Research Update – January 2019

With the start of the new year I thought it would be good to provide an update on some of my research activities over the last year or so.  I’ve actually been up to quite a lot but I’ve been remiss at keeping up with my updates.

Late 2017 and early 2018 saw me focusing much work in the lab generating genetic data for my collaborative work with Dr. Rivas-Torres on the phylogeny and phylogeography of the Galapagos endemic Scalesia and my own work on Galapagos Amaranthaceae.


Scalesia pedunculata, Isla Santa Cruz

With the Spring of 2018 I started on a number of other projects and tasks.  In May I assisted with monitoring of the species Pediocactus knowltonii, one of the rarest species of cactus in the United States occurring in northern New Mexico.  I was asked to help with research to see if we can find a way to reverse the trend of declining numbers in its single natural population.


Pediocactus knowltonii

I also started assisting with a floristic survey of the BLM Sabinoso Wilderness in NE New Mexico with colleagues at San Juan College.  The area is quite remote and not well known botanically making it fun to explore.


Cañon Largo at the SW end of the Sabinoso Wilderness area

While collecting in Sabinoso I was fortunate enough to find a violet that I have been looking for.  This is Viola retusa. The species had been described about 100 years ago from parts of the Great Plains but had later been put in synonymy under V. nephrophylla. My Ph.D. advisor and collaborator Dr. Harvey Ballard first thought this may be a distinct taxon and now that we can see the differences in habitat we can confirm it is.  Further herbarium work has uncovered a few other occurrences in New Mexico as well.


Viola retusa in Cañon Largo

Early summer saw me teaching my favorite course, Field Botany.  This is an intensive 5-week class on the identification of native vascular plants of southwest Colorado.  I had a great group of students who were eager to get out, hike through the mountains, and learn about plants. This year turned out to be rather difficult due to the drought conditions and the 416 and Burro Fires which broke out just north of Durango.  These fires closed all access to public land for a while making our field work difficult but we were still able to make it all work and had a great class.


Field botany course in the alpine near Jura Knob, S. of Silverton, CO.  Smoke from the Burro Fire can be seen in the upper left of the photo.

The drought this year also affected the start of another project. I received a contract from Mesa Verde National Park to perform a conservation genetic assessment of Astragalus schmolliae, a species endemic to the park that is a candidate for endangered species listing.  We had planned extensive collections for this season but few plants emerged due to the very low snowpack during the winter.  We were able to sample some and with a student to begin work to understand the phylogenetic history of this unique species.  Fort Lewis picked up on our work and ran a short story on it.  With the greater snowfall this year I’m expecting to be able to do the full assessment.


Astragalus schmolliae

Mid-summer saw me attending the annual Botany meeting, this year in Minnesota.  I presented three posters from work on another SW Colorado endemic in the genus Packera (Asteraceae), preliminary results on some of my Galapagos Amaranthaceae work on a fascinating group known as Lithophila, and an exposition of work with my colleague Amy Wendland from the Fort Lewis Department of Art and Design.  She has been taking discarded herbarium specimens and creating a set of unique art works and we thought it would be fun to share these with the larger botanical community.  And it was! This was probably my favorite poster ever to present at a scientific conference.  I had no graphs, no p-values – it was great!


And since I’m on the topic of herbaria, this last year has also seen lots of progress made on digitization of the Fort Lewis College Herbarium via our participation under the National Science Foundation grant to organize the Southern Rockies Herbarium Consortium.  Most of the photography work has been performed by student herbarium workers being paid from the grant and we are on track to have all of our 14,000+ vascular plant specimens fully digitized and databased by early 2019.


Ellie Porter (L) and Jordanne Pelkey (R) working hard on specimen digitization in the Fort Lewis Herbarium.

Before the start of the Fall semester I was able to get out on one collecting trip across New Mexico in support of my ongoing collaborative research on Quercus with Dr. Sean Hoban and Bethany Zumwalde at the Morton Arboretum.  While we are principally focused on understanding the evolutionary history and population structure of Q. harvardii, our preliminary data is suggesting that other oak taxa may be involved via hybridization and we wanted to collect samples for our ongoing work.


Collecting Quercus grisea at the southern end of the Manzano Mts., New Mexico.

