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Ecuador Announces New National Park in the Andes

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Ecuador Announces New National Park in the Andes
The Río Negro-Sopladora National Park hosts 344 species of vascular plants. Wilson Romero

By Valeria Sorgato

On Jan. 23, a new national park joined Ecuador's 54 protected areas. Río Negro-Sopladora National Park lies in southern Ecuador's Morona Santiago and Azuay provinces within the Cordillera Real Oriental mountain range and next to Sangay National Park. The area is dominated by almost-intact Andean páramos—treeless alpine plateaus—and forests that are home to a great variety of animal and plant species.


Because of the region's biological and hydrological importance, Ecuador's Ministry of the Environment and the non-governmental organization Nature and Culture International (NCI) signed an agreement in 2017 to incorporate 30,616 hectares of the Río Negro-Sopladora area into the state-owned Heritage Natural Areas Subsystem and the National System of Protected Areas Project in Ecuador. On Jan. 23 in the city of Macas, in Morona Santiago Province, Minister of the Environment Tarsicio Granizo declared the new national park in front of 300 guests.

Fabián Rodas

Since 1971, Río Negro-Sopladora has been protected under the category of Protected Forests and Vegetation Areas of the Paute River Basin. According to Fabián Rodas, coordinator of the NCI's Austro program, this is "a very weak conservation category."

Between Sangay National Park and Podocarpus National Park, which are both areas with global implications for the conservation of biodiversity, there are 160 kilometers (about 100 miles) of almost-unprotected land. "During the last few years, an area with gaps in conservation has been identified," said Rodas. The new national park is envisioned as a key piece that will connect municipal reserves to the two national parks. Additionally, according to biologist Eduardo Toral, the newly declared park functions as a corridor that connects the páramos to forests at the bottom of the mountains.

There are very few places in the Ecuadorian Andes that have remained relatively untouched by humans. Río Negro-Sopladora is one of those places. Ranchers have been prevented from farming there due to the area's rugged topography, rainy climate and elevations that vary from 800 to 3,902 meters (2,625 to 12,800 feet) above sea level.

One of the few remnants of human activity in this area is a 45-kilometer (28-mile) trail that was used for commercial exchanges between the Andes and the Amazon by the pre-Columbian Cañari and Ashuarc cultures. Mónica Pesantes, from NCI and the leader of the Study of Management Alternatives for the new national park, says that the trail was reopened 102 years ago for religious purposes by Padre Albino del Curto. Once every year in November, locals and tourists complete a Catholic pilgrimage on the trail, beginning in Sevilla de Oro and ending in Copal.

Heliangelus amethysticollis is one of the 136 species of birds recorded by the first biological evaluation of the area.Fabián Rodas

The other mark of human presence in the area, which is now more controllable, is the threat of mining. According to Rodas, the area is very rich in minerals. However, NCI was able to facilitate an agreement with the government to declare the area as a national park before large mining concessions were allocated in the area. But Rodas says that they did have to exclude one mining concession located in the southern part of what is now the national park, because it had already been surrendered for mining.

With the declaration of this area as a national park, the extraction of non-renewable resources will not be allowed without permission from Ecuador's president or the National Assembly, in accordance with Article 25 of Ecuador's Mining Law.

An Area of High Biodiversity

In July 2017, biologist Eduardo Toral and his team from NCI entered the unexplored forests of Río Negro-Sopladora. In only 12 days, they discovered three new species of amphibian: a frog, a salamander and a caecilian. This expedition formed part of the biological evaluation required to declare the area as a national park.

The results of the evaluation showed that the area still holds ecosystems in an excellent natural state with a significant number of species, many of which are endemic, threatened or rare. The researchers say there may be yet more undiscovered species in the new park.

Forty-three species of mammals have been recorded within the new national park.Fabián Rodas

Among the four types of Andean forest and the two types of páramos that are found within the new Río Negro-Sopladora National Park, there are 344 species of vascular plants—one of which the researchers think could be new to science. They also registered 136 species of birds such as Andean condors, 23 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 43 species of mammals like Andean bears and tapirs. Rodas even suspects that they could find jaguars in the park.

"It's very probable that this is the first biological investigation in this area," said Rodas, referring to the biological investigation that was carried out to declare the protected area. Because of its inaccessibility, the scientific community does not know much about Río Negro-Sopladora National Park.

New Species

Biologist Eduardo Toral discussed how they discovered the new frog, salamander and snake species. For example, the team found a seven-centimeter green frog hiding under a rock on a riverbank after hearing its call. "When we found it, we knew it was something new. It belongs to a group that is being discovered," Toral said.

The new frog belongs to the Hyloscirtus genus. Eduardo Toral-Contreras

Next, they discovered a new species of salamander. Normally, these amphibians are small and live at altitudes below 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) above sea level. When Toral and his team found a salamander in the area, they realized that it must be a new species because it measured 10 centimeters and was living at an altitude of 1,500 meters (4,920 feet).

The new salamander is a member of the Bolitoglossa genus. Salamanders of this genus don't have lungs, breathing instead through their skin and the tissue that lines their mouths. Eduardo Toral-Contreras

Toral also remembers how on that day in Río Negro-Sopladora, it felt like the sky was going to collapse. It rained all day, which removed earth from the forest floor. Near the Padre Albino del Curto Trail, they saw a snake-like creature gliding across the muddy land. The rain had forced the animal out of its underground home. Toral said that as soon as they saw the creature, they tried to catch it. These legless, blind amphibians are known as caecilians. "These animals are very rarely found. The only caecilian similar to the one we found is on the western side of Ecuador, in the depression towards the coast. We found the new species on the other side," Toral said.

The new caecilian is a member of the Epicrionops genus, which scientists think is one one the most primitive caecilian genera. Unlike other caecilians, Epicrionops species still have tails. Eduardo Toral-Contreras

Hydrological Importance

The Río Negro that runs through the new national park forms part of the Río Paute Basin, which supplies the Paute Integral hydroelectric system. This system delivers 1,757 megawatts of hydroelectric energy to surrounding communities, according to the Electric Corporation of Ecuador.

The region's rivers also provide water for local human populations. The preservation of hydrological resources is an important motivation for these communities for protecting the forests, according to Rodas. For instance, the area's Sangay-Podocarpus Corridor project promotes the creation of municipal reserves to connect Sangay National Park with Podocarpus National Park via a corridor of natural protected areas. "With the environmental services that the ecosystem presents us, we can achieve the best interests of the local communities," Rodas said.

Due to efforts by local communities, researchers, NCI, the Andes Amazon Fund, and the Ecuadorian government—particularly the Ministry of the Environment—Río Negro-Sopladora National Park has received the highest conservation category status in the country.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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