Reaching the summit of Kamakasa Tepui:

Collecting on the Karoweing River:

Climbing trees: not as easy as it seems!:

Building subsummit camp in the rain and Giant Earthworm:

Rock House lichenizing (Kamakasa Tepui):

Kamp Life (Episode 1):

I Love This Little Area (Kamakasa Tepui):

Building Camp 6 and Lichenology 101 (Kamakasa Tepui):

Lichenizing around Full Moon Camp (Kamakasa Tepui):

Aleks finds nodules (Kamakasa Tepui expedition):

Arriving at Swamp Camp (Kamakasa Tepui):

Ken and Erin’s day off (Kamakasa Tepui):

Stuck at camp (river too high for crossing) and smoked pois:

High Tech Science (Kamakasa Tepui):

Ken collecting (Kamakasa Tepui):

Botanists Do It In Trees: climbing and collecting in Camp 2 (Kamakasa Tepui):

The Tree Will Survive, and Hymenophyllaceae:

Searching Desperately for Sunlight, Camp 5

Building a Bush Spoon:

People complain about tepui specimens being so ugly:


Between May-June 2012, the Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic funded an expedition to the never before summited Kamakusa Tepui (western Guyana, Mazaruni River Watershed). This expedition was co-led by Ken Wurdack and Erin Tripp and, prior to her emergency evacuation in week 2, Karen Redden. We were joined by PhD student Alex Radosavljevic and 8 amazingly dedicated and hard-working Arawak Amerinidans.

Also in the Guyana folder to the left you’ll find a few photos from the Kamakusa Expedition (for full set, see: Below these is a selection of videos from the expedition. Our intention here was to capture and provide some of the only video footage of life on a tepui – camp life, botanical life, expedition life…. some of these videos are educational whereas others clearly are not (do forgive some of those moments)!

With time, photos will be added from our previous tepui expeditions, including those to Mt. Ayanganna, Mt. Wokomung, and Maringma Tepui, in collaboration with David Clarke. For now, see full sets of photos as follows:

Wokomung Expedition (2003):

Ayanganna Expedition (2001):

Maringma Expedition (2004):

Melinda Markin


Raised in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho, Melinda Markin developed a love for plants at an early age. Melinda received a B.S. in Environmental Studies with a focus in conservation biology and botany. After graduating college, Melinda moved to Durango, Colorado where she worked at the Fort Lewis College Environmental Center. She spent three years in Durango enjoying the flora of the San Juan Mountains before moving to Boulder. Melinda is now a PhD student in the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Colorado Boulder and is interested in studying the impacts of climate change on high-elevation plant communities, including population genetics, phylogeography, and field experiments. In her precious spare time, Melinda enjoys gardening, orchid hunting, climbing, and befriending the local pika population.

Her CV is available here.

Ruellia sororia


This species is among my top five favorite finds in the field. Prior to our covert operations to relocate it (a fieldtrip in which I was accompanied by Carrie Kiel and Kristen Hasenstab-Lehman), it had been collected only twice in history: first in the late 1800s (the type collection), and again in the early 1980s (when it was described under a different name). We found it in an amazing, high quality montane semi-deciduous forest just E of Chilpancingo. Unfortunately, access to this area was just recently made way, way, way too easy by construction of a brand new superhighway right through the gut of the region. I fear it is only a matter of time before the forests (and plants such as these) slowly disappear to make room for the strip malls…

Ruellia sororia is member to Ruellia section Chiropterophila, an entire clade of which, at present, is known only from Mexico. Species in section Chiropterophila are for the most part rare or extremely rare (see Tripp 2010, Systematic Botany). Ruellia sororia happens to be endemic to Guerrero. The plant is, among other reasons, remarkable for its morphological intermediacy between two morphological groups within sect. Chiropterophila. It is the only species in the clade that produces those strangely urceolate corollas AND produces flowers in dichasia.

Note the tinges of anthocyanin production in three visible whorls of the flower. This clade is otherwise marked by a complete lack of anthocyanin pigmentation.

