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Ecuador 2013: Land Snail Hunting! by Jose Coltro

A few months ago I sent my land snail hunter, Alex Bianchi, to make a short trip to the Loja Province, in southern Ecuador.

I never had my own material from this area except for few species found by Jens and Christa Hemmen some years ago.

Alex’s first trip was only for five days in Loja city, Vilcabamba, Catacocha and some small villages. The results were quite nice, especially since he found a single specimen of Porphyrobaphe kelletti. Because of this species I planned another trip to this area.

In the beginning of April 2013 I arrived in Guayaquil, a city I know and like very much. In my first trip to Ecuador was January 1990, and by that time this city was the ugliest and dirtiest I ever had been until then. But 10 years later the city started to be renovated and most the ugly and dirty parts had been turned into a very pleasant place. Along the River Guayas they`ve built a fabulous area called “Malecon 2000”, with tropical Botanic Garden, museums, theaters, restaurants, etc. The local airport is considered the most beautiful and functional small airport of the world. A really good change.

Alex and I had a short flight of 6 hours from São Paulo to Guayaquil. Immediately after we arrived we rented a car 4x4 and we drove to Cuenca, in Azuay Province.

Just starting to slopes of the Andes we stopped in the tropical rain forest covered by a dense fog. Alex walked half hour in the area while I parked the car in the narrow road shoulder– the Ecuadorians drive like crazy and it was quite scary to park there. Alex found four Lampadion sp. while I was parking! After three hours driving we’ve reached El Cajas National Park. This is one of the most fantastic places I have ever been. Most of the park is over 4000 meters high and has hundreds of small (sometime frozen) lakes. The flora is something from another planet!

Before we entered at the park we stopped in a small farm to ask about snails. To my surprise the farmer told me he had seen some small species. I never had thought about land snails living over 4000 meters. He took us to visit a part of the farm at 3850-4050 meters high and I found two snails that I believe to be Scutulus cf. anthisanensis (Pfeiffer, 1853) on the rock crevices in a big stone wall. Alex found two juvenile specimens and the farmer found a nice adult one.

Driving on the park I saw some of the most stunning sceneries. And it was really cold – zero Celsius but for us was like 10 below zero!

Forty-five minutes later we arrived on the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca. This city is UNESCO World Heritage and is over 2500 meters high in a gorgeous valley surrounded by huge mountains.

On the next day we left Cuenca in the direction of Loja. We started to drive up, drive down, drive up, drive down like being on a rollycoaster. The roads are very good and we stopped in the way to look for shells. Ours first attempts weren’t very productive, but we did find a few species. During the trip we felt a little bit of “soroche” the high altitude disease. We felt that we didn’t have enough oxygen to breath. We arrived in Loja with a huge headache!

Loja is another colonial town with 200,000 people and it is situated at 2000 meters in the beautiful valley of Cuxibamba.

Arriving at the city we tried to contact some local people Alex had met before and we went immediately to check the area where he had found the Porphyrobaphe before.

When Alex found the shell last February, the specimen was crawling along the road to Catamayo during a strong rain. We checked all the area and we couldn’t find a single shell. Looking around we noticed some small forest on the top of the next mountain – it seems that shell had fall from there.

In the next morning Alex went back to this area with a local man he had met before. They checked every single bush, hole, and piece of grass for four hours and he only found a single dead specimen. We gave up looking for this shell and we decided to explore other areas.

During the afternoon we drove to Malacatos and Vilcabamba. On the way we found a different species of Thaumastus I believe to be undescribed.

Vilcabamba is a famous place for longevity – it is quite common find people over 100 years old walking in the small town. And it if full of foreign people – mostly retired Americans. The area is full of rivers, waterfalls, forests, curious rock formations – but very few shells… On the mountains between Malacatos and Loja we found a beautiful species: Thaumastus thompsonoides Oberwimmer, 1931.

We woke up early and we drove to Catamayo area and again we drove up, drove down, drove up, drove down… We stopped on the top of one the local mountain and we found some nice Drymaeus loxanus (Higgins, 1872) and a very large new species of Thaumastus – but a single specimen!

Few kilometers after Catacocha we stopped in a small village called Playas (Beach – in English). The only curiosity was this village is at least 100 km from the sea in a valley 1800 meters high! After this place everything starts to be drier – including the types of vegetation. We took a small land road to the top of one mountain and after one hour we found nothing. Leaving the area we stopped on the junction of the land road with the main road and we found two bulimulids on the plants and rocks. And under every single stone or rock I found one scorpion! I believe these two snails species are new for science. One is similar to Bostryx umbilicatus (Miller, 1879) – but the shell is more compact and the apex is different.

A few kilometers later Alex went to climb a dry waterfall and he found some interesting dead material – but again only two or three shells of each species. Again, the rollycoaster, we drove up, drove down, drove up, drove down for over 100 km to Maracá, on the Peruvian border. Our intention was to reach a place called Zapotillo – a limestone area. For this place the road was so bad that after one hour and just few kilometers of road we gave up.

