Category Archives: Ecuador

Orchids in a Cloud Forest in Ecuador

Maxillaria

Maxillaria

Maxillaria

Maxillaria

 

Chondrorhychna chestertonii

Chondrorhychna chestertonii

Chondrorhychna chestertonii

Chondrorhychna chestertonii

Masdevallia

Masdevallia

Masdevallia

Masdevallia

Stelis argentata

Stelis argentata

Lycomormium ecuadorense

Lycomormium ecuadorense

Epidendrum peraltum

Epidendrum peraltum

Cyrtochilum

Cyrtochilum

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Epidendrum

 

Dracula Orchids

Dracula

Dracula

Dracula

Dracula

Tiny Orchids

orchids in Ecuador cloud forest  tiny orchid

Pleurothallis

Pleurothallis

Pleurothallis

Pleurothallis

Lepanthes

Lepanthes

Lepanthes deformis

Lepanthes deformis

Lepanthes deformis

Lepanthes deformis

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Plant Galls in a Cloud Forest in Ecuador

gall

On a recent trip to an Ecuadorian cloud forest I was fascinated by the large numbers of diseases and deformities that riddle the plants. Many of these take the form of plants galls.

Galls are abnormal tissue growth on the surface of plants caused by parasites, such as fungi, nematodes, insects, mites or bacteria, the galls are tailored as the perfect place for the parasitic organism to live in. In the past I’ve looked for and found plant galls in England, but it seemed that they were more numerous and varied in Ecuador. I believe there are three reasons for this, all related to Latitudinal Diversity, which is the phenomenon whereby┬á animal and plant species diversity increases the closer you get to the equator, it applies most notably to rainforests.

  1. With a wider variety of plant hosts, there will be a wider variety of parasites to take advantage of them
  2. A greater number and wider variety of insects leads to more varied insect galls
  3. It is not known for sure that there are more species of fungi and bacteria close to the equator, but it is likely since fungi and bacteria both benefit from a stable environment where light, temperature and humidity are fairly constant, all of which is more true at the tropics than further North or South

What makes galls particularly bizarre, is that these growths are not attachments to the plant, but the plant itself, made to alter its normal growing behaviour in order to benefit its parasite host. Although it is not clear how insects cause this change, bacteria is known to insert its own DNA into the plant cells to alter behaviour. (example here) Insect larvae have been found actually inside the cells of the plant, which might suggest similar interference. It is thought that one wasp (Cynipinae) works in conjunction with a virus (viruses reproduce by inserting their own DNA into the DNA of a host) that lives in the wasps saliva and gets into the plant as the wasp eats it. This is an example of mutualism, since the insect benefits from the virus by getting to make the gall and the virus benefits by getting to reproduce.

Insect and mite galls

These galls are formed by the insect or mite either feeding or laying eggs. When adults lay their larvae on a leaf, excreta or saliva from the insect affects the cambium and causes it to grow differently (more detail above). The larva then grows inside the gall, feeding on the gall itself, eventually eating its way out and escaping. Sometimes the insect control over the plant tissue extends beyond the gall and starches and sugars are drawn in from elsewhere in the plant to increase the food store for the insect.

Insect and mite galls in Ecuador

Insect gall on tree trunk

Insect gall on tree trunk

Underside and Upperside of Leaf

Underside and Upperside of Leaf

Insect galls

Insect galls

Insect galls on Columnea

Insect galls on Columnea

Insect galls showing holes of escaped insects

Insect galls showing holes of escaped insects

Insect galls

Non Gall Insect Invasions

Sometimes I found insects that had taken over leaves, or even entire plants to make a home in. These were not galls, because while leaves were often distorted, the cells were not expanded or changed, but they were still quite bizarre to see.

Ants Forming a Home in a Plant

Ants Forming a Home in a Plant

Wasp Swarm onto Leaf

Wasp Swarm onto Leaf

Insect Colonise a Leaf

Insect Colonise a Leaf

Note: for other insect photos I took in Ecuador, see here

Other Galls

Although some galls I was clearly able to determine as being caused by insects or mites because I could find the animal or see its exit point, others I am just not sure about. The following are those less easy to decipher galls that may be caused by fungi or bacteria.

Leaf Spot Galls

Leaf Spot Gall

Leaf Spot Gall on Decayed Leaf

Leaf Spot Gall on Decayed Leaf

Leaf Distortion due to Gall

Leaf Distortion

The plant in the next photo is a puzzle, the fluffy looking outgrowths at the base of the leaves (and in between) may be a normal part of the plant, perhaps even be the flowers, but they also look similar to the growths in the above picture, which are definitely galls.

