Ecuador ‘ET-like’ salamander uncovered

-- An expedition to the pristine forests of Ecuador near the Peruvian border uncovered 12 new species, including a salamander that Conservation International said looked like E.T., the alien from the Stephen Spielberg film.

The discoveries in the Nangaritza region of the Cordillera del Condor included what the researchers termed a “remarkably ugly bug-eyed salamander,” a red poison arrow frog and a frog smaller than a “pinky” fingernail. A lizard, a third frog and seven grasshoppers also were among the newly found creatures.

Leeann Alonso , vice president of CI’s Rapid Assessment Program, said in an interview from Arlington, Virginia, late yesterday that the local people who requested the study hope to develop ecotourism in the region. The diversity of wildlife in the area may also provide health benefits to humans, she said.

“Frogs have a lot of chemicals in their skins and insects can be useful to make medicines and ointments,” Alonso said. “These species are all part of the ecosystem, playing a role in keeping it healthy, keeping water healthy and the climate.”

The findings by entomologists and herpetologists in the upper Nangaritza River basin that’s geologically isolated from other parts of the Andes also featured a glass frog, so-called for its translucent skin that shows internal organs, and two bird species endemic to the mountain range.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates there are 8 million to 14 million plants and animals in the world, of which only 1.8 million have been described by researchers.

Fungus-Free Harlequin Frogs

Another “rare” discovery was a population of harlequin frogs free of a fungus that has decimated amphibians elsewhere, Alonso said. The amphibian Chytrid fungus threatens to wipe out up to 30 percent of the world’s amphibian species, according to Conservation International.

Researchers say pollution, pathogens, invasive species and solar radiation are contributing to a dropoff in the amphibian population in addition to climate change.

Conservation International scientists said in March they discovered a jumping spider on an expedition in Papua New Guinea to help Barrick Gold Corp. decide how to develop its mines. A new snake and three unknown butterflies were discovered last year near Mount Mabu in northern Mozambique by a team led by Jonathan Timberlake , a botanist at London’s Kew Gardens.

The grasshoppers uncovered during CI’s expedition to Ecuador in April are “beautiful and covered in spines,” Alonso said. She was less complimentary about the salamander, which CI said looked like E.T. and she described as “ugly with a blunt face and a square nose.”

The two-week expedition was part of CI’s rapid-assessment program that is designed to get as much information about the species of an area so conservation recommendations can be made. The group will carry out further studies and formally press Ecuador’s government to protect the region, Alonso said.

New species of plants and ants may be uncovered once researchers have analyzed all the specimens recovered from the forest, she said.

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