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A bouquet of discovery: Three new orchid species described from Ecuador

  • Three new orchid species from the evergreen montane forests and shrublands of the Ecuadoran Andes have been described by scientists.
  • Two of the new orchids have been preliminarily assessed as critically endangered according to IUCN Red List criteria.
  • All three of the new-to-science species are in the genus Lepanthes, an extremely diverse group that boasts an estimated 1,100 species.
  • Researchers found the flowers while studying plant-hummingbird interactions in cloud forests with different levels of disturbance. Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, where the interactions between many species have not yet been studied.

High up in the evergreen cloud forests of the Ecuadoran Andes, researchers recently found three new species of orchids undescribed by science.

The charismatic flowers were spotted by scientists studying the interactions between plants and hummingbirds in forests at different altitudes and with different levels of disturbance. Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, and the interactions between many species there have not yet been studied.

Lepanthes oro-lojaensis, a newly named orchid species growing in its natural habitat in mountains of Ecuador. Image by Diego Francisco Tobar Suàrez.

More than 400 plant species were recorded during the plant-hummingbird study, including the new orchid species, which have been described in the journal PhytoKeys. All three of the new-to-science species are in the genus Lepanthes, an extremely diverse group that boasts an estimated 1,100 species.

The plant-hummingbird study was launched in 2017 by Catherine H. Graham from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), supported by European Research Council and an Ecuadoran NGO, Aves y Conservacíon.

Geographical distribution of the three new species of Lepanthes microprsartima Tobar & M.J.Gavil. (black hexagon, three collections), Lepanthes caranqui Tobar & Monteros (black triangle, two collections), and Lepanthes oro-lojaensis Tobar & M.F.Lopez (black pentagon, one collection). Figure from Suarez et al 2021.

The first newly named orchid, Lepanthes microprosartima, was found on the slopes of the Pichincha volcano between 3,200 and 3,800 meters (10,500 and 12,500 feet) above sea level. It appears to be endemic to the evergreen montane forests of the Yanacocha and Verdecocha reserves.

In three years of surveying, only 40 individual Lepanthes microprosartima plants were found, so the species has been preliminarily assessed as critically endangered according to IUCN Red List criteria.

The flower of Lepanthes microprosartima, measuring 13 centimeters (5 inches). Image by Diego Francisco Tobar Suàrez
Natural habitat of Lepanthes microprosartima on the western slopes of Pichincha volcano in (A) Yanacocha reserve and (B) Verdecocha reserve. Image from Suarez et al 2021.

Another species, which measures a minuscule 3 centimeters (1.2 inches), was found by scientists from Ecuador’s National Institute of Biodiversity. It has been named Lepanthes oro-lojaensis because it’s found only in one location: the border between El Oro and Loja provinces.

Fires, cattle ranching, collection of firewood, and plantations of exotic trees such as Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) threaten the species’ limited habitat. Scientists have assessed this species as critically endangered.

A close-up of the Lepanthes oro-lojaensis orchid flower, which measures 3 centimeters (1.2 inches). Image by Diego Francisco Tobar Suàrez.
The landscape near to Cerro de Arcos, where Lepanthes oro-lojaensis was collected, in El Oro province. Photo A shows natural vegetation remnants, and B shows areas where pine trees have been planted. Image by Diego Francisco Tobar Suàrez from Suarez et al 2021.

The third species was found by researchers from the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador. It was spotted along roadside embankments in the paramo (shrubland) of Imbabura province as well as in the montane forests in the buffer zone of Cayambe-Coca National Park, where it mostly grows on tree trunks.

This elegant yellow-and-red-flowered orchid has been named Lepanthes caranqui, in honor of the Caranqui culture that historically lived in the area where the plant now grows. Because more than 500 mature plants were found, scientists are suggesting this plant be placed in the IUCN Red List category of least concern.

The Lepanthes caranqui flower is very small, measuring only 8 millimeters across, or less than three-eighths of an inch. Image by Diego Francisco Tobar Suàrez.
Natural habitat of Lepanthes caranqui. Photo A shows paramo scrubland of La Carboneria in Imbabura province, while B shows the El Chalpar area in Pichincha province. Images by F. Tobar and M. Monteros from Suarez et al 2021.

Citation:

Suarez, F. T., López, M. F., Gavilanes, M. J., Monteros, M. F., García, T. S., & Graham, C. H. (2021). Three new endemic species of Lepanthes (Orchidaceae, Pleurothallidinae) from the highlands of Ecuador. PhytoKeys180, 111-132. doi:10.3897/phytokeys.18062671

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @lizkimbrough_

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