Fall saw me mostly teaching but I did take a week off to head to Ecuador to attend the Latin American Botanical Congress in Quito.  I presented the results of my preliminary work on Galapagos Amaranthaceae, including support for a new taxon and new endemic genus – the first endemic amaranth at the genus level in the islands.  Stay tuned for more on this exciting finding – I’m working on the manuscript now!

From Islands to Mountains

It’s been about a month since we left Galapagos for mainland Ecuador and while it is certainly a change it’s been good – of course we do miss the beach though. The biggest changes of course are that our house in Galapagos was at an elevation of 11 m (37 ft) while our house here in Cumbayá on the eastern side of Quito is at 2348 m (7702 ft) and that we are living in a city of ca. 3 million people.  It’s just a different life.

Professionally I have traded in my hand clippers, dirty field clothes, and plant press for pipettes and a thermal cycler as I work in the lab at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) screening genomic regions for phylogenetically useful variation in the Galapagos genus Scalesia.  While it took some time to get things set up and running we are now making progress. I’ve also been taking time to visit the larger herbaria here in Quito including the National Herbarium and the herbarium at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE) to study additional specimens. And lastly I gave a seminar on my work in the Galapagos at the Universidad de las Fuerzas Armadas (ESPE) where my friend Dr. María Claudia Segovia is the coordinator of the research group in Biotecnología Celular y Molecular de Plantas.


At work in the Laboratorio de Biologia Evolutiva at USFQ.

Outside of my professional work I have had a few exciting botanical finds (at least to me).  After having read about it and mentioning it in lectures I finally got to see the family Calceolariaceae. And I got to see Chuquiraga jussieui a member of the basal Asteraceae subfamily Barnadesioideae endemic to South America  –  ok like I said it was exciting to me! And I have also been enjoying seeing similarities at the level of families and genera between the alpine floras of the Andes and the Rockies at home including the numbers of Caryophylaceae, Gentianaceae, Valerianaceae, and genera such as Castilleja and Lupinus.


A lone Lupinus shrub above treeline on the slope of Volcan Pichincha.

As a family we have been able to take time to do some exploring to better know some of mainland Ecuador.  Due to the process of exporting research samples from Galapagos I needed to wait a few weeks for my samples to arrive here in Quito.  No samples of course means no lab work and thus free time!  We were able to travel to the south of the country visiting the city of Cuenca before heading to the coastal city of Machala.  Among the highlights were visiting the ruins of Ingapirca – the most significant Inca ruins in Ecuador and the small town of Alausí where we took a train excursion down La Nariz del Diablo.  This feat of railroad engineering takes the train through a series of switchbacks to allow for the great change in elevation.

Closer to Quito we have been taking a number of smaller excursions to know both the city and the surrounding areas.  Emiliano is fascinated by the volcanoes surrounding the city.  He is attending school for the couple months that we are living here and each morning on the way to school he looks to see which volcanoes he can see and is particularly excited when he can see them.  Due to the frequent rain that is sadly not every day.  His favorite of course is Volcán Cotopaxi – the snow-covered cone just south of Quito which is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world at 5897 m (19347 ft).  But he knows the names of all the volcanoes around Quito and wants to know if they might erupt.


Emiliano with Volcan Cotopaxi.

We have been able to go hiking on Volcán Pichincha just outside of the city and we have visited the Laguna de Cuicocha located in a dormant caldera and Volcán Quilotoa. We’ve also visited a number of museums and the nearby city of Otavalo, best known for hosting the largest craft market in South America.


Crater of Volcan Quilotoa.

One other thing we have been exploring and enjoying is the trail known as El Chanquiñan following the old route of the railroad connecting the towns of Cumbayá and Puembo, a distance of 22 km. We can walk to the trail from our house and access parts further away via a short taxi ride.  The trail is very popular with runners and cyclists, particularly on weekends, and its crushed gravel surface and easy grades make it perfect for pushing Ian’s stroller.  Our favorite part is the section crossing the valley of the Río Chiche. This deep valley near the town of Tumbaco required the train to wind a long distance, pass over one bridge, and then through a series of three tunnels.  It’s far from roads and thus is a natural oasis near the city.


