The Use & Biology of Mashpi Palms

The existing mega-diversity in Ecuador is due to four of the most important biogeographic regions of South America: (1) The Amazon region (2) Tumbesine region (3) Andes Mountains (4) the rainiest region of the planet, the Chocó. This last region suffers the most, as it is destroyed and degraded by human activities. It is estimated that the Ecuadorian Chocó has been reduced to 2% of its original forest due to illegal logging operations and agricultural expansion. Thus Ecuadorian palms are threatened and little is known about their use and biology. It is estimated that in places like Mashpi because of its altitudinal gradient ranging from 500 to 1400 meters above sea level palms of both the Coast and the Andes can be found.

Ecuador has the highest concentration of palm species in South America with 136 species. 105 of these at least provide some benefit to people. Palms are a key element subsistence for rural populations. They provide food and serve as raw materials for housing.

In Mashpi the most common palms are the chontaduro (Bactris gasipaes), the pambil (Iriartea deltoidea), the Chapil (Oenocarpus bataua) and bisola (Wettinia quinaria). Almost all parts (seeds, roots, stems, leaves and fruit) have some utility. Palms are an important source of food for humans and other vertebrates. Fallen trunks of 27 species of palm provide food for invertebrates, such as beetle larvae Chontacuro (Rhynchocarpus Palmarum). Palms also serve as medicines, firewood, and ornamental use in agroforestry systems.

The stem is one of the most used parts, primarily for housing construction and the development of tools. Leaves are used for houses’ roofs and fibers. Young leaves are harvested for food as palm heart. Many of the fruits and seeds are used for jewelry and all are edible for humans and wildlife animals. It is important to find alternatives to some traditional destructive uses of palms that are not sustainable such as using the trunk for construction or as firewood, or to feed the chontacuro. This would help the health and conservation of populations.

As part of our research program we are developing continuous monitoring projects of all groups of fauna and flora. One of the least studied groups are the palms. We are open to develop programs with any researcher or organization interested in learning and preserving the Ecuadorian Chocó and tropical forests.

The Chocó is considered one of the top priority regions for the science of conservation due to its richness, endemism and threats. As Mashpi we feel responsible for preserving and protecting one of the last remnants of these ecosystems. We have developed several research projects that are already contributing to science. Camera traps, ecology of bees and wasps, studies of amphibian populations, diversity of reptiles, and monitoring water quality in rivers are some of the programs that have been achieved through cooperation with local and international universities, they know the importance and lack of information about the Chocó as one of the most important and least known places on Earth.

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