Plant Galls or Plant?

Plant Galls or Plant?

This final gall, I believe, is caused by insects because I think it is possible to see them, the black mass at the heart of the distortion.

Severe Leaf Distortion

Severe Leaf Distortion

Close up of Leaf Distortion

Close up of Leaf Distortion

Some interesting and useful websites on plant galls:

Some books I used for reference:

  • British Plant Galls – M. Redfern and P. Shirley
  • The Kingdom Fungi – S. L. Stephenson
  • Parasite Rex – C. Zimmer

Cloud Forest in Ecuador

Busy forest life

Busy forest life

Note: this blog is an introduction and will deal with the forest as a whole, the general impression of it, I hope to write future blogs about specific aspects, such as orchids, fungi, diseases etc, and here is a separate blog page I posted about insects and animals.

I took a recent trip to a cloud forest in the mountains of Ecuador, working at a research centre called Los Cedros. While there I was able to take many hikes out into the forest, taking photos and trying to understand how the forest worked as a system.

Cloud inside the forest

Cloud inside the forest

A cloud forest is a type of rainforest, but at a higher altitude and therefore cooler and with a frequent covering of cloud. During the day, the cloud could be seen moving through the forest, like mist, and up and down the mountain.

Cloud moving down the mountain

Cloud moving down the mountain

The plants in a cloud forest and a rain forest are similar, with the same high species diversity, the same density of plants and the same complex interaction between plants, animals and fungi.

Trees

Aerial roots hang down from a tree (3 vertical white lines)

Aerial roots hang down from a tree (3 vertical white lines)

The majority of the trees were very tall, very thin, with no branching until reaching the top of the canopy, this is typical of the rainforest. The forest was always dark because the canopy was so dense and so leaves were concentrated as high up as possible where they could reach the light (what looks like white sky behind the trees is actually misty cloud between them). Lianas and aerial roots hung down between the trees.

Tree ferns with a backdrop of mist

Tree ferns with a backdrop of mist

Among the trees were tree ferns, palms, strangler figs and walking trees.

Epiphytes and Climbers

Epiphytes

Epiphytes

Aroid in tree top

Wall of climbers next to a path

Wall of climbers next to a path

Trees were covered in plants, some were climbers, such as Philodendron, others were epiphytes that grew around the trunks of trees, using moss as an anchor, these were mostly orchids, bromeliads and ferns. Epiphytes grow high in order to use the increased light in the canopy layer, they have a number of methods to gain nutrients and water, normally provided by the soil. For example, bromeliads have stiff leaves that form a cup at the centre, water collects in this cup and insects defecate and drown in it, leading to a release of nutrients.

Bromeliads

Bromeliads

Orchid in tree

Orchid in tree

Mosses and Lichens

Moss, lichens and epiphytic ferns

Moss, lichens and epiphytic ferns covering tree branches

Mosses were abundant, covering leaves and trunks, they were virulent and colourful. Some more detail on mosses is here.

Moss and lichen

Moss and lichen

Moss growing on leaf

Moss growing on leaf and stem

Ground Cover

Leafy ground cover

Leafy ground cover

Mostly the forest floor was covered in leaves, thick plasticky leaves, a little like cherry laurel. The soil in rainforest is thin and low in nutrients, this is because there are so many organisms with cunning ways of exploiting death, snatching plant and animals corpses before they reach the soil. There is also very little light on the forest floor, perhaps as low as 2%, however, there were some plants that managed to grow and thrive.

Kohleria villosa

Kohleria villosa

Blechnum fern

Blechnum fern

Stellaria media (chickweed) and Plantago major (greater plantain) are both familiar weeds in England that have been introduced to the area, presumably by accident, and I found them growing wherever the forest had been cut back.

Plantago major (greater plantain)

Plantago major (greater plantain)

Diseases

Partially decayed, but still attached leaf

Partially decayed, but still attached leaf

Warm, humid conditions are ideal for many diseases, add to that the large number of insects and parasitic plants and fungi, meant that most plants were damaged extensively. Non native trees, such as citrus, were the most affected, so presumably the native plants have built up some resistance, but the forest was still filled with diseases and decay.

Fresh new growth on a diseased tree

Fresh new growth on a diseased fruit tree

Diseased orchid leaf

Diseased orchid leaf

Dilapidated leaves

Dilapidated leaves