¡Que Vive Centinela! A tiny new plant species reaffirms the “miraculous” survival of Western Ecuador’s ravished biodiversity

The discovery represents an inspiration for biodiversity conservation in an area the scientific community assumed to be a barren agricultural landscape of plant extinctions.

A new 5 cm-high plant species has been discovered on the western Andean slopes of Ecuador in an area where scientists once believed a rich diversity of native plants and animals had been totally destroyed.

John L. Clark with Amalophyllon miraculum. Credit @phinaea on Instagram.

The tiny plant, with iridescent foliage and white ephemeral flowers, was found in a farmer’s backyard during ongoing collaborative research expeditions in western Ecuador, led by teams of Ecuadorian and international researchers.

The expeditions resulted in the rediscovery of small forest fragments in a legendary hotspot known as Centinela. Selby Gardens research botanist, John L. Clark is the lead author of the article describing the new species in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal PhytoKeys.

The forest fragments are less than 20 miles from Santo Domingo, a major city of more than 300,000 people. Each fragment of Centinela is an isolated biodiversity island surrounded by large swaths of agricultural landscape largely devoid of forest.

Small purple plant leaf held between thumb and index finger.
Amalophyllon miraculum leaf.

A seminal publication titled “Biological extinction in western Ecuador” brought attention to the rapid loss of rainforest in western Ecuador. It was authored by the late botanists Alwyn Gentry and Calaway Dodson, Selby Gardens’ first Executive Director, whose research inspired names such as Gasteranthus extinctus in recognition of the loss of more than 70-97% of rainforests from the western Ecuadorian lowlands due to agriculture.

This discovery, amongst others, has shattered the preconception that the multitudes of life in the region had vanished entirely. The name Amalophyllon miraculum reflects the “miracle” of its discovery in the unexpected fragments of protected forests.

“The heroic efforts of local landowners who maintained small patches of forests – usually surrounding waterfalls – were instrumental in conserving these remnant forest fragments,” Clark says.

Ongoing conservation initiatives by foundations and academic institutions such as the Ecuadorian conservation NGO Fundación de Conservación Jocotoco and the Jardín Botánico Padre Julio Marrero (JBJM) of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador are also crucial to protecting the areas.

Original source:

Clark JL, Fernández A, Zapata JN, Restrepo-Villarroel C, White DM, Pitman NCA (2024) Amalophyllon miraculum (Gesneriaceae), an exceptionally small lithophilous new species from the western Andean slopes of Ecuador. PhytoKeys 242: 307–316. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.242.118069

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Ecuador’s newest tarantulas: just discovered, two new species face imminent threats

In the depths of Ecuador’s wilderness, scientists have unveiled the presence of two new tarantula species from the slopes of the Andes in the western part of the country.

In the depths of Ecuador’s wilderness, scientists have unveiled the presence of two new tarantula species. Researchers of Universidad San Francisco de Quito found them on trees on the slopes of the Andes in the western part of the country.

Meet Ecuador’s newest tarantulas

One of them was found in late February 2023, 1.5 m above the forest floor in the foothill evergreen forest of the Cordillera Occidental . Just discovered, it is already seriously threatened as people use its habitat for mining and agriculture. Its scientific name reflects this vulnerability: the tarantula is called Psalmopoeus chronoarachne, from the Greek words for “time” and “spider.”

Psalmopoeus chronoarachne.

“The compound word refers to the adage that these spiders could ‘have their time counted’ or reduced by impactful anthropogenic activities. The name addresses conservation concerns about the survival and prevalence of spider species in natural environments,” they write in their paper, which was just published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

The other newly discovered tarantula has an even more curious name: Psalmopoeus satanas. “It is appropriately named because the initial individual that was collected had an attitude!” says researcher Roberto J. León-E, who first spotted it in a bamboo fence in San José de Alluriquín. The spider immediately exhibited defensive behavior; “this behavior then transformed into fleeing, where the spider made quick sporadic movements, nearly too fast to see.”

Psalmopoeus satanas.

It was the first tarantula he ever caught.

“The members of the Mygalomorphae Research Group in the Laboratory of Terrestrial Zoology at Universidad San Francisco de Quito grew very fond of this individual during its care, in spite of the individual’s bad temperament and sporadic attacks (reason for the nickname),” he writes in the paper.

The species, which can be found in in the north of the Cordillera Occidental of the Andes at about 900 m above sea level, is facing serious threats as its habitat is degraded, ever declining, and severely fragmented by cropland and mining concessions and expanding urban and agricultural territories.

