Reptiles of the Cloud Forest

Yatin Kalki, September 2016

One of the reasons I decided to come to Ecuador was for the incredible herpetofauna that it has to offer. Being a reptile enthusiast, I was excited to see the diversity of snakes, lizards and turtles found in the wilds of Ecuador. I had already been here for a month and I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t seen a single reptile yet. We had spent most of our time in the Andes, where it was too cold for reptiles to survive, and I was ready for a change of scenery. One weekend, my like-minded friend and I decided to take a trip to Mindo, a Cloud Forest about an hour away from Quito. As we were walking through an orchard towards our accommodation, my friend Tristan spotted a snake moving through the grass on the other side of a barbed wire fence. I immediately dropped the bags I was carrying and dove through a gap in the fence, tearing my shorts in the process. Unfortunatley for me, the snake I was pursuing was a Green Sipo (Chironius exoletus), one of the fastest snakes in the world. It immediately took off across the field. I chased it upto a creek which it crossed effortlessly but my boots sank deep into the thick mud and all I could do was watch while the snake disappeared into the vegetation on the other side. I was disappointed that I had missed my first Ecuadorian snake but the fact that we had seen one in our first 5 minutes in Mindo made me optimistic that we would see more. Oh how wrong I was, we didn’t see another snake on that trip. We tried to make the best of the situation by photographing some common frogs and hummingbirds.
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The next weekend, we decided to try our luck once again in Mindo. Fortunately it looked like our luck had turned for the better. In our first few hours, Tristan caught a Slender Forest Racer snake (Dendrophidion graciliverpa) and I caught a rare arboreal lizard called the Diamond Anadia (Anadia rhombifera). Later that day, we found a Hippie Anole (Anolis fraseri) as well. We informed a local herpetologist, Alejandro, about our finds and he wanted to meet us to photograph the Diamond Anadia for a field guide to Ecuadorian reptiles that he was working on.




Meeting Alejandro was a pleasure, he was impressed by our passion and said that he was ready provide us with guidance on our future endeavors and even hook us up with permits to photograph wildlife in protected areas. He even offered to give us a ride back to Quito, and show us some reptiles on the way. This gave us an opportunity to get out in the field with him and observe how he went about locating different species. We basically drove down a forest road at night and Alejandro was periodically looking out the window with his headlamp on. He suddenly stopped the car, pulled down a branch on a tree and grabbed a big lizard. He brought the Equatorial Anole (Anolis aequatorialis) back to the car and we got some photos of its colorful dewlap. He spotted about 6 more lizards the same way and Tristan and I were impressed to say the least.


Over the next few days, our Tropical Ecology class took a field trip to Maquipacuna Cloud Forest. While the rest of our class was swimming in the river or playing cards, Tristan and I went looking for reptiles and amphibians to photograph. One afternoon, we found 2 snakes right next to each other at the beginning of a trail just off the main road. One looked like a Halloween snake (Pliocercus euryzonus) and the other looked like a venomous Coral snake. Tristan grabbed the Halloween while I grabbed the Coral and we brought them back for photographs. It looked like the Halloween snake had been hit by a car as its body was squished. The Coral was probably about to make a meal of this injured snake. We soon realized that the Coral was actually a harmless False Coral snake (Erythrolamprus mimus), another species that Alejandro wanted to photograph for the field guide. So we called him and he said that he would take some photos of the False Coral.



The next weekend, Tristan and I went back to Mindo with Carys, a student from our progam. We met up with a local reptile enthusiast named Eric and the 4 of us went out into the forest at night with our flashlights. The first night ended up being extremely productive, with a ton of lizards and a Humpback Terrier Snake (Diaphorolepis wagneri) which I found while walking in a stream. This snake is one of the rarest species in Ecuador so we were really psyched by this find. The next night, Tristan found an Andean Snail Eater Snake (Dipsas andeana) sleeping on a leaf. That snake was pretty awesome too. We also found some rare endemic frogs: Pristimantis mindo, Pristimantis crucifer and some Glass Frogs.




The great diversity of wildlife that we saw in the Cloud Forest made me eager to explore the other environments of Ecuador. Next on the list are the Amazon rainforest and then the Galapagos Islands!


The Ecuadorian Highlands

Yatin Kalki, August 2016

Ecuador, located in north western South America is a country with a multitude of different ecosystems. As a wildlife photographer and a fan the outdoors in general, I couldn’t wait to get out and experience the new environment. Our university was in Quito, located in the high and dry part of the country. The nights were cold and the days were hot, and the wildlife was pretty meager, with the exception of a few common birds. My host family had bird feeders in their backyard so birding was easy. The most interesting visitors to the feeders were Vermilion Flycatchers and Hummingbirds.DSC_5653.jpg

The class I was taking at university was Tropical Ecology, and it included a good number of field trips to various parts of Ecuador. Our first trip was to Papallacta in the Andes mountains, famous for its natural hot springs. The climate in the Andes was a lot colder than that of Quito. The high elevation air was thin and frost covered the short shrubby plants that made up the Paramo vegetation. Our hike was pretty strenuous: the ground was slippery and my hands and face were going numb from the cold air. Relief came when we finally got to jump into the hot springs. There were several pools and they all differed in temperature, from luke-warm to almost boiling. Once we found one that was just right, we had a relaxing soak before we had to head back to campus.DSC_5534.jpg

The next week, our class took us to Antisana, on the other side of the Andes mountains. This region is famous for being one of the last strongholds of the Ecuadorian Condor, a bird that is critically endangered with less than 100 surviving individuals. But before we got to see the Condors, we had to take another hike up and over a steep mountain. The vegetation in this area was a little different from that of Papallacta; there was a lot of tall grass as opposed to moss and shrubs. We got to see some amazing birds like Caracaras, Andean ducks and Silvery Grebes, but the highlight of the hike was the Paramo rabbit that we found chomping on some grass right next to the trail.DSC_5911.jpg

We found the Condors flying high overhead next to a really steep cliff. They settled on the cliff face and we were just barely able to see them through our binoculars. When we climbed down the mountain to get a better look, we were surprised to see a herd of horses in the valley below. I had given up on photographing the Condors as they were too far away so I turned my attention to the horses instead. Along with a few others from the class, I climbed down into the valley and approached the feral horses. They were extremely skittish but one stallion held his ground. With some time and patience, we managed to touch his head and stroke him.DSC_5925.jpg

We had a lot of fun petting the feral horse, but getting back up the mountain was a real struggle. The soil was powdery and loose and at times the incline was almost 90 degrees. It took a while, but we finally made it up and back to the bus.

Seeing the Andes mountains was an amazing experience. Some of the other environments I hope to visit during my time here are the cloud forests, rainforests and the the coast.