San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

February 3rd, 2010
Texas State scholar participates in Ecuador study

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Amazonian Rain Forest in Ecuador. Photo from Finding Species.

STAFF REPORT

According to a Nature Conservancy report on biodiversity in 2002, Texas ranks second in the nation in biodiversity — that is, the totality of genera, species, and ecosystems of a region. California ranks first.

But the most biodiverse place on the earth just may be Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, according to a team of scientists led by Peter H. English of the University of Texas and which included a member of the biology faculty at Texas State, Shawn McCracken.

Yasuni, in the core of the Ecuadorian Amazon, breaks all world records for the number of plant and animal groups, from amphibians to insects to trees.

Their research is published in the open-access scientific journal PLoSOne and can be visited at  http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0008767. The paper’s research may have  contributed to Petroamazona’s recent decision to not build an oil facility in the park in January of 2010.

“The 150 amphibian species documented to date throughout Yasuní is a world record for an area of this size,” said McCracken. “There are more species of frogs and toads within Yasuní than are native to the United States and Canada combined.”

For comparison, the entire state of Texas has 71 documented amphibian species, so the Ecuadorian region has double the amount on roughly five square miles of land.

Participating University of Maryland scientist Clinton Jenkins said, “Yasuní is at the center of a small zone where South America’s amphibians, birds, mammals, and vascular plants all reach maximum diversity. We dubbed this area the ‘quadruple richness center.’ ”

The research confirms  that an average upland hectare (2.47 acres) in Yasuní contains more tree species, 655, than are native to the continental United States and Canada combined. The number of tree species rises to more than 1,100 for an area of 25 hectares. Again, for comparison, the entire state of Texas has between 255 and 281 species of native trees.

Gorky Villa, an Ecuadorian botanist working with both the Smithsonian Institute and Finding Species said, “In just one hectare in Yasuní, there are more tree, shrub, and liana (woody vines) species than anywhere else in the world”

The state of Texas has more insect diversity than any other state in the union, coming in at a whopping 30,000 to 40,ooo species. However, a single hectare of forest in Yasuni is projected to contain 100,000 insect species. This is, according to entomologist Terry Erwin, the highest estimated diversity per unit area for any plant or animal group. Insects are, and always have been, the most successful species on the planet.

Finding Species is a non-profit organization with offices in Maryland and Quito, Ecuador. President of Finding Species Margot Bass said, “One of our most important findings about Yasuní is that small areas of forest harbor extremely high numbers of animals and plants. Yasuní is probably unmatched by any other park in the world for total numbers of species.”

There is one specific corner of Yasumi that has the overall world record for biodiversity — the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in the north of Yasumi National Park.

Kelly Swing of the University of San Francisco in Quito Ecuador explains, “The Tiputini Biodiversity Station is home to 247 amphibian and reptile species, 550 bird species, and around 200 mammal species, including 10 primates and an array of large predators.”

Again, for comparison, Texas has 159 mammal species, and ranks number one in the nation with 477 bird species and 149 reptile species.

Texas knows something about bats, as home to 32 species in the state. This isn’t even one third of the amount in Yasuni. Researcher Thomas Kunz of Boston University says, “We estimate that over 100 different bat species inhabit this small area.”

For 40 years, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has assessed the conservation status of species, subspecies and varieties on a global scale in order to highlight those threatened with extinction and promote their conservation. The clearly endangered species are put on a “red list.” Yasuni contains 28 endangered vertebrates on the red list. They include large primates, the White-bellied Spider Monkey and Poeppog’s Wooly Monkey, and aquatic mammals, the Giant Otter and the Amazonian Manatee, in addition to a number of species found nowhere else on earth.

Matt Finer of Save America’s Forests said, “What makes Yasuní especially important is its potential to sustain this extraordinary biodiversity in the long term. For example, the Yasuní region is predicted to maintain wet, rainforest conditions as climate change-induced drought intensifies in the eastern Amazon.”

The research paper said that the greatest threat to Yasuni is the current and potential oil development projects.

The paper gives a number of science-based policy recommendations at its conclusion. One of these is a moratorium on new oil exploration or development projects within the park, most particularly in the remote and relatively intact, but oil-rich, northeast corner.

Most at risk are oil block 31 and Ishpingo Tambococha Tiputini oil field or ITT. The Ecuadorian government is currently promoting a plan, the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, which would leave the largest part of the park’s oil reserves in the ITT Block permanently under the ground.

Finer said, ““This plan, however, urgently needs international funders to step up and make it a success, or else more drilling in Yasuní may become a tragic reality.”

Dow Jones Newswire reported on Jan. 25 that Petroamazonas SA, a unit of the state-run Petroecuador, plans to invest around $550 million to develop oil block 31, and hopes to produce up to 35,000 barrels per day. However the company will not build an oil facility in the Yasuni National Park.

Petroamazonas will use helicopters to transport equipment to the Apaika and Nenke fields, instead of building a road. Block 31 has 200,000 hectares, most of them within the Yasuni National Park. Unesco has declared the park a world biosphere reserve.

While the area still faces danger, the research paper done by the team of scientists  was noted and may have had an impact in reaffirming the Ecuadorian government’s policy on oil drilling and exploration.

For more information on the Yasuni research, contact Shawn McCracken at the Texas State Department of Biology at smccracken@txstate.edu.

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The red-listed White-bellied Spider Monkey native to Yasuni. Photo from Finding Species.

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