Aurea and Emiliano enjoying a day walking El Chanquinan.

We have a little over a month remaining here in Quito and we are feeling that there is a lot to do that we won’t get to.  Let’s see what we can see.

Four islands and farewell to Galapagos

To everyone wondering why I haven’t posted for while, sorry, but it’s been a busy month with lots of travel, collections, and of course new discoveries.  Didn’t always have my computer with me nor have internet access.  Now that I’m back on the continent I’ll try to make up for it and fill in the gaps.

I have to start with some sad news though.  This busy month was too much for my boots.  They weren’t new when I left Durango but they were in fine shape.  Hard hiking over hot and sharp lava just did them in. But they went out as real troopers.


They were good boots. R.I.P.

Inter-island travel was the main theme this month with the goal to collect all the taxa in the genus Froelichia.  So the sight below became kind of normal. Most of the time we had been staying on the island of Santa Cruz where Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the islands is found and the Charles Darwin Research Center. But there is only one species of Froelichia occurring on that island.  For further collecting I needed to visit three additional islands: Pinzon, Floreana, and Isabela.


Leaving Puerto Ayora and Isla Santa Cruz on an inter-island ferry.


Isla Pinzon is a small island located west of the island of Santa Cruz.  The island is not open to the public except for some diving off its coast.  Thus there is no development and the natural ecosystem is very well preserved.  My goal with visiting Pinzon was observation and collection of Froelichia nudicaulis ssp. curta.  This taxon was first collected in 1905 and had only been collected twice since and only from the top of the island.   Due to the closed nature of the island this trip was coordinated with the Galapagos National Park and I accompanied a group of park rangers traveling to Pinzon to census tortoise nests.

The climb to the summit at about 450 m (1475 ft) passed through principally dry forest vegetation (ie. spiny and prickly) and the dry forest extends all the way to the summit unlike on other larger islands. The way has a semblance of a trail but is still mostly climbing over rocks and working through the dense vegetation.


“Trail” up to the summit of Isla Pinzon

Arriving at the summit was great although I was quite hot and tired and there I did find Froelichia.  But as I expected it was only there.  While it’s hard to account for every plant it appears the distribution of this taxon covers no more than about 3-5 hectares.


Froelichia nudicaulis ssp. curta at the summit of Isla Pinzon

I also had the chance to see an endemic Galapagos hawk (Buteo galapagoensis) who followed me up the last quarter of the climb and stayed near me the whole time I was at the summit.  The bird was banded and living on an uninhabited island thus the only human contact it would know was that of park rangers and it showed no fear of humans.


Galapagos Hawk near the summit of Isla Pinzon. Isla Santa Cruz can be seen in the distance.


Following Isla Pinzon I made my way south to the island of Floreana.  Floreana is the island with the longest history of human habitation although today only 130 people live on the island.  Tourists are also much less common than on the other large islands.  This gives the island a much more remote and isolated feel.  One I really enjoyed. My goals for visiting Floreana were really two-fold. One was collection of multiple species of the endemic genus Scalesia for a project my collaborator Dr. Gonzalo Rivas has initiated studying its diversification and radiation. I’ll say more about this later as during April and May I will be working on molecular phylogenetics of the group to accompany his detailed ecological and distributional assessment. Secondly I wanted to search for Froelichia nudicaulis ssp. nudicaulis.  This species has been much misinterpreted but detailed examination showed that this taxon had been collected on the islands of Floreana and Santiago.  It was first collected in 1835 by Charles Darwin and the species described from his collections.  It was next collected in 1852 on Floreana and has not been seen on the island since.  Only one collection from 1905 is known from Santiago and again it has not been seen since.  Using knowledge of potential ecosystem associations and historical knowledge of potential visited areas in the 1800s I set out to see if I could find evidence of Froelichia still occurring on the island.

Collecting Scalesia took me to the highest point of the island on Cero Pajas. Here I was looking for two taxa in S. pedunculata, the typical variety and the much more rare S. peduculata var. parviflora.  It also got me to wonderful area Punta Cormoran for the Floreana endemic S. villosa.

Pajas_Scalesia forest

Scalesia forest on the east slope of Cerro Pajas, Isla Floreana


Scalesia pedunculata var. parviflora on Isla Floreana


Park ranger Anibal San Miguel assisting with collection of Scalesia on Floreana.


