Hidden diversity of mammals

New species Chilomys georgeledecii. Photo: Jorge Brito.

New species Chilomys georgeledecii. Click to enlarge. Photo: Jorge Brito.

Some groups of animals just don’t get enough love. The little forest mice of the genus Chilomys are such a group. They are hardly ever seen, and they all look pretty much the same at first galnce. Taxonomists have not paid much attention to them, and all specimens of Chilomys from the northern Andes of South America were lazily classified into just one or two species (depending on the taxonomist). However, in recent years there have been suggestions that there may be more species of these little mice. It is hard to know for sure, though. If all we have are a few specimens, each from different locations, how can we know that subtle differences between them are not just due to geographical variation of a single species? And if we have two slightly different specimens from a single location, how do we know that the differences between them are not simply due to individual variation (like hair color in humans)?

In order to answer these questions, we need more information. We need to look at many different individuals in a single location, and we need to look at more locations. And we have to look at many different traits, not just one or two. Then we will be able to see if the individuals can be grouped into discrete groups, with no intermediate individuals between groups. That will indicate the groups probably represent good species; DNA evidence can then be used to confirm this conclusion. (Recall that a biological species is a population that can freely interbreed , but which rarely or never breed with other populations.)

A few years ago a team of scientists led by Jorge Brito began the difficult task of trying to figure out these questions for the small rodents of Ecuador, including Chilomys. I’ve written before about the new genus of mammal that he discovered in the course of this work. This week he finally published the results of his long study of the Chilomys mice. The  new publication reports the discovery of at least five new species of Chilomys mice in Ecuador! Two of them are known only from our Dracula Reserve in northwest Ecuador (province of Carchi), while a third new species is more widespread and occurs in our Naturetrek-Viscaya Reserve in east-central Ecuador (Banos area, province of Tungurahua).

One of the new species from the Dracula Reserve was named Chilomys georgeledecii after the international conservationist George Ledec.  It lives at a wide range of elevations, from 1500m to more than 2300m, and it is one of the smallest members of the genus in Ecuador. It lives in the same forests as the other new species from the Dracula Reserve, which was named C. carapazi after the Olympic bicycle racing gold-medalist Richard Carapaz, who is a native of Carchi province where the species was discovered. He is a hero in Ecuador, a role model and inspiraton, and everyone in Carchi looks up to him. Jorge Brito was very pleased to be able to honor him in this way. This species is the biggest member of the genus and it was found at an elevation of 2350m.

Chilomys carapazii

New species Chilomys carapazi, named after Ecuadorian Olympian Richard Carapaz who is from Carchi province. Painting by Glenda Pozo.

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Richard Carapaz winning an Olympic Gold Medal for Ecuador. Photo: EFE

Another of the newly recognized species is C. percequilloi, named after a Brazilian mammologist. It lives from 1600m to over 4000m on the eastern slope of the Andes in Ecuador, including our Naturetrek-Viscaya Reserve. Two other species were also discovered, C. neisi from Zamora-Chinchipe and El Oro provinces in Ecuador at 2500-2900m, and  C. weksleri from the west-central Andes of Ecuador from 1600-3200m.

DNA analysis performed by the authors shows that the genus Chilomys is a relatively young genus, less than 2.5 million years old, so the species described here are probably young species which evolved due to repeated Pleistocene isolation events driven by glacial cycles. This is similar to the time scales we see in Andean orchids, but much younger than some of the frog species we have discovered, as I will report shortly.

The previously-hidden diversity of these Chilomys mice is probably not unique. Other closely related genera (Neusticomys, Microryzomys, Oreoryzomys, Neomicroxus, etc)  are also apparently far richer in species than we currently believe. Surely there will be more mammal discoveries to report here soon!

Jorge Brito’s work was made possible in part by donations to EcoMinga by Rainforest Trust and the University of Basel Botanical Gardens. Our reserve guards, especially Eduardo Pena and Fausto Recalde, worked closely with Jorge’s team in the field and helped prepare the specimens. Their salaries are paid by World Land Trust’s Keepers of the Wild porgram and Humans For Abundance.

Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga

National Geographic features our newest glass frog

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New glass frog Hyalinobatrachium nouns, photo by Jaime Culebras.

