By Rob Wallace
[Note: this is the second in a series of reports from WCS on the Identidad Madidi expedition currently taking place in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park]
We are in the midst of an altitudinal transect of Bolivia’s Madidi National Park: visiting 14 habitats over two years. Deciding where and when to focus our attention was a challenge during the expedition planning phase.
The dry montane forests of the upper Tuichi river valley provided the setting for our second Identidad Madidi study site in July, allowing us to experience glorious changes in color. Most of the trees in these forests lose their leaves in June and July – the beginning of the dry season (late fall in the southern hemisphere) and an abundance of typical drier forest plant taxa abounds.
One of the aims of Identidad Madidi is to significantly increase knowledge on vertebrate diversity and distribution in this globally outstanding protected area. The vertebrate experts are focused on adding to the official list of vertebrates for the park. Because of the unique size of this isolated patch of dry forest, they also look for possible endemic species, those that are confined to this ecosystem and live nowhere else, that have evolved in response to these unique conditions.
From a protected area management perspective, simply increasing the number of places where each species is known to live– especially those considered threatened or those for which very few data exist – is valuable to inform decision-making. That same locality data can also contribute to overall knowledge about a species, for example, by establishing new altitude limits or adding new habitat types to its range.
Prior to the Identidad Madidi initiative Madidi National Park had 1,476 known vertebrate species. Based on global species distributions, our Bolivian experts expect that number to eventually increase to around 2,250 species. Identidad Madidi intends to bridge that gap by identifying new places within the park where these species live– again, important for management decisions, but also powerful for biodiversity conservation outreach.
In the dry montane forest we have now registered species that were not previously registered for the park but that we fully expected to be living there because their documented global distribution overlapped with Madidi’s location.
Some of these are difficult to see and rare species such as the brown vine snake (Oxybelis aeneus). Others were species from groups that had not been previously studied in this habitat such as the white-throated round-eared bat (Lophostoma silvicolum). And some were species that, although visible and notable, had either not been seen before by scientists or simply do not appear in published lists, such as the boa constrictor (Boa constrictor).
And of course, Madidi being Madidi, there were also a series of surprises. Dr. Lizette Siles of the Alcides D’Orbigny Natural History Museum in Cochabamba was astounded upon the capture of the tube-lipped nectar bat (Anoura fistulata) – a species discovered in Ecuador in 2005, known from just a handful of records and with an incredible elongated tongue evolved to reach the depths of the deepest flowers.
James Aparicio and Mauricio Ocampo of the Bolivian Fauna Collection and the National Natural History Museum in La Paz recently announced the discovery of a probable new species of robber frog (Oreobates sp. nov.) at our first study site in another isolated and singular habitat, the montane savannas and gallery forests of Apolo.
Mauricio and James are now busy investigating the identity of a possible new species for science from the dry montane forest, a spectacled lizard (Bachia sp.).
Guido Miranda, Gustavo Alvarez, and Jaime Sarmiento from WCS and the Bolivian Fauna Collection have a similar task for three catfish genera: the Astroblepus (naked suckermouth catfish), Cetopsorhamdia (three-barbled catfish), and Trichomycterus (pencil catfish).
Says Guido, “The pencil and naked suckermouth catfish are extremely diverse and so finding possible new species in previously unstudied watersheds is perhaps not so surprising, but the three-barbled catfish was completely unexpected. Who knows what else we will find in the upcoming stages of Identidad Madidi?”
So, after only visiting the first two expedition sites, we already have 60 new records for the park. We have now moved on from the dry montane forest and are currently sampling three parallel sites in the stunning High Andes of Madidi. Follow us at our expedition site or on Facebook.
Dr. Rob Wallace is a Bolivia-based conservationist in the Latin America and Caribbean Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).
Dr. Wallace’s first report from the Identidad Madidi expedition can be read here.