Scalesia villosa at Punta Cormoran, Isla Floreana.

Searching for Froelichia was not as fruitful as I had wished.  I searched various dry forest areas but was unable to find any signs of the genus.  It is disappointing for sure as it tells us it is likely extinct from the island and the taxon is probably extinct across its full distribution.  I wasn’t able to search on Isla Santiago but other vegetation surveys and ecological investigations there have not happened upon it over the last 100 years. The taxon was likely never very common to begin with and likely succumbed to the voracious appetite of introduced goats – the last of which was finally eradicated from the island of Floreana in 2015.  Unlike many dry forest species which have spines or toxins to repel herbivores Froelichia is mostly defenseless – its adaptation allowing it to survive in the open lava environment was not well-suited to introduced animals.


Dry forest south of Post Office Bay on the north side of Isla Floreana. Looking east toward Punta Cormoran.

In addition to work I enjoyed a couple days on Floreana with the family.



The last island I needed to visit was the largest of the Galapagos, Isabela. Two taxa of Froelichia, F. juncea ssp. juncea and F. nudicaulis ssp. lanigera occur on the island.  Froelichia nudicaulis ssp. lanigera grows toward the northern side of the island (and on the island of Fernandina) favoring high elevation areas. Due to time and finances I wasn’t able to get to that species on this trip – maybe another time – but my colleague was able to sample some for me for these current studies from Fernandina. Instead I focused on covering the elevational range of F. juncea ssp. juncea which grows from sea level up to the volcano tops at the southern end of the island. The species has a preference for open lava flows where it is a pioneer species. At higher elevations it is actually quite common being one of the more dominant species in the community.


My field assistant Emiliano with Froelichia juncea ssp. juncea on open lava flow near the coast at the southern end of Isla Isabela. It co-occurs with the endemic species Opuntia echios and Scalesia affinis.


Base of Froelichia juncea appearing to grow out of pure rock!


Froelichia juncea ssp. juncea near Volcan Chico, an area of fumarol activity on the east side of Volcan Sierra Negra.


Me and Froelichia juncea ssp. juncea at Volcan Chico.


Dr. Gonzalo Rivas from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito and I at the top of Volcan Sierra Negra looking over the 10 km wide caldera toward the area of the November 2005 eruption.

While the collection of Froelichia from southern Isabela was very successful I did discover one potentially disturbing finding.  Individuals of Froelichia near the town of Puerto Villamil were infected with scale insects and the infestation was negatively affecting the plant’s health and ability to fully set flower. The scale is a member of the genus Ceroplastes and this species, C. cirripediformis is a non-native introduced pest. The fact that it is attacking native vegetation is worrisome and something that will need to be monitored into the future.


Froelichia juncea ssp. juncea infected with scale (Ceroplastes sp.) on southern Isabela.

While our time on Isabela was shorter than that on some other islands we were able to do a few other activities as a family.   Both Aurea and Emiliano were able to accompany me on my search for Froelichia on Volcan Sierra Negra – which was an incredible hike even if we had never encountered the plants. We knew Ian wouldn’t enjoy the hot sun all day and we were lucky enough to find someone to babysit him.


Aurea at the trailhead for Volcan Sierra Negra

We were also able to go on a tour which included snorkeling to see seahorses, sharks, and turtles. Emiliano was able to go and float in a life jacket since his swimming is not quite what it should be for snorkeling and our guide was great to pay extra attention to him and help him around the water. He loved it as it opened up a new world of creatures for him.


Us with a pair of Blue Footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii excisa)


Aurea snorkeling with a Galapagos Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas agassisi)

Following Isabela we returned to Santa Cruz for a busy five days of wrapping up research, writing some reports, depositing specimens, visiting a few favorite local spots and cleaning up our rented house before taking off for mainland Ecuador. After 2.5 months we had gotten attached to living in Galapagos and we are truly going to miss our temporary home.  Even with leaving we want to go back and the extensions to the research I’ve done will hopefully be able to make that a reality.


Emiliano with a map of the Galapagos on a wall outside the park headquarters.