A few days ago I wrote about the discovery of a new glass frog, Hyalinobatrachium nouns, in our Manduriacu Reserve. National Geographic now features this frog and its relative, H. mashpi, in a beautifully illustrated article. Highly recommended:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/two-new-species-of-glassfrog-discovered

Previously, Nat Geo also featured an article about an earlier glass frog discovery, Nymphargus manduriacu, in the same reserve:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/translucent-glass-frog-species-found-in-ecuador

Lou Jost., President, Fundacion EcoMinga

The town of Tulcan passes a law to protect our Dracula Reserve!

The mayor of Tulcan, Cristian Benavides Fuentes, has long been a supporter of our conservation work within his jurisdiction. He’s visited our Dracula Reserve (which is partly in the Tulcan township) and often speaks about it to the public, emphasizing its uniqueness and the many new species found there. He has helped make the people of Tulcan proud of its natural heritage. We are sure that the residents of Tulcan, and their children, and their children’s children, will always be grateful for the visionary Tulcan leaders who made the decision to protect nature.

Congratulations to our excellent Dracula team, especially our director Javier Robayo, Gabriela Puetate, and Geovana Robayo.

The new municipal ordinance gives an important additional layer of legal protection to the Dracula Reserve, especially against mining. The new ordinance, which was passed unanimously by the Tulcan city council, is quite an achievement considering the level of anti-conservation pressure and disinformation fomented by the mining companies in the area. We are very proud of our team, and also proud of our scientific collaborators, who have been  active in raising local awareness about the new species they have discovered. For example, they named the orchid Lepanthes tulcanensis for the town, and they had a public contest to name the new frog Hyloscirtus conciencia.

We are currently working on new conservation awareness projects with the town government, and we look forward to more collaborations in the future. This is how conservation should be done, hand in hand with all the stakeholders. We have also achieved this in our Banos-area reserves, which are inside an area designated for sustainable development and conservation by the municipal governments there.

Lou Jost, President, Fundacion EcoMinga

 

Our Executive Director Javier Robayo selected as one of the Explorers Club’s “50 people changing the world”

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Javier Robayo. Photo: Callie Broaddus

Last week the Explorers Club chose our hard-working Executive Director Javier Robayo as one of the 50 most important new voices for the earth. He is one of only five South American conservationists to be recognised by this award this year. Javier’s nominator, Callie Broaddus of “Reserva: Youth Land Trust” (herself a winner of this award), wrote the following about Javier’s award:

“Robayo is the executive director of Fundación EcoMinga, a nonprofit which maintains over 27,000 acres of protected areas in Ecuador’s Chocó and Tropical Andes. As a biologist and educator, he has led more than 200 research and teaching expeditions in Ecuador. His extensive, collaborative field work has led to the discovery of more than 10 species of orchids, a new genus containing two species of rodents, and a new genus of frog, and five other species of amphibians. He shows respect and love for the earth by helping his park rangers and young researchers recognize and protect species in this biodiversity hotspot. Robayo’s work focuses on highlighting biodiversity to prevent the deforestation of these irreplaceable forests, which are severely threatened by agricultural deforestation and mining exploration.”

(See more of her article here.)

Javier explains his own work:

“Our mountains are full of endemic species and expressions of biodiversity in shapes and sizes never imagined, and exploration is endless. The petals, scales, feathers and sounds that fill our forests teach us about degrading habitats and their absence gives meaning to silence. My work involves creating private protected areas that provide habitat to Ecuador’s most threatened species, safeguarding areas of high biodiversity, and protecting clean water sources for the benefit of both wildlife and people. My commitment is to motivate local and indigenous people to join in scientific exploration and synchronize local mythology with natural history as we work together for the preservation of Ecuador’s biodiversity. My work in cloud forest conservation requires a constant exploration mindset. By leading fieldwork expeditions, I explore lands that are not yet studied, often uncovering completely new species. I also explore ways to engage local people in the value of scientific studies and how to employ them in conser-vation work on their ancestral lands. Our work can be stronger when we invite help from youth scientists and storytellers. Historically, conservation has been unsuccessful in areas where protectors of the forest were blind to the needs of the community. As much as we explore the land in a traditional sense, we must explore our community. We have the responsibility to take care of the forest while also bringing together funders, experts, young Ecuadorian researchers, lawyers, communicators, community members, and scientists in the country’s most remote places. By expanding the network of people who explore the forests together, we expand the definition of exploration itself.”

Pleurothalis thryssa? maybe more than one species?

Javier Robayo examining orchids. Photo: Callie Broaddus.

