below is collection of observations and thoughts inspired by the places, plants & people of latin america (2003-2010).
thanks for your interest in my ramblings about my ramblings.....
(highlighted words are links to provide more info)
saludos, tobias

Aventuras en la Musica Latina

A few folks have been asking me about latin music lately, so i figured i would compile some of my thoughts and make them available here. The following is a sampling of the latin flavor that makes up a good part of my daily musical diet.
(plays seamlessly through YouTube)

personally i have been really digging the new cumbia, electronica, reaggae, hiphop, swing fusion coming out of COLOMBIA:
Systema Solar
Bomba Estereo
Choc Quib Town
Monsieur Periné
Lido Pimienta
Meridian Brothers 
Ondatrópica (ft. Ana Tijoux)
a bit of rock.... Aterciopelados
and no list of colombian music could omit Toto la Momposina, who has collaborated with everyone from Calle 13, to Lila Downs, and even been sampled by 50 Cent!
or the iconic Joe Arroyo
For more on the Colombian scene check out Sounds and Colours presents COLOMBIA.
Also this short primer on the evolution of Cumbia.

some international fusion showing up in ECUADOR too:
Swing Original Monks

these guys (Sonambulo Psicotropical) blew my mind a couple of years ago playing live in COSTA RICA!

closer to home, i have been following a few MEXICAN groups, from hip-hop to punk and electro to more traditional:
Lila Downs
Julieta Venegas (here with Mala Rodriguez)
Rodrigo y Gabriela
Niña Dioz
     (great duo with Li Saumet from Bomba Estereo)
Instituto Mexicano del Sonido
Quiero Club 
Son de Madera 
Café Tacuba
Los Crudos

always the PUERTO RICAN sensation Calle 13!
-took early inspiration from the reggaeton pioneer Tego Calderon,who was also known for exploring other genres; a far cry from the commercialized (albeit catchy) reaggaeton of folks like Daddy Yankee that assaults the eardrum in many a latin american city.

and the CUBAN expats:
Las Orishas

another cuban Ibrahim Ferrer rightfully gained world-wide populatity through the Buena Vista Social Club, which somewhat reflects the early sounds of groups like Sexteto Habanero.

on the HIP HOP front:
some great women MCs
Ana Tijoux (Chile)
Mala Rodriguez (Spain)
Arianna Puelo (Spain)
Keny Arkana (France (in french))
and Gabylonia from Venezuela

collective effort from Spain: "Rap contra el racismo"
'rap consienca' from the Dominican Republic Kachapela 
and NK Profeta also from Venezuela
the folks at La Republica Hiphop periodically put out free mixtapes  

of course these TRANSNATIONAL genre-benders out of Europe
Manu Chao (and Mano Negra)
Sergento Garcia
Señor Coconut

and a few more women from SPAIN
Ojos de Brujo 
Beatriz Luengo 
and a song about a woman from spain by Jarabe de Palo 

some offerings out of the USA; indie rock to latin jazz to hiphop:
Brown Out
Carla Morrison
Y la Bamba 
Poncho Sanchez 
Xenia Rubino
Las Cafeteras
Immortal Technique

1970's 'NUEVA CANCION' protest music:
Silvio Rodriguez
Mercedes Sosa

from Argentina (Bajofondo
and europe (Gotan Project)

CHILEAN reggae

a few more CHILEÑAS......
Pascuala Ilabaca
Sabina Odone
Catalina Walker
and some CHILEAN indie rock from Astro

the iconic AGENTINIAN rock band
Soda Estereo
and their funky compatriots Illya Kuryaki and the Valderramas
or El Hijo de la Cumbia 
also Alika


and the eminantly dancable MERENGUE
from the Dominican Juan Luis Guerra
and Puerto Rico Elvis Crespo
and on the alternative front (also from the Dominican): Rita Indiana y los Misterios

also I have been dancing some SALSA recently, so a few classics from that genre:
Tito Puente
Celia Cruz
Willie Colon
Rueben Bladés (ft. on a Calle 13 track)
Oscar D'León
Hector Lavoe

also getting turned onto some 'SALSATON' via the cuban salsa crowd:
El Rubio Loco
Seo Fernandez

and of course the international MEGA-STARS just for fun:
J-LO ft. Pitbull

saludos y disfrutenlos!


pps for fans of Calle 13 check out this documentary about their trip through South America!

ppps great free mixtape from Polen Records (the folks who brought us Bomba Estereo)

pppps alt latino on NPR often has great stuff.....


The following posts are from a 5 month trip in the winter/spring of 2010.
They have been reordered, from beginning to end, to allow them to be be read chronologically.


Leaving for Ecuador! (January 2010)


So as many of you know,

I am leaving the country this Sunday (Jan 10) for 5 months of research and teaching in Ecuador.

The first half of my trip I will be at Reserva Los Cedros ( working on the research for my dissertation (

I am using a group of mushroom-mimicking orchids to link volatile chemistry, genetics, and insect behavior as co-creative processes in the distribution, diversity, and evolution of this group of enigmatic plants.

While that may sound somewhat lofty and esoteric, I can assure you that my feet will be planted firmly in the mud during those couple of months! (The cloud forest we are working in gets 3x as much rain as Eugene!)

The second half of my trip will be helping to teach a neotropical ecology field course with students from the U of O (

Additionally, I will find some time to adventure on my own, particularly gathering information and photos for the second edition of my book on the common plants of the cloud forest (

Thanks for your continued interest,

and may your winter and spring be filled with brilliant adventures of your own.

Until Ecuador!

con amor,


Dracula lafluerii

Quito! (January 2010)

Mural downtown

So….almost a week in quito……
As some of you know, things got off to a bit of a slow start!
As in 2 days slow……
There was a problem with my visa and upon arrival at the airport in eugene at 4:30 in the morning, after staying up all night, frantically trying to get organized, they told me that they would not let me on the plane!!!!
In what amounted to an hour of forced diplomacy, I got things sorted out to leave 2 days later (somehow magically avoiding a change ticket fee of $250)
So instead of leaving on the 10th, I left (again at 4:30am) the morning of the 12th, making my last day in Eugene a palindrome (01/11/10) perhaps in more ways than one……
Honestly, I was not quite ready to leave!!!

