In a long-lost city, scientists find an ‘exuberance’ of life

Red-eyed tree frogs are one of the 56 species of reptiles and amphibians found by the team. (© Trond Larsen)

A sensational archaeological find in Honduras is also a rare refuge for wildlife and plants, according to research completed by scientists from Conservation International and its partners.

The site, known locally as “City of the Monkey God” and “the White City,” was hidden for centuries within a remote valley, guarded on all sides by steep ridges, deep within the Mosquitia rainforest. Its discovery in 2012, followed by excavations beginning in 2016, opened another question for researchers and conservationists: What biological treasures exist in this inaccessible corner of Central America?

A team of researchers has begun to answer that question and will publish their full findings in the coming months.

Meanwhile, in a story published this week by The New Yorker, Douglas Preston tells the story of the team’s mission to understand the rainforest that swallowed up the White City and kept it hidden for so long.

“The overall richness of species we observed was overwhelming,” said Dr. Trond Larsen, Director of Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program, an initiative that sends teams of researchers to critically important areas to quickly gather key biological and social data. These researchers act as an “ecological SWAT team,” assessing the health of an ecosystem in a fraction of the time it can typically take.

In Honduras, Larsen and his colleagues found a trove.

In total, the team that visited the Mosquitia documented 198 species of birds, 94 of butterflies, 30 of bats and 56 of amphibians and reptiles, as well as numerous plants, fishes, rodents and insects. More than a dozen species have never before been recorded in Honduras, and many, such as the great green macaw, are endangered or extremely rare. One snake, a false tree coral, documented by the group had been considered extinct in Honduras, having not been seen since 1965.

Several species of game birds and large mammals, while uncommon or extirpated elsewhere due to hunting pressure, are relatively common at the White City. These include mammals such as spider monkeys, peccaries and tapirs, as well as game birds such as curassows, guans and tinamous.

“This enormous variety of species is indicative of the large area of unexplored, intact forest we found ourselves in,” Larsen said. Using automated camera traps, the team documented an unexpected abundance of jaguars and pumas, large cats that have become rare in much of Central America. Researchers were especially surprised by the discovery of large herds of white-lipped peccaries, hog-like animals native to the Americas.

“These are wide-ranging animals requiring extensive areas of intact forest to survive,” Larsen said. “There are few places left in Central America that boast these numbers — areas where a full suite of species, from plants to top predators, ensures that the ecological processes of the ecosystem remain unbroken.”

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The rarity of the wildlife observed by the team underscores the potential threat to this remote rainforest.

“Several species that were easily observed at the study site are scarce in most of their Honduran range,” Larsen said. “The exuberance of life in this concealed valley makes it a high priority for conservation.”

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has expressed his desire to preserve the White City and the surrounding rainforest, which is threatened by encroachment of logging and cattle ranching.

“This is an outstanding Mesoamerican jewel,” Larsen said. “It provides a rare opportunity to conserve one of the last large intact forests regions in Central America.”

The expedition, led by Conservation International, brought together researchers from Zamorano University, the National Autonomous University of Honduras, Wildlife Conservation Society and others. The project was initiated by Steve Elkins and Bill Benenson with major funding provided by Bill and Laurie Benenson. Additional support was provided by Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, Virgilio Paredes, former director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History and Ramón Espinoza, former director of the Honduran Institute of Science and Technology. The Honduran military provided air transportation and security for the researchers.

View photos from the project below. Click on the right side of the image to scroll to the next one. 

An abundance of freshwater turtles, eaten by people in many parts of their range, indicate an absence of humans from the landscape. © Trond Larsen
The plumed basilisk is also known as the Jesus Christ Lizard due to its ability to run across the surface of the water. © Trond Larsen
The deadly hog-nosed pit viper is one of the 18 species of snakes found in a short period of time. © Trond Larsen
Glass frogs such as this species (sachatamia albomaculata) are indicators of pristine water quality. © Trond Larsen
Clean, crystal clear water flows through streams that criss-cross the region, supporting a variety of fish and other life. © Trond Larsen
Researchers were excited to discover this worm salamander (oedipina quadra) with an exceptionally long tail. © Trond Larsen
Fulgorid insects have a hollow snout-like appendage on their head. © Trond Larsen
Stinkbugs are among the hundreds of insect species documented in the area, including new records for Honduras. 
© Trond Larsen

 

Read The New Yorker piece here.

Read about the expedition in the words of its leader, Dr. Trond Larsen, here.

Jamey Anderson is a senior writer at Conservation International.

Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.


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