The Las Gralarias glass frog is the world’s newest glass frog. It was discovered by Carl Hutter on the Reserva las Gralarias, after which the researcher subsequently named the new amphibian. Photo by: Jaime Garcia.
Although it covers only 430 hectares (1,063 acres) of the little-known Chocó forest in Ecuador, the private reserve of las Gralarias in Ecuador is home to an incredible explosion of life. Long known as a birder’s paradise, the Reserva las Gralarias is now making a name for itself as a hotspot for new and endangered amphibians, as well as hundreds of stunning species of butterfly and moth. This is because the reserve is set in the perfect place for evolution to run wild: cloud forest spanning vast elevational shifts.
“The pacific slope cloud forests […] are among the most endangered habitats in the world,” explains Reserva las Gralarias’ founder, Jane Lyons, in a recent interview with mongabay.com. “In South America [these forests were] separated from eastern lowland Amazonia when the Andes were uplifted. The tall mountains formed a long and fairly impenetrable barrier between the Pacific Ocean weather systems and the eastern Amazonian lowlands […] All of these barriers and separations led to extensive speciation as entire new ecosystems were born.”
Jane Lyons in her reserve. Photo courtesy of Jane Lyons.
A series of scientific surveys in las Gralarias over the last decade have borne this out. To date, Reserva las Gralarias is known to be home to over 450 species of moth and butterfly, 27 species of hummingbirds, 24 birds endemic to the region and 12 threatened birds, as well as ten endangered amphibians. But discoveries of new species are also increasing: two new species of frog have been described in the last year alone, and six more await formal description form the reserve. The reserve also harbors a bat species, Anoura fistulata, which was only described in 2005; meanwhile big keystone mammals like pumas and spectacled bears make regular appearances.
“Unfortunately the habitat for these species is shrinking throughout their very limited ranges,” Lyons says, adding that “general development, agriculture, timber extraction, new roads and infrastructure are all having a huge direct impact and are also drawing more people to the area and then that just feeds the need for more development and natural resource destruction. “
Defined as montane rainforests that receive much of their precipitation from fog or mist, cloud forests are not only important as some of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, but also for regional weather and water systems.
“Mountainous cloud forests are critical […] for helping maintain the global water cycle. The rain water brought inland in the clouds is channeled downslope and back into the oceans while the cloud forest vegetation provides habitat and protects the underlying soil thus slowing mountainous erosion,” Lyons says, who notes that this particular cloud forest likely impacts regional weather.
Despite their importance, cloud forests worldwide are lesser known than many of the larger rainforest ecosystems like the Amazon and Congo.
Velvet-purple coronet (Boissonneaua jardini) hummingbird in las Gralarias. The reserve is home to at least 27 species of hummingbird. Photo by: Dusan Brinkhuizen.
“As with the larger more charismatic animals, larger more charismatic ecosystems have long caught the public’s eye. I think this is simply the way humans think and judge—we are attracted to and awed by blingy, big and beautiful things! Smaller and more subtle things—from jewelry to architecture to animals to ecosystems—just get lost in the shuffle,” Lyons says, adding that “We are one planet and by now we should understand that our ecosystems are all interconnected. If we destroy one part of our planet, it will affect the rest. For example, if we destroy the overwintering habitat of northern migrant bird species, then we are dooming those species to eventual extinction on their breeding grounds as well.”
While public protected areas have become a keystone to the global conservation effort, private reserves like Reserva las Gralarias are also saving imperiled places and threatened species. Although private reserves have their own challenges, Lyons says they can also avoid some of the pitfalls of public reserves which are dependent on government funding and stewardship, a lesson that is noteworthy in an age when many developing countries are opening up protected areas for conversion into agricultural monocultures, mining, or fossil fuel extraction.
Having started the reserve in 1998 with the simple purchase of 7.5 hectares (19 acres) from a cattle farmer, Lyons has expanded the reserve by over 50 times its original size in just 14 years.
