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Sixty of one, half a dozen of the other: Rare magnolias get a new start in Ecuador’s Chocó

  • Currently, only 60 Magnolia canandeana trees are known in the wild, and for Magnolia dixonii, only six. These rare magnolia species inhabit Ecuador’s Canandé Reserve in the Chocó, where scientists and locals are working to help conserve the rainforest.
  • However, illegal loggers, exporters of balsa wood, the palm oil industry, cattle ranchers and farmers have steadily pushed in on the forest, leading to high rates of deforestation and a decline in biodiversity that threatens the rare magnolias. Only 2% of the original Chocó remains.
  • Faced with limited resources and the global pandemic, conservation groups have needed all the help they can get, even asking one of their cooks to lead germination research.
  • Efforts to revive the populations are underway, but the future of the newly planted trees is uncertain while the forest remains at risk from further deforestation.

Botanist Álvaro Pérez didn’t expect to discover a new species of magnolia while hiking through Ecuador’s Canandé Reserve. He said it was the enormous, unique fruit that tipped him off.

“For me, it was the first time that I saw a fruit this size. The weight is around 7 pounds [3.2 kilograms] each fruit,” Pérez, who works with the herbarium at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, told Mongabay. “It was an amazing fruit!”

The open fruit of a rare Magnolia canandeana tree in Ecuador. Photo courtesy of Jocotoco.
Magnolia canandeana fruits weigh around 7lbs (3.2 kilograms) each. Photo courtesy of Álvaro Pérez

With the help of a local tree climber, Pérez’s team collected the softball-size fruits and sent them off to the herbarium, where they were identified as a new species. But to complete the botanical description, they also needed flowers

Years later, while researching other plants in the region, scientists David Neill and Pablo Lozano, both from Amazon State University in Puyo, Ecuador, spotted the large, snowy-white flowers blossoming from the high branch of a nearly 40-meter (130-foot) tree.

“We found the first flowers to be known to science and we couldn’t reach them,” Neill told Mongabay.

Normally, they collected flowers growing on trees by cutting off a branch. But because the flowers were inaccessible without climbing equipment that day, the team was forced to make do with several flower petals collected from the forest floor.

Like many other magnolias, the flowers of Magnolia canandeana open at night. Photo courtesy of Álvaro Pérez.
A black beetle pollinater inside the Magnolia canandeana flower. Photo courtesy of Álvaro Pérez.

Magnolia trees have one of the most ancient lineages in the world, dating back nearly 70 million years. Around 300 species have been documented to date, many of them rare.

Most magnolia blossoms open around dusk, releasing a symphony of smells designed to lure beetle pollinators out from their forested nooks. So, to collect an open flower, the researchers had to be patient.

Although Perez first spotted the “amazing fruit” in 2006, it wouldn’t be until 2014 that the team could officially confirm that the discovery was the new-to-science magnolia species, now known as Magnolia canandeana.

While the discovery excited Pérez and other researchers in the area, it continued to highlight the mounting urgency of conserving scarce magnolia habitats from the threat of deforestation.

“If you see the distribution of the magnolias in Ecuador,” Lozano said, “you will see that most of them are where the logging pressure is present.”

Logging near the Canandé Reserve. Photo courtesy of Álvaro Pérez.
Researchers found magnolia trees cut amid the deforestation near the Canandé Reserve. Photo courtesy of Álvaro Pérez.

The race against deforestation 

Ecuador’s Canandé Reserve is part of the Chocó Forest, a mega-diverse region that boasts jaguars, monkeys, harpy eagles, the great green macaw, and more species of plants per square kilometer than anywhere else in the Americas.

The Chocó has been called one of the most threatened tropical ecosystems in the world. Only 2% of the original Chocó remains, with nearly 60% of its tree cover lost since 2001.

“It’s crazy, every day the equivalent of 100 football fields is lost on average,” Michaël Moens of the Jocotoco Foundation, the NGO that manages the Canandé Reserve, told Mongabay in 2020 with regard to deforestation in the Chocó at elevations lower than 400 meters (1,300 feet).

As in much of the tropics, deforestation here began with roads. They granted access to illegal loggers, exporters of balsa wood, the palm oil industry, cattle ranchers and farmers who have marched steadily through the landscape over the past few decades.

