travelog 105

Tracking Echeveria tenuis

As announced in our last travelog we are on our way to Monte Escobedo to track down Echeveria tenuis, a species lost without trace for more than 100 years. After we have found another species in 2010, Echeveria tobarensis, also lost for more than 100 years, we would like to try our luck on another mysterious species. J.N. Rose collected plants on August 26, 1897, "among rocks on top of mountains near Monte Escobedo, Zacatecas". We had searched once before for this plant, but soon gave up, discouraged because there are no real mountains, much less rocky mountain tops, near Monte Escobedo.

Coming into Monte Escobedo we ask for the Mexican variant of the forestry office. Turns out that it is on the central plaza in the town offices. We had not even turned off the engine when a passerby asks if we were botanists. When we tell him about our intentions he says we really needed to know Carlos Carrillo. In the town offices we could see an exhibit of his photos showing the flora and fauna around Monte Escobedo, so we look for him right away. The same passerby takes us to several secretaries until the boss of the forestry offices is located. Ten minutes later we're sitting with him at a table in a large meeting room. He, too, insists that we absolutely have to know Carlos Carrillo because if somebody would be able to help us find the plant, it would certainly be him. He explains that we could normally find him at a certain mtorcycle and bicycle repair shop in the late afternoon. He also mentions some cliffs north of town that he thinks would be worth checking out.

It is only early in the afternoon and so we decide to drive north towards Mezquitic. We had already seen the cliffs mentioned by the forest guy on Google Earth. Where the road makes a sharp left curve we turn onto a dirt road that leads northwards more or less along the cliffs. It had rained not long ago and we have to cross many deep and muddy places along the road of which we're never sure how deep the mud really is. A few times we hike out to the cliff but can't find anything interesting except for flowering Agave bulliana. It looks generally too dry for an Echeveria species. Suddenly Martin calls for me to bring the camera because he discovered a snake. When I stand at his side he points several times with his stick in the direction of the snake but with the best will in the world I'm only able to see dry oak leaves. But then suddenly I see another pattern distinguishing itself from the oak leaves. Our small specimen is a Crotalus lepidus, a banded rock rattlesnake.

Towards the evening we visit the repair shop and ask for Carlos Carrillo. They send a boy for him who soon returns telling us to follow him to Carlos's office where he's expecting us. We climb up some steep stairs and enter something like a small museum where we are greeted by Carlos. He and his team have collected seeds, leaves, beetles, butterflies, cacti, pine cones and much more of the native flora and fauna. In a small terrarium live lizards and slowworms. We also meet Luis, a young man from Monte Escobedo who accidentally joined Carlos and now works for him full of enthusiast. His sister Sandra does all the computer work. And there are many students visiting from all over Mexico to join Carlos in the field. Their main and most important project is the eagle (here). The team visits nesting sites, takes pictures of the young birds, and counts adults. Soon we have agreed with Carlos that Luis will accompany us the next day into the field.

In the morning we pick up Luis and leave with our 4-wheel drive pickup southwards to the Mesa del Carrizal. Luis knows the area like his pants pockets and on almost invisible tire tracks he leads us relatively close to the cliffs. We hike along these beautiful cliffs with interesting plants such as Agave filifera, A. bulliana (Polianthes mexicana), A. brunnea, Dasylirion wheeleri, orchids clinging to the cliffs, Mammillaria moelleriana aff., Echinocereus acifer, and in more humid places also flowering begonias, Pitcairnia and Peperomia. Although we're at 2400m (7880 ft.) altitude we encounter many species, like for example Myrtillocactus geometrizans, Stenocereus queretaroensis, a red-stemmed Bursera and Ficus petiolaris, that normally occur down below in the canyons of the Rio Santiago. We search in vain for an Echeveria. The only Crassulaceae we discover is Sedum jaliscanum. On the way back we stop at a dry waterfall with a nice canyon where we find more Agave bulliana, A. platyphylla (Polianthes platyphylla) and flowering begonias. Almost back in Monte Escobedo we make our last stop at the Cascada El Guajilote where we finally find an Echeveria, although it's only the bog-common E. mucronata. The waterfall is named for turkeys and indeed we find plenty of their feathers and even catch an eye full of a flock counting about 20 birds. In our hotel "La Muralla" consisting of small bungalows, we soon make friends with a small red-tigered kitty. After the field work we enjoy a Negra Modelo beer (or two) in a small restaurant along the main road. The food is excellent and the portions are calculated for really hungry field workers.

The next day we leave with two pickups and head towards San Isidro and La Cumbre. Carlos is accompanied by a student who is writing her thesis about the lizards and snakes of Zacatecas. She's dressed suitably for the city with a nice hairdo and huge sunglasses. Somehow she does not look at all fit for going to the field. We drive over yellow meadows on almost invisible tire tracks until Carlos unerringly heads for some trees where we park the cars in the shade. With his student he hikes off south while we go the other way with Luis. Soon we reach more beautiful cliffs, ideal Crassulaceae habitat! First we find Sedum jaliscanum, then S. bourgaei. It starts to get exciting when we suddenly discover a cluster of rosettes with purple, thick leaves under a rock. It's either Pachyphytum saltense or Graptopetalum amethystinum aff., both known from the general area. When we see an old inflorescence we identify the plant as G. amethystinum aff. Martin now explores the upper part of the cliffs while I climb around below the cliffs with Luis. After hours of searching we give up and drive on to accidentally meet up with Carlos. They have seen some lizards but no snakes so far. When I stumble around some rocks a little away I suddenly hear the well-known rattling sound of a rattlesnake and see something disappear between the rocks. The others who were sitting just a few feet away looking for snakes come running. Carlos has an improvised instrument to catch snakes with him. It's a long pole with a snare at one end, but there's no trace to be seen of the rattlesnake. When Carlos steps between two rocks we again hear the well-known rattling sound, Carlos jumps back and a second rattlesnake disappears between the rocks. It must have been a pair but the snakes are so well adapted to their environment that even the best-trained eye has a hard time seeing them. We leave Carlos and his student Lupita to their fate and visit one of the rare places where Agave maximiliana can still be found near Monte Escobedo. In our case there are just 20 plants left standing. To finish the day Luis takes us to a spring where another interesting canyon starts. But apart from the two earlier seen Seda we can only take pictures of Villadia painteri. There's no trace whatsoever of Echeveria tenuis.

It's about time for us to head back to native soil. The next day we say goodbye to Carlos and his team. They kindly offer shelter and more support in the field on our next try at finding the elusive Echeveria. Without their incredible knowledge of the area we would never ever have found these extremely interesting and beautiful places! They also promise to keep looking for interesting plants and sending pictures to probably get on the track of Echeveria tenuis. After breakfast we go back to the hotel and put the little red tiger kitty in the truck, of course with the kind permission of his owner, the night watchman Manuel. For the lack of a cat carrier we buy a bird cage in which he now patiently travels eight hours to his new home in Jalisco. For his cute symmetrical tiger pattern we appropriately call him "Tiggi". Instead of returning with a long lost Echeveria we now come back home with a small kitty! Always something new...

October 2011

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen