In this last post about Cuban Johnny berries and meadow beauties, I want to show some of the species found in the northeastern part of the island. The mountain ranges in this area—the Sierra de Moa, Baracoa, Nipe and Cristal—are all rich in minerals and have unique soils that contain high concentrations of metals. These metals are toxic for many plants, but this plant family, the Melastomataceae, has adapted to these conditions.
Calycogonium glabratum, Miconia baracosensis, Miconia uninervis, Ossaea moensis, and Ossaea puciflora are not closely related, but they have all evolved small, hard leaves as an adaptation to the high toxicity of the soils they inhabit.
In my last post I recounted how my colleagues and I explored eastern Cuba, collecting different members of the family Melastomataceae. Only a dozen species in this group, which includes plants known as meadow beauties, princess flowers and Johnny berries, are found in the United States, but it is very diverse in the tropics. In Cuba, there are more than 200 species of Melastomataceae, and more than 150 of those are endemic, found only on that island.
Here are some representatives from the Sierra Maestra Mountains that we encountered on our expedition. Most of these species are adapted to the cloud forest conditions of the mountains.
A recent expedition to eastern Cuba took three Cuban colleagues and me from the coast to the cloud forests in search of rare and locally restricted species in the plant family known as princess flower or meadow beauty. The species in this family (whose scientific name is Melastomataceae) are an especially diverse group in Cuba.
Joining me were Dr. Eldis Becquer from the Jardin Botanico Nacional (National Botanical Garden) in Havana; Wilder Carmenate, director of the Holguin Botanical Garden; and Jose Luis Gomez, a researcher at the Holguin garden and a graduate student at the University of Havana. Becquer, Carmenate and I are studying the Melastomataceae while Gomez and Carmenate took advantage of this expedition to document invasive species—part of ongoing research projects developed by Carmenate to study threats to the flora of Cuba.
The first area we targeted was the Turquino National Park in the Sierra Maestra Mountains of southeastern Cuba. This park contains some of the best-preserved cloud forests in the Caribbean, as well as the Pico Turquino, the tallest mountain on the island at almost 6,500 feet. During five days spent in the area, we reached the summit of three of the highest points in Cuba—Picos Turquino, Joaquin, and Regino—and we collected plants on both the southern, Caribbean-facing slope and the northern, inland-facing slope of the Sierra Maestra. This allowed us to contrast different exposures to rain and sun, as well as different soil types and vegetation.
With their rich diversity of species, including many found nowhere else, the Atlantic forests of eastern Brazil constitute one of Earth’s biodiversity hotspots. They demonstrate a truly unique set of environmental, geological, and biological conditions. But because of rapid population growth in the region and more than 400 years of continuous deforestation, less than 11 percent of the original forest area still exists.
To understand how the coastal forests developed and what could happen to them in the future, an international team of scientists spanning many disciplines met in Brazil last month to begin work on a new research project that could help in efforts to conserve what remains of these ecological marvels. The goal of the project, which is expected to last five years, is to study the conditions that led to these high levels of biodiversity and localized species and to develop models to predict what may happen to that biodiversity in light of further habitat destruction and climate change.
Rain, isolation, and a unique geology, all factors that I have referred to in previous posts about Tafelberg, play very important roles in the amount of biodiversity on the summit of the mountain. However, another important factor is the great variety of environments on the summit, whose flat surface is the reason its name is Dutch for “table mountain.”
The top of Tafelberg is a very large, roughly triangular plateau. It measures about nine miles long by six miles wide and covers an area of some 30 square miles. The surface of the plateau looked homogenous as we approached the summit in the helicopter, but it quickly became clear upon landing that we would be able to explore many different vegetation types. Large areas of the summit are covered by tall forests filled with a close relative of the rubber tree. A network of small creeks crisscrosses the summit, creating hundreds of “islands.”
Collecting in remote areas always presents interesting challenges, some of which are precisely the reason we visit these places. Tafelberg, a table mountain in central Suriname, is an isolated mountain that has only been explored a handful of times in the 60 years since the first ascent by New York Botanical Garden scientist Basset Maguire, which I described in a previous post. One of the reasons the vegetation is unique is the extraordinary amount of rain that falls here every year. Although our team of six scientists had planned our visit for the “dry” season, a rainforest is always…well, rainy. The difference between the seasons is not whether it rains or not, but the number of hours that it rains and the total amount of rainfall.
On our third day on the summit, the storm clouds that had been menacing us since the first afternoon finally came over the mountain. The skies opened for more than 30 hours straight. Because our time was limited, we kept working through the downpours.
As I recounted in last week’s post, it took Basset Maguire, a famous New York Botanical Garden scientist of the mid-20th Century, more than six weeks to travel to the base of Tafelberg, a “table mountain” in central Suriname. It took our team of six scientists and five support staff just over an hour to fly from Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital. Yet we still faced the same problem that Maguire had of getting our equipment and team to the summit, nearly 3,400 feet above our base camp.
In our case, the cargo included all of our food and camp essentials for two weeks, plus all the equipment to collect, study, and document the many different groups of organisms targeted by the expedition: plants, aquatic insects, frogs, lizards, snakes, and fish. Altogether, we needed to move about 1,200 pounds and 11 people to the summit. Once again, we had a faster method that wasn’t available to Maguire: a helicopter.
Fabian A. Michelangeli, Ph.D., is an Associate Curator of the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. His research focuses in part on the evolution, identification, and classification of neotropical plants. This is the first of four posts about an expedition last year to Suriname in northeastern South America.
As a field biologist, you see some places mentioned in old literature that have achieved classical status, places that you think you will never be able to visit. Until recently, Tafelberg—Dutch for “table mountain”—in central Suriname was one of those places for me.
Geologically, Tafelberg is part of the Roraima formation of northeastern South America, with a layer of sandstone that lies over a granitic base, similar to several mountains in southern Venezuela that are of a type usually called a tepui (from the word for “mountain” in the language of the indigenous Pemon people). Tepuis often have steep rock cliffs that rise from the surrounding forest or savannas, giving these mountains not only their characteristic table-top shape but also a sense that their summits are effectively isolated. This shape and sense of isolation were prominently featured in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World, contributing to the lore and mystery that surround these mountains.