When asked how to replicate her success, she says, “Be prepared to work 24-7 to achieve your dream. The good news is that it is all definitely worth the effort. To be able to help save some part of the planet’s biodiversity is immensely difficult but also immensely rewarding and even fun. You go to bed exhausted but happy that maybe you have helped save a frog species from extinction.”
INTERVIEW WITH JANE LYONS
Hidden pools in las Gralarias. Photo by: Tim Kell.
Mongabay: What makes Reserva las Gralarias special?
Jane Lyons: Las Gralarias sits just south of the equator at 00°00’03” and at the westernmost edge of Ecuador’s northern Andes. It is thus one of the first points of mountainous land to receive the Pacific Ocean’s moisture-laden clouds. In addition it covers almost 2,000 feet of elevational range (approximately 5,200 feet to 7,200 feet). Within this area there are 4 major watersheds: one runs northwest, one runs southwest, one runs from south to north and one runs from north to south. This immense topographic diversity coupled with a year-round temperate climate provides many niches and micro-niches for frogs and all the other plants and animals found at the reserve. Reserva las Gralarias is a microcosm of the Chocó biogeographic zone.
The Critically Endangered, Centrolene heloderma. Photo by: Jaime Garcia.
Mongabay: Are there any endangered species in the reserve?
Jane Lyons: We currently know of two Critically Endangered species of frogs as well as two new species described to science only this year, and 10 additional frog species that are considered Endangered, Near Threatened or Vulnerable, all found on the reserve. In addition, Reserva las Gralarias is home to a number of rare and even unknown species and perhaps genera of butterflies (still under review), a number of rare species of plants, mammals considered Endangered, Near Threatened or Data Deficient, and numerous Chocó endemics as well as species of birds listed as Near Threatened or Endangered. Unfortunately the habitat for these species is shrinking throughout their very limited ranges.
Mongabay: Will you tell us about some of the new species of amphibians that have been discovered in the reserve?
Jane Lyons: There have been a number of unidentified frog species found on the reserve in the past few years. Some of those species are so rare that we cannot locate many of them. We have a conservation-oriented research program and through that biologist Carl Hutter, now at Stony Brook University, discovered two new species of frog. One species is the newest glassfrog known. There are now 151 species of glassfrog and the newest one is Nymphargus lasgralarias or the Las Gralarias glass frog. Carl and his supervisor Dr. Juan Guayasamin of the Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica published the description of this new glass frog in April 2012. In addition, Carl discovered a new species of treefrog at las Gralarias which had coincidentally been found at a distant second site about the same time. That species, Hyloscirtus criptico, was described to science in July 2012 along with the new Hyloscirtus princecharlesi named for England’s Prince Charles. The latter has not yet been discovered at las Gralarias but we think it should also be on the reserve. We also know of about six additional species of frog found at las Gralarias that appear to be new to science. Research on these species is underway.
Mongabay: You’ve long been well-known for birds and birders. Is that changing given your findings of the incredibly diversity of frogs and other animals?
Pristimantis appendiculatus frog in las Gralarias. Photo by: Carl Hutter.
Jane Lyons: I cannot say it is really changing as we still have many birding tourists who visit the reserve and practically no frog or other taxa-type tourists. However, we received a grant from the Save Our Species Program of the IUCN, World Bank, and Global Environment Facility (GEF) to conduct field research on our frogs and also to enhance habitat for them and for a Critically Endangered bird species. Once we have a better idea of what our frogs need for their conservation then we should be able to design a tourism program that will allow people to enjoy looking for frogs without causing harm either to the rare species or to their habitats.
Mongabay: Will you tell us about your hummingbirds? Why are cloud forests such great places for hummingbirds?
Jane Lyons: Cloud forests are great places for hummingbirds because cloud forests are in the mountains and the mountains, with all of their twists and turns and valleys and various slopes, are exceedingly rich in niches and micro-niches. Hummingbirds with their very high body temperature and extremely fast metabolic rate prefer cooler (but not too cold) climates. Thus, the many micro-niches and cool climates and relative consistency of daylight and weather patterns of the tropical mountains provide the perfect habitat for them. In addition, the temperate climate in the equatorial mountains is home to many species of flowering plants which are the primary food source for hummingbirds. At Reserva las Gralarias we have 27 species of hummingbirds. Many can be seen at our feeders, as well as in the forest, while a handful have very specific micro-niches, such as along our many creeks, and rarely venture out of those.
