It is now nearly a decade since I was fortunate enough to see Punotia lagopus in habitat. It thus seems an opportune time to review that trip and subsequent publications.
I visited the Southern Peruvian altiplano with my friends Martin Lowry and John Arnold as part of a five week trip to Southern Peru in late October of 2002. This was my first trip to cactus habitat so I was keen to see any cacti but in particular the Opuntias of Southern Peru.
I was particularly keen to see these plants as I was aware that a lot of mystery surrounded them at that time. Ten years ago, the species name lagopus was confused within the cactus hobby. The name was originally used by Karl Schumann in 1903 for plants sent to him by Weberbauer during a long trip to Peru. Plants of lagopus and Austrocylindropuntia floccosa were sent back to Schumann with the very vague habitat details ‘above Ariquipa’. These specimens were destroyed during World War II. The only contemporaneous record that survives is a named photograph in a book by Harper Goodspeed called ‘Plant Hunters in the Andes’ first published in 1941. We can have a high degree of confidence in the naming of the plant in the photograph as Goodspeed’s trip was guided by Weberbauer.
It seems Walter Rausch was unaware of all this when he visited the area and described the plants as Tephrocactus malyanus, later to be invalidly moved into Austrocylindropuntia by Ritter.
I was also made aware that there were observations of the plants near Macusani in Peru and near Ulla Ulla in Bolivia but nothing between these points which are almost 200 kilometres apart. Thus, an objective of our trip was to see if we could find plants between these two points.
So it was with all this in mind that we took the north turn towards Rosario and on to Macusani as we drove from Cuzco towards Juliaca. At the time this was a poor quality road and the trip took most of the day. The road climbs steadily as it heads towards a pass in the Nudo Aricoma mountains before a short descent into Macusani. As we climbed above 4100 metres above sea level (asl) we noted some of the clumps of hairy cacti began to look slightly different. Amongst the small clumps of Austrocylindropuntia floccosa and the occasional Echinopsis maximilliana we found our first specimens of Punotia lagopus on a flat grazed patch of land. (Fig. 1) Further on, at around 4300m altitude we found larger specimens, some up to almost 2 metres in diameter, in very dark and wet peaty ground. At this site some of the plants were almost growing into the river. (Fig. 2). One plant had been uprooted and turned over. Looking at the underside we could confirm these large clumps of stems are all one plant with branches spreading radially from one central, rooted stem.
The following morning, after spending the night in Macusani, we drove back through the pass stopping at the highest point, just over 4686 metres asl. The plants here were covered with a light sprinkling of snow which had fallen in the night (fig. 3). By mid morning it had melted completely. Cacti here were growing on East facing gentle slopes of short grass. Only A floccosa and P lagopus grew here making this, I believe, the highest location recorded for cacti. Some plants were in flower and a small orange and black butterfly was busily visiting open flowers that were pushing out through the tightly packed stems (fig 4). Some fruits too were present. These looked very different from typical Austrocylindropuntia fruits which normally have a thick, succulent greenish capsule. The fruits on Punotia lagopus were thinner walled and pink in colour and not as tightly packed with seed. They looked more like the wind blown fruits of Islaya or even Melocactus than a typical Austrocylindropuntia floccosa fruit.
Having retraced out tracks back to Rosario where we took a left turn to head West towards the Bolivian border. The map showed a good road to the junction with the road for the Sandia valley, our next objective. The first 35 kilometres to Crucero were easy going on a relatively good road. We stopped along the road and found plants of Punotia lagopus at 4200 metres asl. These plants were about a metre in diameter. One conspicuous feature of a lot of plants along this road was partial death of large sections of the plants for which no obvious reason could be seen (fig. 5). In many plants between a quarter and a third of the plant had died. We speculated poor weather conditions as the most likely cause of this damage. On arrival at Crucero we found it to be a ghost town and the road beyond merely a series of vague tracks on the open altiplano with few landmarks to guide us. For the next 50 kilometres we navigated by a combination of ephemeral tracks, a compass and GPS co-ordinates every 10 minutes. We did however, achieve our second objective and find clumps of P lagopus along this track in a band between 4200 and 4350 metres. The plants may grow higher and lower than these altitude limits which simply reflect the altitude of the route we travelled.
On our return back to England we were able to publish our findings in the BCSS Journal ‘Bradleya’ enabling us to validate the name Austrocylindropuntia lagopus and to confirm its continuity between the previously recorded disjoint sites in Peru and Bolivia.
But this is not the end of our story. With the advent of DNA sequencing technology we are seeing more and more scientific papers being published that are slowly revealing greater detail on the evolution of cacti and changing cactus taxonomy. One of these is previewed in David Hunt’s Cactaceae Systematics Initiatives No 25, October 2011. It shows lagopus to be basal to both Austrocylindropuntia and Cumulopuntia. In other words it is derived from a common ancestor of the genera Austrocylindropuntia and Cumulopuntia but not a member of either genus. He resolves this taxonomic dilemma by referring the plant to the monotypic genus Punotia. This goes some way towards explaining the different seed capsule of Punotia lagopus. It also may explain why it grows in the same places as Austrocylindropuntia floccosa, often flowering at the same time, with probably the same pollinators but we never saw any hybrids.
Today, this wonderful habitat, though still rarely visited by cactus enthusiasts is gaining popularity. However, it still remains a desolate, unspoilt and beautiful part of the world, enhanced by the fascinating cactus flora it supports.
- Crook, I, Arnold J and Lowry M. 2003, Austrocylindropuntia lagopus – clarification of nomenclature and observations in habitat. Bradleya, Vol. 21 pp87-92.
- Goodspeed, TH. 1941, Plant Hunters in the Andes. JJ Little and Ives, New York.
- Hunt, D. 2011, Punotia gen. nov. Cactaceae Systemics Initiatives, Vol 25 p26. Distributed to all TSG members September 2011.
- CM Ritz, et al. 2012. Molecular phylogeny and character evolution in terete-stemmed Andean Opuntias (Cactaceae-Opuntioideae). Mol Phylogenet Evol 65(2):668-81.
Photographs and articles on this taxon in habitat appear in TSG Vol. 7 No. 2 & 3 2001, Vol. 9 No. 4 (by Ivor on the above expedition) and Vol. 17 No. 1. For many years I was intrigued by the queries about the name, synonymy and habitat location of this taxon. I did query the possibility of plants growing between Macusani and the suggested habitat site further south. I was informed then that at the differing altitudes of the terrain meant that a link was not possible.
It should be noted that Ivor and his companions saw no hybrids. Ivor advances a suggestion as to why Punotio lagopus and Austrocylindropuntia floccosa can grow together but not hybridize. However, Brian Bates reported in TSG Vol. 17 No.1 p10 (Pic p9) that he found two such hybrids at Macusani. Fig. 6 and Fig. 7 are photographs of one of the plants. Comments please. Ed.