Critically endangered: threats to tarantula survival

“It is important to consider that the areas in which these arthropods live are not under legal protection. The implementation of protected areas in these localities is essential to maintain the remaining population of these endangered species and to encourage research on the remaining undescribed or unknown tarantula species in the area,” says Pedro Peñaherrera-R, who led the research on these animals.

Mining concessions in Ecuador.Credit José Manuel Falcón-Reibán

This makes the region highly vulnerable to both legal and illegal mining operations that extract metals such as copper, silver, and gold, introducing pollutants to its ecosystems.

The implementation of stricter regulations and penalties for illegal mining or other extracting-related activities, including specimen smuggling, might help these species survive. Likewise, the engaging and educating of local communities about the importance of biodiversity conservation is essential to avoid further extinction.

 “We encourage future work by Ecuadorian and international researchers, organisations, and governments to effectively understand the reality about the threat of tarantula smuggling and the required conservation status of each species in the country.” Says Roberto J. León-E.

Based on initial conservation assessments, both tarantulas meet the criteria for being considered Critically Endangered by International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Overview of the ecosystem of both species. Credit Naia Andrade Hoeneisen

“It is essential to consider the potential loss of both P. chronoarachne and P. satanas and the ecological consequences that would result from their extinctions. These species may serve essential roles in the stratified micro-ecosystems in their respective areas,” the researchers write in their paper.

The dark side: illegal trade in wild tarantulas

Illegal trade in wild tarantulas as pets is also a latent threat, not only to these two species, but to Ecuadorian tarantulas in general. Many tarantula species can be found for sale online on various websites and Facebook groups. “During the writing of this article and the publication of another article, we found that a species that we described (Neischnocolus cisnerosi) is currently in the illegal pet trade!” says Pedro Peñaherrera-R.

After studying papers on wild-caught pet-trade specimens, the researchers conclude that the issue has been going on for more than 30 years in the country. “Although this series of publications encouraged research on Ecuadorian tarantulas previously ignored for centuries, they also functioned as catalysts within the exotic pet-trade hobby, aiding in obtaining these species and further encouraging people to collect undescribed species,” says Pedro Peñaherrera-R with concern.

Original source:

Peñaherrera-R. P, León-E. RJ (2023) On Psalmopoeus Pocock, 1895 (Araneae, Theraphosidae) species and tarantula conservation in Ecuador. ZooKeys 1186: 185-205. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1186.108991

New species of spiny mouse discovered in rainforest

The new species was discovered in Ecuador, and is the 14th of its genus to be identified in the past five years.

A new species of spiny mouse has been discovered in Ecuador, making it the 14th of its genus to be identified in the past five years. Neacomys marci, which was previously confused with another species, is around the length of a tennis ball, with a long tail, pale suede belly fur and a white throat.

New species of spiny mouse pictured in its natural habitat.
Live specimen of new species Neacomys marci in its natural habitat.
Photo by: Jorge Brito

Discovered in the Chocó biogeographic region in northwestern Ecuador, it is the 24th formally recognised species in its genus, which has seen significant upheaval in recent years.

Researchers Nicolás Tinoco, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (Quito), Claudia Koch, Leibniz Institute for the Analysis of Biodiversity Change (Germany), Javier E. Colmenares-Pinzón, Universidad Industrial de Santander (Colombia) and Jorge Brito, Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (Quito, Ecuador) published their description of the rodent in the open access journal Zookeys.

Neacomys is a widely distributed genus of small spiny or bristly rodents that occupy habitats in eastern Panama and the northern half of South America. Since 2017, studies of the genus have been remarkably dynamic, resulting in the description of several new species.

New species of spiny mouse pictured in its natural habitat.
Live specimen of new species Neacomys marci in its natural habitat.
Photo by: Jorge Brito

However, as there are still many unexplored areas in South America and adjacent Central America (Panama), some of the currently recognised species have not been studied thoroughly, and the true diversity of the genus may be underestimated.

The Chocó biogeographic region is considered one of the most diverse biodiversity hotspots in South America, but one of the least studied despite its great size (along the Pacific coasts of Panama, Colombia and Ecuador). The rainforests of northwestern Ecuador have high biodiversity and endemism due to the influence of the Chocó and the Andes Mountains.

Natural habitat of new species of spiny mouse.
Habitat where specimens of Neacomys marci were collected in the study.
Photo by: Jorge Brito

Major reviews of museum collections and increased field collection efforts have helped scientists understand Neacomys marci and other species. Molecular analysis is also being used to assist with more accurate animal group identification.

The new species was named after Marc Hoogeslag of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, who was co-founder and leader of the International Union for Conservation of Nature – Netherlands Land Acquisition Fund, which helps local groups around the world establish new ecological reserves and conserve endangered species. The EcoMinga Foundation‘s Manduriacu Reserve, home to this new species, is one of many reserves that have benefited from Hoogeslag’s program.

