A team of researchers with Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program recently returned from the “White City” in Honduras, also known as the legendary "Lost City of the Monkey God," a recently discovered set of ancient ruins deep within the country’s Mosquitia rainforest. The group conducted a biological survey of the surrounding area, a previously unexplored tract of pristine forest. What they found: an overwhelming richness of plants and wildlife, including a species new to science and several species thought extinct.
Where is the Honduran Mosquitia?
Located in northeastern Honduras, the Honduran Mosquitia is the largest protected area in the country and constitutes one of the least explored and most pristine areas of lowland rain forest remaining in Central America. It’s 350,000 hectares (865,000 acres) supports the highest biodiversity in Honduras, yet the Honduran Mosquitia remains unexplored and poorly known scientifically.
In 2012, this region was thrust into the limelight when the ruins of large urban settlements believed to represent the fabled Ciudad Blanca, or White City, were discovered within it. One of the sites currently under investigation has recently been given the name Ciudad del Jaguar (City of the Jaguar). To complement the wealth of cultural knowledge being collected, this biodiversity expedition was launched in 2017 to conduct a rapid assessment of the biological diversity surrounding Ciudad del Jaguar within the Ciudad Blanca complex. Due to the remoteness of the study area, the team was transported to and from the site via helicopters.
Why is this region special?
The biodiversity of Ciudad Blanca is exceptional in the context of Central America. Species richness of most taxonomic groups – birds, mammals, insects, fish, reptiles and amphibians, plants, etc. – was higher than has been observed at other sites in Honduras and across the region more broadly. This is due in part to the large expanse of diverse and intact ecosystems of which Ciudad Blanca forms a part. Almost all taxonomic groups were represented by numerous species that are considered indicators of intact, healthy forest. Many of these species are uncommon or rare in other parts of their range due to habitat loss, degradation, hunting and other pressures. Our findings emphasize the critical role of conserving the intact ecosystems of the Ciudad Blanca in order to ensure landscape connectivity and the long-term persistence of threatened species that move widely through forested parts in Central America.
What did we find?
A total of 183 species of plants were identified, belonging to 68 families, including 14 threatened species and two critically endangered, like the palm Reinhardtia gracilis. We found three new species never before found in Honduras. Many of the species observed are indicative of extensive, healthy forest. Fifty-eight species of plants from the survey have important uses by people, including food, medicine, ornamental uses, timber and raw material for the production of textiles. Consistent with the presence of a past civilization, we observed species typically associated with pre-Hispanic settlements of Mesoamerica, such as cacao (Theobroma cacao) and cacao de monte (Herrania purpurea).
246 species of butterflies and moths (Order Lepidoptera) were documented including the morpho butterfly Morpho helenor (left). Observations of all insect taxa suggest that diversity and abundance are exceptionally high around Ciudad Blanca, especially if sampled during the seasonal peak in activity. Astoundingly, 15 of the Lepidoptera species collected represent new records for Honduras, highlighting the disproportionately high value of this intact and unique ecosystem in the region. The tiger beetle Odontochila nicaraguense was rediscovered after being thought both extinct and confined to Nicaragua. A longhorn beetle Ischnocnemis caerulescens was documented for the first time in Honduras. An observation of the large tarantula Sericopelma melanotarsum represented the first documented record north of Nicaragua.
The team observed 198 bird species, including six recognized by the IUCN Red List as Near-Threatened, two as Vulnerable, and one as Endangered — the Great Green Macaw (fewer than 2,500 mature individuals are thought to be surviving in the wild). We documented a 200-kilometer eastward range extension for Rufous-breasted Spinetail. The study documented only the third record of Tiny Hawk (Accipiter superciliosus) for Honduras. Several species of game birds, such as curassows (Great Curassow pictured on left and photographed by an automated camera trap), guans and tinamous, while scarce in most of their Honduran range due to hunting pressure, are relatively common and easily observed at the study site. We found 15 indicator species of intact lowland evergreen forest as well as 17 indicator species of disturbed habitats.
Reptiles and amphibians
A total of 22 species of amphibians and 35 of reptiles were observed, a very high diversity considering the brief sampling period. The False Tree Coral Snake (Rhinobothryum bovallii, pictured on left) was rediscovered for Honduras, a species that had not been recorded in the country or for northern Central America since 1965. A glass frog (Teratohyla spinosa) represented a new elevational record for the species in the country. Eight of the species found were documented for the first time in the core of the Reserva del Hombre y la Biosfera del Río Plátano and several more are threatened, rare and poorly documented for Honduras. The results of this study emphasize the high conservation value of the area and underscore the need for protection against threats such as encroaching agriculture and livestock.
