Tropical Eden Revealed: In Southeast Suriname, Scientists Document New Biodiversity and Pristine Ecosystems Vital to Water, Climate and Health Security

10/2/2013

Exploring for the first time the most remote forests in the greenest country in the world, scientists with Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program document new species and climate-resilient sources of freshwater and other ecosystem services

EN FRANÇAIS​​

EM PORTUGUÊS​​

Read the blog by RAP Director Dr. Trond Larsen

Paramaribo, Suriname / Arlington, Va. — An international team of field biologists studying the never-before assessed mountainous region of Southeastern Suriname — a wilderness area virtually without any human influence and amo​ng the most remote and unexplored tracts of rainforest left on Earth — has discovered a wealth of ecosystem services whose protection will be essential for the country's climate resilience, freshwater security, and green development strategy. The scientific expedition also documented an amazing richness of biodiversity, including 60 species that are likely new to science and unique species that may exist nowhere else on Earth.

Following the three-week 2012 expedition and subsequent data analysis, the group of 16 scientists led by Conservation International's Rapid Assessment Program have just published their results​. Among the key findings is the importance of fresh water in the region. The area's mountain ranges contain the headwaters of some of the largest rivers in Suriname, providing vital water for transportation, food (especially fish), drinking and sanitation for approximately 50,000 people in the surrounding areas as well as along the river and as far as Paramaribo, the country’s capital near the Atlantic coast.

These headwaters also support downstream energy production, agriculture and other economic activities. CI scientists found that while other parts of Suriname are likely to become drier, Southeast Suriname will be most resilient to climate change, and is therefore disproportionately important for ensuring sustainable flows of water in the future. Ensuring these forested headwaters remain intact is vital for the country’s people and economy, and a future resource for the region and the world.

John Goedschalk, Executive Director of Conservation International Suriname, said: "Suriname's dense forests, low deforestation and spectacular rivers place us in a truly unique position to become a global model of sustainable development. We can be water exporters in a world increasingly suffering from droughts and water scarcity, but if we deplete and pollute these biological treasures, our country and the rest of the world will have one less major water resource. In a planet on track to surpass nine billion people by mid-century, we are going to need every drop of fresh water we can get."

Suriname is located in the Guiana Shield, a vast wilderness area in South America, which contains more than 25% of the world's rainforest. The country has a relatively low population and still maintains 95% of its forest cover, but faces pressure from mining, road and dam projects. For more than 20 years, Conservation International has been working with Suriname's government and local communities to scientifically assess and protect its natural capital to serve as an engine for the country's and region's sustainable development.

CI was instrumental in the creation of the 1.6 million hectare Central Suriname Nature Reserve, the largest conserved tract of tropical rainforest at the time of its creation. The intact forests of SE Suriname provide a biological corridor linking this reserve with adjacent protected areas and indigenous lands in neighboring countries, enabling the movement of plants and animals that is essential for their long-term persistence. Its forests and rivers also provide an essential source of food, building materials, and medicines for the local Trio and Wayana Amerindian tribes.

"Suriname is one of the last places where an opportunity still exists to conserve massive tracts of untouched forest and pristine rivers where biodiversity is thriving. Ensuring the preservation of these ecosystems is not only vital for the Surinamese people, but may help the world to meet its growing demand for food and water as well as reducing the impacts of climate change," said Dr. Trond Larsen, a tropical ecologist and Director of the Rapid Assessment Program at Conservation International, which has sometimes been described as working like a "SWAT" team for science.

The team surveyed four sites in the upper Palumeu River watershed, going from low floodplains to isolated mountain peaks. They received invaluable support from 30 indigenous men from nearby communities, who went ahead in boats through dangerous rapids to help bring 2,000 kilos of food and equipment, set up camp sites, cook meals and guide the team through the forests. From Paramaribo, the scientists chartered a plane to a village in Southeast Suriname and from there reached their first camp site by helicopter.

The scientists collected data on water quality and an astonishing total of 1,378 species, including plants, ants, beetles, katydids, fishes, amphibians, birds and mammals. The results show high quality water conditions overall, although some samples contained mercury above safe levels for human consumption, despite the fact that there is no upstream mining. "The mercury is probably blowing in from mining and industrial activities in neighboring countries. This demonstrates that even remote places are interconnected and susceptible to activities in other countries," explained Dr. Larsen.

