Flowers and its Hummingbirds

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There are few studies in science that focus their efforts on understanding the dynamics between different biological entities. We study an animal, a plant, perhaps an entire habitat, to gain an understanding of certain specificities within a forest, but the dependencies and interactions between species of two different classes, such as hummingbirds and the flowers they feed on, are little known, despite making up a crucial aspect of our natural world.

This gap in knowledge led Catherine Graham (PhD) of the Swiss Research Institute-WSL, together with Aves y Conservación-BirdLife Ecuador, to set up a comprehensive monitoring project that could delve more deeply into these relationships. The project surveyed 18 specific sites across a wide altitudinal range with different degrees of deforestation on the western slope of Mount Pichincha — a study that had never before been carried out with such a broad focus. Cameras were aimed at a variety of flowering plant species, awaiting the arrival of hungry hummingbirds.

The chosen study area falls within what is, without a doubt, one of the world’s regional biodiversity hot-spots, which boasts the greatest concentration of both vascular plants and hummingbirds (with up to 40 species present at a single site and around a third of all of the world’s hummingbird species). As was expected, the study yielded data of great importance. Thanks to it, we know which flowers are visited by which hummingbirds. This is an intimate look at a very special ecological dynamic. We have learned that there are “generalist” hummingbirds that visit many types of flowers and “specialists” that only feed on a few flower species, sometimes only one. During the study, new plant species were also discovered for science, and perhaps most importantly, much-needed information was obtained to direct conservation efforts towards the most vulnerable.

Central to this study were the populations and habits, until now little known, of the Black-breasted Puffleg. This is the ‘city bird’ of Quito, a hummingbird believed extinct, and which only a few decades ago was re-encountered in a remnant native forest along the northwestern slope of Pichincha. The Yanacocha forest was protected through a reserve created by the Jocotoco Foundation, but since the reserve’s protection efforts initiated, it has become increasingly difficult to find there. The study team, however, located a stable population in forested land located adjacent to the reserve, at Hacienda Verdecocha (Aves y Conservación has also been able to confirm the presence of this species in the Toisán mountain range, in the province of Imbabura).

The study found that the puffleg visits some 16 species of flowers but prefers four in particular. One of these (Palicourea fuchsioides, pertaining to the coffee family) is also threatened. The presence of the puffleg’s food source is key to its permanence in the area and potentially limits the hummingbird’s distribution. Any threat to these flowers in these forests would end up further complicating its already compromised conservation status. Habitat destruction and global warming itself is forcing species to continue climbing the Andean slope and this particular species would no longer have anywhere to go, since the plants it feeds on are not present in the páramo.

Science has taken great leaps in recent decades, and perhaps its greatest lessons lie in the fact that we still know very little about these dynamics. We are learning a lot, though, and based on this knowledge, it is now possible to propose alternatives to protect our precious biodiversity. Without the Science, and without these studies, species such as the Black-breasted Puffleg – that has been shrouded in mystery for so long – would be left to an even more precarious fate and perhaps its extinction would be guaranteed. Today, we know that we can repopulate altered green spaces with crucial plant species in order to give the balance of nature a second chance, offering a future to this species, as to so many others, in our infinite natural kaleidoscope.

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