Original Source:

Tinoco N, Koch C, Colmenares-Pinzón JE, Castellanos FX, Brito J (2023) New species of the Spiny Mouse genus Neacomys (Cricetidae, Sigmodontinae) from northwestern Ecuador. ZooKeys 1175: 187-221. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1175.106113

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Lost South American wildflower “extinctus” rediscovered (but still endangered)

Long believed to have gone extinct, Gasteranthus extinctus was found growing at Bosque y Cascada Las Rocas, a private reserve in coastal Ecuador.

Scientific names get chosen for lots of reasons: they can honor an important person, or hint at what an organism looks like or where it’s from. For a tropical wildflower first described by scientists in 2000, the scientific name “extinctus” was a warning. The orange wildflower had been found 15 years earlier in an Ecuadorian forest that had since been largely destroyed; the scientists who named it suspected that by the time they named it, it had already become extinct. But in a new paper in PhytoKeys, researchers report the first confirmed sightings of Gasteranthus extinctus in 40 years.

Long believed to have gone extinct, Gasteranthus extinctus was found growing next to a waterfall at Bosque y Cascada Las Rocas, a private reserve in coastal Ecuador containing a large population of the endangered plant. Photo by Riley Fortier.

Extinctus was given its striking name in light of the extensive deforestation in western Ecuador,” says Dawson White, a postdoctoral researcher at Chicago’s Field Museum and co-lead author of the paper. “But if you claim something’s gone, then no one is really going to go out and look for it anymore. There are still a lot of important species that are still out there, even though overall, we’re in this age of extinction.”

The bright orange flowers of the Ecuadorian cloud forest herb Gasteranthus extinctus, long believed to have gone extinct, light up the forest understory as if begging to be seen. Photo by Riley Fortier

The rediscovered plant is a small forest floor-dweller with flamboyant neon-orange flowers. 

“The genus name, Gasteranthus, is Greek for ‘belly flower.’ Their flowers have a big pouch on the underside with a little opening top where pollinators can enter and exit,” says White.

Photo by by Riley Fortier

G. extinctus is found in the foothills of the Andes mountains, where the land flattens to a plane that was once covered in cloud forest. The region, called the Centinela Ridge, is notorious among biologists for being home to a unique set of plants that vanished when its forests were almost completely destroyed in the 1980s. The late biologist E. O. Wilson even named the phenomenon of organisms instantly going extinct when their small habitat is destroyed “Centinelan extinction.”

Part of the team departs the field for the day with bags full of rare plant specimens, surrounded by the typical Centinelan landscape of tall, remnant trees scattered across pasture and farmland. Photo by Dawson White

The story of Centinela was also an alarm to draw attention to the fact that over 97% of the forests in the western half of Ecuador have been felled and converted to farmland. What remains is a fine mosaic of tiny islands of forest within a sea of bananas and a handful of other crops.

Sunset on the peak of Centinela Ridge in coastal Ecuador, near to where the first collections of the endangered wildflower Gasteranthus extinctus were made some 40 years ago. Photo by Nigel Pitman

“Centinela is a mythical place for tropical botanists,” says Pitman. “But because it was described by the top people in the field, no one really double-checked the science. No one went back to confirm that the forest was gone and those things were extinct.”

Part of the team that rediscovered Gasteranthus extinctus traverses steep ravines in the forests of coastal Ecuador in search of rare plants. From left: Washington Santillán, Sr. Hermogenes, Alix Lozinguez, and Nicolás Zapata. Photo by Thomas L.P. Couvruer

But around the time that Gasteranthus extinctus was first described in 2000, scientists were already showing that some victims of Centinelan extinction weren’t really extinct. Since 2009, a few scientists have mounted expeditions looking for G. extinctus was still around, but they weren’t successful. When White and Pitman received funding from the Field Museum’s Women’s Board to visit the Centinela Ridge, the team had a chance to check for themselves. 

Starting in the summer of 2021, they began combing through satellite images trying to identify primary rainforest that was still intact (which was difficult, White recalls, because most of the images of the region were obscured by clouds). They found a few contenders and assembled a team of ten botanists from six different institutions in Ecuador, the US, and France, including Juan Guevara, Thomas Couvreur, Nicolás Zapata, Xavier Cornejo, and Gonzalo Rivas. In November of 2021, they arrived at Centinela.