Leaving Baltra

Leaving Isla Baltra looking out over the NE side of Isla Santa Cruz, Islas Plazas, and Rocas Gordon (just over the wing)




– in biology an organism occurring in only a specific region or environment, being naturally absent from all other locations.

The last week or so has been quite busy with starting on field work and traveling to another island. But the constant theme in all of this is the endemic species of plants and animals that we see.  It’s really why we are here and why biologists want to study in the Galapagos Islands.  Of course being restricted to only one place has its troubles too and thus most studies on the evolution of endemic species by necessity have a component on conservation.


Endemica – a new (and the only) craft beer found in the Galapagos on the island of San Cristobal

After some wait all the permitting came through and I’m able to go in the field and start collecting of samples.  Most of this is being done with my principal collaborator Dr. Gonzalo Rivas of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. My work in endemic Amaranthaceae is contributing to a larger project he is spearheading on detailed characterization of plant communities and long-term monitoring of plant species of special interest.  The research is based on a series of vegetation plots set up in different habitats around the islands in which basic species data and measurements associated with biomass are collected.  This is combined with detailed aerial photos obtained from a drone to more extensively characterize the area.  Monitoring of individuals in plots will take place in 5-10 years to understand individual persistence and recruitment – important aspects for understanding vegetation dynamics in response to changes in climate, management, and biotic interactions.


A happy botanist pressing plants after a hot day in the field

In addition to providing assistance with plot establishment (not necessarily my favorite part – taking DBH measurement of cactus trees is a little, well, prickly) my major focus is on understanding the unique evolution and current conservation status of some of the endemic members of the family Amaranthaceae. In terms of species diversity the family Amaranthaceae is the fourth most species-rich vascular plant family in the Galapagos archipelago.  While relatively diverse they are not however a dominant form of vegetation in terms of numbers (expect for some members of Alternanthera [A. filifolia and A. echinocephala]) and most are quite rare only occurring in very restricted locations or habitats and many are considered endangered. Five extant genera contain endemic species and three of these are particularly unique either for the number of forms they have developed or for the vastly divergent forms from their continental ancestors the plants have evolved.

Alternanthera is the most species-rich genus with 9 species and 7 subspecies. Among these is a mix of widespread and highly localized taxa.  As is seen in a number of endemics just because you are endemic does not make you very rare – at least in your specific habitat.  This week I got to see the species Alternanthera flavicoma which is endemic to a small area around one bay on the west side of the island of San Cristobal.  You can find it growing naturally in old weathered lava flows but it’s also used in town as a common garden planting – and has been trimmed into topiary – I think the only such example of this horticultural use for an Amaranthaceae I have ever seen!


Alternanthera flavicoma trimed as a topiary sea lion in Puerto Baquierzo Moreno

Froelichia, the subject of most of my studies, is represented in the islands by 2 species and 5 subspecies. Its habit is particularly unique.  I’ve seen the genus from the northern United States to Paraguay and on the continent they are all pretty similar – taprooted annuals (in the north) and taprooted perennial herbs in the tropics and subtropics. But here they can be sprawling shrubs over a meter in height to 3 meters in width with large woody “trunks”. Here is a slightly better photo of Froelichia juncea subsp. alata endemic to the island of Santa Cruz (I had promised a better photo – this is getting there – it’s just not very photogenic and I’m not a really good photographer either).


Froelichia juncea subsp. alata

The last of the particularly interesting Galapagos Amaranthaceae is the genus Lithophila which is currently represented by two species (although stay tuned as I think there may be more variation than had previously been recognized).  The genus has a very unique form and is quite rare.  It was greatly affected by introduced goats which apparently decimated its populations, particularly on the islands of Floreana and Santiago.  With the control of these introduced herbivores the plants seem to be recovering.


Lithophila radicata

Outside of work related endemics we have had the chance to see a few others as well. On San Cristobal we visited the breeding laboratory from the Galapagos National Park focused on the reestablishment of the endemic tortoise Geochelone chatamensis.  This species was greatly reduced in numbers due to direct exploitation for meat and oil, habitat change, and the effects of introduced animals including feral dogs and goats.  Here eggs are kept protected and the young are kept in pens for 5-6 years to protect them from threats in the environment.  As they grow they are transferred to larger protected areas until they are large enough to not be threatened in the wild.  At that point they are transplanted outside of the breeding area.  Such a conservation project is not for the impatient. Tortoises take about 20 years to reach sexual maturity and can probably live about 150 years if not more. Seeing the young of 1-2 years and knowing that if they survive they will surely outlive you and your children gives a sobering yet hopeful feeling.  Our conservation efforts can make a difference if we realize our folly before it’s too late to act.