Wild collected, Mexico, Tripp et al. 1206 (RSA-POM); Photo by Erin Tripp

Ruellia saeri


Well here is an interesting species, and one I was very surprised to find in the field with my collaborator and friend Manuel Lujan. We didn’t have high hopes, given its restricted range within Venezuela.

Ruellia saeri is a small statured, high-elevation endemic species to that country, and was named by Silvia Llamoza. I don’t yet know much about its phylogenetic position, but based on its distinctive, decussate floral bracts, I predict relationship to the Ruellia blechum clade. Time will tell.

Wild collected, Venezuela, Tripp & Lujan 514 (RSA-POM); Photo by E. Tripp

Ruellia oaxacana


I first saw this species while doing some solo fieldwork in Mexico, at the terminus of an already dark and dreary day. Not enough sunlight for profound thought or for photography. Nonetheless, I was convinced it was Ruellia metallica and that I was seeing this species for the first time in Mexico.

[Time passes…a year later….]

Looking at my collection of this plant more carefully in the herbarium, it seems to consistently have more seeds per fruit and more slender fruits than does R. metallica (which is now affectionately known as R. terminale; see Tripp & McDade 2012, Brittonia). As it turns out, several other collections from this portion of Mexico also fit this pattern. With some additional research, I decided that these plants should be attributed to Leonard’s infrequently used name, Ruellia oaxacana. This species is genetically distinct from R. metallica/R. terminale, which was quite interesting to learn.

Wild collected, Mexico, Tripp 189 (DUKE); Photo by Erin Tripp

Ruellia brevifolia

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A common species of a large chunk of tropical South America. Widespread. Emblematic of the pedunculate species in the “Physiruellia” clade. In the second photo, note the woody capsule (fruit) with modified funiculi (hooks) that aid in seed dispersal when the fruit explodes, as all Acanths in the proper sense do.

(1) Not vouchered, seen in wild in Bolivia; Photo by Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn

(2) Not vouchered, cultivated (DUKE greenhouses); Photo by Erin Tripp

NSF Grant Funded! Dimensions of Biodiversity

NSF Dimensions Booklet Abstract

Project #1542639:

Dimensions: Collaborative Research: Biodiversity Gradients in Obligate Symbiotic Organisms: A Case Study in Lichens in a Global Diversity Hotspot

University of Colorado Participants:
Erin Tripp

Nolan Kane

Christy McCain

New York Botanical Garden Participant:
James Lendemer

400-450 Word Project Summary:

Obligate symbioses are relationships between two or more species that depend entirely on each other for growth and survival. Such symbioses characterize some of the most common and ecologically important relationships on Earth, ranging from human gut bacteria to diseases to corals to specialized plant-pollinator relationships. Many of these obligate symbioses are imperiled by unprecedented rates of environmental change and permanent biodiversity losses. Compared to single branches on the tree of life such as birds, flowering plants, or mammals, much less is known about factors that facilitate or limit the geographical distributions of obligate symbioses that abound in nature. Moreover, research on biodiversity distributions has focused largely on abiotic factors (e.g., temperature, precipitation, elevation) rather than on biotic factors (i.e., other organisms) that influence geographical distributions. This project aims to transform understanding of factors that impact diversity and distributions of obligate symbiotic biodiversity through investigation of lichens as a model system in a unique natural laboratory and global lichen diversity hotspot: the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Proposed mechanisms for factors that generate and maintain biodiversity remain contentious despite decades of research. Biotic factors have long been proposed as drivers but are rarely studied due to the difficulty of assessing the multitude of possible interactions. Because of the inherent biotic interaction that exists between obligate symbionts, this project will explore both biotic and abiotic drivers of biodiversity across multiple dimensions. Through field and genomic inventories of lichens in a biodiversity hotspot, this project will generate and investigate data from symbiotic biodiversity initiated from a single information source: a unique museum voucher. Across local, regional, and landscape scales, inventories will yield site-specific metrics for phylogenetic (including taxonomic) and functional diversity together with site-specific metrics for a mostly unexplored genetic dimension—potential of diversity—that quantifies the availability of compatible symbiont propagules in the environment. Analyses of these metrics in light of biotic and abiotic variables will enable assessment of factors that impact overall dimensions of biodiversity. These analyses will also permit understanding of interactions among dimensions, for example, whether phylogenetic, functional, and genetic dimensions are positively correlated and predicted by the same sets of variables, or in what contexts other types of correlations exist. This project will yield two major conceptual advances in ecology and evolutionary biology. First, information gained will likely reveal new, emergent properties of biodiversity gradients in symbiotic organisms. Second, deconstructing constraints on individual partners of the symbiosis and quantifying feedbacks between/among them will make possible full analysis (i.e., including biotic constraints) of the factors that impact diversity and distribution of the symbiotic organism as a whole.