Imagery from University of Maryland GLAD alerts show recent forest loss in and around the Canandé Reserve between 2017 and 2021.
Satellite imagery of recent deforestation within the Canandé Reserve. Here, the most recent clearing activity shown in the images deforested about 4 hectares of rainforest – the clearings overall are larger than that, but some of that area was previously cleared. Imagery from Planet Labs via Global Forest Watch.
2020 saw a spike in balsa logging activity. Image courtesy of Fundación Pachamama.
In 2020 balsa logging activity spiked in Ecuador. Image courtesy of Fundación Pachamama.

That has made the work of conserving the magnolias increasingly difficult. So far, researchers and locals have only found about 60 M. canandeana trees in the 5,800-hectare (14,332-acre) Canandé Reserve. There are other individuals growing roadside and on private farms, but many of them are just saplings.

“Many magnolias are very, very rare,” Neill said.

The Canandé Reserve also holds another, exceedingly rare species, Magnolia dixonii. Only six individual trees are known.

First described in the 1960s, M. dixonii was considered extinct until parabiologist Yadira Giler found a lone tree in a pasture in 2017. Now, four have been found inside the Canandé Reserve and another in the nearby Tesoro Escondido Reserve, also managed by the Jocotoco Foundation.

Only six Magnolia dixonii trees have been found in the wild. Photo courtesy of Álvaro Pérez.

A few organizations are working to stem the tide of deforestation in the region to ensure that species like M. canandeana and M. dixonii survive. U.S.-based NGO Whole Forest is working around the perimeter of protected areas to set up a sustainable forestry industry and provide alternative incomes for locals.

“Once the road is in, all the economics is going toward continuous degradation and deforestation,” said Whole Forest CEO Peter Pinchot. “If you can stop the road by doing land purchases and block it and then continue to work with people locally for an alternative economy, then you’ve created your objective.”

The Jocotoco Foundation, an Ecuadoran NGO created in 1998 to protect areas of critical importance for birds in the country, has focused its efforts on protecting forests by purchasing land to expand reserves and maintain connectivity between forests.

In 2021, Jocotoco expanded the Canandé Reserve by 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) and plans to add another 3,650 hectares (9,019 acres) by May of this year.

Conservation during the pandemic 

The COVID-19 pandemic started shutting down Ecuador in March 2020. For Jocotoco, this meant most of its visiting researchers went home to quarantine. The organization found itself with an ever-tightening project budget as revenue from tourist visits ground to a halt.

Rangers stayed in the area and continued to work, as well as Fanny de la Cruz, a cook and receptionist for tourists. She had only been working with Jocotoco for a few months and had no conservation experience coming into the job, having previously worked in kitchens and the administrative offices of local government. But she offered to help the rangers carry out fieldwork and quickly took a liking to the magnolias.

“It was difficult,” she told Mongabay. “I always went out with my coworkers. They guided me in the field, explained the trails to me and we learned to differentiate the magnolias, which trees were already giving seeds and ready to germinate.”

Fanny De la Cruz collects Magnolia canandeana seeds in the forest. Image courtesy of Jocotoco.
Magnolia canandeana seeds cleaned and ready to germinate. They are naturally covered in a red waxy exterior to attract birds who will eat and then disperse the seeds in the wild.  Photo courtesy of Jocotoco.
Magnolia canandeana seedlings soon to be planted in restoration areas. Photo courtesy of Jocotoco. 

Soon, De la Cruz was leading magnolia research for the foundation, helping collect more than 2,000 seeds and carry out experiments to determine why some were germinating and some were not.

“We needed to study why,” she said. “If the seeds had to be treated in a certain way and if they had to be bred at certain times or needed a different substrate.”

De la Cruz recognized the urgency of the work. Research may have stopped due to quarantines, but deforestation from logging and cattle ranching persisted. It was largely because of De la Cruz that the magnolia research continued throughout the pandemic, allowing the foundation to germinate and plant hundreds of new trees.  Jocotoco has now successfully germinated around 1,500 seeds of both magnolia species, Lozano told Mongabay.

“Seedlings for both species have been planted in restoration areas last year and most of the seedlings survived and are growing healthy,” Lozano said.

Jocotoco plans to continue germinating and planting magnolias, but the future of these young trees remains uncertain as long as the forest is in jeopardy. What’s really needed to save the magnolias?

“Save the forest,” Pérez said.

Banner image of  Fanny de la Cruz collects magnolia seeds in the Choco. Image courtesy of Jocotoco.

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