Central Ecuador


by Frank H. Hennemann, Oskar V. Conle & Marina Friede (9.2003)
(For obtaining more information about the pictures, please put your mouse over them)

 

Introduction
In September 2003 we traveled to the Andean regions of Central Ecuador. With an area of 270.790 square kilometres including the Galapagos Islands, which are situated some 1000 km west off the Pacific coast, Ecuador is the smallest of all Andean countries and about the size of former Western Germany. It is located in the north-western part of the South American subcontinent and named after its location on the equator (span. Ecuador = equator). In the north it borders Colombia, in the south and east Peru and in the west the Pacific Ocean represents the natural boundary. Ecuador can be divided into three geographical regions, the coastal region (Costa) the central Andean highland (Sierra) and the Amazon region (Oriente). The western coastal low-land covers about 25 % of the countries area. It has an average width of about 100 km and is longitudinally passed through by a 300-600 m high costal mountain range. The central Andean region covers another quarter of the countries area and divides into several mountain ranges which run from north to south. The northern half in particular, is characteristic for its numerous still active volcanoes and finds its highest point in the Chimborazo at an altitude of 6310 metres. The transverse range Nudo del Azuay divides the Sierra into the northern and the southern highland. The remaining half of the countries area belong to the Oriente, and are in great parts covered with dense tropical rainforest.
Due to its manifold geography and climate and the location directly on the equator, Ecuador exhibits an extremely high biodiversity (= density of species). Nowhere else on earth, mountains higher than 6000 metres are found directly at the equator. Especially the innumerable isolated valleys of the Andes provide ideal conditions for the development of new species, and the western slopes in particular are regarded a real “Hot Spot” of evolution. Almost two thirds of Ecuador are covered by tropical rainforest from which up to know 20.000 different species of plants are known. About 900 orchid-species are found in Ecuador, furthermore 300 species of mammals, some 1.500 different birds and more than 400 species of amphibians. From the typically South American colibris some 130 species have so far been recorded from Ecuador as well as more than 40 different species of parrots.
Quito is the capital of Ecuador and with 1,6 million inhabitants after Guayaquil the countries second largest city. With its location at an altitude of 2850 metres it is after La Paz (Bolivia) the world’s second highest metropole. In 1978 the UNESCO declared the beautiful, colonial city centre a world heritage. Due to its all year round mild climate Quito is also called “City of the everlasting spring”.

 

1. Cotopaxi National Parc (Vulkano Cotopaxi, 3000-4500 m)
Two days after our arrival in Quito we made an organized tour to the Cotopaxi National Park which has an area of 34.000 ha with the Cotopaxi (5897 m), the world’s highest active volcano being the main point of attraction. The park is located some 70 km south of Quito and it took 3 hours drive to reach the park entrance. After a passport-control and paying an entrance fee of 10 US$ we were allowed to enter and start our 35 km drive to the Refugio José Ribas at 4500 m. On a stony and partly steep track we passed beautiful wide regions of Páramo and large, plain fields which were all over set with volcanic rocks. At an altitude of about 4000m we were able to locate some specimens of Monticomorpha flavolimbata (Redtenbacher, 1906) under various lava-stones. This beautiful, small species is very typical for the Cotopaxi region and easily recognized by its striking colouration, being black and the hinder margin of all body segments with a bright yellow transverse stripe. In these altitudes there are strong winds and the temperatures are close to 0°C but the lava-stones are able to store lots of warmth due to the intense sunlight. The vegetation is very stingy and reduced to numerous mosses and other single, low-growing plants.

