By Lewis Smith, Environment Reporter
UP TO 40 new species of plants and animals, including a bird and a tree rat, have been discovered in an expedition to one of the world’s last unspoilt wildernesses.
Scientists risked their lives to make the discoveries and three of them almost ended up being eaten by the
wildlife they were trying to record.
Two of the team exploring the Amapá region of Brazil had to hide in a hollow tree all night as a prowling jaguar tried to find a way in, and a third had to flee a hungry cayman.
Despite their close shaves, the international research team described the unspoilt wilderness as a scientist’s heaven and were ecstatic about the wildlife they encountered. Many of the animals had no fear of the scientists because the region is so remote that they had never before come across a human.
Researchers were particularly excited by the bird and the tree rat because new mammal and avian species are extremely rare. The discoveries have yet to be verified by peer review but Enrico Bernard, of Conservation International, is confident that 27 new species have been identified and that several more are contained among the thousands of specimens brought back for analysis.
Besides the rat and the bird, the new species found include seven fish, eight frogs, lizards and snakes, two shrimps and eight plants. One species of lizard, Amapafaurus petrabactulus, was rediscovered having been seen only twice before, both times in 1970. The lizard is unusual in having four fingers on its claws, whereas it closest relative has three.
Dr Enrico, who led the Amazonia Project expedition for Conservation International, was astounded at the variety of the discoveries. “That’s the thing about this area. It’s a scientist’s heaven. It’s pristine and diverse with savanna, forest, wetlands and mountains.
“It’s so untouched that we had encounters with large animals that had never seen a human and didn’t know how to react to us. Tapirs, capibara, and spider monkeys would just stop and look at us. One tapir came so close I could have reached out to stroke its head.”
So few people have explored the area that little was known about population levels and the geographical distribution of species prior to the expedition.
Dr Enrico said: “The area was a blank in terms of scientific data. We had some information about the surrounding regions but Amapá was a scientific gap in our database of species. We were assessing the real diversity and have come back with a very good number of new species.
“We have confirmed more than 1,700 species, of which more than 100 have been recorded for Amapá for the first time. Perhaps 40 of those are entirely new to science.
“We are filling gaps regarding the distribution of species. This was regarded as a species-poor area of the Amazon. It is a very rich area with very, very good conditions — Amapá is more than 90 per cent pristine habitat.”
Among the creatures already known that were found in the region for the first time were 40 types of bat. Dr Enrico thought this if anything an underestimate. “There are potentially more than 100,” he added.
The tree rat, from the genus makalata and the size of a large guinea-pig, lives with monkeys in the trees of the Amazonian tropical forest, where it eats only leaves and fruit.
Claudia Silva, the researcher who found it, said: “When you have one of these new creatures in your hand for the first time, something no one has ever seen before, it’s very exciting and a great joy.”
The authorities in Brazil this week announced that 5.7 million hectares of the region is to be protected as the Amapá State Forest.