I first met Javier in the late 1990s after I gave a lecture at the university where he was a student. Later I got to know him better in his job as the tireless administrator of Fundacion Jocotoco’s southrn reserves in Ecuador. That foundation is focused on bird conservation, but Javier and I and one of the foundation’s trustees, Nigel Simpson, would explore the reserves to find interesting plants and sometimes discover new species. Javier not only loved plants but also knew how to deal with people in difficult situations; I particularly remember his bravery and success in confronting potentially dangerous squatters in the Rio Guajalito Reserve and convincing them to leave. Javier took his responsibilities very seriously and spent much oif his time racing hundreds of miles between reserves to stay on top of things throughout southern Ecuador.

Eventually Fundacion EcoMinga was founded, and when it grew large enough to require a dedicated administrator, I thought of Javier as the perfect person for the job. He accepted my invitation and left Fundacion Jocotoco. SInce then he has worked with amazing energy, and still spends much of his time racing around Ecuador to stay on top of the situations in each of our reserves. This is a grueling life that is difficult to sustain.  A few days ago Javier was in a car accident on his way to the Dracula Reserve, brought on by exhaustion. He received minor injuries. As he and our other staff continue to work to exhaustion, we hope to eventually grow our staff and delegate some of the work, but people like Javier are difficult to find.

Our partner the World Land Trust recognizes Javier’s award here.

Our partner Rainforest Trust had made Javier a conservation fellow a few years ago and made this video of him:

 

Congratulations Javier, and I hope to have the honor of working with you for many more years.

Lou Jost, President, Fundacon EcoMinga

New glass frog published today from our Manduriacu Reserve!

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Hyalinobatrachium nouns. Click to enlarge. Photo: Jaime Culebras.

[Traduccion en español abajo]

Western Ecuador is exceptionally rich in glass frogs, named because their underside is transparent and their internal organs are clearly visible. Today a group of herpetologists published the descriptions of two new species of glass frogs in the genus Hyalinobatrachium from western Ecuador. These are exceptionally beautiful frogs and the discoverers were very excited to have found them. One species, H. nouns, was found in our Manduriacu Reserve and nearby Los Cedros Reserve, and the other, H. mashpi, was discovered in the nearby Mashpi Reserve. Though the two species look similar to each other, their genetic differences are  large relative to the genetic distances between some other species pairs. They are examples of cryptic diversity that might have gone undetected if no one had bothered to analyze their DNA.

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Frogas A and B are H. mashpi. Frogs C and D are H. nouns. From the original article..

The species found in our reserve, H. nouns, was named in honor of Nouns, a global decentralized organization composed of owners of Nouns characters, which are digital art creations that live on the blockchain. The Nouns organization funds projects that protect the wonders of nature, and their support for EcoMinga has been very important to us.

Juan Manuel Guayasamin (the lead author of the paper) and Jaime Culebras sent me this account of how they found H. nouns:

“In March of 2012, in a field trip as part of a master’s degree program of the Universidad Indoamerica (Ecuador) and UIMP (Spain), a team of students and professors (Mariela Palacios, Jaime Culebras y Juan Manuel Guayasamin) found a beautiful glass frog on a leaf over a little stream in  the Los Cedros Reserve (http://reservaloscedros.org/about/), in the Cordillera de Toisán, Ecuador.”

“At the time it was identified as “Hyalinobatrachium valerioi”, but doubts about the identity stayed with us. Some years later, we found more examples in the Río Manduriacu Reserve (Fundacion EcoMinga), which adjoins Los Cedros Reserve, in several expeditions led by The Biodiversity Group, Fundación Cóndor, Fundación Ecominga, Centro Jambatu, the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) y Photo Wildlife Tours. In these trips, during the night,  we heard frog songs in the distance, very distinct from those of the glass frogs previously known from the area (H. valerioi y H. aureoguttatum). We began to think it was possible that we were faced with a new species.”

“Finally, after years of gathering  data, we made various morphological and genetic analyses, which showed that this beautiful frog was indeed new.  The new species, which we named Hyalinobatrachium nouns, is mophologically identical to another species which we also described from the Mashpi Reserve and Tayra Reserve (H. mashpi). Nevertheless we found that the genetic differentiatiom between these two species is 4.6%-4.7%, indicating that the two species are distinct in spite of the very small distance separating the populations (less than 20 km),  20 kms). This shows us once again that the Andes in general, and the Cordillera del Toisán in particular, have a very high level of endemism.”