In the way back we stopped on one area with huge rock walls and we found a nice population of Bostryx umbilicatus (Miller, 1879) and a beautiful banded species that I believe to be Drymaeus nigrofasciatus elongatulus Pilsbry, 1898. And after up and down we arrived in Loja late night.

Early next morning we left Loja in direction to Zamora, on the Amazonian side of Ecuador. As usual we started to go up and up and just before the entrance of the Podocarpus National Park we started to get a strong fog and Alex asked me to stop the car immediately. He saw a large shell on the road and it turned to be a fabulous Porphyrobaphe kelleti alive – the reason of this trip. We parked the car and we tried to look for more specimens, but it was so foggy and cold (we were at 3300 to 3800 meters high) that we decided to try later. Driving down to Zamora the fog disappeared after many kilometers down and the mountain rocks showed its beauty – millions of orchids and ferns decorating the road! We saw huge valleys covered by dense tropical forest and fabulous waterfalls along the way – but not a single shell…

We were a little bit disappointed with Zamora – the area had little original forest left and it was much farmed. After few hours we decided to go back to Loja and stop in the way to look for our fabulous shell!

We found a trail near the place Alex got the first specimen. But we also found marks of a puma… Alex found 4 specimens (of shells, not puma) – only two in good condition. The fog was so bad that we decided to return in the next morning.

We left next day the hotel before 6 AM and we didn’t get any fog. For almost 3 hours and temperatures around zero Celsius we found 3 more specimens. The shells looked like ice cubes!

Around noon we took our way back to Cuenca. In the way we stopped in a area where we found some dead material on the border Loja-Azuay provinces. In an area covered by cactus and agave we found some nice and large Thaumastus flori (Jousseaume, 1909). As the area is too dry, Alex started to dig up in some dead plants and he found four specimens of a large Bulimulidae.

We left Cuenca early morning to El Cajas. I was very excited to see if the farmer we met a few days earlier found something for us. When we arrived at the farm nobody was there so we waited three hours, when finally the farmer arrived. He forgot about the shells, as usual for non-shell people. We went to look with him and we found 4 or 5 specimens. I believe this is the species from highest altitude I ever found. We have specimens now even from 4200 meters of altitude!

Just leaving the farm I saw a small land road going higher to the top of a mountain. I left Alex in the middle of the way and I told him that I would drive until I find a place to turn the car to go down. I drove up, up, up and no place where I could turn the car. And I was driving next to a huge cliff going deeper and deeper. Suddenly another car was coming down at same road and I couldn’t find space for us both to pass. I parked and I told him that no any way I would move my car to the cliff side. He drove close to the cliff. I asked him information where I could make a U turn and go back. He told me that there was only a place where I could do that, almost one kilometer up. I drove up and completely scared with the road that started to get narrower with lots of small stones that made it slippery. I’ve reached a point where my heart was pumping so fast and I was so scared that I turned off the car, jumped from that and walked down to find Alex to help me. I had never have such fear in any of my previous adventures but on that day I was completely scared! I found Alex and I gave him the car key and I told that I wasn’t able to even go back to the car. At that moment, the same car went down was coming back and I told him my problem. He helped Alex as I waited seating on a rock – far from the cliff! Alex told me the final part of the road was so terrible that even he was scared! After that I decided avoid small roads! And the worst part was Alex didn’t find a single shell!

Going down to Guayaquil direction we stopped in a very nice rain forest. We asked local people for the snails and every one told about hundreds of shells in all part. Excited we started to look and we really found hundreds of… Achatina fulica!!!!

I drove five more hours until we reached Puerto Lopez, in Manabi Province. I met my friends there and on the next day I drove to Jipijapa to buy a present for my goddaughter. Just before the town Alex told me he saw some shells in a local tree. I had been in this area dozens of time and I knew those trees had only wasp nests. He tried to convince me to stop but I didn’t want to since I thought it would be a waste of time. In the way back he saw again something that looked like shells on a tree near Puerto Lopez – what I had doubted. He was right and he brought a beautiful small Drymaeus aff. buckleyi (Sowerby, 1895). And he told that he was right about Jipijapa trees! Next morning I drove back to this place and he proved those wasp nests were really snails - Drymaeus cactivorus (Broderip, 1832). He had bet and he won (and me too)! Those were my last snails we collected during this trip.

After 10 days of shell hunting I now find much more precious land than marine shells. First it is quite hard to find shells on the environment; second it is getting impossible to find good places for snails since farms and constructions are destroying large areas; third, introduction of alien species, like Achatina fulica, had brought too much competition for local species and many of them are in endangered situation.

Land snails are really amazing. Some are very colorful, some are very strange. You could find them in unexpected places and don’t find in places you think to be a perfect habitat.

One knows that one may find dozens of rare coweries for sale in the shell market. How many times does one see a Porphyrobaphe kelletti for sale? Only here and only once, which do you believe is most valuable and can disappear?

The most important part of our trips besides the specimens is the fact we are keeping an important record of distribution and gathering images and information for future generations – who will certainly not see most of these beautiful creatures, except on museums or private collections.

English checking by Bob Winters

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