Lantana camara

Quito is…..well, it is south America!!!
Passion fruit, mangos, avocadoes. Cherimoyas, papayas, pineapple…..bananas, prickly pear fruits, nonis (which I have admittedly only smelled not tasted), guavas.
All those cool Andean tubers that are used like, but not related to the potato…….piles of herbs in el mercado…..

Mercado de artanisias

80 degrees and sunny, but a little too so….
this is supposed to be the rainy season, but the best they’ve got is lightning over Pichincha (the local volcano)……
nice to be a tourist, but worrisome otherwise
there is not enough water to fill the hydodams, so there are rolling blackouts across the city every day…….
just don’t plan on getting much business done between 4 and 6!!! (at least in my neighborhood, times may vary in other disticts)
una corte de energia is one thing, but…….
Most of the staple crops eaten and served are from the last harvest, and there is some concern about the future…….water = food, water = life…….

In other news……
chatting with local friends about politics and the economy, things are not looking so good for biodiversity……..
The ‘lefty’ president has done a bunch of great stuff for the poor, but it is mostly all funded by oil money……..word on the street is that this year they are going to start seriously exporting out of Parque Nacional Yasuni (
……in the western amazon basin and arguably one of the most biodiverse regions in the world!!!
If you get a chance to check out this film it might be worthwhile (although likely depressing), it think it is coming to the bijou in the near future…….

Sticky issues, like the spilled crude oil coating the rivers……..
Hard to tell people that they cannot have schools and medical clinics……but at what cost……
Seems like water smay become the resource of most concern sooner than later as the rain stops and the Andean glaciers melt….!!!
Me, trying to rationalize the fuel to fly down here, by remembering that we are supporting conservation efforts through our work……hhhmmmm……

View from my roof

Well, didn’t mean for this to be a downer…….
In the meantime quito is still a big city that knows how to party!!!
Been getting plenty of exercise on the dance floor……
Which at 11,000 ft, doesn’t take much to feel breathless!!!!

Que mas?
Well, it seems that the process of getting a research permit, that we thought was underway, was…..not so much……
This week has been a bit of a scramble to get all of the pieces together in a hurry so that we at least have the process started when we head to the field…….
Negotiating government red tape has been pushing the bounds of my rusty Spanish, but it all seems to be coming together…..
Connected with a woman at a local ngo ( who has been super helpful with all of this………….

I am actually going to stay behind in quito an extra day to finish sorting all of this out, while the others head to los cedros (
I have been noticing how much less frustrating this all is in Spanish….
Dealing with this kind of run-around in english would likely drive me up the wall, but somehow the challenge of sorting it all out in another language makes it an interesting puzzle!

Well, perhaps enough for now……
Culture, food, politics, it all adds up!


Next missive will likely find me mesmerized by orchids, with mushrooms growing out of my hair……
Looking forward to the mule ride….lol

Abrazos a todos

View from town

Los Cedros (Jan-Feb 2010)

Got a little behind on the writing front….
Got back from los cedros and then headed directly to the coast for a week
Somehow sitting in an internet café seemed like it would violate the rules of vacation!!!
Trying to catch up just now

Los cedros was amazing as usual… feels a little odd to be getting used to being there
I can actually think and work and not be overwhelmed by the lushness and diversity
Need to be conscious about not losing the sense of awe……

At any rate…….
Waiting for the mules to come down the path and fetch us, I befriended a butterfly that would not leave me alone!

The wonder of the moment was somewhat shattered by the mule trains of lumber that preceded the mules that were to fetch us…….
A good reminder that all is not well in paradise……..

There is a road that we have been watching extend towards the reserve for the last three years……
And it is a good example of the needs of people pitted against the needs of the forest
The folks that live in the pueblito are stoked to have access to the larger town,
But of course there is a cost
Easier access in part means easier exploitation
Much of the wood coming out is ‘cedro’ (Cedrela odorata (Meliaceae)) a beautiful red color,
But they are also starting to cut ‘copal’ (Protium sp (Burseraceae)) a lighter-colored wood that is not as valuable, perhaps indicating that the easily accessible regions are beginning to be a bit cut-over……

Then our mules arrived to transport us up to the magic of the clouds
Easy to forget the troubles of the outside world once there…….
Dozens of species of orchids
Hundreds of species of birds
Monkeys in the trees above the trail……
6 inch long millipedes
tree falls
mind-blowing diversity of moths

as the plants become more familiar, it gets easier to focus
to decipher the tangled swarm of vegetation

and a good thing too, as we had our hands full with things to accomplish……

first though, I spent a day helping the folks form the reserve rebuild the bamboo bridges that had been washed out by high water.
Yet another level of remoteness surmounted by a day playing in the river!

over 500 fungal collections
over 500 insects caught and stashed in alcool
I collected fragrance from more than 175 different flowers, mushrooms, and insects!

Trying to tease apart a mimetic pollination strategy necessitates an interest in everything!
We want to know about the orchids
We want to know about the mushrooms they are mimicking
And we want to know about the flies that visit both!

As far as fragrances, we have pretty well established that the same compounds are made by the orchids and the mushrooms,
what we want to get at is the particular amounts and ratios……
Are the flowers mimicking particular fungi or just taking advantage of a general ‘mushroomy-ness’?
And then I starting working a secret side hypothesis that is that the flowers are also emitting fly pheromones! Hence the fly extracts……

We have also found good populations of some new (to us) Masdevallia populations and ran into a Poroglussum to boot!!!

Poroglossum cf. hoeijeri

Well, if we are studying Dracula, why all the fuss about other species……one might ask?

Well it it turns out that there are a bunch of genera that at one time were included in Masdevallia.
Dracula, Poroglossum, Scaphosepalum, Trisetella and maybe others…….
Recent phylogenetic work has supported the prior morphological clumping and suggests that these other genera are the closest relatives of Dracula.
Dracula however is the only group that has evolved the strange mushroom forms and fragrances.
Therefore, by studying the rate of pollination in these sister taxa, we hope to get a handle on the adaptive nature of fungal mimicry, in a fungal rich background……..

Now if that wasn’t a bit heady,
I have also been trying to wrap my head around Dipteran taxonomy and behaviour…..
Which is to say:
Who are these flies and what are they doing?

So far we seem to be getting different visitors to the different species we are watching, and equally as interesting, the same flies going back and forth between the flowers and nearby mushrooms!