A total of 13 fish species were observed, representing the full spectrum of native species expected to occur in the area and lacking environmentally disruptive invasive species such as Plecostomus (familiar to aquarium owners as an "algae eater") and Tilapia (a common food fish) that are found in many Honduran watersheds. Some additional species may be present in the rainy season when they undertake seasonal migrations to headwaters when these are swollen by rain. One unfamiliar poeciliid species (Poecilia sp., pictured on left)— also known as a "molly" — may be new to science, supported by recent research indicating that several species in the region likely represent undescribed taxa. Overall, the clear water and species spectrum found indicate that Ciudad Blanca is part of a pristine watershed.
Forty small mammal species were identified, representing 30 bat species and ten rodent species. Fourteen of these (35%) are considered species of conservation importance due to their conservation status, their role as indicators of habitat quality (e.g., intact forest), or new species records for the country. Of the bats detected, one species is a new record for Honduras, three others have very restricted distributions and few previous records for the country, and another — the Pale-faced Bat (Phylloderma stenops) pictured on left — has not been reported in Honduras in more than 75 years.
Due to high species richness and the presence of rare and/or important small mammal species, the Ciudad Blanca area represents a top conservation priority.
An intact community of native large mammals is one of the best indicators of the conservation status of a site, and we recorded a total of 30 medium and large-sized mammalian species. The study area was found to be a refuge for species that are extremely vulnerable to overhunting and at the same time important prey for top carnivores. The abundance of preferred game species such as brocket deer, white-tailed deer, Baird’s tapir, paca and both peccary species is an indication that hunting levels are extremely low. For example, the white-lipped peccary, a New World relative of pigs, was common in the study site but is now found in only 13% of its historic range in Mesoamerica. These healthy populations of native herbivores have the potential to support top carnivores found at the site, such as jaguar (left) and the other four cat species of the region — puma, ocelot, margay and jaguarundi.
The RAP team at the Ciudad del Jaguar base camp. Left to right: (top) Onan Reyes, Travis King, John van Dort, Eric van den Berghe, Arnulfo Medina-Fitoria, Manfredo Turcios-Casco, Olvin Oyuela, Milton Salazar-Saavedra, Trond Larsen; (bottom) John Polisar, Carlos Funes, Josué Ramos.
Primary forest around the Ciudad del Jaguar base camp where the RAP team slept in tents and hammocks.
Abundant epiphytes create microhabitats for a variety of animals.
Travis King and Marcio Martínez search for suitable sites to install camera traps.
Numerous small streams feed into the main river from the surrounding ridges, each creating distinct microhabitats that support unique plant and animal communities.
Juvenile planthoppers exude a waxy secretion that may deter predators.
A freshwater crab adopts a defensive posture.
A photograph taken with slow shutter speed reveals a trail of bioluminescent light emitted by a click beetle.
Herpetologist Josué Ramos examines a vine snake.
A rarely seen caecilian (Gymnopis multiplicata). Caecilians are a strange group of amphibians with no limbs and most spend the majority of their life underground.
The salamander Bolitoglossa mexicana is an excellent climber and is usually found in trees and shrubs.
The Black River Turtle (Rhinoclemmys funerea) is one of two vulnerable turtle species at the site.
The nictitating membrane covering the eye of this Red-eyed Tree Frog helps to protect the eye as well as to shield the bright red color that may draw the attention of predators.
Mammalogist Arnulfo Medina holds a Woolly False Vampire Bat (Chrotopterus auratus), the first record of this species in the Department of Gracias a Dios.
During the mating season, the calls of the explosive breeding Red-eyed Tree Frog (Agalychnis callidryas) fill the night air.
A male Scarlet-rumped Tanager in flight.
A female Scarlet-rumped Tanager. This gregarious bird thrives in the successional vegetation along the river.
A tayra, an omnivorous member of the weasel family, which is not often seen. They climb trees in search of fruits and small animals.
A majestic Jaguar, the apex predator at Ciudad Blanca. Jaguars are a keystone species that stabilize and maintain ecosystem balance by regulating populations of their prey.
The full assessment "A Rapid Biological Assessment of Ciudad del Jaguar, Ciudad Blanca, La Mosquitia, Honduras" is available for download. The 216-page report includes both English and Spanish (PDF, 25MB).
Partnerships and Looking Ahead
The expedition was made possible by the generous support of Bill and Laurie Benenson, Steve Elkins (who led the original search and discovery of the archaeological site), and several partners including Wildlife Conservation Society, Zamorano University, National Autonomous University of Honduras, and Washington State University. President Juan Orlando Hernández and the Presidency of the Republic; the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History; the Honduran Institute of Science, Technology and Innovation; the Honduran Institute of Forest Conservation (ICF); the Ministry of Defense; the Armed Forces; and the Air Force all directly supported the expedition and the continuing protection of the area.
As a result of the archaeological findings, biological survey results, and our conservation recommendations (see executive summary of the full report above), President Hernández initiated the Kaha Kamasa Foundation to promote ongoing scientific research and to increase monitoring and protection of the rainforest surrounding the archaeological sites at the White City, with support from Wildlife Conservation Society and Global Wildlife Conservation.