Mongabay: What are the threats to biodiversity on your reserve?
Deforestation for cattle ranching poses a major threat to the region’s cloud forests. Photo courtesy of Jane Lyons.
Jane Lyons: The main threat that we see is habitat loss and fragmentation all around the reserve and throughout this general western slope area. General development, agriculture, timber extraction, new roads and infrastructure, etc. are all having a huge direct impact and are also drawing more people to the area and then that just feeds the need for more development and natural resource destruction.
So far we have seen no obvious threats from climate change, but there have been some concerns due to serious storms and rainfall amounts that people think may be different than in years past. However, no studies have been done in this area. We do have a weather station on the reserve and have monitored our weather continuously for the past 4 years but of course that is a very short time period. No dramatic climatic changes have been noted so far.
CREATING A PRIVATE RESERVE
A beautiful butterfly from las Gralarias: the Oberthurri giant owl butterfly (Caligo oberthurri). Photo by: Carl Hutter.
Mongabay: How was the reserve initially established?
Jane Lyons: The reserve was established when I purchased 7.5 hectares (19 acres) of land in 1998. At that time I was working in Quito as Head of the Americas Division of BirdLife International and as part of my duties I was helping launch the Important Bird Areas (IBA) program in the Americas. The first area we chose was the Mindo area, so I had to visit quite regularly as part of the program. On one trip out to the Mindo area I visited this particular parcel, happened to meet the owner (who lived in Quito) and mentioned that I would be interested in buying his week-end cottage and farm if it were ever for sale. He accepted on the spot, saying it was too wet and had too many trees for his six cows. To me those trees were in fact beautiful forest with clear creeks flowing through and inhabited by rare species of birds. So I purchased the property, he took his cows, and I eventually tore down the cottage and regenerated the small area that had been disturbed. That first small property launched Reserva las Gralarias and is at the lowest and westernmost part of the reserve. Since that time I have purchased lands adjacent to that first parcel and our foundation and other supporters have helped purchase even more parcels so that we now own over 1,000 acres of land as part of the reserve. We have protected the creeks and the forests and also regenerated old pastures so that the reserve now is a mosaic of habitats. When I resigned from my job in Quito I moved to live and work permanently at the reserve.
Mongabay: What are some of the unique challenges faced by a private reserve, as opposed to a public one?
Cloud-forest pygmy-owl (Glaucidium nubicola) at las Gralarias. This species is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. Photo by: Winnie Poon.
Jane Lyons: I think the main challenge is that private reserves do not have the power, resources, personnel that are normally available to public reserves. We have only a few dedicated staff members plus volunteers to do all the work whereas a public reserve usually has more extensive staff and resources and can call for assistance if necessary to other governmental agencies. Private reserves are in a constant search for funding whereas public agencies normally have more predictable funding levels.
Mongabay: Do private reserves have advantages?
Jane Lyons: The main advantage is that we do not get caught up in the politics that public entities are necessarily affected by. Being independent allows us to do what we think is best for conservation without having to wait for policy dictates or without suffering from changes in policies as administrations change or from being ignored or even dismantled by policy-makers, etc.
Mongabay: Where does your funding come from?
Jane Lyons: Our funding comes from private donations, birders and other tourists, and from grants.
Mongabay: What is the condition of forest like around the reserve? Are there plans to expand?
Jane Lyons: There are still beautiful forested zones outside of the reserve, but they are under threat and many are being cut down. Our main goal is to continue to purchase key habitat in this area as quickly as possible to keep the remaining forests from being destroyed and to thus expand the protected cloud forest that is Reserva las Gralarias.
Mongabay: What recommendations would you give to people interested in supporting or starting up a private reserve?
