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Tropical serendipity! A new species in our Reserve

Scientific research is a fundamental pillar of the Mashpi Lodge project, which has had a permanent resident biologist at work in our reserve since 2009.

The tropical forests of the Andean Chocó region have become an endless cornucopia of plant species for researchers — botany here is truly a magical universe unto itself!

Thanks to the efforts of Mashpi Lodge’s Research & Biology team, together with botanists from Ecuadorian and international academic institutions, we are pleased to share the great news of a new plant species described for science. Columnea fluidifolia is part of the Gesneriaceae (yep, try to pronounce it again), which encompasses many species with delightful petal and leaf arrangements, and colorful patterns (violets, for example, are part of this family).

Columnea fluidifolia has just been added to the region’s huge flora-biodiversity inventory. It becomes part of over 500 plant species identified here to date. Furthermore, this is tenth new species to science discovered inside the Mashpi Reserve.

Its endemic status reiterates the importance of conservation in the Andean Chocó. An endemic species is the evolutionary result of many special adaptations to this bioregion, making its discovery incommensurable for tropical biodiversity.

The discovery of this new species derived from a different, but equally fascinating, field study: The Ecology of Plant-Hummingbird Interactions, conducted in Mashpi between 2017 and 2019 by WSL (Switzerland) and Aves & Conservación (Ecuador). Now, it’s well known that flowers and hummingbirds are intimately related in the natural world, which is why studies about interactions including preferred plants and hummingbird-feeding behavior are needed. Well, through a happy case of scientific serendipity (or chiripa as we’d say in Ecuadorian Spanish) this study ended up identifying a whole new plant species.

Individuals of the Columnea sp. plant caught the eye of expert botanist Francisco Tobar, who then initiated a whole new field study. Identifying a new species is not that simple; in fact, it took a couple of years to compare individuals from similar species from Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica. Because the Chocó bioregion extends across a large swathe of northern South America, comparative studies must not only be detailed, but, due to the colorfulness of the Columnea genus, they need to focus on the plant’s flower arrangement. This is why having resident biologists at the Reserve is so important: they know the various habitats extremely well, and are constantly monitoring the biodiversity status of the reserve.

Something special about this species is the unusual arrangement of its leaves: the same sprout holds both pairs of anisophyllous leaves (different sizes) and pairs of isophyllous leaves (same sizes). It’s an epiphyte plant (i.e., it grows on others), pendular, colorful and eye-catching. The specie’s taxonomic name — fluidifolia — describes its varied and unusual flower arrangement perfectly. Only about 40 individuals of the specie have been identified, which automatically puts it on the critically-endangered list, all the more so when considering its relationship with hummingbirds’ survival. Knowing there are so few of this new species in our reserve reinforces our mission to protect it for the future.

Read the full peer reviewed paper by Tobar et al here.

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