A sign points out the community of Centinela del Pichincha in coastal Ecuador, likely the namesake of the Centinela Ridge. Photo by Nigel Pitman

“It was my first time planning an expedition where we weren’t sure we’d even enter a forest,” says Pitman. “But as soon as we got on the ground we found remnants of intact cloud forest, and we spotted G. extinctus on the first day, within the first couple hours of searching. We didn’t have a photo to compare it to, we only had images of dried herbarium specimens, a line drawing, and a written description, but we were pretty sure that we’d found it based on its poky little hairs and showy “pot-bellied” flowers.”

Pitman recalls mixed emotions upon the team finding the flower. “We were really excited, but really tentative in our excitement — we thought, ‘Was it really that easy?’” he says. “We knew we needed to check with a specialist.”

From left: Ecuadorian botanists Juan Ernesto Guevara, Xavier Cornejo, and Gonzalo Rivas after a successful day of plant collecting on the Centinela Ridge in coastal Ecuador. Photo by Nigel Pitman

The researchers took photos and collected some fallen flowers, not wanting to harm the plants if they were the only ones remaining on Earth. They sent the photos to taxonomic expert John Clark, who confirmed that, yes, the flowers were the not-so-extinct G. extinctus. Thankfully, the team found many more individuals as they visited other forest fragments, and they collected museum specimens to voucher the discovery and leaves for DNA analysis. The team was also able to validate some unidentified photos posted on the community science app iNaturalist as G. extinctus.

After the field, the work isn’t finished! The team presses and preserves the specimens collected during the day. Photo by Riley Fortier

The plant will keep its name, says Pitman, because biology’s code of nomenclature has very specific rules around renaming an organism, and G. extinctus’s resurrection doesn’t make the cut.

While the flower remains highly endangered, the expedition found plenty of reasons for hope, the researchers say. 

“We walked into Centinela thinking it was going to break our heart, and instead we ended up falling in love,” says Pitman. “Finding G. extinctus was great, but what we’re even more excited about is finding some spectacular forest in a place where scientists had feared everything was gone.”

Botanist Riley Fortier admires the plantations, pastures, and remnants of old cloud forest that cover Centinela Ridge in coastal Ecuador. Photo by Dawson White

The team is now working with Ecuadorian conservationists to protect some of the remaining fragments where G. extinctus and the rest of the spectacular Centinelan flora lives on. 

“Rediscovering this flower shows that it’s not too late to turn around even the worst-case biodiversity scenarios, and it shows that there’s value in conserving even the smallest, most degraded areas,” says White. 

“It’s an important piece of evidence that it’s not too late to be exploring and inventorying plants and animals in the heavily degraded forests of western Ecuador. New species are still being found, and we can still save many things that are on the brink of extinction.”

Research article:

Pitman NCA, White DM, Guevara Andino JE, Couvreur TLP, Fortier RP, Zapata JN, Cornejo X, Clark JL, Feeley KJ, Johnston MK, Lozinguez A, Rivas-Torres G (2022) Rediscovery of Gasteranthus extinctus L.E.Skog & L.P.Kvist (Gesneriaceae) at multiple sites in western Ecuador. PhytoKeys 194: 33–46. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.194.79638 

New, possibly arboreal rice rat species discovered in Ecuador

Three expeditions led an international research team to the nearly inaccessible Cordillera de Kutukú in southeastern Ecuador to find just a single specimen of the previously unknown species

New rat species of the little known and rare genus Mindomys described: Three expeditions led an international research team with participation from the Leibniz Institute for the Analysis of Biodiversity Change (LIB) to the Cordillera de Kutukú, an isolated mountain range in Ecuador, to find just one specimen of the previously unknown species. The find in the Amazonian side of the Andes underlines the valuable biological role of this mountainous region.

Drawing of the new species Mindomys kutuku. © Glenda Pozo

“In total, the expeditions to the Kutukú region in southeastern Ecuador involved 1,200 trap nights, but only one specimen of the new species Mindomys kutuku was found,” says Dr. Claudia Koch, curator of herpetology at the LIB, Museum Koenig Bonn, explaining the effort that went into locating the rare animal. From the collected specimen, the dry skin, skeleton and tissue were preserved for the collections. Preservation will allow future research to detect environmental changes, learn more about the ecology of the animals and plants – and securely document the new species description, which was published in late February in the prestigious journal Evolutionary Systematics.

The rice rat genus Mindomys was previously considered monotypic and included only the type species Mindomys hammondi. This species is known from only a few specimens, all of which were collected in the foothill forests of the Andes in northwestern Ecuador.

Using computed tomography images obtained for the new species at LIB and for the holotype (specimen from which a species was described) of M. hammondi at the Natural History Museum in London, the researchers Jorge Brito of the Instituto Nacional de la Biodiversidad (INABIO), Claudia Koch, Nicolás Tinoco from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE) and Ulyses Pardiñas from the Instituto de Diversidad y Evolución del Sur (IDEAus-CONICET) were able to compare the skulls of the two species in great detail in a 3D model and distinguish between the two species.