Dwarf red brocket deer in las Gralarias. This species is considered Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. Photo courtesy of Jane Lyons.
Jane Lyons: I have been actively involved in environmental conservation since 1976 and worked for environmental NGOs and governmental natural resource agencies for 23 years before I started a private reserve. I also have a doctorate in biogeography and specifically in bird conservation in Latin America. I always knew in situ conservation was what I wanted to do eventually but even with all the training and planning it has not been an easy process. So my recommendation is to learn as much as you can about all aspects of the biology of the area, the local and regional culture and politics, the laws affecting the area, have a good practical plan of what you can achieve, involve your friends and colleagues to help in whatever way they can—by giving you a pat on the back, donating $5, providing information, linking you to contacts, etc. Read as many case studies as you can from elsewhere in the world and develop a network of support as well as of pertinent information. Then be prepared to work 24-7 to achieve your dream. The good news is that it is all definitely worth the effort. To be able to help save some part of the planet’s biodiversity is immensely difficult but also immensely rewarding and even fun. You go to bed exhausted but happy that maybe you have helped save a frog species from extinction.
Mongabay: How can people help or visit your reserve?
Jane Lyons: People can make a big difference by helping us continue to purchase land for expanding the reserve. Also people can join as member. We also accept donations of any amount via justgive.org and the Las Gralarias Foundation. We are also always in need of volunteers to help with various aspects of the reserve and the foundation. Of course spreading the word to others interested in our work is always a great help to us.
In addition, tourists can come to visit and in that way help support our work. To visit the reserve please check out our website at reservalasgralarias.com.
THE PECULIARITY OF CLOUD FORESTS
Typical forest in las Gralarias. Photo by: Tim Krynak.
Mongabay: What makes cloud forests in general important?
Jane Lyons: Cloud forests are the rain forests of the mountains. The forests of high elevation zones catch the prevailing winds and accompanying clouds, and the clouds then drop their rain onto the mountains. This cloud mist and rain eventually make their way downslope to creeks and rivers and then back to the oceans. Just as flat lowland rain forests are critical to the survival of innumerable species and to the overall health of the planet, so mountainous cloud forests are critical for providing the unique habitat for many endemic montane species and for helping maintain the global water cycle. The rain water brought inland in the clouds is channeled downslope and back into the oceans while the cloud forest vegetation provides habitat and protects the underlying soil thus slowing mountainous erosion.
Mongabay: What are some unique attributes of Ecuador’s cloud forests?
Scaled fruiteater (Ampelioides tschudii) at Las Gralarias. Photo by: Tim Krynak.
Jane Lyons: The pacific slope cloud forests of the western hemisphere are among the most endangered habitats in the world. These forests are found in a few zones in North, central and South America. They survive in a very narrow elevational strip of land wedged between the north-south mountain chains and the Pacific Ocean. In South America this western sliver of land was separated from eastern lowland Amazonia when the Andes were uplifted. The tall mountains formed a long and fairly impenetrable barrier between the Pacific Ocean weather systems and the eastern Amazonian lowlands. And when the panama land bridge was formed the northern pacific zone of South America became separated from the Atlantic. All of these barriers and separations led to extensive speciation as entire new ecosystems were born.
Ecuador’s pacific slope cloud forest lies within the Chocó Biogeographic zone. This small zone of land holds the highest number of restricted-range bird species in the Americas and is home to correspondingly high levels of endemism in other taxa as well. It is also one of the world’s wettest regions with an average of 2-3 meters of rain per year which comes from the Pacific Ocean in the form of clouds and rain and goes back to the Pacific Ocean in a perfect recycling process. If these forests are destroyed not only will there be a huge loss of biodiversity but regional weather patterns could be seriously disrupted.
Ecuador sits along the equator at the point where the intertropical convergence zone oscillates north and south, bringing with it either cold southern currents or warmer northern currents. These currents are key to fisheries and ocean diversity along most of the South American Pacific coast. The inland cloud forests are a critical link in the chain of events that keeps the Pacific coast a healthy ecosystem.
