in minutes in an ordinary environment.  Most of these are from the Pleurothallid subtribe: Lepanthes, Stelis, Platystele, and many more.


[3 s @ 28.8 kb/s] Pleurothallis pentamytera
[3 s @ 28.8 kb/s] Stelis sp.

Some of the miniature orchids of my area: Lepanthes biloba, Pleurothallis pentamytera, and a Stelis.


      These  fragile miniature orchids are very discriminating in their habitat preferences; they seem to specialize in particular combinations of rain, mist, wind, and temperature. The mountains themselves create these special microclimates through the complex interplay of topography and wind. The first line of mountains facing the Amazon catch the Amazonian winds full-force, producing a violent climate with frequent abrupt storms, and these mountains have their own very rich and distinctive set of orchid species. The next line of mountains westward interacts with a gentler, slightly drier wind, and so it has a different set of orchids; similarly, the third line of mountains westward has yet another set of orchids, even though these different lines of mountains are just ten to twenty miles apart. Even within a single chain, there are countless distinctive microclimates caused by the local topography, and the orchids reflect these microclimates in their distributions. Some species grow by the thousands on ridgetops, where they are exposed to mist-bearing winds, yet these same species can be totally absent just a few yards off the ridgeline. The only way to discover the secrets of such a complicated landscape is to walk every ridge and valley, but the chaotic lay of the land practically prohibits exploration.  


[49 s @28.8kb] Map of my study area
My study area. Blues are low elevations, reds are high elevations, and white is near or above the snow line. I have superimposed radar imagery from the Space Shuttle where available.


[3 s @ 28.8 kb/s] Road along Pastaza canyon.

The Rio Pastaza cuts through the heart of these mountains in east-central  Ecuador, starting in an alpine desert and ending as a tributary of the Amazon in hot lowland rain forest. This river creates one of the very few  routes where humans can pass through the eastern Andes, though not without an adrenaline rush. The road  through this valley, which was built fifty years ago, is cut into the walls of a steep canyon, and is so narrow that in places  a bus passenger looking out his window cannot see the road below, only the sheer 500-foot drop straight down into the Rio Pastaza. The great English botanist Richard Spruce was the first to take advantage of this route for scientific exploration; a century and a half ago he spent six months here, discovering many new plant species (some of which have  never been seen again by anyone). Many other scientists have worked here, making the valley’s flora one of the best-known in the eastern Andes. Nevertheless, the high mountains above the Pastaza valley are widely regarded as the most difficult and dangerous in all of Ecuador, and remain virtually untouched. In fact, Richard Spruce uncovered documents indicating that the Incas chose these mountains to hide their vast treasures from the Spaniards, secure in the knowledge that no outsider could follow them (Spruce 1861, 1908).                                                                               
    For the last eight years I have been living in the Pastaza valley, in the beautiful town of
Baños, and exploring these mountains for a different kind of treasure. I have been trying to map the distributions of some genera of orchids in the Pastaza watershed, to learn about the factors that control orchid distributions and cause speciation. To do this properly I have to reach all the peaks in the area, including the wild ones that everyone else has avoided. Human trails are scarce, except for the deliberately vague trails left by the hardy explorers who come to look for (and sometimes die for) the Inca gold. The most reliable trails are made not by men but by the Mountain Tapir, a relative of the rhinoceros. At lower elevations the Spectacled Bear leaves paths as well, and these two animals are an explorer’s best friends. Even when trails exist, however, the same factors that make these mountains an orchid paradise also make them among the most inhospitable places imaginable, with frequent bone-chilling rain and 100% humidity that invites hypothermia at high elevations. The dense vegetation creates the additional hazard of a false floor in the forest, a layer of trunks and decaying leaves often extending beyond the lips of unseen cliffs; a careless step can break through and lead to a long free-fall. Then there is the risk of getting lost in zero-visibilty fog. In spite of the discomfort and hazards, though, the mountains are so full of interesting things that it is impossible to stay away from them.