According to Jorge Brito, INABIO’s mammal curator, the new species is easily distinguished from Mindomys hammondi by a number of anatomical features: “These include larger jugals, “wings” of the parietal bone extending to the zygomatic roots, larger otic capsules, narrow zygomatic plates almost without upper free borders, a posteriorly oriented foramen magnum (large occipital hole), larger molars and an accessory root of the first upper molar.”

The adult male of M. kutuku measures just under 35 cm from snout to tip of tail, of which the tail makes up about 20 cm. It has a dark reddish-brown dorsal coloration and a pale yellow ventral fur.

Since the only specimen found was captured with the help of a ground trap set, it could not be observed in its habitat. Thus, as with its sister species M. hammondi, which was described in 1913, virtually nothing is known about the natural history of the new species. The scientists suspect that both of them could be arboreal species. A tail that is significantly longer than the body length and also covered with long hairs could be two features that indicate an arboreal lifestyle. However, aboreality is the least studied way of life within the New World mice and a reliable study of the anatomical aspects typical of this way of life is still lacking.

Previously, Mindomys records were restricted to the western Andean foothills of Ecuador. The Kutukú material now shows that the genus also occurs on the Amazonian side of the Andes and underscores the valuable biological importance of the isolated mountain ranges in eastern Ecuador.

Research article:

Brito J, Koch C, Tinoco N, Pardiñas UFJ (2022) A new species of Mindomys (Rodentia, Cricetidae) with remarks on external traits as indicators of arboreality in sigmodontine rodents. Evolutionary Systematics 6(1): 35-55. https://doi.org/10.3897/evolsyst.6.76879

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Endangered new orchid discovered in Ecuador

The plant – unique with its showy, intense yellow flowers – was described by Polish orchidologists in collaboration with an Ecuadorian company operating in orchid research, cultivation and supply.

An astounding new species of orchid has been discovered in the cloud rainforest of Northern Ecuador. Scientifically named Maxillaria anacatalina-portillae, the plant – unique with its showy, intense yellow flowers – was described by Polish orchidologists in collaboration with an Ecuadorian company operating in orchid research, cultivation and supply. 

A specimen of the newly described orchid species Maxillaria anacatalina-portillae in its natural habitat. Photо by Alex Portilla

Known from a restricted area in the province of Carchi, the orchid is presumed to be a critically endangered species, as its rare populations already experience the ill-effects of climate change and human activity. The discovery was aided by a local commercial nursery, which was already cultivating these orchids. The study is published in the open-access journal PhytoKeys.

During the past few years, scientists from the University of Gdańsk (Poland) have been working intensely on the classification and species delimitations within the Neotropical genus Maxillaria – one of the biggest in the orchid family. They have investigated materials deposited in most of the world’s herbarium collections across Europe and the Americas, and conducted several field trips in South America in the search of the astonishing plants.

The newly described orchid species Maxillaria anacatalina-portillae. Photо by Hugo Medina

The first specimens of what was to become known as the new to science Maxillaria anacatalina-portillae were collected by Alex Portilla, photographer and sales manager at Ecuagenera, an Ecuadorian company dedicated to orchid research, cultivation and supply, on 11th November 2003 in Maldonado, Carchi Province (northern Ecuador). There, he photographed the orchid in its natural habitat and then brought it to the greenhouses of his company for cultivation. Later, its offspring was offered at the commercial market under the name of a different species of the same genus: Maxillaria sanderiana ‘xanthina’ (‘xanthina’ in Latin means ‘yellow’ or ‘red-yellow’). 

In the meantime, Prof. Dariusz L. Szlachetko and Dr. Monika M. Lipińska would encounter the same intriguing plants with uniquely colored flowers on several different occasions. Suspecting that they may be facing an undescribed taxon, they joined efforts with Dr. Natalia Olędrzyńska and Aidar A. Sumbembayev, to conduct additional morphological and phylogenetic analyses, using samples from both commercial and hobby growers, as well as crucial plants purchased from Ecuagenera that were later cultivated in the greenhouses of the University of Gdańsk.

As their study confirmed that the orchid was indeed a previously unknown species, the scientists honored the original discoverer of the astonishing plant by naming it after his daughter: Ana Catalina Portilla Schröder.

Research paper:

Lipińska MM, Olędrzyńska N, Portilla A, Łuszczek D, Sumbembayev AA, Szlachetko DL (2022) Maxillaria anacatalinaportillae (Orchidaceae, Maxillariinae), a new remarkable species from Ecuador. PhytoKeys 190: 15-33. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.190.77918

UCF student names a new frog species after her professor


The newly described species Pristimantis quintanai.
Photo by UCF, Veronica Urgiles.