Mongabay: Cloud forests have often taken a back seat in terms of research and conservation as opposed to other rainforest ecosystems. Why do you think this is?
Jane Lyons: As with the larger more charismatic animals, larger more charismatic ecosystems have long caught the public’s eye. I think this is simply the way humans think and judge—we are attracted to and awed by blingy, big and beautiful things! Smaller and more subtle things—from jewelry to architecture to animals to ecosystems—just get lost in the shuffle. This is not to say that the larger and more charismatic ecosystems are not important, because of course they are. But we are one planet and by now we should understand that our ecosystems are all interconnected. If we destroy one part of our planet, it will affect the rest. For example, if we destroy the overwintering habitat of northern migrant bird species, then we are dooming those species to eventual extinction on their breeding grounds as well. We hope we will not find out the consequences of destroying an entire ecosystem such as the cloud forests.
Mongabay: The Chocó ecosystem is little known around the world. Why should it be better known?
Jane Lyons: It needs to be better known because it is a key component of the Pacific coastal and therefore the Pacific Ocean systems. The eastern Pacific Ocean brings us such important phenomena as El Niño and La Niña, the intertropical convergence zone and related ocean and weather conditions which affect the entire world. The Chocó which is located along the northern pacific coast is in the middle of all of this activity.
New species of amphibian described this year Hyloscirtus criptico, which is found in las Gralarias. Photo by: Luis A. Coloma (Centro Jambatu).
Sunset in las Gralarias. Photo by: Jane Lyons.
An oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) in las Gralarias. This small wild cat is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Photo courtesy of Jane Lyons.
Hyloscirtus alytolylax in las Gralarias, which is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. Photo by: Carl Hutter.
Road construction in the region. Photo courtesy of Jane Lyons.
View from Reserva las Gralarias. Photo courtesy of Jane Lyons.
Deforestation in the region. Photo courtesy of Jane Lyons.
Pristimantis eugeniae, listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Photo by: Jaime Garcia.
Centrolene ballux, listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Photo by: Tim Krynak.
(08/07/2012) Four years ago in a remote cloud forest in Peru’s Cerros del Sira mountain range, three recently graduated students from Cornell University discovered a never-before-recorded species of black, white, and scarlet bird. Now described in the scientific journal, The Auk, the bird has been dubbed the Sira barbet (Capito fitzpatricki).
(07/04/2012) Researchers have discovered a previously unknown species of frog and named it in honor of Price Charles, according to a paper published in the journal Zootaxa.
(03/26/2012) Mexico could lose nearly 70 percent of its cloud forests due to climate change by 2080, according to new research published in Nature Climate Change, that has implications for cloud forests worldwide.
(03/21/2012) Three new private conservation areas in the Amazon-Andes region of Peru will help buffer the country’s national park system while offering new opportunities for local people to benefit from protecting ecosystems.
(02/01/2012) Around 80 percent of the Andes’ most biodiverse and important ecosystems are unprotected according to a new paper published in the open-access journal BMC Ecology. Looking at a broad range of ecosystems across the Andes in Peru and Bolivia, the study found that 226 endemic species, those found no-where else, were afforded no protection whatsoever. Yet time is running out, as Andean ecosystems are undergoing incredible strain: a combination of climate change and habitat destruction may be pushing many species into ever-shrinking pockets of habitat until they literally have no-where to go.
(12/05/2011) Conservation organizations and the Ecuadorian government have succeeded in securing over 250,000 acres (106,000 hectares) of cloud forest and grasslands surrounding the Antisana Volcano for protection. The area, long-used for cattle ranching, is home to Andean condors (Vultur gryphus), cougars (Puma concolor), Andean fox (Lycalopex culpaeus), silvery grebes (Podiceps occipitalis), black-faced ibis (Theristicus melanopis), spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), and three species of endangered frogs. The protected area stretches from 3,900 feet (1,188 meters) to 18,700 feet (5,699 meters) above sea level.