[25 s @ 28.8 kb/s] Cerro Mayordomo
Mayordomo, elevation 3400 m, never before climbed by scientists.


[4 s @ 28.8 kb/s] Forest Interior on Cerro Mayordomo

Two years ago my friend Carmen Sanchez and I tried to reach the top one of the most interesting mountains of all, Mayordomo. On the lower slopes of this mountain I had previously discovered three new species of Lepanthes orchids, and I was sure that there were more new ones higher up. The topography was severe, however, and we had to climb up about a thousand meters nonstop through the forest, sometimes straight up, before we could reach a flat enough place for a campsite, at 2800 m. The next morning we started upward again through fog and cold rain, to see if we could make it to the top of the mountain.  At an elevation of 3100 m, as we began to encounter such high-elevation species as Draconanthes aberrans, I noticed hundreds of long slender orchid inflorescences coming out of the moss on the ground around us.  Each inflorescence had lots of old flower stems, one or two open flowers, and some unopened buds. Each plant was a long slender creeper, with small widely spaced leaves that barely overtopped the moss. They were clearly pleurothallid orchids, but I was embarassed to realize that I had no idea what genus they were in. The really bewildering thing was that there was not just one species of these mystery plants; as we looked around us we found a small red-purple one, a fancy black one with petals like antelope horns, a big orange one, and a tan one striped with purple. How could I be unfamiliar with such a diverse group of pleurothallids?  I could hardly wait to get home and search the Icones Pleurothallidinarum, Dr Carl Luer’s authoritative monographs of the known pleurothallids.


{4 s @ 28.8 kb/s] T. sancheziae
[3 s @ 28.8 kb/s] T. jostii
[3 s @28.8 kb/s] T. alyssana

The first creeping Teagueia species to be discovered, all from Mayordomo: T. sancheziae, T. jostii, T. alyssana.


        But they weren’t in the Icones. I sent specimens to Dr Luer, and he recognized all of them as wayward members of the tiny genus Teagueia, which at that time consisted of six rare species (Luer 1990, 1991). Those six  species were small to medium-sized plants with one thin-textured leaf per growth, without pseudobulbs, and with an inflorescence that carried multiple flowers with long tails on their sepals and with a conspicuous central pit in their tongue-shaped lips. My four new ones differed from the six “ordinary” Teagueia in their long-creeping habit and their broad sepals without tails, but their lips had the orifice typical of Teagueia. It was a remarkable thing to find four new Teagueia in a single patch of moss, especially since there were so few species previously known from the genus. We were very excited, and the descriptions were soon published (Luer 2000).

      Mayordomo is in the second line of mountains westward from the Amazon basin. I was sure that the mountains of the first and third lines would have different sets of Teagueia from those of Mayordomo, but it was very hard to get to their summits. The breakthrough came when my friends Robert and Daisy Kunstaetter found a route up the third line of mountains near Baños while doing research for their book, Trekking in Ecuador. Daisy picked up a plant for me that she thought was a Lepanthes, and took care of it for the remainder of their difficult week-long trek. When she showed it to me in Banos I couldn’t  have had a bigger smile....it was not a Lepanthes but one of my long-creeping Teagueia species! It didn’t have any flowers though, so I had to find my way up that mountain to search for flowering examples. I found a local guide, Ali Araujo, who knew the trail, and at 3100 m I was once again surrounded by hundreds, maybe thousands, of those familiar slender inflorescences. I was shocked to realize, however, that almost all the Teagueia species we were walking past were different from those I had discovered on Mayordomo. I collected six Teagueia species that day, five of them new to science!!!



Some of the Teagueia species I discovered on my first visit to the mountain above Viscaya.

[4 s @ 28.8 kb/s] T. "cherisei"
[3 s @ 28.8 kb/s] T. sp. nov.
[3 s @ 28.8 kb/s] T. sp. nov.


      Now this Teagueia puzzle really was getting interesting. These species were very localized, but they dominated the forest herbs in the places where they grew. They were among the most common plants in those areas, covering the ground and many of the trees, and it was impossible not to step on hundreds of them. Yet they completely disappeared a short distance away, as if a line had been drawn in the soil.