What is it that attracts these things anyways?
By manipulating the display of fragrance and color we are trying to find out what aspect of the signaling motif is most important here.
So far, our methods seem a little crude.
The wonders of interspecies communication seem to outweigh, bagged flowers and colored modeling clay……
think using a chainsaw to cut butter……

That said, what we have learned is that either visual or fragrance cues are sufficient to attract the flies, but in order to actual land, both aspects are required.
A bit like ‘fly psych 303’ as Jesse noted……

In the mean time I am getting a good reminder that ECOLGY IS COMLICATED!
Easy enough to sit in my office in Eugene and devise schemes to tease apart the fabric of life, but when yer actually out in it, feeling the web and weft, tug and pull…….
well…..another thing entirely………..

But that is part of the process, no?
To let our actions inform our understanding and then modify our future actions to gain the understanding we seek……….

Alright, maybe that is enough science for now.

In other news
The screaming flocks of parrots overhead,
Swimming in the river in January!
Salsa dance parties

Water-fights for Carnaval
And a steady stream of tourists and volunteers
Serve to add to the excitement……

On the later note, a group of somewhat new-agey folks
Showed up for a couple of nights…….
Jesse (dreadlocks past his butt!) and I found ourselves in the unusual position of being pegged as ‘squares,’
I mean we ARE scientists afterall……
Discussion of botanical diversity turned to ‘secret life of plants,’ Rudolf Steiner, and spiritual evolution…….
Communing with divas and the like.
A fine discussion to have, but what we laughed about afterwards was the way we were perceived to represent the reductionist mechanistic world view of “SCIENCE.”
And in a somewhat argumentative tone that was entirely lost on us.
A good reminder of the power of stereotypes……

I’ll sign off for now
There will be another post about lounging on the beach, exploring the dry forests of the coast and getting the runs from coconut juice soon!


Los Cedros 1 2010

click on photo to see whole album

A la Costa; Feb 2010

So neither jesse nor I could remember the last time we had had a vacation…………
After a month in the rain and mud, nothing sounded better than heading to the coast to dry out for a minute!

Much of the coast of south America is under the influence of the Humbolt current.
This cold current flows from the Antarctic ocean up the west coast of south america to the equator, where it meets the warm Panama current from the north and heads out into the Pacific.

It is the most productive marine ecosystem in the world,
accounting for approximately 18-20% of the world’s fish catch,
and contributing to the diversity of the Galapagos islands.

For us here on land though, there are a couple of important influences of this current,
Both center around the relationship between water temperature and the ability of the air above to hold onto moisture.
Warm air holds more moisture than cold air.
One of the reasons that it is so wet at los cedros is that all of the moist air associated with the Panama current collides with the cold air associated with the Humbolt current and the moisture falls to the ground.
The Choco phytogeographic region,
(that part of NW south America where these currents collide, and home to los cedros!)
is arguable one of the wettest places on earth.

The other big influence of the Humbolt current is that much of the coast of south America, chile, peru and the southern half of Ecuador is very dry, receiving as little as 10 inches of rain/year in certain regions.

A welcome respite from the 100% humidity we were leaving behind!

Hitch-hiking out of quito, we found ourselves cresting the western range of the Andes and falling through clouds, the highway draped in ferns and waterfalls……
I am not sure if it actually ever rained, or if we got as wet as we did, simply by rushing through the condensing air in the back of a truck!

Soon we left the lush slopes behind and entered the broad coastal plains,
As night fell, we got on a bus, and missed most of the acres of bananas, oil palm and sugarcane that we rumbled through…….

Slept in Manta, a bustling port city that until recently was home to a US military base that was used largely in the “war on drugs.” (interpret the quotation marks anyway you like!)

Couldn’t wait to leave in the morning, despite the coconut water, vended from 3-wheeled bicycles…..
Wanted to leave so quick in fact, that we almost let our selves be talked into riding the bus down to Puerto Lopez!!!
But patience prevailed, and soon enough we were hiking out of town, thumbs in the air!

Intriguing landscape, reminded me of traveling in Baja some years ago……
The dry, dry landscape, contrasting against the sea

Dry tropical forest once occupied more land area than tropical rainforest.
Some 42% of all intra-tropical vegetation.
However, it is easily converted to pasture and is slow to recover…….
In Ecuador less than 2% of this forest type remains,
a statistic which is unfortunately true for most tropical dry forest regions in the world.
Unless it is worse!
(Central America has less than one-tenth of one percent of its original dry forests).

it took us the better part of a day to hitch the 120km down the coast
6 rides in all……
hanging off the bumper of pick-ups full of people,
eating bologne sandwiches and listening to manu chao in a sedan driven by tourists form quito,
and hunkering down in a truck full of wires and electrical supplies to avoid the fish guts and bloody water, flying out of the trucks in front of us!!!

We arrived in Puerto Lopez, tired and sunburned!
‘Accidentally’ rented a house on the beach…..
(we had been looking for a hostal,
but this was cheaper and nicer than anything else we had seen!)
and quickly discovered some aloe growing nearby.
Nothing like aloe directly applied to burnt flesh to remind us of the power of plants!

Fried fish for diner,
A moonlit walk through the warm waves
And we called it a day…..

Puerto lopez is just south of the main entrance to Parque Nacional Machalilla
A protected area includes 50km of coastline
(including isla de la plata – an important breeding ground for seabirds such as boobies with various colored feet, frigate birds and albatross - euphemistically known as ‘the poor-man’s galapagos’),
and extending inland to the humid forests of the coastal mountains.

Red-footed Booby

This is one of very few protected dry forests on the coast of south America
(lacking the conspicuous diversity and charismatic mega-fauna of its wetter counterparts……
While at first glance, a seeming desert,
we were lucky enough to arrive 3 weeks behind a rainstorm
and found sufficient botanical treasures to keep us enthralled for the better part of a week,
and then not wanting to leave!

After los cedros the relatively depauperate biota,
Was welcomingly easy to wrap our sun-drenched heads around…..

