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The El Pahuma Orchid Reserve offers visitors access to some of the most spectacular and unspoiled forest in Ecuador, all within an easy drive from the capital of Quito. Cloud forests are famous for their steep slopes, tall trees, sweeping vistas, and incredible biodiversity. El Pahuma provides a safe home for hundreds of gorgeous species of orchids, birds, mammals, frogs, and insects. Come see for yourself!
Orchids thrive in cool and damp sites, precisely the habitat that cloud forests provide
Orchids are the most diverse family of plants on planet Earth, and Ecuador alone has over 4000 species. While they can be found around the globe, their diversity reaches a peak in the Andes, thanks to the high humidity, moderate temperatures, and the dizzying array of micro-climates found there. The Andes are actually quite young mountains, at 3-10 million years old, so the mega-diversity of orchids has really exploded onto the scene in relatively recent times (on a geological scale).
Each orchid has its own unique pollinator, attracted to a specific combination of scent and color cues. The diversity of orchids and their pollinators, particularly a very large group of bees known as orchid bees, clearly experienced a simultaneous boom. Sweet-smelling flowers appeal to butterflies and bees, while other blossoms emit foul odors that lure flies and beetles to what they imagine will be rotting fruit. Colorful orchids entice bees, sometimes with ultraviolet markings invisible to our eyes, while brilliant white flowers specialize on attracting nocturnal pollinators like moths.
More kinds of hummingbirds can be found in the forests of the Andes than anywhere else, and El Pahuma's flowers and feeders are constantly abuzz with their activity
The lush montane forests at El Pahuma are home to a large number of rare and endemic species, and in 2004 the reserve was designated an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International. Highlights for birders on the reserve’s list of 155 species include the Plate-billed Mountain Toucan, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Toucan Barbet, Golden-headed Quetzal, Beautiful Jay, Giant Antpitta, Torrent Duck, Lyre-tailed Nightjar, and many colorful tanagers and hummingbirds. A species list is available for download below. Bird surveys are continuing in the reserve and more species are sure to be found. If you visit El Pahuma and have a definitive sighting of any species not yet on our list, please let us know!
Mammals abound in the cloudy forests of El Pahuma, including Spectacled Bears, as well as Pumas and Ocelots, and even monkeys
El Pahuma is home to elusive mammals that include Tayra (Eira barbara; a large member of the weasel family), Pumas (Felis concolor; one of the most wide-ranging mammals in the world), and even troops of White-fronted Capuchin monkeys (Cebus aequatorialis; only recently observed in the reserve after years of absence). Just a few years, ago a new species of cloud forest mammal was discovered by researchers from the Smithsonian Institute, the adorable Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina). This relative of raccoons is nocturnal, completely arboreal, meaning it lives only in the trees, eats a steady diet of fruit, and has been documented in El Pahuma and neighboring reserves!
Exhaustive inventories of mammals have not been done in El Pahuma; however, a study using camera traps led by Santiago Molina has been ongoing since 2012. This study has revealed the presence of large terrestrial mammals of conservation importance including the puma, its smaller and spotted cousin the ocelot (Leopardis pardalis), and the Andean Bear (Tremarctos ornatus). Other mammals sighted include coatimundi (close relatives of raccoons), kinkajou, olingo, squirrels (much more difficult to see than in North America!), and various nocturnal opossum species.
Frogs are more diverse in the Amazon, but there still are impressive examples of rain frogs and glass frogs that live in the humid environment of the cloud forest
Many species of frogs reside in El Pahuma, with several species new to science having been discovered there. Glass frogs lay their eggs on leaves over streams and guard their eggs until the tadpoles hatch out. A nightwalk is never complete without sighting one of the many tiny and difficult-to-identify Pristimantis species calling from a twig; they are more commonly called “rain frogs” because of their habit of singing during light rains, and because their plinking calls resemble the sound of raindrops. Carl Hutter, a Ceiba alum who discovered a new species at El Pahuma and named it after the reserve (Pristimantis pahuma), created an identification card to common reptiles and amphibians found in the reserve.
The equable climate, rich soil, and abundant moisture of the cloud forest combine to support wildly exuberant plant life, from towering trees to the tiniest of ferns and liverworts
The first thing most people notice about the cloud forest is that the trees are festooned with epiphytic plants or “air plants”. These aren’t parasites — rather they take advantage of trees to get closer to the sunlight and absorb water and nutrients from the damp cloud forest air!
Orchids are the most sought-after family of epiphytes, but many others can be spotted in the trees including many bromeliads like Pitcairnia and Tillandsia, aroids like Philodendron and Anthuriums, gesneriads like Columnea and Alloplectus, and many mosses, liverworts and lichens. The trees themselves include members of Blakea, Saurauia, Croton, Chinchona, and Clusia to name but a few. The forest floor has a rich herb community including several species of Begonia, shrubs like Miconia (Melastomataceae), Piper (Piperaceae), Centropogon, Burmeistera (Campanulaceae) and Faramea (Rubiaceae), as well as vines such as Bomarea (Alstromeriaceae) and the bamboo Chusquea.
The one-acre Botanical Garden near the reserve entrance is accessed by an easy loop trail from the Nature Center. The garden celebrates the forest as habitat; no trees were cut to create it, and it has been enriched to showcase native species of orchids, aroids, bromeliads, ferns and shrubs to highlight the diversity and beauty of the region’s flora. The garden is a good place to see native orchids in bloom and learn about the diversity of montane forest plants with the aid of informative signs.