The team described two new species from the Ecuadorian Andes

University of Central Florida student Veronica Urgiles has helped describe two new frog species discovered in Ecuador, and she named one of them after one of her professors.

Urgiles and an international team of researchers published their findings in the journal ZooKeys.

UCF student Veronica Urgiles named one of the new frog species in honor of Biology Professor Pedro Quintana-Ascencio for his years of dedication to conservation efforts in Ecuador.
Photo by UCF, Karen Norum.

She explains:

“Frogs are by far my favorite. So, getting to describe and name two of them is terrific. I have been looking at these frogs for years now, so going over the whole process of observing them in their habitats and then analyzing them and comparing them under the microscope, to finally naming them is a long, but very satisfying journey.”

Urgiles, a 2017 Fulbright scholar and the lead author, said she chose to attend UCF for its integration of genetics and genomics in biodiversity research and the emphasis on real-world application. She works with Assistant Professor Anna Savage who specializes in species diversity based on molecular analyses.

“One of the things that I found most interesting about these guys is that they don’t have metamorphosis like a regular frog, but instead they develop entirely inside eggs that adult females deposit in the ground,” Urgiles said. “They really don’t need water bodies for their development. Both of the new frog species inhabit high elevation ecosystems in the mountain range over 8,000 feet, so even though we are right there in the equator, it’s very cold and windy most of the year.”

The team of researchers has been studying frogs in Ecuador the past few years. In 2017, Urgiles found the first new species and named it Pristimantis quintanai, after one of her biology professors — Pedro Quintana-Ascencio. She and Savage found the second species — Pristimantis cajanuma — in 2018. Both were found in the Paramo and montane forest of the southern Ecuadorean Andes.

The newly described species Pristimantis cajanuma.
Photo by UCF, Veronica Urgiles.

The frogs are tiny, measuring 0.8 inch. Pristimantis quintanai females are brown and black and Pristimantis cajanuma are green and black, both easily blending into the foliage. They have a distinct call that is sharp and continuous, sounding like tik-tik-tik-tik.

Urgiles examined DNA samples collected by the international team back in Savage’s lab at UCF, generated genetic sequences, and constructed the phylogenetic analysis. Other team members also worked the morphological diagnosis and comparisons with other frogs and an acoustic analysis of the frogs’ calls.

Anna Savage, whose expertise includes describing species diversity based on molecular analyses, says:

“In these analyses, we use all of the genetic similarities and differences we find to build phylogenetic trees, and when we find that a ‘branch’ on the ‘tree’ has strong support and contains all of the individuals that share the same morphological characteristics, then we have good evidence to describe it as a new species. We used this method, along with vocalization and location data, to conclude that the two species we describe are distinct from any other species that have ever been characterized.”

The work is critical because of the vast diversity that has yet to be discovered in the tropical Andes of South America, Urgiles adds. In 2018, 13 new species of frogs were documented in the tropical Andes of Ecuador and so far in 2019 five new frogs have been documented.

There are potentially thousands of new plants and animals in the area that may hold the key to other discoveries. It’s important to know what is there, to better understand the threats to habitat loss and disease so conservation methods can be established to protect the resources.

Veronica Urgiles, a UCF student pursuing a master’s in biology. She named one of the two frog species that she and her team discovered after one of her professors.
Photo by UCF, Karen Norum.

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Text originally by UCF.

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Original source:

Urgiles VL, Székely P, Székely D, Christodoulides N, Sanchez-Nivicela JC, Savage AE (2019) Genetic delimitation of Pristimantis orestes (Lynch 1979) and P. saturninoi Brito et al., 2017 and the description of two new terrestrial frogs from the Pristimantis orestes species group (Anura, Strabomantidae). ZooKeys 864: 111-146. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.864.35102

Naming rights for 5 new snail-sucking snake species auctioned to save rainforests in Ecuador

Sibon bevridgelyi is arguably the prettiest of the lot. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

The existence of five delightfully weird snail-sucking snakes slithering through the forest floors of Ecuador was announced by a group of scientists in a study in the open access journal Zookeys.

Believe or not, there is an entire group of snakes for which snails are number one on their menu. This is why their jaws are modified in such a way that they can suck the viscous slimy body of a snail right out of its shell.

Dipsas bobridgelyi trying to suck a snail out of its shell. Photo by Matthijs Hollanders.

Luckily for us, these snakes are harmless to humans. However, humans are not harmless to them. Four out of the five newly discovered species are already facing the possibility of becoming extinct, as the forest remnants they call home are currently being destroyed.

