New, Rare and Rediscovered Species Found in the Pristine Andes of Bolivia

December 14, 2020

Previously thought extinct, devil-eyed frog found in cloud forest after 20 years; Heart of Bolivia home to rich biodiversity, important water resources

La Paz, Bolivia (December 14, 2020) – A scientific expedition high into the Bolivian Andes revealed 20 species new to science, including the “mountain fer-de-lance” viper, the “Bolivian flag snake”, the “lilliputian frog”, four orchid and four butterfly species. The expedition also rediscovered four species, including the “devil-eyed frog” that was previously thought to be extinct and not seen for more than two decades and a satyr butterfly not seen for nearly a century.

The expedition was co-led by Trond Larsen, Director of Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) and Claudia Cortez, Head of Conservation and Wildlife Management for the Municipal Government of La Paz. It brought 17 scientists to the Chawi Grande, a locality belonging to the Hualylipaya community of La Paz, Bolivia. The area is known as Zongo Valley or “heart” of the region.

Photos of the new and rediscovered species can be found here

“These discoveries are the result of 14 days of intense field work spread across the rugged terrain, misty cloud forests and cascading waterfalls of the Zongo – a truly beautiful and diverse landscape,” said Larsen. “The remarkable rediscovery of species once thought extinct, especially so close to the city of La Paz, illustrates how sustainable development that embraces conservation of nature can ensure long-term protection of biodiversity as well as the benefits ecosystems provide to people. This area has become a safe haven for amphibians, reptiles, butterflies, and plants that haven’t been found anywhere else on earth.”

Some of the most outstanding findings from the expedition include:

  • 20 species that are new to science, including:
    • The lilliputian frog (Noblella sp. nov.) measures approximately 10 mm in length (about half the width of a dime), which may make it the smallest amphibian in the Andes, and among the smallest in the world. Due to their tiny size and habit of living in tunnels beneath the thick layers of moss and humus in the cloud forest, they were difficult to find even by tracking their frequent calls.
    • The mountain fer-de-lance (Bothrops monsignifer), a new species of venomous pit viper, which uses heat-sensing pits on its head to detect prey. It is very rare to discover new viper species, with only perhaps 1-2 species described for the Americas every decade.
    • The Bolivian flag snake (Eutrachelophis sp. nov.), a slender terrestrial snake distinguished by red, yellow and green colors similar to the Bolivian flag. This diurnal snake was found in the thick undergrowth of stunted elfin forest along the crest of the mountain at the highest elevation surveyed.
    • Four butterfly species, including two species of metalmark butterflies (Argyrogrammana sp.) which feed on flower nectar in open areas and forest clearings and two species (a satyr and another metalmark butterfly) which were only caught with a long-handled net while flying high in the forest canopy.
    • Four orchids, including a new species of Adder’s mouth orchid (Malaxis sp. nov.) with flower parts that appear to mimic an insect and may serve to fool unwitting pollinators, a species of Myoxanthus with flowers that emerge from the base of the leaves, and a cup orchid (Brachionidium sp. nov.) with striking purple and yellow flowers.
    • A species of bamboo, which although new to science, is well known by indigenous communities who use it to make musical instruments called sikus or zampoñas (they call the bamboo “qulqunch’awa”).
  • The rediscovery of four species previously believed to be extinct, including:
    • The devil-eyed frog, which was previously known only from a single individual observed more than 20 years ago, was found to be relatively abundant in the cloud forest. Previous expeditions attempting to find this black frog with red eyes concluded empty-handed. Its elusive nature may be partly due to its habit of hiding beneath the thick moss and humus surrounding the roots of bamboo.
    • The satyr butterfly Euptychoides fida was rediscovered in Bolivia after 98 years, and is only known to live in the Zongo Valley. It was captured in a cylindrical mesh trap where it was attracted to a bait of rotten fruit and dung.
    • Stromanthe angustifolia, an understory plant in the arrowroot or prayer-plant family that is endemic to the Zongo (found nowhere else), was rediscovered after 125 years. This plant moves its leaves vertically to close them at night, similar to hands in prayer.
  • 22 species listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List which include:
    • Four threatened birds - the hooded tinamou, channel-billed toucan, straw-backed tanager and scimitar-winged piha. 
    • Two threatened mammals - the spectacled bear and dwarf brocket deer.

Exceptional endemism and diversity with >1200 species of plants, 247 species of insects, 10 species of amphibians, 10 species of reptiles, 161 species of birds, 9 species of small terrestrial mammals, 9 species of large mammals, and 12 species of bats. Overall, a total of 770 species were identified as new to the Zongo.

The findings will help inform sustainable development plans for the rural areas of La Paz, 78% of which falls within the Zongo. The municipality says it will use the information to ensure the conservation of natural ecosystems while continuing to responsibly tap the water resources on which the La Paz and El Alto people rely on for drinking water and electrical power. The data from the RAP survey provide the scientific foundation and rationale to support the pending establishment of a new municipal conservation area in Zongo.

“La Paz is a truly unique city. We have been recognized as one of the Seven Urban Wonder Cities of the World and now we are able to share why our region shines in terms of its rich landscapes and biodiversity. As a haven for many newly discovered species and the source of water producing 11% of the electricity of the country, the importance of protecting the Zongo Valley is clearer than ever. As La Paz continues to grow, we will take care to preserve the nearby natural resources that are so important to our wellbeing,” said Luis Revilla, mayor of La Paz.

“The findings of our expedition through the Zongo Valley – the heart of our region – add numerous species to the scientific record. Dozens of new species, amphibians not seen for decades and butterflies not seen for nearly a century show how valuable these cloud forests are,” said Eduardo Forno, executive director of Conservation International-Bolivia. “Bolivia has long been a leader in caring for its wildlife and these new discoveries help make the case to establish a conservation area here, near La Paz, to conserve the valuable nature and water of Zongo valley.”

The rapid biological assessment of Chawi Grande in the Zongo Valley is now published in the RAP Bulletin of Biological Assessment series and the release of the results coincide with the 25th anniversary of Madidi National Park which was created based on the findings of the inaugural Bolivian RAP. Conducted in 1990, it was also the first RAP to be completed in the world, and paved the way for similar types of rapid biological surveys by other organizations worldwide.

The Zongo Valley expedition was supported by the National Museum of Natural History of Bolivia, the Bolivian National Herbarium, the Andes Amazon Fund, the Global Conservation Fund and the Municipal Government of La Paz which will host a webinar in partnership with Conservation International-Bolivia on Tuesday, Dec. 15 at 10 a.m. BOT. Click here to register.

Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program was founded in 1990 to assess critically​important ecosystems around the world. Experts at these sites evaluate the state of a region’s biodiversity, the health of its ecosystems and the multiple benefits that nature provides to people. By doing so, the program provides information that can guide effective decision-making about conservation.

About Conservation International

Conservation International works to protect the critical benefits that nature provides to people. Through science, partnerships and fieldwork, Conservation International is driving innovation and investments in nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, supporting protections for critical habitats, and fostering economic development that is grounded in the conservation of nature. We work in 30 countries around the world, empowering societies at all levels to create a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable planet. Follow Conservation International's work on Conservation NewsFacebook, TwitterInstagram and YouTube.