We’ve continued to have encounters with other Galapagos endemics. The Galapagos Sea Lion (Zalophus wollebacki) was I think our favorite on San Cristobal.  You can see them all over the islands but they were particularly abundant there.


Darwin’s Finches continue to be a favorite to see.  And it probably doesn’t hurt that both Aurea and I have been reading the book “The Beak of the Finch” – a very good non-technical read on evolutionary biology, particularly clearly visible instances of natural history focusing of course on Darwin’s Finches.


Darwin’s finches find Emiliano and his sandwich irresistible

As we’ve spent lots of time by the beach and wanted something different, we spent a day climbing into the highlands of the island of Santa Cruz.  These highlands consist mostly of a community type known as the Miconia zone due to the abundance of the endemic species Miconia robinsoniana (Melastomataceae).  Trails lead to two high points, El Puntudo and Cerro Crocker.  We went to old volcanic cone of El Puntudo which was a great walk.  While not always clear due to frequent clouds in the highlands the day we went was clear allowing for a view out to the ocean. It is a wonderful break from the heat of the coast and surprisingly there are very few people – we only saw a couple people, all from the local area during the entire day.  Due to the wetter climate and presence of more soil in the highland regions these areas historically suffered more impact from man.  While now mostly protected there are more invasive plant species in this region and species such as Chinchona succiruba (Quinine), Psidium guajava (Guava), and Rubus niveus (Mora) are particularly troublesome and difficult to control.


Aurea and Emiliano in the Miconia

Above the Miconia zone there is a small zone known as the Pampa or Fern Sedge Zone. Here there is little tall vegetation and an abundance of ferns and mosses.


Ross and Emiliano nearing the top of El Puntudo. The “Agave” reminding us of Mexico is actually Furcraea cubensis, a species introduced from the West Indies that has the unique island adaption of reproducing via vegetative bulblets in its inflorescence.


View from the top of El Putudo. The dead trees on the slopes are dead invasive Quinine trees the result of control measures by the Galapagos National Park.


Ian and Emiliano in the shade of a guava tree


Thinking evolution and phylogenies

Having a slow Saturday around the house today. Actually it’s laundry day.  We haven’t been able to do laundry all week which with two small kids can be a big deal.  The owner of the house we are renting is having construction done behind the house to add on more space.  So..the back is all torn up and the laundry area taken apart and finally put up again in another area of yard.  And internet’s working a little better today.  A pattern I’ve seen is that it tends to be a little faster on weekends. So a little reading of news – but honestly the state of my country right now is not very uplifting. So back to plants and my current life on a tropical island.

This week has me thinking lots about phylogenetic relationships and how plants change as they invade islands.  Thus this small piece of algae I picked up while swimming the other day with its clear dichotomous branches made me think of a phylogenetic tree.


Some of the changes are quite evident in the Galapagos flora.  A trend toward woodiness from herbaceous ancestors is common as is a trend toward non-showy flowers.  Most of the native species have relatively drab flowers – the large showy flowers you can see in town on along roadsides are predominantly introduced from other tropical areas.  One exception to this however is Opuntia which has large yellow flowers pollinated by the only native bee in the islands, the Galapagos Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa darwini). But in an isolated oceanic island with few animal pollinators there is little need for most plants to advertise for floral visitors.


Xylocopa darwini visiting a flower of Opuntia echios

I’ve been continuing my regular work in the herbarium.  Mostly finished with the Froelichia work that can be done with collected specimens and I’m just waiting for the final approval of our collecting permits to head out for field work. I’ve also been able to develop a new collaborative study with staff here at the Charles Darwin Research Station – more on that as it develops – it should be exciting as I think we may have some new undescribed taxa.



