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Searching for the Lost Toro pt 1

By Nikki Roach, GWC associate conservation scientist (re-purposed from Nikki’s blog)

Many creatures lurk in the forest at night, yet some remain to be seen. The Santa Marta Toro (Santamartamys rufodorsalis) is one of these species. The fuzzy, red, medium-bodied rodent was thought to be extinct for 113 years before being rediscovered in the jungles of Colombia in 2011. The discovery was not an exciting expedition that took scientists to ends of the earth, using a machete to slash their way through the forest, while they made perilous escapes from the extremely venomous fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper). Rather, the Toro rediscovery happened while a couple of scientists were sitting on the porch of an Ecotourism lodge–the El Dorado Reserve. The Toro, which appeared on an El Dorado’s banister, sat there for almost two hours. Since its initial rediscovery the Toro has not been seen since. In fact, it has not been documented in its natural habitat (a banister hardly seems like natural habitat) since a specimen was collected in the late 1800s, and there is virtually no information about the species life history, ecology, or habitat use. But how could a charismatic species be “lost” for so long?

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (SNSM) rises out of the Caribbean ocean to a majestic 5,775 meters within 50 kilometers from the coastline, making it the tallest coastal mountain range in the world. The mountain’s isolation and geographic age (older than the Andes) has made this region a biodiversity hotspot, with high levels of flora and faunal endemism. The SNSM is the second oldest park in Colombia and was designated a Biosphere UNESCO reserve in 1997.

More recently the SNSM National Park was deemed the world’s most irreplaceable site for threatened species (Le Saout et al. 2013), and the El Dorado reserve, where the Toro was rediscovered, is an Alliance for Zero Extinction site. While this mountain range has been given many international designations of conservation importance, it remains largely understudied, primarily due to inaccessibility and armed conflict that riddled the region for years.

The El Dorado Reserve is a birders’ paradise. Primarily functioning as an ecotourism lodge, birders flock here each year to see some of the region’s threatened and endemic bird species, including the Santa Marta Parakeet (Pyrrhura viridicata). The reserve is about 1,976 acres ranging from 900 to 2,600 meters. However, the reserve hosts a suite of other endemic species, and it is here that I will search for the Santa Marta Toro.

After the rediscovery of the Toro in 2011, scientists searched for the species using bait stations and camera traps, as well as Sherman traps, in hopes of luring the Toro out from its secret forest domain. The search was unsuccessful; once again leading scientists to believe this is truly one of the rarest mammals in the world. In fact, I received an email from one of the scientists on the initial expedition that stated “great to hear that someone is going back there to look for the bloody thing!” (high level of confidence right there). We will be searching for the Toro conducting nocturnal spotlight surveys throughout the El Dorado reserve and surrounding sites. We will also attempt camera trapping again. We hope to talk with local farmers and indigenous groups about the Toro and gain insight into the region using local ecological knowledge.

You can follow along with the expedition and all things about my experience on my blog. As for me, well I’ve worked in wetlands, with water and marsh birds, in the United States for the past four years. Needless to say, I am excited, but mostly unprepared, for what I may encounter lurking in the depths of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

You can read more about the Toro rediscovery here.

NOTE: This research will take place in conjunction with ProAves, Rainforest Trust, and Global Wildlife Conservation

Photo: Lizzie Noble

About the Author

Nikki Roach

Nikki Roach

Nikki Roach is a GWC associate conservation scientist and a conservation biologist. She is a Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University, where her research focuses on conservation planning for threatened species through assessments of species distribution, abundance and vulnerability to land use and climate change impacts, using a mixture of modeling and field-based data. For the next year she will be collecting her dissertation data in Colombia on a Fulbright Fellowship.

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