[ 5 s @ 28.8 kb/s] Sacha Llanganates expedition crossing the Rio Zunac

I had now explored the high peaks of the second and third lines of mountains, but the high elevations of the first line facing Amazonia, the Sacha Llanganates, were really hard to reach. These were the unmapped, permanently fogbound peaks I mentioned earlier. I had some radar images from the Space Shuttle to guide me, but their resolution was poor.  Additionally, the high peaks were very far from any roads, so the travel logistics were difficult. In late November of last year I finally organized a large expedition to try to reach these peaks, inviting noted tree specialist David Neill and two other botanists from the National Herbarium of Ecuador, along with orchid enthusiast (and Pulitzer Prize winning photographer) Steve Ludlum, and ten porters. During our journey we found Teagueia zeus, one of the six previously known species of this genus (discovered by Alexander Hirtz in 1990), and two more new species of Lepanthes, along with several undescribed trees and shrubs. Unfortunately, after seven days of strenuous hiking, we realized that  we were still a long way from the highest peaks, and most participants wanted to turn around. The peaks remain the most mysterious and tempting targets in my study area, and I will try again to reach them this year.


Two new Lepanthes and Teagueia zeus, from the Sacha Llanganates.

[8 s @ 28.8 kb/s] Sacha Llanganates Lepanthes sp. nov.
[4 s @ 28.8 kb/s] Lepanthes sp. nov.


[10 s @ 28.8 kb/s] Teagueia leaves

       Meanwhile, there was still more to explore on the original Teagueia mountain, Mayordomo, so in December of last year I set off to try to get higher, this time accompanied by my friends Robert and Daisy.  The high forest  was exceptionally beautiful, and indeed there were three new species of Teagueia hidden in the moss, including one with beautifully textured pebbly leaves reticulated with purple. One of these was not in flower but I managed to keep it alive in my greenhouse for a year, when it finally bloomed and confirmed my suspicion that it was new.. Not only the Teagueia species but most of the other orchids up there were unknown—two more new Lepanthes, a new Maxillaria, a new Ponthieva, a new Epidendrum, and maybe a new Trichosalpinx.  During that trip the weather was extraordinarily clear and dry for days on end, something that almost never happens here. This made for magnificent views of our exploding volcano, Tungurahua, but so much nice weather meant that we could not collect rainwater to drink. There were no streams on the knife-edge ridgeline that was the only possible access to the summit, so we tried to squeeze dew out of the moss (this was how I discovered the new Maxillaria), but that proved impractical. The only solution was to go back down without reaching the summit. I am sure there are still some more new Teagueia species waiting for me up there.

[4 s @ 28.8 kb/s] T. "shepardii"

       I occasionally give talks about orchids to college students here in Ecuador. After one of those talks two students, Andy Shepard from the US and Pailin Wedel from Thailand, asked if they could help me in my research.They seemed capable and committed, so I came up with a plan. I trained them to recognize the creeping Teagueia species by taking them to see wild populations and showing them my cultivated examples.  I then sent them off on a short trial camping trip near one of my known Teagueia populations. They came back from this with new respect for the wet and cold, but they also brought back yet another new Teagueia, the biggest and most beautiful of all these creeping species. With that experience under their belts, and with improved tent and clothing, I sent them off for a week with Ali Araujo and another guide, Mario Gamboa, to explore Cerro Negro, a mountain that neither I nor any other scientist had ever visited.

     They came back tired and wet, saying it was the hardest thing they had ever done (Pailin losing one of her toenails in the process), but they had succeeded in reaching the area I had sent them to. As we started going through their collections I soon realized that they had hit another Teagueia jackpot. They told me I looked like an excited kid opening his Christmas presents. One after another of the Teagueia plants we pulled out of their bags was new to science. When the dust had settled and we had a chance to examine them under a microscope, it turned out that seven were definitely new. Two others were more difficult and the jury is still out on them, awaiting additional material.