Broader impacts of this research will improve scientific literacy, expand awareness of symbiotic biodiversity, build capacity in U.S. lichenology, broaden collaborations between scientists and land managers, and establish new ‘big data’ resources for a diverse audience of researchers and educators. Finally, this project will advance conservation of an ecologically important group of understudied organisms in a premier biodiversity hotspot.

25-40 Word Synopsis: Diversity and distributions of obligate symbiotic organisms: lichens as a model system for deconstructing biotic and abiotic factors that drive major patterns in macroecology and macroevolution.

3-8 Print Resolution Photographs (300 dpi minimum JPEG format only):

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Lichen Photos:

            Anaptychia palmulata: A foliose lichen of the southern Appalachian Mountains (Voucher   Specimen: James Lendemer 33129 [NY Herbarium]; Photo Credit: Erin Tripp)           

Lobaria pulmonaria: An ecologically important foliose lichen indicative of high quality habitats in   eastern North America (Voucher Specimen: Erin Tripp 4994 [NY Herbarium]; Photo Credit: James Lendemer)

Early Stages of Lichen Development: One of the most important biotic interactions for obligate   symbiotic organisms is the earliest stages of development in which suitable partners must successfully encounter one another in nature. Shown here is a germinating spore of a lichen mycobiont (Rhizocarpon disporum) encountering and enveloping a potentially suitable photobiont with its fungal hyphae (Photo Credit: Vanessa Díaz)

People Photos:

Lichen Reproduction 6: Masters student Vanessa Díaz (background) and undergraduate student researcher Heather Stone (foreground) install forest experiment to trap lichen propagules, to document early stages of lichen colonization. Field supplies: cheese cloth, lab tape, and microscope slides soaked in various media to cultivate mycobiont and photobiont (Photo Credit: Erin Tripp)

James Lendemer: Working in laboratory to identify field collections at the Southern Appalachian Highlands Learning Center (aka ‘Purchase Knob’), Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Photo Credit: Erin Tripp)

Landscape Photos:

GSMNP: Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains more species of lichens than any other national park in the United States and is an important reservoirs of lichen biodiversity within the greater southern Appalachian Mountains. GSMNP is also the most visited national park in the United States and as such, park staff face a delicate balancing act between facilitating tourism and needing to protect the park’s natural heritage by minimizing human impacts.

Purchase Knob: The Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob is a high altitude educational facility located in the heart of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Each year, staff members Paul Super, Susan Sachs, and associated personnel host upwards of 5,000   visiting students, teachers, scientists, and volunteers with the common goal of expanding       knowledge, awareness, and scholarship of the rich biodiversity of the southern Appalachians (Photograph taken from front porch of Purchase Knob; Photo Credit: Molly Stevens)