A few species of lovely lizards
Doves, vermillion fly-catchers, and golden tanangers flitting through the cacti and brush
Blooming prickly pears (opuntia sp)
Palo santo (Bursera graveolens)
its intense aroma accentuated by the beating tropical sun
shrubby boraginaceaes (Cordia lutea)

beaches white with the remains of once living coral
others with black sand that hurt our barefeet with its radiating heat

jesse and I, hanging out at the great look out point
found ourselves defacto naturalists
answering questions about plants and birds, for various folks
from Russia to argentina!

Made me think that a field guide to the dry forest, night be a simpler undertaking that one to the cloud forest!!!

anyway, enough for now


Ecuador Coast

click on photo to view whole album

Cuenca to Quito; March 2010

So where were we………?
Ah yes, on the bus to Cuenca sucking down delicious coconut juice out of little plastic bags…..

So leaving the dry coastal forest, things quickly got greener passing into the coastal mountains, and by the time we reached the broad coastal plains it was rice fields and mango orchards.

Rice paddies

Leaving Guayaquil the approach to the andes was like coming up to a wall……
Flat, flat, flat, not flat!
The bus spent 2 full hours climbing to reach Cuenca (2596m = 8517ft).
Immediately the vegetation changed.
Clouds of ferns, dripping orchids.

Before dark, passed through the eerily subdued paramo, the high elevation moors.
The only trees in sight, scattered stunted, Polylepis. A rose family member that has the distinction of being tree that grows above ‘tree-line!’

The cool mountain air of Cuenca was welcome after a week of frying on the coast (although that was in itself a welcome respite from the month of soggy clouds…!).

Cuenca itself is a charming mountain city, with all architechtural appeal of Quito, without the smog, dirt and crime.

But the real reason I was there was to visit Ecuagenera!

1 of 23 greenhouses at this 1 of 3 sites!!!

A huge orchid grower and exporting business that has been around for over 20 years.
By propagating the 5000 species that they sell, from seed, they are alleviating pressure on wild populations that would otherwise suffer from over-collecting.
In 1993, Ecuagenera became the first Ecuadorian business to obtain permission to export orchids through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
They have used their success to promote conservation and education at various levels……
But this is not why I was interested........

Part of my dissertation research is to sample and map the fragrance chemistry of as many Dracula species as possible in an attempt to understand the evolution of the enigmatic mushroomy aromas that these plants use to attract pollinators.
So this was really a recon mission!
And it worked……I have been invited back to collect fragrances when i am finished teaching in may!

Porroglosum muscossum

While I was on the coast I read a book called ‘The Orchid Thief,’ on which the movie ‘Adaptation’ (which i have not seen) is loosely based.
It is a true story of a crazy plant freak trying to start an orchid nursery on a Seminole reservation in Florida by wild collecting ghost orchids from the swamps of the everglades.
It is really a wonderful history lesson on the extreme of the Victorian orchid craze, when privately-contracted orchid hunters, put higher value on their weaponry above all other tools.
A time of botanical looting and horticultural espionage.

It also gave a good insight into the quirks of the modern orchid collector scene, including lots of latin.
It was nice to be able to put a ‘face’ on many of the plants I had just read about!

Meanwhile I was being reminded of why everyone says “Don’t drink the weird juice in little plastic bags that they sell on the bus!”
And this with a 10 hour overnight trip back to Quito ahead of me!
I got a first-hand lesson in the power of activated charcoal to soak up extra intestinal liquid!!!
(thanks again Jesse)

Back in Quito,
Mostly getting ready to go back to Los Cedros, but did manage a hike in the Parque Metropolitano.

Dioscorea piperifolia (Dioscoreaceae)

A large city park, reminiscent of New York’s Central Park, or Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
A sprawling trail network amongst the introduced Eucalyptuses, did offer a glimpse into the original flora of this high inter-Andean valley (it still blows my mind that at 10,000 ft, Quito is in a valley!!!)

Botanical highlights included: an Oregon grape!!!! (Berberis hallii), a baby lady’s mantle (Lachemilla orbiculata), leaves the size of a quarter!!! A Sterculliaceae (chocolate family) that I had never heard of - Byttneria ovata, a weird spikey shrub. Dioscorea piperifolia a diminutive wild yam relative, and an apparently hallucinogenic shrub called ‘Shanshi’ that my friends aunt once misidentified as blueberries!!!!! (Coriaria ruscifolia (Coriariaceae)). Identification was refreshingly easy thanks to a recently published book “Flores Nativas de Quito.”

Berberis hallii

You can tell what is going on in local, national, and international politics by keeping your eyes open to the walls in Quito!
This visit coincided with International Women’s Day (which apparently is not celebrated in the states?), and the graffiti was apropos.

More soon…….
I should be working on the presentation I am giving at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador on my research next week!!


Cuenca to Quito

Click on photo to see the whole slideshow

Ecuagenera Orchids

Click on photo to see the whole slideshow

Neotropical Ecology (April-May 2010)

So just wrapped up this teaching gig,
Has been quite an adventure,
Andes, amazon, islands.
Plants, birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians!

From the relatively familiar forests of Mindo, to the monkey infested jungles of the amazon,
to watching Galapagos penguins fish in the surf along side sealions and pelicans!
A mix of teaching, learning and shepherding……

I have admittedly got quite behind in my travelogue-ing,
so some things will fall off
and this missive will largely focus on the field course portion of my adventure.

I have however posted some photos from my last trip to los cedros,

including some fairly researchy ones:
Things like orchid pollinia attached to the backs of fungi visiting flies
and insects that we were able to rear out of old flowers!

pollinia on a fungal visitor!

Evidence for two key aspects of this pollination system……
that these flies actually visit both organisms
and that some of them at least seem to be laying eggs as part of their reason for visiting!!!

Also spent about a week in Mindo.

Shooting for the second edition of my book……
I always see something new when I go out there!
Spent some time in my friend Hugolino’s orchid garden
which helped me move forward on some of my IDing!

Brassia sp

Came back to quito to give a talk at the Universidad Catolica on my research.
Kinda nervous about giving a talk in Spanish,
but as soon as I was up there, it all just kinda flowed!

Click here for a copy of the presentation!

Managed to catch some great music too!
Sergento Garcia, reggae, salsa, hip hop from france (but mostly in spanish),
a style he calls Salsa Muffin!
DJ Karim opened blending eastern European influences with latin rythms and dance beats!

cultural diversity mash up reminiscent of
the biodiversity mash up I have been suspended in….
worlds swirl and collide
musical traditions cross continents, oceans, and arrive again,
looping back through time and space…..