In a bid to take care after the unfortunate reptiles, the scientists auctioned the naming rights for the new species at a recent event in New York City. The money are to purchase and save a previously unprotected 72 ha (178 acre) plot of land where some of these species live.

To do so, Fundación Jocotoco is to add the purchased plot to the Buenaventura reserve, in order to expand the only protected area where two of the new snakes are found, and prevent these endangered snake species from going extinct.

Dipsas bobridgelyi. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

Three of the five species were discovered during a series of expeditions to three rainforests in Ecuador between 2013 and 2017, conducted by Alejandro Arteaga, an Ecuadorian–Venezuelan PhD student at the American Museum of Natural History and scientific director of Tropical Herping, who partnered with Dr. Alex Pyron, The George Washington University and National Museum of Natural History, USA.

In another habitat type, the dry forest, Ecuadorian scientists Dr. Omar Torres-Carvajal, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE), David Salazar-Valenzuela, Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica, Diego Cisneros-Heredia, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Juan Carlos Sánchez, Universidad del Azuay, Mario Yánez-Muñoz, Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad  (INABIO), and Peruvian scientist Pablo Venegas, CORBIDI, noted the existence of the other two new species.

“We had to let people know that these cool snakes exist,” Alejandro said, “and that these species might soon stop to exist, and we need people’s help to protect the snake’s habitat.”

In order to confirm these five snakes as new species, the team of researchers, particularly Drs. Konrad Mebert, Universidade Estadual de Santa Cruz, Nicolás Peñafiel, Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica, Gabriela Aguiar, Tropical Herping, and Timothy Colston, The George Washington University and National Museum of Natural History, USA, counted scales and gathered measurements from more than 200 museum specimens, and extracted DNA from nearly 100 snakes.

PhD student Alejandro Arteaga measured snake specimens at various museums, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Having made the highest bid at the auction, Rainforest Trust (RT) and Bob Ridgely got to name three of the five new snakes.

Thus, the species Dipsas georgejetti now honors George Jett, who supported the inception of Fundación Jocotoco’s reserves in Ecuador; while Dipsas bobridgelyi is a tribute to Dr. Robert “Bob” S. Ridgely, a leading ornithologist and distinguished conservationist who helped the establishment of the Buenaventura reserve. Bob, who was at the auction, chose the name Sibon bevridgelyi (Bev Ridgely’s Snail-Eater) to honor his father.

Dipsas georgejetti is found in only in dry forests in the coast of Ecuador. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

The remaining two snail-eating species, Dipsas oswaldobaezi and D. klebbai, were named after Dr. Oswaldo Báez and Casey Klebba, respectively, in recognition for their passion for Ecuador’s biodiversity and conservation.

Dipsas klebbai is the only one among the new species currently not threatened with extinction. Photo by Alejandro Arteaga.

“Several companies let you name a star after a loved one,” Alejandro says, “but, generally, such names have no formal validity. Naming an entire species after someone you love or admire is different. With few exceptions, this is the name that both the general public and the whole scientific community will use. So, why not let people choose the name of a species in exchange for a donation that protects its habitat?”

Dipsas oswaldobaezi photographed at Reserva la Ceiba. Photo by Jose Vieira.

The act of naming species is essential in raising awareness about the existence of a species and its risk of extinction, but it also provides an opportunity to recognize and honor the work of the people and institutions fighting to protect the species.

“Naming species is at the core of biology,” says Dr. Juan M. Guayasamin, co-author of the study and a professor at Universidad San Francisco in Quito. “Not a single study is really complete if it is not attached to the name of the species, and most species that share the planet with us are not described.”

“Everybody knows elephants and orangutans,” says Dr. Martin Schaefer of Fundación Jocotoco, “but some reptiles and amphibians are even more threatened. Yet, we still lack even the basic information to protect them better. This is why the work by scientists is so important; it provides the necessary information to guide our conservation decisions.”

“Through photography or by joining a scientific expedition, the general public can learn more about hidden biodiversity and how threatened it is,” says Lucas Bustamante of Tropical Herping. “This is a model to obtain support for research and conservation while recruiting more environmental ambassadors.”

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Find out more about the Tropical Herping’s scientific discoveries and expeditions on Instagram and Facebook.

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Watch the video below to follow entomologist and science communicator Phil Torres as he joins Alejandro Arteaga for one of his expeditions to document what it takes to find a new snake.