Emiliano has also been joining me in the herbarium off and on. I look at specimens and examine tiny flowers under the microscope and he sits at a table and draws.  He made some beautiful drawings of herbarium specimens and of some large seeds on display in the collection! He doesn’t say it but I think he enjoys going with me for the air conditioning – a must for maintaining a collection in a hot and humid environment!

The last couple weeks we’ve been continuing to explore the island of Santa Cruz and have started to take some short trips to a couple other islands. Lava tubes have been a favorite, particularly for Emiliano.


Ross and Emiliano exploring a lava tube just north of Puerto Ayora

We’ve also come to the conclusion that giant tortoises are very much like deer are in Colorado.  They are common and you don’t always stop to see them.


Aurea and a friend along the main road just north of Puerto Ayora

We’ve taken a couple boat trips to the nearby islands of Seymour Norte and Bartolomé. We feel a little guilty in that we have not taken Ian with us, but nothing is handicap accessible and with his disabilities and being unable to walk it would be very dangerous to move in and out of inflatable boats bobbing on the ocean and with the heat he would not enjoy it.  We have luckily been able to find a nice woman to babysit for us when we are out for the day.


Sailing NW of the island of Santa Cruz. The small island of Daphne Minor is above our heads.

The excursions have been great for seeing wildlife.  Frigate birds, blue footed boobies, land iguanas, Galapagos Penguin (the only penguin occurring into the northern hemisphere), sea lions, dolphins, and Aurea saw a Sea Cucumber while snorkeling – she said it didn’t look like much but I really wanted to see one.




Blue-Footed Booby


The required photo from the top of Isla Bartolome looking toward Sullivan Bay and Isla Santiago

Plants seen during these excursions are generally your common beachside species. On Bartolomé which is almost barren of plant life I did see the genus Tiquilia (Boraginaceae) (likely T. nesiotica but the definitive characters to distinguish species is the surface of the nutlet and character of the stem pubescence which I don’t remember) which is one of the early colonizers on this barren landscape.  Yea, I love beautiful flowers but there’s something that attracts me to the plants trying to eek out a life in the harshest of environments.


Tiquilia sp. – Isla Bartolome

Even our walks to the grocery store have been good wildlife excursions.  Rays (two different species), sharks, schools of small fish, sea lions, pelicans, frigate birds, marine iguanas, crabs – all between the market and our house.


Walking home from the grocery store Ross and Emiliano watch for sharks on the dock in Puerto Ayora

I’ll end this post with one little note regarding evolutionary biology.  One of our excursions sailed right past the island of Daphne Major.  The island is not much but it is the site of one of the longest-running observational studies of evolution.  Here the native finches have been observed and tagged generation after generation for forty years to understand the process of natural selection acting on these bird populations.  No, I don’t think I’m going to embark on any 40-year studies, but in a place like Galapagos these processes are much more evident reminding us how selection and time work together to create the biodiversity that we see today.


Daphne Major

Arrival to Ecuador and First Weeks in Galapagos

22 January 2017

We have now been in Ecuador for about three weeks and I admit that I am only now getting around to updating this blog. It seemed a good thing to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

I couldn’t get the post from a week ago to load due to a very erratic internet connection and I got involved in other things so it’s appended to this one.

The last week has seen us settling into the pace of things here in Puerto Ayora.   We have continued to explore the island of Santa Cruz going further out of town up to the highest area of the island to the zone of Scalesia (Asteraceae) and Miconia (Melastomataceae). Also more walks close to town have allowed us to explore more of the native environment.  The ubiquitous tree cacti (Opuntia echios) are truly amazing. It’s believed that the large tree forms are evolutionary adaptations to herbivory from tortoises.  On islands without tortoises you can find lower growing forms more similar to Opuntia seen in North America.


Ross, Emiliano, and Ian exploring the highlands on Santa Cruz


Opuntia echios


Scalesia pedunculata

My work is going well.  I’ve been reviewing the collections at the herbarium at the Charles Darwin Research Center and reworking the treatment of the genus Froelichia (Amaranthaceae) for the archipelago.  Previous published work has never been completely clear on distributions with authors simply citing past works without checking their accuracy which has led to some false claims regarding distribution.  My greatest finding at this point is perhaps the realization that one taxon F. nudicaulis subsp. nudicaulis (there are five taxa in total for the genus in the islands) has not actually been collected since 1905.  I’m worried that this taxon may have gone extinct.  It’s a potential as another amaranth, Blutaparon rigidum, is known to now be extinct and other Amaranthaceae, particularly Alternanthera are threatened due to herbivory from introduced mammals. One goal for my fieldwork will be to search the areas where this taxon was previously collected in the hope it has simply been overlooked.