A good transition from fieldwork to teaching:
something totally different to cleanse the pallet.

BI 479
So this was a course from the UO,
mostly juniors and seniors in biology and environmental science.

The job description was somewhat long and convoluted
Teacher, guide, tour leader, organizer, comrade, colleague, student, porter, counselor….
This was not your run-of-the-mill graduate teaching position!
To top it off, of the faculty for the course, I had the best Spanish,
so lots of logistical stuff fell my way………

Working with other guides and scientists,
giving space for novelty, but providing a thread throughout……
Facilitating the students getting their minds blown,
but providing the framework to be able to put it all together in the end!

Culture, biology, ecology, conservation, economics, politics……
This place brings up all of these things.

Teaching plant families becomes the easy part,
when the need to impress the magnitude of the diversity,
the consequences of its lose
the role we all play,
and how the poverty we cannot avoid
is tied into the whole picture,
seems somehow more relevant.

At the same time seeing the intricate patterns and
beginning to pick apart the diversity
into manageable bites…..

(opposite leaves, prominent stipules – Rubiaceae – yay coffee!!!)

helps the immense wall of unfathomable green clarify,
overwhelmedness giving way to discerning observation.
A process that will serve them well in whatever they do
(and clearly not all of them will become field biologists!!!)

There were essentially three parts to the course
Two weeks in the andes
Comparing and contrasting both slopes (east and west)
A week in the amazon
The most diverse place on the planet!
And a week in the Galapagos
Mecca for evolutionary biologists, with its high rates of endemism and reproductive isolation!

BI 479 Andes

click photo to view the whole slideshow

The Andean portion started in Mindo.
I was glad to be in familiar territory
while vicariously recalling my own first impressions of the tropical cloud forest.

Focused on plant family recognition,
(Melastomataceae, Arecaceae, Orchidaceae…..)
insect orders,
(Coleoptera, orthoptera, diptera, hemiptera…)
we developed extensive bird lists:
including toucans, humming birds, motmots, trogans and more.
Flocks of parrots squawking overhead filled out the quintessential tropical bird experience!

After a brief stop in the high elevation paramo (moors) / Polylepis forest
(a rose family member with the distinction of being able to grow at higher elevations than any other tree in the world!)
we descended the eastern slopes of the andes to spend a few days at a research station called Yanayacu Biological Station & Center for Creative Studies.

Rudy Gelis
was our guide here,
a lanky expat bird-whisperer.
Inca jays, tourqoise jays, mountain caciques, chestnut-breasted antpittas, and
Sickle-wing guans……..
Night monkeys on the night hike!!!

From here we descended further into the amazon basin to travel north to Baños
to spend a few days with Lou Jost,
orchid whiz, math geek, and bird book illustrator,
who recently ‘discovered’ the world’s smallest orchid!

He is very excited by a group of orchids (genus Teagueia)
That has undergone an adaptive radiation in the eastern andes,
With different species occupying different peaks in a relatively small geographical area.
A good example of the potential for diversity
facilitated by the riotous topography of this special place.
Informing not only conservation strategies but also the fundamental ways that we think about and measure biodiversity.


These tiny flowers only occur around and above 3000 m,
In places we thought would be too hard to access with the whole group of 18 students.
I spent my ‘day off’ in Baños with a friend,
Florian Werner, a german biologist who studies epiphyte communities in southern Ecuador, who had come to visit the class.
He was as (or maybe more) excited as I was to see these elusive flowers.
After five hours of slugging uphill through thick mud and crawling under dense thickets of bamboo we arrived in the cool stunted forest that houses these and innumerable other pleurothallid orchids.
Almost too tired and cold to even take a few pictures,
we relished the biogeographical implications of these flowers (smaller than my pinky nail),
and set off back down the mountain….

BI 479 Amazon

click photo to view the whole slideshow

The next leg of the trip,
after a day in quito to do laundry
was to fully descend into the amazon basin,
which, heretofore we had only really caught glimpses of

The first thing,
besides the blanket of hot humidity and the verdant green of the landscape,
that always strikes me upon arrival into the amazon:
is how the rivers define the lifestyle.
People travel and settle the rivers in this land with very few roads.

And formidable rivers they are!
Even here, some 2000 miles from the atlantic coast (an elevation drop of a mere1000 ft!)
the channels are wide.
The first river we traveled was the Rio Napo.

One of 17 major Amazonian tributaries,
the Napo joins the main stem of the amazon just over the border in Iquitos, Peru.
(as a geological side note the amazon used to flow the other direction – east to west! Cut off and redirected by the relatively recent volcanism that created the andes mountains, a testament to the dynamic world will live in, where even the solid earth is malleable as clay!)

Constant traffic,
from dugout canoes
to barges carrying oil tankers.

About two hours downstream we stop.
From a boat landing we travel a couple hours by open walled bus
to the rio Tiputini,
which flows through Parque Nacional Yasuni
and is home to the Estacion Biodiversidad Tiputini.
Another three hours down the river,
and we arrive!!!

And what a place to be………
Pink dolphins in the river,
scores of insects provide a constant din,
birds of ridiculous color, and call:
macaws, more toucans, more parrots…..
Troupes of monkeys passing through the treetops:
and more!!!

Catching the sunset from the canopy tower,
the vast expanse of green laid out before me.
Passing rainstorm
replaced by mist rising off the treetops.
The very real feeing of being caught in the middle of a hydrological cycle of global import!

A reminder that this place is very much greater than the sum of its parts
(and it has more parts than anywhere else in the world!)
Remote and far away as it seems,
we all are dependent on the ‘ecosystem services’ provided by this region,
as a modulator of global climate.
And in a slightly more esoteric way, as a reserve for the genetic diversity that is the raw material of evolution!

These points are driven home as the sun goes down, revealing the glow of a natural gas plume in the distance……..
Yes under all of this lush diversity lies one of the biggest oil reserves in the world.
A glaring conflict of interests.

BI 479 Galapagos

click photo to view the whole slideshow

The ‘enchanted isles,’
they were called by the wailers and pirates
that first navigated the shifting currents around the
Galapagos islands.