Academic paper:

Arteaga A, Salazar-Valenzuela D, Mebert K, Peñafiel N, Aguiar G, Sánchez-Nivicela JC, Pyron RA, Colston TJ, Cisneros-Heredia DF, Yánez-Muñoz MH, Venegas PJ, Guayasamin JM, Torres-Carvajal O (2018) Systematics of South American snail eating snakes (Serpentes, Dipsadini), with the description of five new species from Ecuador and Peru. ZooKeys 766: 79–147. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.766.24523

New species of frog from the Neotropics carries its heart on its skin

In the Neotropics, there is a whole group of so-called glassfrogs that amaze with their transparent skin covering their bellies and showing their organs underneath. A recently discovered new species from Amazonian Ecuador, however, goes a step further to fully expose its heart thanks to the transparent skin stretching all over its chest as well as tummy.

The new amphibian is described by a team of scientists led by Dr. Juan M. Guayasamin, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador, in the open access journal ZooKeys.

It can also be distinguished by the relatively large dark green spots at the back of its head and the foremost part of the body. Additionally, the species has a characteristic long call.

The new frog is named Hyalinobatrachium yaku, where the species name (yaku) translates to ‘water’ in the local language Kichwa. Water and, more specifically, slow-flowing streams are crucial for the reproduction of all known glassfrogs.

The reproductive behaviour is also quite unusual in this species. Males are often reported to call from the underside of leaves and look after the egg clutches.

Having identified individuals of the new species at three localities, the researchers note some behavioural differences between the populations. Two of them, spotted in the riverine vegetation of an intact forest in Kallana, have been calling from the underside of leaves a few metres above slow-flowing, relatively narrow and shallow streams. Another frog of the species has been observed in an area covered by secondary forests in the Ecuadorian village of Ahuano. Similarly, the amphibian was found on the underside of a leaf one metre above a slow-flowing, narrow and shallow stream.

oo_135330However, at the third locality – a disturbed secondary forest in San José de Payamino – the studied frogs have been perching on leaves of small shrubs, ferns, and grasses some 30 to 150 cm above the ground. Surprisingly, each of them has been at a distance greater than 30 metres from the nearest stream.

The researchers note that, given the geographic distance of approximately 110 km between the localities where the new species has been found, it is likely that the new species has a broader distribution, including areas in neighbouring Peru.

The uncertainty about its distributional range comes from a number of reasons. Firstly, the species’ tiny size of about 2 cm makes it tough to spot from underneath the leaves. Then, even if specimens of the species have been previously collected, they would be almost impossible to identify from museum collection, as many of the characteristic traits, such as the dark green marks, are getting lost after preservation. This is why the conservation status of the species has been listed as Data Deficient, according to the IUCN Red List criteria.

Nevertheless, the scientists identify the major threats to the species, including oil extraction in the region and the related water pollution, road development, habitat degradation and isolation.

“Glassfrogs presumably require continuous tracts of forest to interact with nearby populations, and roads potentially act as barriers to dispersal for transient individuals,” explain the authors.

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Original source:

Guayasamin JM, Cisneros-Heredia DF, Maynard RJ, Lynch RL, Culebras J, Hamilton PS (2017) A marvelous new glassfrog (Centrolenidae, Hyalinobatrachium) from Amazonian Ecuador. ZooKeys 673: 1-20. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.673.12108

Disentangling the myth of the singing bushmaster viper with the help of tree frogs

Reaching over 3.5 m in length, the bushmaster (belonging in the Lachesis genus) is the largest viper in the western hemisphere. Legend spread among both colonists and natives from the Amazon region and Central America has it that it sings. Finding these numerous unrelated reports quite puzzling, since it is well known that snakes cannot sing, scientists took to finally disentangle the myth.photo-2

When the researchers recently conducted fieldwork in Amazonian Ecuador and Peru, they revealed it was not the snake singing. The ‘song’ was indeed the call of large tree frogs that live in hollow trunks in the forest.

While local guides in both countries attributed the songs to the bushmaster, the amphibians were almost completely unknown. To their surprise, instead of finding a snake, the field teams found two species of frogs of the genus Tepuihyla. The results are published in the open access journal ZooKeys in a collaborative effort by scientists from Catholic University of Ecuador, the Peruvian Institute of Research of the Amazon, Ecuadorian Museum of Natural Sciences, and Colorado State University, USA.

One of the tree frogs is a new species, Tepuihyla shushupe. The word shushupe is used by native people to refer to the bushmaster. The calls are highly unusual for frogs because they are a loud chuckle resembling the song of a bird. It is still unknown why locals associate the calls of the two species with the bushmaster.

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photo-3Original source:

Ron SR, Venegas PJ, Ortega-Andrade HM, Gagliardi-Urrutia G, Salerno P (2016) Systematics of Ecnomiohyla tuberculosa with the description of a new species and comments on the taxonomy of Trachycephalus typhonius (Anura, Hylidae). ZooKeys 630: 115-154. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.630.9298