While I have yet to collect as I’m still waiting for all the permits to be completed I was excited to find Froelichia juncea subsp. alata in coastal forest not far from Puerto Ayora.  This taxon is restricted to the SE part of the island of Santa Cruz and exhibits an elongate inflorescence which is very atypical and particularly unique within the genus. Below is a photo – I promise something better later!


Froelichia juncea subsp. alata

17 January 2017

Here we are! Bienvenido a Ecuador!

Our first stop was the city of Quito where we stayed for about a week. While in Quito we stayed in the downtown district of La Mariscal – an area full of activity and night life – although with two small kids walking by all the nightclubs in the evening prompted a few jokes from the guys on the street corner trying to get clients into their respective clubs.

While in Quito we took care of needed immigration paperwork and met the people at the Fulbright office – everyone was so welcoming and I am excited to be part of this cultural exchange! Also had the opportunity to visit with my collaborator Dr. Gonzalo Rivas at my host university (Universidad San Francisco de Quito) to work on logistical aspects of our project and I was able to give a talk to the science faculty introducing myself and my project.

We spent time seeing some of the sites around Quito. We visited the historic downtown and the Panecillo where there are fantastic views of the city. We also visited Parque La Carolina, the botanical garden and vivarium (herpetarium). Much of our wanderings around the city saw us walking in the rain. We are here during winter which means it is warm, but it rains a lot, which is actually a nice change from the cold and snow at home, so that has been fun. We also visited “Mitad del Mundo”, marking the point of the Equator and like any good tourist we had to place one foot in the Northern hemisphere and one in the Southern hemisphere. Aurea and I had visited here 14 years ago on a quick trip we made to Ecuador and it was nice to be back with our kids. We also visited a extinct volcanic crater, Pululahua where people are now practicing agriculture due to the fertile soils at the bottom of the crater. However one has to wonder what if the volcano decides to wake up one day…. for now it’s a paradise and looks like a wonderful place to live.


Reserva Geobotanica Pululahua


Aurea at the botanical garden in Quito

After a week in the capital we headed to the Galapagos Islands. We will be back to Quito in mid-March. Our flight left Quito with a short stop in the port city of Guayaquil. After a couple hours we arrived at Isla Baltra.  Movement of materials into the islands is highly controlled due to the fragile ecosystem. All luggage is searched for biological materials and all carry-on luggage was fumigated a little before we landed. Introduced insect pests can turn into a plague and in the past have had disastrous effects on native wildlife. From the airport we took a bus south to a small straight of water separating Islas Baltra and Santa Cruz. A short boat ride across the straight and then a taxi ride across the island of Santa Cruz took us to our final destination Puerto Ayora, the largest settlement in the islands. We are now living in a small house a few minutes from the beach and started our exploration of the islands.


Puerto Ayora from near Punta Estrado

Our first few days in the Galapagos saw us learning our way around the town of Puerto Ayora and starting to explore the island of Santa Cruz.  We visited the Charles Darwin Research Center where I will be doing some work. We’ve seen some giant tortoises, visited lava tubes, and ventured to some beaches were the marine iguanas are so used to people that they seem to pose for the pictures.




First blog post

For anyone that knows me you probably know me as someone not particularly good at modern forms of communication.  I have a Facebook page but I probably log in to it about once every six months.  I’ll send a text if I have to – and that of course is dependent upon my remembering to keep my phone charged, which sad to say, is something I often forget.  So why a blog?  Really, the request of friends.  This year I, along with my family, am embarking on a long-awaited adventure of travel and research in the Galapagos Islands.  Supported by a Fulbright fellowship I will be studying patterns of plant species formation across the archipelago and the interest in my work expressed by many people with whom I have discussed the project has spurred me on to put together this site to document our travels and discoveries.