In popular lore the Galapagos are inextricably linked to Darwn
as the inspiration for his unfolding theory of evolution.
While Darwin did spend some days here, as a young naturalist aboard the Beagle,
the real utilization of the archipelago as a ‘natural laboratory of evolution,’
fell to later scientists.
Most famously the Grant’s study of ‘Darwin’s’ finches
(a worthwhile and accessable account of which is given in “The Beak of the Finch” by Jonathan Weiner).

one of 'Darwin's' finches in a Scalesia tree

A host of factors have conspired through geological history to
establish a unique and interesting biota here.
A volcanic ‘hotspot’ located directly on the equator.
and at the intersection of several important oceanic currents.
Spewing magma established the current islands above sea level some 3 million years ago.
The nutrient dense, cold water brought from Antarctica by the Humbolt current provides ample resources to support a stupendous marine ecology, including scores of seabirds (including the charismatic boobies).

The confluence of the other currents contributing to sporadic colonization by continental cast-aways, followed by the reproductive isolation insured by the 1000 kilometers to the mainland.

A natural experiment in not only evolution, but also community assembly, adaptive radiation, and stress tolerance (in this land of rock and salt)!!!

Endemic prickly pears the size of trees.
Both a native and a weedy Passiflora.
The Tribulus (Zygophyllaceae), or ‘puncture vine,’ the famous famine food of
the finches studied by Rosemary and Peter Grant.
Marine iguanas that live off of algaes we would call seaweeds,
Sea turtles, giant tortoises, lava lizards.
At least four species of mangroves growing out of the lava in the intertidal zone!

As a botanical counterpart to Darwin’s finchs
The endemic genus of shrubby to tree-like Asters,
Scalesia has undergone an adaptive radiation here.
Some 16 species found nowhere else in the world!

Flamingos in the lagoon,
snorkeling with sharks,
all lend an air of otherworldliness……..

and then back to Quito!

Now preparing for my last weeks here,
which will include time at los cedros,
preparing all of our specimens for shipping,
a possible visit to Ecuagenera to collect Dracula fragrances,
and other odds and ends……

and then home!
After 5 months it is hard to imagine,
but travel always increases my appreciation for the little niche I occupy in Oregon.
Not because I enjoy the other places any less,
simply because my eyes are always opened to new and different things,
that reinform my experience of ‘home.’

Hasta pronto,

Home Again (June 2010)

Just wanted to post some of my last photos from los cedros:

and a day at the market in Quito:

and now back in Oregon!


The following posts are from a 3 month trip in the winter of 2008.
They have been reordered, from beginning to end, to allow them to be be read chronologically.


Introduction (January 2008)

Hola de Quito,
having only just arrived, this will be more of an introduction to my plans than a travelogue persay......

although arriving downtown last night at 10:30 was an experience to be sure.
burning effigies in bonfires on every street, fire works in every direction, dancing , drumming, the acrid smell of smoke ......

it was all a little much for my travel weary self

this morning i had breakfast with my friends Angelica and Rudy, she is a ecuadorian biologist and he is an american ornithologist.....
good to have friends
fun to have bilingual conversations to help get my spanish legs back on.....
may be the possibility of some collaborative adventures at some point

so what am i doing?
i have a couple of main projects over the next couple of months:

the woman who was my honors thesis advisor at the U of O, Bitty Roy ( ), got a grant from National Geographic to come down here and study thes orchids that mimic fungi to attract fungus gnats for pollination!
These orchids just happen to grow in the cloud forest on the western slopes of the andes near the "choco" region which is widely regarded as a center of major biodiversity for most groups of organisms (birds, plants, etc).
Which roughly translates into me spending a month freaking out on the wonders of one of the most diverse cloud forests on the planet!
I could hardly turn down the invitation to tag along!!!!!!
stay tuned as we head out there on the 10th.....

The other organized project i am going to be working on, starting tomorrow, is putting together a series of color plates, roughly modeled oin the rapid color guides put out by The Field Museum in chicago.
This will be at a reserve called el monte in mindo, that i visited a couple of summers ago, when i was down here with Peter Wetherwax´s course......
Again the rough translation is me spending my days running around in the cloud forest looking for flowers to photograph.......

then depending on how a few other factors come together....we shall see......
mid february will take me through the end jof my "·commitments"
but there is a whole lifetime of amazing things to do down here
(a possible travel glitch is the fact that i am getting recruited for interviews by a handful of grad schools that i applied to.....not sure how this will come together)

we shall see

like i say, just an introduction

when i return from mindo i will have some real things to write about


ps for those of you that missed my slideshow from last time, NIck posted some highlights at

Bosque Nublado (January 2008)

Hola a todos,
so made it back to quito after a very wet week......
i guess they call it the cloud forest for a reason (and this is the rainy season to boot)
on my fourth day, my hát started to mold............

what a week though

as a kind of back drop, i have been reading a book called One River by Wade Davis (a must read, by the way, that is not only super engaging, but filliing in big parts of my own ethnobotanical education....thanks kusra for the recommendation)
there is a line in the first couple of chapters where he is decribing setting out to uncover the botanical origins and cultural uses of coca, and in presenting the indigenous attitude he notes that ´´In a sacred landscape, every plant is the manifestation of the divine.`´

besides the interesting tidbits to mull over, reading about some of the early ethnobotanical explorations by richard evan shultes and the like, make my own botanical adventures appear that much more grandios and tame at the same time....... (at least in my own head!)

interesting that in the internet cafe they are playing the classic song by kansas:
´´....all we are is dust in the wind.....``´

well at any rate.......

leaving quito, i had the bright idea to hitch hike to mindo, partly because i missed the bus and partly for the fun of it.......

as usual the hardest part was just getting out of the city......a good two hours of not being sure if i was even on the right public last i made it to mitad del mundo (the middle of the world) a monument marking the equator just north of quito, but not after cursing myself for always having to go about things the hard way......

my outlook soon changed as i flagged down the first truck to go by, a big cinder block delivery truck.............between the hight of the tail gate and the wieght of my pack (i can never travel lightly appartenly) i ended up kind of somersaulting into the back with my pack landing on top of me.........but we`re off.........and out of quito!!!

rolling out of the dry interandean valley, the cement dust whirling around me seemed fitting as we past ramshackle cinder block houses, with stones to hold the tin roofs on (made me feel better about the pallets holding my own shed roof on

passing senna shrubs with their yellow flowers, stalks of mullein, big daturas, the towering agave americana stalks were the tallest things in sight!