Upon her return from this intense three-week survey, which included a flooded base camp after a night of heavy rainfall and a helicopter with mechanical difficulties, Dr. Leeanne Alonso, expedition leader, ant expert, and former CI scientist who is now with Global Wildlife Conservation, said: "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. The high number of new species discovered is evidence of the amazing biodiversity of these forests that we have only just begun to uncover."


 

Among the 60 species identified as potentially new to science, there were six frogs, one snake, 11 fishes and many insects, including:

  • the diminutive "lilliputian beetle" (Canthidium cf. minimum), a teeny-tiny ruby red beetle measuring mere 2.3 mm, likely making it the smallest dung beetle in the Guiana Shield and maybe the second smallest in South America. Its antler-like antennae provide it with an acute sense of smell. "Dung beetles play critical ecological roles that help support healthy ecosystems. By burying dung, they regulate parasites and disease, disperse seeds, and recycle nutrients to promote plant growth," said Dr. Larsen.
  • the "cocoa frog" (Hypsiboas sp.), a sleek chocolate-colored frog that lives on trees and uses the round discs found on its fingers and toes to adeptly climb into the treetops. "Like other amphibians, its semi-permeable skin makes it highly sensitive to changes in the environment, especially freshwater. With over 100 species of frogs likely gone extinct over just the last three decades, the discovery of this new species is especially heartening," said Dr. Larsen.
  • a new type of head-and-tail-light tetra (Hemigrammus aff. ocellifer), closely related to a fish much appreciated by aquarium enthusiasts. Fish were diverse and plentiful at the study sites, including many large fishes that are an important source of food for local people. The upper watersheds of SE Suriname may also provide important spawning grounds for migratory fishes people throughout Suriname depend upon.

The survey was primarily supported by the Suriname Conservation Foundation, with additional support from CI Chairman’s council members Richard Sneider and Fabian Oberfeld, who also participated in the expedition. The RAP scientific team included members from the Anton de Kom University of Suriname, CELOS, Conservation International, Global Wildlife Conservation, the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the National Herbarium of the Netherlands.


 

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View the report with the results of the expedition (PDF)
Learn more about the Rapid Assessment Program

For more information, contact:

Patricia Malentaqui, Senior Media Manager, CI: +1 (703) 341-2471/ pmalentaqui@conservation.org

Ana Denman, Global Wildlife Conservation: +1 (512) 537-8951 / adenman@globalwildlife.org


 

Note to editors:

FACT & FIGURES ABOUT SOUTHEASTERN SURINAME'S BENEFITS TO PEOPLE:

  • Protects a major source of freshwater for the country, the region and the world (use for food, transport, energy, agriculture, mining, etc.);
  • Provides a sustainable supply of forest resources for the people of Suriname (e.g. water, food, medicines and recreation);
  • Ensures long-term resilience of Suriname’s freshwater resources despite predicted freshwater declines elsewhere in response to climate change;
  • Maintains global climate change through conservation of large tracts of carbon rich forest;
  • Safeguards an exceptional diversity of species and healthy ecosystems;
  • Represents high potential for sustainable economic growth through ecotourism — one of the world's largest growing industries.

About RAP — Launched in 1990, CI's Rapid Assessment Program deploys small teams of expert scientists to field sites around the world. These rapid yet scientifically rigorous surveys evaluate the relative biological importance of these areas, integrating our understanding of the vital links between biodiversity, natural capital, and human well-being. RAP surveys have led to the discovery of more than 1,400 species new to science and the creation, expansion or improved management of more than 20 million hectares of terrestrial and marine protected areas. By working with students and local communities, RAP has also trained more than 400 conservationists in tropical countries around the world, laying the groundwork for the future.

Conservation International — Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature and its global biodiversity to promote the long-term well-being of people. Founded in 1987, CI is headquartered in the Washington, D.C. area. CI employs more than 800 staff in 29 countries on six continents and works with more than 1,000 partners around the world. For more information, please see www.conservation.org or visit us on Facebook and Twitter.