By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 2/2/2009 2:22:59 PM ET 2009-02-02T19:22:59

A treasure trove of potential new species has been uncovered in a modern-day Garden of Eden in Colombia, scientists announced Monday. They said the discoveries gave them hope that such biological frontiers could be saved from harm.

Among the 10 amphibian species that may be new to science are an orange-legged rain frog, three poison dart frogs and three transparent-skinned glass frogs.

"Without a doubt, this region is a true Noah's Ark," Jose Vincente Rodriguez-Mahecha, scientific director of Conservation International in Colombia, said in a news release announcing the find. "The high number of new amphibian species found is a sign of hope, even with the serious threat of extinction that this animal group faces in many other regions of the country and the world."

The animals were cataloged during an expedition to the mountainous Tacarcura area of the Darien, near Colombia's border with Panama. Conservation International's experts on amphibians joined forces with bird experts from the Ecotropia Foundation, with the support of the area's indigenous Embera community.

During their three-week expedition, the scientists identified about 60 species of amphibians, 20 reptile species and almost 120 species of birds, many of them apparently found nowhere else, Conservation International reported. The expedition also came across several types of previously known large mammals — including the Baird's tapir, which is considered endangered in Colombia, four species of monkeys and populations of white-lipped peccary.

Happy with the harlequin
The newfound amphibian species include three types of glass frogs, three types of poison dart frogs, two species of rain frogs, a salamander and a harlequin frog. Finding the harlequin frog was particularly noteworthy, said Robin Moore, Conservation International's amphibian conservation officer.

Top 10 new species of 2007"This group has been very hard-hit by the recent declines and extinctions of species," he told msnbc.com. "The vast majority of the species within this genus has suffered rapid decline. So the fact that a new species of this group was found is really good news. It's a reason for optimism that some of these species are doing well."

To find 10 potentially new species in one previously unexamined area is "phenomenal," Moore said. He said the discoveries suggest that the incidence of native species in the region is "exceptionally higher on a global scale."

Amphibians are being increasingly regarded as advance indicators of the health of an ecosystem — the ecological equivalent of a "canary in the coal mine." They also help control the spread of diseases that can affect humans, such as malaria and dengue fever, by eating the insects that carry the disease.

In a statement, Colombian Environment Minister Juan Lozano hailed the expedition's findings as "a great milestone for science and human health."

"Once more we confirm we are leaders in natural diversity, and not only in our region but in the world," Lozano said.

Next steps for conservation
The identity and names of the apparently newfound species will be presented to the scientific community and environmental authorities for a formal evaluation of their conservation status or risk of extinction, Conservation International said.

Moore said the Darien region has benefited from its remoteness. Until recently, its flora and fauna were relatively undisturbed. But this Eden is rapidly being despoiled: Conservation International said 25 to 30 percent of the area has been deforested already, due to logging, cattle ranching, illicit crop cultivation and other encroachments.

"The good thing is that the spotlight has been shone on this area," Moore said. He said the next steps would focus on strengthening the protected-area status of the Darien region, and creating a new protected area in the Tacarcuna hills.

"All too often we hear about doom and gloom, but I think we also need to be positive about what we can do to protect these areas," Moore said. "The fact that these areas still exist shows that we still have time, and we still have a chance."

More information on the discovery is available from Conservation International.

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