as we crested the andes my ride ended, and as i watched the clouds roll up and over form the west, i was glad for a ride in a car (it was soon dumping rain)

coming down the mountains, i got giddy......the dry valley, giving way to lush montane forest, epiphytes everywhere, tree ferns, and giant white epidendrums (or were those sobralias)....giant orchids in the ditches by either estimation!!!!!

also a good chance to practice my spanish.......

my driver alex, a policeman from quito explained to me how the people use the giant leaves of the gunnera as umbrellas.....interesting to find such ethnobotanical tidbits coming from a self proclaimed city boy as we listened to loud electronic dance music....

arrived at el monte.....and somewhat bemusedly was introduced as the ``visiting biologist´´

somewhat self-consciencously i was assigned to one of the cabanas....a grand affair to be sure......

went for a walk about before diner and was struck by how late it stayed light......on the equator the sun goes down at like 6:30 all my northern winter sensibilities this was a welcome extension to the afternoon...........

right off the bat, oncidiums, shefflera, columneas, and more.......

in the failing light i was glad to have my new tripod along (thanks to 7song for the tip).....the difference between blur and actual fotos!!!

the next day i took over 200 fotos!!!!!!!!!!!!
pleurothallis, peperomia, kohlerias, gasteranthus, clusia, erythina, psamissia (the fleshy flowered tropical ericaceaes)

anthuriums and philodendrons climbing on everything

begonias taller than me!!!!!
ironically B. parviflorus......the `small flowered begonia``--big as a small tree!

turns out you can id rubiaceaes by their stipules (at least theoretically) the coffee family with such common genera as psychotria and Palicourea.............visited by humming birds and butterflies alike....

i have been using the rapid color guides form the field musem of natural history (almost to a fault really)

the pictures make me think i know something, and then when i cross reference with the gentry (the hitchy for nw south america) i am pretty sure that i don´t know

and to top it off he´ll say things like (re. gesneraceae) ``generic taxonomy is in a state of flux; worse, many of thew obvious floral characteristics are misleading....```

it reminds me of the quote i read from voet and voet when i teach chemistry....
^^our knowledge, extensive as it is, in all cases, is dwarfed by our ignorance`` and this is out of a modern biochemistry book over 1000 pages long!!!!!

or as the great taxonomist and ethnobotanist Linnaeus once said:
``what we know of the divine works are far fewer than those of which we are ignorant^^

it strikes me as a good philosophy to recall in this diverse land.......

but i digress

for those of you interested, i have learned a few birds......and seen many more...

roadside hawk
crimson rumped tucanettes
lemon rumped tananger
white winged tananger
a bunch of other cool tanangers
a flock of 25 parrots