Recent publications or news items related to the project

  • PIs Lendemer and Tripp publish a new species of lichen endemic to high elevation, nutrient-rich rocks of the Southern Appalachians (Lendemer & Tripp [2015], The Bryologist 118: 1-10: Lecanora anakeestiicola (Lecanorales): an unusual new fruticose species from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern North America
  • Co-PI Kane is currently training undergraduate and graduate students to assemble lichen mycobiont and photobiont genomes during his Genomics course at the University of Colorado
  • PIs Tripp and Lendemer are currently in the process of recruiting PhD students to advance aspects of the Dimensions research;
  • Co-PI McCain is spearheading the development of the field inventory sampling strategy; fieldwork will begin in early 2016.
  • PIs Lendemer and Tripp are collaborating with the Center for Biological Diversity to assess the federal conservation status of ~30 rare and mostly endemic southern Appalachian lichens

Field Trip to Black Canyon

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Between 2-4 October 2015, students enrolled in Plant Systematics (EBIO 4520/5520) traveled to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park for a botany camping trip. Participatory were: Reese Beeler, Ryan Byrne, Keric Lamb, Mandy Malone, Kelsey McCoy, Matt Schreiber, and Sydney Sharek along with Erin Tripp (course instructor) and Matt Sharples (teaching assistant). A botany fieldtrip anywhere in October in Colorado is risky, given we hit the end of the growing season a month ago. We needed a site that was sheltered from early frosts and cold weather, and speculated that the depths of a deep canyon might provide such refuge for a few lingering plants in flower or fruit.

We were right! On Friday afternoon, we punched it down to Black Canyon of the Gunnison, arriving late but not too late for homemade tostadas. We stayed at the North Rim Campground, which is a very small, funky, climbers’ favorite. The Black Canyon is without doubt one of the most dramatic landscapes in Colorado and indeed much of the west. It derives its name from the darkness created by the sheer walls, narrow width, and tremendous depth, which limit sunlight illumination of some portions of the canyon bottom to less than 30 minutes on any given day. Over the last 2 million years of Earth’s history, the canyon was carved out by the massive and in some parts very remote Gunnison River. Other canyons of the West are longer, and some are deeper, but none combine the length, depth, and sheerness of Black Canyon.

We awoke Saturday morning to start our long descent down quite the extreme slope – only 1.75 miles in length but 2,000 ft. vertical descent – a Class 3 scramble affectionately known as the “S.O.B route”. This is one of the only routes in the entire area that can be used to reach the bottom of the canyon without advanced, technical climbing. Conveniently, it leaves directly from the campground. We took our time descending, learning the dominant plant community along the way: Artemesia tridentata (Sagebrush), Juniperus osteosperma (Utah Juniper), Quercus gambelii (Gambel Oak), Amelanchier alnifolia (serviceberry), Cercocarpus ledifolius (Mountain Mahogany), and Pinus edulis (Pinyon Pine – one of many sources of pine nuts, which are actually not nuts but rather seeds). The bottom of the canyon was lush and thrilling – we learned several additional species as a group before setting out on our own in various directions. Many of us took a welcomed dip into the Gunnison – a perfect 58˚F.

We reached camp around 5 pm. The weather was balmy – mid 60s and so delightful. We spent the next 2 hours sitting at the picnic table keying various plants we saw at the bottom of the gorge. Among them was Petrophytum caespitosum (Rock Spiraea), which grows “on precipitous and often inaccessible canyon walls” (in Dr. Bill Weber’s words) and Polanisia dodecandra (Clammyweed) – a curious member of the caper family (Capparaceae) and one that represents a new plant record for Montrose County! Dinner was a botanical medley (squash and zucchini [Cucurbitaceae], shallots & garlic [Alliaceae], carrots [Apiaceae], potatoes [Solanaceae]), lightly tossed with olive oil [Oleaceae], salt, black pepper [Piperaceae], and chipotle powder [Solanaceae again…sigh], wrapped in foil then cooked on hot embers in the fire for a perfect 25 minutes. We all had a solid night’s rest before heading home the next morning.

The journey home: complete with blazing aspens and a flat tire with no easy means for a fix.  But we managed with a tire plug and the compressor of a kind stranger. That’s life as a biologist: never a dull moment.