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Hyalinobatrachium nouns hanging from the underside of a leaf with an egg cluster. Photo: Jose Vieira.

Not much is known about the ecology and behavior of H. nouns, but it is probably similar to that of H. mashpi and other glass frogs in the same genus.  Members of this genus typically sit on the undersides of leaves along steep streams; H. mashpi was mostly 3-14 meters above the ground, makig them very difficult to find. Males of H. mashpi have been found near egg clusters, perhaps guarding them.

Both these new species have tiny ranges in a region where mining is a constant threat. The authors recommend that both species be classified as “Endangered” under the criteria of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The scientfic paper describing these frogs says this about their conservation status:

“Amphibians are the most threatened Andean vertebrates. Amphibian diversity and endemicity are particularly accentuated in the Andes––roughly 70% of the 1,120 reported species are endemic (CEPF, 2021). The Andes also boasts the highest rate of new amphibian species discoveries of any biogeographic region in South America (Vasconcelos et al., 2019; Womack et al., 2021). Yet, amphibians are particularly susceptible to anthropogenic impacts (Duellman & Trueb, 1994; Lips et al., 2006; Pounds et al., 2006; Scheele et al., 2019), which are immense in the Andes. Currently, only 8% of Andean amphibian species are well-protected (Bax & Francesconi, 2019). An array of human pressures continues to diminish the integrity of Andean terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems (Myers et al., 2000; Knee & Encalada, 2014; Roy et al., 2018; Bax & Francesconi, 2019; CEPF, 2021; Torremorell et al., 2021). As a result, taxonomic groups such as glassfrogs—where a majority of members are endemic to the Tropical Andes, and individual species often have highly restricted distributions—are especially at risk of population declines and extinction (Aguilar et al., 2012; Guayasamin et al., 2019b, 2020; Ortega-Andrade et al., 2021).”

Thanks very much to Juan Manuel Guayasamin, the Biodiversity Group, the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, and the rest of the team for investigating our reserves’ biodiversity and supporting our conservation work! Thanks also to our partner Rainforest Trust (US) which supports our work in the Choco region and which connected us with Nouns DOA, and to World Land Trust for their support of our work in the region as well.

Lou Jost, President, Fundacion EcoMinga

¡Nueva ranita de cristal de nuestra Reserva Manduriacu publicada hoy!

IMG 01 – Hyalinobatrachium nouns. Click para agrandar. Fotografía: Jaime Culebras

El occidente de Ecuador es excepcionalmente rico en ranitas de cristal, nombradas así debido a que su vientre es transparente y sus órganos internos son claramente visibles. Hoy un grupo de herpetòlogos publicaron las descripciones de dos nuevas especies de ranas de cristal en el género Hyalinobatrachium del occidente de Ecuador. Estas son ranas excepcionalmente hermosas y los descubridores estaban muy emocionados de haberlas encontrado. Una especie, H. nouns, fue encontrada en nuestra Reserva Manduriacu y en la cercana Reserva Los Cedros, y la otra, H. mashpi, fue descubierta en la cercana Reserva Mashpi. Aunque ambas especies se ven similares entre sí, sus diferencias genéticas son grandes en relación con las distancias genéticas entre algunos otros pares de especies. Ellas son ejemplo de diversidad críptica que pudo haber pasado desapercibida si nadie se hubiese interesado en analizar su ADN.

IMG 02 – Ranas A y B son H. mashpi. Ranas C y D son H. nouns. Del artículo original.

Las especies encontradas en nuestra reserva, H. nouns, fue nombrada en honor a Nouns, una organización global descentralizada compuesta de dueños de los caracteres Nouns los cuales son creaciones de arte digitales que viven en el blockchain (cadena de bloques). La organización Nouns financia proyectos que protegen las maravillas de la naturaleza, y su aporte a EcoMinga ha sido muy importante para nosotros.

Juan Manuel Guayasamín (el autor principal del artículo) y Jaime Culebras, me enviaron este reporte de como ellos encontraron a H. nouns:

“En Marzo del 2012, en una salida de campo como parte de un programa de masterado de la Universidad Indoamerica (Ecuador) y UIMP (España), un equipo de estudiantes y profesores (Mariela Palacios, Jaime Culebras y Juan Manuel Guayasamín) encontraron una hermosa ranita de cristal en una hoja sobre un pequeño arroyo en la Reserva Los Cedros (http://reservaloscedros.org/about/), en la Cordillera de Toisán, Ecuador.”