 

2. Region of Cuenca (Azuay Province)
After three days in Quito, we took a flight south to Cuenca, for conducting nightly excursions in the Azuay Province. Therefore and for being independent and mobile we obtained an 4x4 car (Chevrolet Rodeo) from the local car-rental “Localiza”. Due to the chaotic traffic especially in the cities, driving in Ecuador has shown to be difficult and even dangerous. Our starting-point and accommodation was the Oro Verde Hotel at the Rio Tomebamba close to the northern boundary of Cuenca, the best hotel in Cuenca.
Cuenca, the capital of the Azuay Province, has some 250.000 inhabitants and is located in a wide highland valley at an altitude of 2530 m. Because of the numerous museums, cathedrals and its colonial old town Cuenca is also called “Athens of Ecuador”. On market-days the city with its coble-stone pavement streets is visited by many Cañari-Indios who sell their panama hats.
The numerous lamps in the garden of our hotel attracted several different rhinoceros beetles (Coleoptera, Subfam. Dynastinae) among them a yellowish brown Ancognatha-species and a so far unidentified species of the striking genus Golofa.

 

Rio Yanuncay (3000-3100 m)
After Rio Tomebamba, the Rio Yanuncay is the second largest river to flow through Cuenca and just like Rio Tomebamba springs from the El Cajas National Park. It runs more west than the Rio Tomebamba and crosses the western part of Cuenca. The beautiful valley of the Rio Yanuncay can be reached on a narrow gravel-track via Cuenca. After some 30 km the track ends at an unofficial entrance to the El Cajas National Park. The complete valley is intensely used for agriculture and thus, the original forest has only remained in a very few small areas and the surrounding mountain ridges. But even these small areas of forest and hedges along the track would prove to be quite prolific for finding Phasmids. At day-time we found many different often very colourful cicadas, one of which was bright blue. In the night we were able to find some adult specimens of a green, about 6 cm long Libethra-species and a few medium sized nymphs of a species of Calynda. Furthermore, we found several specimens of a small Spinopeplus-species the females of which had a body length of only 3,5 cm.

 

Rio Tomebamba (3200 m)
The Rio Tomebamba is the main river of Cuenca and springs some 35 km north from the El Cajas National Park. A road runs along the river through the Valle de Tomebamba, crosses the El Cajas National Park finally leads to Puerto Inca at the Pacific coast. In the Valle de Tomebamba as far north as to the southern boundary of the El Cajas Park it is in great parts bordered by dense tropical montane forest. In several localities along the road, which seemed worthwile and allowed to park our car we searched the vegetation for Phasmids. From our hotel these localities were easily reached by just a few minutes drive. During several nights we found some adult specimens of a nice, so far unidentified species of Spinopeplus, the females of which had a strongly thickened abdomen. Commonly we saw specimens of a Spinopeplus-like species of the subfamily Diapheromerinae. This small species has a body length of about 3 cm and differs from Spinopeplus by the lobate but not spinose body. Furthermore, we found females of a bright green Libethra.

 

Street from Cuenca to Loja, km 35 (3300 m)
For exploring the area south of Cuenca we followed the Panamericana towards Loja. As soon as the city of Cuenca is left, one drives through the wide, green Valle de Cuenca which is in great parts used for agriculture. But it is just a few kilometres until the road becomes more steep and climbs up the mountainous region south of Cuenca which have at least the northern slopes covered in tropical mountain forest. At altitudes of 3000 m the vegetation soon becomes stingier and turns into nice and wide regions of Páramo and small areas of mountain dwarf forest. About 35 km south of Cuenca in the northern slopes we found two easily accessible areas of untouched dwarf forest which allowed to park our car safely. In both localities the forest was surrounded by wide meadows with the forest borders were easily accessible. At day-time the area offered breathtaking views over the Valle de Cuenca and while having a short walk we found loads of different, small but often colourful Orthoptera (Caelifera). At night we found many specimens of a small Proscopiid of the genus Cephalocoema (Audinet-Serville, 1838 - Caelifera, Fam. Proscopiidae) in the hedgehog-grass (Stipa ichu, Fam. Gramineae) close to the forest border. On an isolated shrub of Stipa ichu we located a single female of a very tiny Rugosolibethra, which had a body length only 2 cm. At the forest borders we commonly found specimens of the Spinopeplus-like species and the Rugosolibethra sp. which we had already found along the Rio Yanuncay. Additionally we found several adult specimens of two distinct Calynda-species. These are very similar to another but differ in the armature of the legs which are covered with several large lobes in one species. Both are rather small having body lengths of 9 cm in females and 5-6,5 cm in males. The females have a very long, lanceolate subgenital plate.

