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Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Hidden Magnolias



Deep in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Oriental, two new magnolias were waiting for a conservationist turned photographer and a botanist to find them

This story originally appeared in Maptia.

In Mexico’s rugged Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, new species from a variety of plant families have recently been discovered. Located in the northern third of the state of Querétaro, this section of the Sierra Madre Oriental has been particularly blessed with biological diversity by evolution. Its high peaks cause rain shadows and its latitude allows it to host both neo-arctic and neo-tropical flora and fauna.

I had the privilege of growing up in this region and, perhaps not surprisingly, developed a strong affinity for nature from an early age.

Roberto Pedraza Ruiz Ridge after ridge, the Sierra Gorda always offer endless opportunities to explore and document endangered and unknown species to science. For me, it’s my backyard, where I can freely roam and document its landscapes and biodiversity.

Roberto Pedraza Ruiz Sweetgums dominate in some local cloud forests, giving a definite Appalachian taste in central Mexico.
Thus, in 1987 when my parents started a grassroots movement aimed at conserving the area’s incredible biodiversity which led to the founding of Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG), I enthusiastically became involved with the project. I can proudly claim to have been a conservationist since my childhood. So it was natural for me to pick up photography as a tool for shedding light on the Sierra Gorda’s biological wealth and documenting its diversity of ecosystems. In 1996, I was carrying out point counts for a bird monitoring project, which led me to revisit a very special cloud forest, one where grand old oaks and ancient cypresses reach heights of 40 meters with their limbs draped in dense mats of moss, ferns, orchids, and bromeliads, a place where I have managed to photograph jaguars, pumas, and margays.
Roberto Pedraza Ruiz These old-growth oaks were going to be logged and turned into charcoal. We arrived just in time to protect them.
Roberto Pedraza Ruiz Tree frogs and salamanders are some of the amphibians that inhabit cloud forests. They are on the verge of extinction, and will disappear if we don’t properly protect them and the forests they depend on.
Roberto Pedraza Ruiz Also endangered, this fragile orchid calls home a few cloud forests in the Sierra Gorda.
To my dismay, I found this precious cloud forest in the process of being logged, which was perfectly legal but incredibly harmful nevertheless. Hundreds of trees had already been cut down, and, as is customary, the loggers and foresters paid the humble property owners a pittance for the rights to their forest. The shock of this experience spurred me and the rest of GESG to action. We stopped the destruction by purchasing this cloud forest and placing it under strict protection, establishing it as the first private natural reserve in the Sierra Gorda, and now we run a network of private nature reserves, devoted solely to wildlife. In this same cloud forest many years later, in 2009, I photographed two species of magnolias which were identified as Magnolia dealbata and M. schiedeana, both in danger of extinction. Magnolias are extremely special trees; they are living fossils and the first flowering plants. Around that same time, I began to collaborate with the UK based ARKive project, which hosts an Ark of images of endangered species on the web. So, I sent pictures of local species, among them the magnolias.
Roberto Pedraza Ruiz The magnificent Magnolia rzedowskiana's flowers are high in the canopy, and their perfume travels far and deep in the forest.
Roberto Pedraza Ruiz Its flowers can measure up to 6 inches in diameter. Some leaves reach almost 20 inches and the trees between 15 and 20 meters.
Toward the end of 2013, I was contacted by Dr. José Antonio Vázquez, a botanist from the Universidad de Guadalajara who found my images on the ARKive website, as the specimens in the photos seemed somewhat unusual, so he requested that I send him more pictures. I made several more trips to photograph them, documenting their flowers and fruits until finally receiving confirmation that they were actually two completely new species of magnolias. In July of 2015, after a long process, Dr. Vázquez and his collaborators published a scientific article describing one of the new species, named Magnolia rzedowskiana in honor of Dr. Jerzy Rzedowski, Mexico’s preeminent botanist. In a second article, still in the revision process, Dr. Vázquez had the extreme generosity to dedicate the other new magnolia to me, giving it the name Magnolia pedrazae, which is without a doubt the highest honor that a conservationist and nature photographer can receive. It means that this incredibly special tree, an endemic species of the Sierra Gorda and product of an evolutionary process that spans millennia, has become a part of the family and carries my last name.
Roberto Pedraza Ruiz My father holding a branch and flower of the just found relative, the Magnolia pedrazae.
It is clear that the collaboration of a photographer, scientists, and an organization like Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda, which has the capacity to organize and implement in situ conservation, is truly effective. These discoveries highlight the importance of protecting sites with high biological value, giving ecosystems and species refuges from human activity, spaces where they are protected from humans’ ever-increasing demands for land and ecosystem services. And it is incredible how an online project based in the UK, like ARKive, can bring together a conservationist-photographer and a scientist who have never met in person.
If steps had not been taken to protect them, these species and others may have disappeared before we even learned of their existence.
Roberto Pedraza Ruiz These tiny ferns, measuring just a few centimeters, are neighbors to the magnolias and also living fossils.
They may have simply succumbed to the sixth massive wave of extinction confronting life on our planet.
Roberto Pedraza Ruiz Cloud forests cover less than 1 percent of Mexico. At the same time their botanical richness is extremely fragile and unique.
Roberto Pedraza Ruiz In such a humid forest, the driest spot is the canopy. So this cactus grows up there, embracing the ancient trees.

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