“Al momento fue identificada como “Hyalinobatrachium valerioi“, pero las dudas sobre su identidad se quedaron con nosotros. Algunos años después, encontramos más ejemplares en la Reserva Río Manduriacu (Fundación EcoMinga), la cual colinda con la Reserva Los Cedros, en varias expediciones lideradas por The Biodiversity Group, Fundación Cóndor, Fundación Ecominga, Centro Jambatu, la Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) y Photo Wildlife Tours. En estas expediciones, durante la noche, escuchábamos a lo lejos los cantos de rana, muy distintos a los de las ranas de cristal previamente conocidas en el área (H. valerioi y H. aureguttatum). Empezamos a pensar que era posible que nos encontráramos con una nueva especie.”

“Finalmente, después de años de recopilación de datos, hicimos varios análisis morfológicos y genéticos, los cuales mostraron que esta hermosa rana en efecto era nueva. La nueva especie, a la cual nombramos Hyalinobatrachium nouns, es morfológicamente idéntica a otra especie que también describimos de la Reserva Mashpi y la Reserva Tayra (H. mashpi). Sin embargo, encontramos que la diferenciación genética entre estas dos especies es 4.6 – 4.7%, lo que indica que ambas especies son distintas a pesar de la muy pequeña distancia que separa las poblaciones (menos de 20 km). Esto nos muestra una vez más que los Andes en general, y la Cordillera del Toisán en particular, tienen un alto nivel de endemismo”.

IMG 03 – Hyalinobatrachium nouns colgando del envés de una hoja con un grupo de huevos. Fotografía: José Vieira

No se conoce mucho sobre la ecología y comportamiento de H. nouns, pero es probablemente similar a aquella de H. mashpi y otras ranas de cristal en el mismo género. Miembros de este género típicamente se posan en el e​nvès de las hojas a lo largo de arroyos empinados; H. mashpi se encontraba mayormente a 3-14 metros sobre el suelo, haciéndolas muy difìciles de encontrar. Los machos de H. mashpi han sido encontrados cerca de grupos de huevos, tal vez cuidándolos.

Ambas especies nuevas tienen pequeños rangos en una región donde la minería es una amenaza constante. Los autores recomiendan que ambas especies sean clasificadas como “En Peligro” bajo los criterios de la Unión Internacional para la Conservación de la Naturaleza (UICN). El artículo científico describiendo estas ranas dice lo siguiente sobre su estado de conservación:

“Los anfibios son los vertebrados andinos más amenazados. La diversidad de anfibios y su endemismo son particularmente marcados en Los Andes — aproximadamente el 70% de las 1120 especies reportadas son endémicas (CEPF, 2021). Los Andes también cuentan con la tasa más alta de descubrimientos de nuevas especies de anfibios de cualquier región biogeográfica en América del Sur (Vasconcelos et al., 2019Womack et al., 2021). sin embargo, los anfibios son particularmente susceptibles a los impactos antropogénicos (Duellman & Trueb, 1994Lips et al., 2006Pounds et al., 2006Scheele et al., 2019), los cuales son inmensos en los Andes. Actualmente, solo el 8% de las especies de anfibios andinos estan bien protegidos. (Bax & Francesconi, 2019). Una serie de presiones humanas continúa disminuyendo la integridad de los ecosistemas andinos terrestres y de agua dulce  (Myers et al., 2000Knee & Encalada, 2014Roy et al., 2018Bax & Francesconi, 2019CEPF, 2021Torremorell et al., 2021). Como resultado, los grupos taxonómicos como las ranitas de cristal -donde la mayor parte de los miembros son endémicos de los Andes Tropicales, y las especies individuales a menudo tienen distribuciones altamente restringidas- están especialmente en riesgo de disminución de la población y extinción (Aguilar et al., 2012Guayasamin et al., 2019b2020Ortega-Andrade et al., 2021).”

Muchas gracias a Juan Manuel Guayasamín, The Biodiversity Group, la Universidad San Francisco de Quito, y el resto del equipo ¡por investigar la biodiversidad de nuestras reservas y apoyar nuestro trabajo de conservación!

Lou Jost, Presidente, Fundación EcoMinga.

Traducción: Salomé Solórzano-Flores