 

Páramos de Matanga (3250-3300 m)
This beautiful Páramo-region is located some 40 km south of Cuenca and can be reached on a stony track which leads to the small village Shiña. At km 45 it branches off the Panamericana on the left hand side. The hilly region at altitudes between 2800 and 3400 m is characterized by its wide Páramos and scattered areas of dwarf forest. Commonly the typical Puya´s (Puya clavaherculis, Fam. Bromeliaceae) and the giant-monk (Espeletia sp., Fam Asteraceae) are seen. The day we spent with walking, enjoying the beautiful views over the green valleys and having a picnic in the up to 80 cm tall hedgehog-grass. Due to the intense sunlight the grass stores lots of warmth and keeps it till several hours after darkness.

During our walk at day-time we observed lots of tiny, orange Chrysomelidae (Coleoptera) and many different cicadas.
Along an area of dwarf forest at heights up to 3 metres we found several adult specimens of the strikingly black and red coloured Monticomorpha marshallae (Conle & Hennemann, 2002) and in the open Páramo on the leaves of a Puya we located a single female
of the entirely black Monticomorpha semele (Westwood, 1859).
On the same hill-top also in the Páramo we found several adult couples of a still undescribed Spinopeplus-species, the males of which are characteristic for their bright red colouration. Furthermore we encountered some specimens of the small Spinopeplus-like species (Subfam. Diapheromerinae) which we had already found in several other localities of the Azuay Province. In the low-growing grass along the track we found many adults of two very tiny Libethra-species. The females had body lengths of only 2,5 cm and the males were thinner than the head of a needle. In the later evening it became cold and windy and the low clouds caused dense fog and fine rain which made the photographic work more and more problematic.

 

Cordillera Zapote Naida (3200 m)
For exploring the region east of Cuenca we took the road which passes the Cordillera Zapote Naida towards Indanza at the western border of Ecuadors Amazone lowland (Oriente). With rising altitude the paved road turned into a narrow, muddy and stony track which climbs up the steep slopes of the Cordillera. It is full of bends, offers breathtaking views and passes numerous narrow bridges which cross deep valleys. Most of the region is densely covered with montane forest and is only sparingly used for agriculture. When we reached the top of the Cordillera the vegetation slowly turned into dwarf forest and then into wide fields of Páramo. After a strenuous 4-hour drive we decided to have a break in the Páramo and to return to Cuenca as soon as darkness arises. On our way back we searched the vegetation along the track where we found a male of one of the Calynda-species which we had also found between Cuenca and Loja. Furthermore, we again found some specimens of the small Spinopeplus-like species and a nice female of the Spinopeplus sp. which we also found along the Rio Yanuncay and Rio Tomebamba.

 

3. El Cajas Nationalpark
The Area Nacional de Recreation Cajas is located some 35 km north of Cuenca, has an area of 28 000 ha and is characterized by its numerous lakes. It´s highest point is the Arquitectos with an altitude of 4450 metres. This highland area of the western cordillera exhibits a very diverse topography. The single lakes are separated by high mountain ranges, which has caused the development of numerous box-like valleys (span. caja = box). Apart from numerous ponds and swamps the park contains more than 230 lakes (lagunas), which are connected by small rivers. The two large rivers Yanuncay and Tomebamba which provide the complete valley of Cuenca with fresh water both spring from El Cajas National Park. The area is ideal for Páramo-trekking and offers numerous opportunities for camping.
For botanics and ornithologists in particular it is a real paradise. So far more than 100 different species of birds are known from the park, among them the tucan (Andigena laminirostris, Fam. Ramphastidae) and numerous species of colobris. In the higher regions there are several species of carnivore birds and with a good portion of luck one may also observe the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus, Fam. Cathartidae) which reaches a giant wing-span of up to 3,5 m. The Páramo is settled by rabbits, the highland tapir (Tapirus pinchaque, Fam. Tapiridae) one of South American rarest mammals and the Andean pudu (Pudu mephistophiles, Fam. Cervidae) which is one of the world´s rarest highland mammals.

