Friday, August 19, 2011

Rock Walls and Torrential Downpours

Written 14 August 2011
For the botanists on this expedition, the ridgetops and highest elevations are often the most interesting places to survey for plants, where the species are mostly different from those in the surrounding lowlands and we are most likely to find new species.  While our main objective is to characterize the vegetation of the Kampankis cordillera, I have a special interest in searching for plants that we have documented during the past 10 years from the sandstone plateaus in the Cordillera del Condor region of southeastern Ecuador and adjacent northern Peru. 
With these goals in mind, the four botanists, together with our local Wampis guide Ignacio Jempekit, set out for an overnight trip to the highest point of the trail network of our third camp.  This ridge at 1050 m elevation is lower than the high point of our second camp, 1360 m, where we found several plants that we believe are new to science and several species characteristic of the sandstone plateaus of the Cordillera del Condor.   We reached the end of the trail, 5.7 km from the main camp, by mid-day, but we were stymied by a solid rock wall 20 m tall that at first seemed impassable.  We eventually found a way up via a series of small ledges.  Although the rubber boots we use for jungle fieldwork are not ideal footgear for rock climbing, we managed to reach to nearly level ridge about the rock wall and make our bivouac camp.  We set out to explore the forest, which was clothed with a dense load of epiphytes, including much “Spanish moss”, Tillandsia usneoides and numerous orchids, bromeliads and ferns.
Botanist Isau Huamantupa at the base of the rock wall.
Photo: D. Neill
At the edge of the cliff we could see the broad Santiago River below, 20 km distant.  Numerous small trees and shrubs were in flower at the cliff edge, including several in the coffee family, Rubiaceae, and among these was a new species that we have previously found on the crystalline sandstone plateaus of the Cordillera del Condor, and is being published as Schizocalyx condoricus by Charlotte Taylor of the Missouri Botanical Garden.  We did not find, however, a great variety of the Cordillera del Condor plants that we had hoped to find.   The rocks of this part of the Cordillera Kampankis, according to the expedition’s geologist, Vladimir Zapata, are sandstone but contain some carbonate and organic matter, and are different from the crystalline sandstone of nearly pure quartzsite that are characteristic of the Cordillera del Condor and give rise to soils that are extremely low in nutrients and highly acidic.  The Cordillera del Condor flora that is adapted to these extremely unfavorable soil conditions, it appears, does not occur where the soils are somewhat richer and less acidic.
On our ridgetop botanical foray we did find two orchids that may be new species, a terrestrial Epistephium and an epiphytic Peristeria, documented by the collections and Isau Huamantupa’s photographs. 
Botanist Camilo Kajekai and guide Ignacio Jempekit waiting to cross the swollen river next to camp
Photo: D. Neill
As we started downhill to the main camp, we met the ornithologists on their way up to record the birds on the summit ridge.  In the late morning as we tramped down the mountain, a light drizzle quickly became a torrential downpour that lasted for two hours. When we arrived at the main camp shortly after noon, the small creek near camp had become a raging torrent of roiling brown waters and the log bridge that had been built across the stream had been washed out.  We could not reach camp across the swollen waters, but shouted to our colleagues on the other side.   There was nothing to do but wait until the flood receded enough for us to cross safely.  Eventually, a rope was thrown across the stream and secured to trees on either side, and after a wait of two more hours, we were able to cross using the safety rope and braving the now-reduced waters that still reached to our waists.  Soon the sun came out, and by evening the stream was back to its clear-running normal condition.
Post by David Neill, Conservation Botanist


  1. Now that looks one, fun bridge to cross, although you might end up getting your feet wet!
    -Jackie @ Inventory software