found another piece by wade davis in the el monte library that i will end this already too long email with:

```The ultimate role of ethnobotany lies not in the identification of new natural products for the benefit of the modern world, but rather in the illumination of a profoundly different way of living in relationship to nature.´´

--W. Davis ´Towards a New Synthesis in Ethnobotany. In ´Las Plantas y el Hombre.´eds. Rios j& Pederson 1994.

so now i am sufficiently dried out and heading to los cedros en la manana, which everyone assures me is much wetter than mindo!!!! usually spoken with a laugh......


ps oh yeah he attached pix arer of a little orchid i found at el monte......far be it for for me to speculate, but does it look like a fly to anyone else?????? coevolution in action?
and a nice segue into the draculas........

les extrano

Los Cedros (January 2008)

Been here a couple of weeks….hard to believe……
The trip in was an adventure in and of itself…….i had been under the impression that we were faced with a five hour hike, with mulas to haul our gear…..when in fact it was meant to be a five hour mula ride!!!!!
About half way through, a few of us, wishing to relieve our unaccustomed bottoms, decided to walk a spell……..
Spent the next hour spent jogging/running way in front of the group, fearing that I was in the process of losing my mule. Only by cutting it off at a switch back was I able to breathe long enough to come to the realization: "never drop the reins"
This and other experiences throughout the day lent pictoral definition to the saying: "stubborn as a……"
But we made it (and just before dark)!!!!
And what a place to arrive………..
The nay-sayers were right…..los cedros is wetter than mindo!!!!
17,000 acres of wet tropical cloud forest……..
2,650 acres of this is formerly colonized land (which emcompasses the research station, banana patch, chicken yard, mula pastures and various restoration projects).
The remainder is primary forest, home to literally thousands of species….including the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey, rare rosy faced parrots and dozens of other spectacular organisms.
To be fair I have seen way more parrots than monkeys……(0 monkeys……parrots by the flock --- rosy-faced, bronze-winged, cool parakeets whose names I forget)
The reserve is a buffer zone for the 450,000 acre Cotocachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve. An important refuge in the heart of the Choco phytogeographical region, one of the most biologically diverse and endemic-rich habitats on the planet (did I mention that it is one of the wettest as well!!!).
The camera traps show evidence of puma, spectacled bear, agoutis, opossum, ocelots, and many other decent-sized mammals, which in these parts is a good indicator of undisturbed forest. Most places that are close to human influence are relatively depauparate in terms of eatable-sized wildlife………
Many of the plants are familiar from the week in Mindo…..similar elevation, same side of the Andes……this has made it easier to focus on specifics……which reminds me of yet another passage from "One River" (I have been too busy to read much so I am still only about half-way through)……..
"After several trips across the Andes, the pattern of the flora was gradually coming into focus. This to me was the great revelation of botany. When I knew nothing of the plants, I experienced a forest only as a tangle of forms, shapes, and colors without meaning or depth, beautiful when taken as a whole, but ultimately incomprehensible and exotic. Now the components of the mosaic had names, the names implied relationships and the relationships resonated with significance." –Wade Davis
The wetness in fact may lead to a pattern of higher diversity in certain taxa….or can I just see more clearly through the revelatory focus of familiarity??????
My first day here I saw almost thirty distinct species of orchids…..(albeit none of them the Draculas that we were looking for ---- but that is another story that I think I will save for the next instalment).
Pleurothalises, Lepanthes, Masduvallias, Stelises, Scaphosepalums, and Eallinathuses, several species of each, and more genera besides………
The reserve is also rich in gesneriads (woody scroph relatives – as a temperate frame of reference)…….with new species "discovered" and described here……
The now familiar, epiphytic peperomias, anthuriums, philodendrons, and bromeliads, drip from the trees….
I was mislead by a look-alike though……thinking I could pick a Bromeliaceae out of a crowd, I assigned this designation to a terrestrial plant with big inflorescences of orange families…..
Not only was it not a bromeliad, it was in a family I had never heard of…the Marantaceae!!!!!
(can never know enough to not be surprised!!!!!)
The wet ground covered with the "lower" groups of liverworts and club mosses……..
It is the canopy layer that remains largely mysterious……high above…..leaves are difficult enough to discern, let alone, flowers…….it gives an appreciation for the tropical botanist's use of the smell of the cut trunk in identification. Almost all initial guesses based on habit and leaf shape are followed up by an exploratory incision of the bark, with nose held close.
I have come to recognize fallen fruit, yet connecting to the mother is challenging.
Sour oranges that go by the common name "madrono," provide a tart treat while slogging up and down the muddy trails (and apparently are choice monkey forage)………still haven't even gotten to family……someone suggested Clusiaceae (the new home of st. john;s wort)…..but so far that lead has been less fruitful than the plant, with its tangy ovaries….
The aromatic scents of the "copal" fruits crushed beneath rubber boots……not the leguminosous "copal" I know from Mexico – Hymenea—although it does occur in Ecuador…..but a variety of a handful of genera in the Burseraceae, the frankincense and myrrh family that is closely related to our beloved Poison Oak and other members of the Anacardiaceae, like, mango, cashew, and pistachio……….
"……Now the components of the mosaic had names, the names implied relationships and the relationships resonated with significance………" –Wade Davis
Did I mention the rain……..?
Who knew the inside of a cloud could be this wet?
Have to been able to even think about wearing anything besides rubber boots despite hiking several kilometros each day --- in difficult terrain, and I am not a rubber-boot wearer by nature…….have avoided blisters so far…..although some of my cohorts have succumbed…..
Enough for now my friends
I am saving the science part of the story for another email, as this one appears long enough as it is……
Stay tuned!
Suffice to say we have come across over 140 plants of four different species in the elusive genus Dracula, enough to experiment with, and we even have the better part of a paper written!!!!

More soon
ps would send pix, but you know how dial-up is.......finicky and slow at best!

Draculas in the Mist (January 2008)

OK so what was it that took me to Los Cedros???

well, a young mycologist from the royal ontario museum in toronto took an interest in the orchid genus Dracula.

why would a mushroom systematist care about orchids? one might wonder.

well in this particular genus, most species have labellums, or lower lips, that very much resemble small mushrooms. this resemblance has been shown to be chemical as well as visual through the work of an inspired swiss perfumer.

´´if they look like mushrooms, how can you tell that they are orchids?´´
so queried one puzzled aquaintance.........hhhhhhhmmmmm......

why would an orchid care to appear like a fungus?

well it turns out that there is a group of gnats --- the so-called fungus gnats --- that use small mushrooms to copulate in and then subsequently to raise their young in --- ´´brood sites,´´ in the biological parlance.

now if you were an orchid that looked and smelled like a least good enough to fool a fungus might be able to take advantage of this domestic visitation to have your pollinia (the fancy name for the sacs of pollen in the orchidaceae) moved to the receptive stigma of another flower.....thus cross-pollinating.....and ensuring the genetic diversity necessary to resist the myriad pressures of day to day exsistance in this wet, warm, pathogen rich habitat.......

´´you mean even in nature everyone´s pretending to be something their not just to get laid?´´ quiped my gay electrician friend........

in fact deceptive pollination is thought to be a major driver of the remarkable diversity achieved in the orchidaceae, one of the, if not the biggest plant families in the world............

so this rare example of fungal brood site mimicry caught the attention of this young mycologist, and with a little help he was able to convince the national geographic society that this phenomena was worth studying..........

as for me.....right time, right place?

the woman he brought on board to collaborate happened to be my honors thesis advisor.........
my (at least cursory) familiarity with the cloud forest flora, ability to speak spanish, and general willingness to work in less than comfortable field conditions landed me an invitation to tag along......

so there i was heading into the clouds with an team of 5 other researchers including our local contact from the herbario nacional in quito, deep mushroom heads and excited plant ecologists................

head in the clouds, but feet firmly stuck in the mud!!!!!!!

fascinating to hang with these guys who were at least as into mushrooms as i am into plants.....a whole different that expanded my own appreciation.....

got to taste garlic flavored purple puffballs of dubious edibility, in the genus morganella.....

for the first time in my life i ate psuedohydnum gelatinosum........(a clear, gelatinous, toothed fungi, with a hymenium about the texture of a slimy cats tongue...hhhmmm..)......simply for the sake of helping to prove its edibility to our skeptical local never occured to me to try this species in oregon where it is common.......although i have come to learn that they are not half bad soaked in cranberry juice and vodka!!!.......(purely anecdotal lol)

yes, deep mushroom heads......

but i digress...................

so fungal adaptive story alluring enough to get into text books, but never seriously studied (pet peeve of Gould and others) what do we have to do to provide support for this hypothesis?

our first line was to establish that the orchids and possibly model mushrooms even co-occured in time and space


then we looked at visitors. did the same gnats actually visit the orchids and the mushrooms?


were these gnats vectors of pollinia?


by covering flowers with bags and assessing visitation, we were able to ask: are olfactory cues important as well as visual cues?


still in the works is the identification of the aromatic compounds emmitted by these flowers and some of the mushrooms that were at least good visual candidates for models.....enter same inspired swiss perfumer (google roman kaiser for interesting tid-bits)......

a few other things in the works including a breeding system experiment to determine the abilty of the orchid to to self pollinate

preliminary population genetics inquiry..........we have the dna.....or at least some of it...

are these results specific to the species we looked at, or can we generalize across the genus?

some of this stuff is going to have to wait for further funding.....hopefullly from the national science foundation.......but we likely have got at least one paper out of the project so far.....

stay tuned for publication announcement!!!!!

so far though the adaptive story-telling has been largely supported.......
lovely when things make sense, no?

possible the beginning of a bigger story

more soon


ps pix to follow.................