T. "aliana"
T. "pailinii"
Teagueia sp. nov.

Three of the new Teagueia species from Cerro Negro.


     That makes an astonishing total of 16-21 new long-creeping Teagueia (the exact number depends on whether one is a lumper or splitter--see sidebar, What is a Species?) discovered in my study area in the last two years,  tripling the size of the genus and establishing the creeping Teagueia as the dominant herbaceous plants in many of the area’s high-elevation forests.  Since all the new Teagueia species share some floral and vegetative characteristics not present in the previously-known species of Teagueia, they probably all evolved locally right here in these mountains from some recent common ancestor. This explosive speciation may well be the most dramatic plant radiation in all of South American botany, especially when one considers the tiny area involved---all the species in my study area were discovered within a rectangle eight miles wide by ten miles long, the size of an average American city. Yet in that small area the three Teagueia sites, all at the same elevation, have almost no species in common.

    Nevertheless, my guess is that these Teagueia are not really restricted to the mountains where they were discovered;  more likely, they are extreme habitat specialists that will turn up in sites  with similar microclimtes on neighboring mountains. The Lepanthes distributions I have mapped behave this way; probably these Teagueia species are just a more extreme case of specialization, living in such inaccessible habitats that we only see tiny fractions of their populations. It will take a lot more work to confirm this, though. So far, these creeping Teagueia species have almost never been found outside of my Pastaza study area. The lone exception was a pair of plants found recently by the Kunstaetters (who now have learned how to recognize Teagueia) while hiking about 70 km south of the Pastaza valley. There are dozens of mountains in those intervening 70 km, all unvisited; could there be dozens more sets of new creeping Teagueia species there? And what about all the other high mountains in the eastern Andes? Surprisingly few have been explored at the critical elevations of 3000-3400 meters. And then there are the western Andes....  How many more are out there?  Stay tuned.....LJ


Note added 2005: Since then I managed to climb a 3800 m peak here which had six new species of Teagueia along with many of the old ones. Andy Shepard returned here shortly after that, with Scot Grossman, and they spent three months sampling these populations. They discovered several more new species on other mountains nearby. The current total is thirty species! See Teagueia Monograph.



[30 s @ 28.8 kb/s] Teagueias at their correct relative sizes
Here are thirteen of the new Teagueia species, all shown at the same relative scale so that their size differences can be appreciated.



Luer, C. A.  1990. Icones Pleurothallidinarum VII: Systematics of Platystele (Orchidaceae). St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden.

Luer, C. A. 1991. Icones Pleurothallidinarum VIII: Systematics of Lepanthopsis, Octomeria subgenus Pleurothallopsis, Restrepiella, Restrepiopsis, Salpistele and Teagueia. St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden.

Luer, C. A. 2000. Icones Pleurothallidinarum XX: Systematics of Jostia, Andinia, Barbosella, Barbodria, and Pleurothallis subg. Antilla, subg. Effusia, subg. Restrepioidea. St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Garden.

Spruce, R. 1861. On the Mountains of the Llanganati in the Eastern Cordillera of the Quitonian Andes. Journal of the Royal Geographic Society 31:161-184. London: John Murray.

Spruce, R. [ed. Wallace, A. R.] 1908. Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and the Andes. London: Macmillan.



        Thanks to John and Ruth Moore for generously supporting my work since the beginnning, and to the San Diego County Orchid Society for their ongoing support. Thanks also to the Population Biology Foundation, Glenn and Marsha Staats, the Orchid Resource Center, the Oregon Orchid Society,  Alyssa Roberts and Richard Bozek, and Cherise and Kent Udell. Special thanks to Andy Shepard and Pailin Wedel, who endured  harsh conditions to help fill in the pieces of this Teagueia puzzle. A short version of this article appeared previously in Pleurothallid News and Views, the newsletter of the Pleurothallid Alliance. It has also appeared in Orchid Digest 68:8-13 (2004).    


Teagueia Explosion!