In March 2012, Dr. Leeanne Alonso of Austin’s Global Wildlife Conservation, in collaboration with Conservation International-Suriname and with support from the Suriname Conservation Foundation, led the scientific team. Sixteen scientists and about 30 local field assistants spent three weeks exploring and recording species along the Palumeu River and in the Grensgebergte Mountains and lowland rainforests of this previously unexplored region. The ultimate goal of the expedition was to collect data to guide nature conservation and sustainable development in Suriname. The just released final report details more than 1,300 species that were recorded during the expedition, more than 60 of which have never been documented previously.
Southeastern Suriname lies between the Central Suriname Nature Reserve and protected areas in northern Brazil. Therefore, it is in a strategic position to serve as a protective corridor for the high diversity of species, including jaguars, harpy eagles and other wide-ranging wildlife that have already been heavily hunted in other parts of South America.
There are very few places left on Earth that are as pristine and untouched as Southeastern Suriname. The region is truly a global natural treasure. In addition to its incredible species richness, the region is an important source of food and other natural resources for the local Trio and Wayana Amerindian tribes. It is also a critical source of freshwater for the entire country of Suriname, with many of Suriname’s largest rivers originating in the Grensgebergte Mountains. However, in spite of its remoteness, unregulated small-scale gold mining and other development activities are encroaching on the region at an alarming rate, threatening both the unique biodiversity of the region as well as the continued survival of the people that rely on the region’s natural resources.
In publishing the results of these surveys conducted in Southeastern Suriname, the hope is that rather than being a record of what may potentially be lost, the information will instead serve as a call to action to protect this unique natural paradise. The discovery of new species, and the preservation of the wildlife in Suriname, is not only important to the people of that remote region, but also to humanity everywhere. Further research on the species of Suriname may uncover new medicines and help scientists to develop better products based on natural elements.
The results were surprising, even to expedition leader Alonso. “I have conducted expeditions all over the world, but never have I seen such beautiful, pristine forests so untouched by humans. Southern Suriname is one of the last places on earth where there is a large expanse of pristine tropical forest,” says Alonso. She adds, “The high number of new species discovered are evidence of the amazing biodiversity of these forests that we have just begun to uncover.”
The species likely new to science include 11 fishes, six frogs, one reptile, 26 aquatic beetles, 10 dung beetles, and six katydids.
On the expedition, the team identified several new species of poisonous frogs, including the “cocoa frog” (genus Hypsiboas) and highly toxic dart frogs, including Dendrobates tinctorius and Amereega trivitatta. While seemingly a threat to society and other wildlife, scientists studying defensive chemicals from poisonous frogs have found alkaloids that can be used as extremely effective pain-killers, including one that is 200 times stronger than morphine, but non-addictive. They also have antibiotic properties that may help scientists develop a whole new class of antibiotics. The discoveries of new species of these potentially lethal frogs are extremely important to scientists. Five additional species of frogs identified in Suriname may also be new to science, several of which were specialists in camouflage, hidden in the leaf litter or in the leaves of trees.
The Palumeu River and its tributaries contain a high diversity of fishes, including very large sport fishes such as the Anyumara and giant catfish. Many small species of tetras, popular in the aquarium trade, were recorded, including a few that may be new to science. A species of South American darter and a tiny three-barbeled catfish (Pimelodella sp.) may also be new to science.
Forty-two of the species possibly new to science are insects, which is not surprising given that insect diversity of tropical areas is poorly studied and that 73 percent of the roughly one million described species of animals on Earth are insects. Among the new discoveries are six species of katydids, nocturnal relatives of grasshoppers, whose males can be identified by their species-specific songs used to attract females. However, one of the newly discovered species is unique in that it does not sing and does not even have the sound-making organs on its body. This “silent katydid” is so unique that it represents not only a new species, but also a new genus to science.
Aquatic beetles were abundant and revealed at least 26 species new to science, with another 10 to 15 additional new species likely. These tiny beetles were found in small streams and on water seeping over rocks in the mountains of this region. Discoveries on top of the Grensgebergte Mountain revealed three families of aquatic beetles never before recorded in Suriname. Aquatic beetles are important in aquatic ecosystems since they filter the water and keep it clean. An additional 10 species of dung beetles possibly new to science were also documented. Dung beetles also play an ecologically valuable role as decomposers of mammal dung. Their diversity and abundance can also serve as indicators of the health of the mammal community.
In addition to the species likely new to science, the team documented a very high diversity of plants, mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles, and insects.