In Ecuador’s Chocó cloud forest, howler monkeys swing between branches, glass frogs let out piercing chirps, and a dazzling kaleidoscope of rare tropical birds flit and flutter among the sun-dappled canopy. Bioluminescent mushrooms glow after dark and showy orchids—including one that grows more than 25 feet tall—stand out against the endless greens.
Facts and figures are no match for the sensory overload of the jungle. And yet numbers have put this special place on the map. Cut off from the Amazon by the Andes mountains, the Chocó remains one of the last standing coastal tropical rain forests. It also counts among the planet’s 35 biodiversity hotspots. In this tangle of trees lives an extraordinary wealth of flora and fauna: several thousands of vascular plant and insect species, from an abundance of palm species to some 200 types of butterflies; hundreds of distinctive bird, amphibian, and reptile species; even elusive puma and ocelots that lurk at night.
In the last two years alone, scientists at Mashpi Lodge, a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World located at the heart of the Chocó, have discovered two new species within the lodge’s 3,200-acre preserve. First there was the Mashpi torrenteer, a tree frog that calls at night along stream banks. Mashpi Lodge’s research director and resident biologist, Carlos Morochz, first noticed the distinct species on a nocturnal hike and led a team that monitored streams across the reserve to observe the frog’s color variation and other characteristics. Researchers captured video footage of its unusual reproductive patterns, from a year-round mating cycle to a chin gland that male frogs use to stimulate their partners.
More recently, Morochz and his team of scientists discovered a new type of magnolia, one of the forest’s tallest trees. Standing tall didn’t make the Mashpi magnolia any easier to get to: In fact, scientists were only able to study the species up close thanks to the lodge’s innovative Dragonfly cable car system, which glides more than a mile above, through, and below the forest canopy. As lodge scientists traveled through the canopy by cable car, they communicated by radio with an engineer at the base station, which allowed them to stop precisely amid the lofty branches of the magnolia tree to make an aerial collection of its flowers and fruits.
The magnolia’s local name, cucharillo, means “little spoon,” for the shape of its flower petals. This new species blooms with a particularly beautiful flower that unfurls each spring to make way for fruit pods that bear bright red seeds in the fall. To date, the Masphi Private Reserve is the only place in the world that this magnolia species has been found.
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