 

Laguna Llaviuco (3150 m)
The Laguna Llaviuco is one of the largest lakes of the El Cajas and is located in the parks most southern part, only some 10 km northwest of Cuenca. The lake lies in a beautiful valley and is widely surrounded by swamp, Páramo and dense montane forest. At its most southern point the forest reaches directly up to the lakes shore. For Ornithologists in particular, the Laguna Llaviuco is a most interesting area and also wild lama´s (Lama guanicoe f. glama, Fam. Camelidae) which reach body lengths of up to 2 metres and weights of up to 155 kg can be regularely observed. The Laguna Llaviuco can be reached by a narrow track, which turns off the main road on the left hand side some 6 km north off Cuenca. At the park entrance there is a barrier and a small wooden house which are watched by two park-rangers as late as 6 o´clock in the evening. For an entrance fee of 10 US$ one can depart for a beautiful walk around the lake or for longer trekking-tours with camping in the park.
While searching the rich vegetation along the path we found several specimens of a 5-6 cm long, green and a similar but brown Libethra-species but unfortunately most of the insects were still not adult. Furthermore, we located a female of the robust Spinopeplus, which we had already found at other localities and several specimens of the small Spinopeplus-like species which is common in most of the Azuay Province. At day-time we recognized numerous, different Orthoptera (mostly Caelifera) and a pest-like occurance of black and white beetles (Fam. Chrysomelidae) on small trees which somewhat resemble Papaya. These were already strongly damaged and defoliated.

 

Laguna Toreadora (3900 m)
The info-centre and cottage at the Laguna Toreadora offers opportunities for cooking and accommodation during the night and is reached by a one-hour drive from Cuenca (ca. 34 km). A few kilometres south one passes the park entrance where an entrance-fee of 10 US$ needs to be paid. A walk through the Páramo surrounding the lake offers a good impression of the highly mountainous region of El Cajas. The Laguna Toreadora is located at an altitude of 3900 m and with maximum temperatures of only 10°C and strong winds the area is quite cold. During the late afternoon we observed many, flying beetles (Fam. Melolonthidae). Under stones we found some small Carabid-beetles (Fam. Carabidae).


4. Umgebung von Zhud, 2970 m (Provinz Cañar)
A few kilometres south of the small village Zhud in the southern region of the Cañar Province and after visiting the sun-temple Ingapirca of the Inka, we looked out for a suitable locality to search for Phasmids. Unfortunately, most of the mountainous slopes are intensively used for agriculture why mountain or dwarf forest is only found in higher altitudes on the mountainous ridges and almost inaccessible. However, after some search we found a small, almost untouched valley which was crossed by a small river and covered in dense mountain forest. It was located in a wide bend of the Panamericana (A3) at an altitude of 2970 metres. After a brief inspection at day-time we made a short walk in the region and decided to wait nearby until darkness arose. While looking around the sandy plateau where we parked our car, we found a female of an Acanthoclonia-species lying dead on the ground. This made us more and more impatiently waiting to start our search for Phasmids.
Directly after darkness arose, we started our search with the hope to find more specimens of the Acanthoclonia. It took just a few moments of searching to locate the first live insects of this small but bizarre and spiny species. The evening showed this species to be exceptionally numerous in this location and so, we encountered more than 150 specimens of different stages within only two nights. They were found on a variety of low-growing plants and appeared to be quite polyphagous, although most were observed feeding on different ferns. Furthermore, we found many adult specimens of the small Rugosolibethra which we already knew from various localities in surroundings of Cuenca. The females in this locality exhibited a wide range of intraspecific variability concerning to the colouration. On shrubs of bramble (Rubus sp., Fam. Rosaceae) we found some males of a nice green and red coloured Libethra-species. In addition, we found specimens of a small straw-coloured Libethra the males of which had a bold black marking on their head as well as several other species of Libethra. Finally, we found two adult males of a Spinopeplus-species which was typical for having the bases of the profemora bright blue.