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Strange species found in Suriname

Surveying the biodiversity of the world's last wild areas is often a depressing business, due to the effects of deforestation and development, but in a roadless region of the South American country of Suriname, scientists have come upon a good-news story.

"We can say for sure that this is still a pristine area, in contrast to most of the places that we visit," Trond Larsen, director of Conservation International's Rapid Assessment Program, told me today.

Part of the payoff for Conservation International comes in the form of scientific discovery. Today, the nonprofit group is reporting the identification of 46 potentially new species, observed during a three-week expedition to southwest Suriname in 2010. The list includes a fancifully named "cowboy frog," a strangely spiked species of armored catfish, and colorful breeds of beetles and katydids. Check out our slideshow to get a close look at a few of the newly identified critters.

As far as Larsen is concerned, it's just as important to document the nearly 1,300 previously known species that were observed during the survey. After all, the main purpose of the Rapid Assessment Program is not just to add names to a list, but to lay down a baseline for assessing the health of an entire ecosystem.

"It's a quick and dirty way to go into an area ... and say something meaningful about the importance of that place," Larsen said.

Thanks to the RAP survey, Larsen and his colleagues know that the remote area along Suriname's Kutari and Sipaliwini Rivers is an important place. "It's one of the last really vast areas of unroaded tropical wilderness," he said.

Conservation International's survey was conducted by 53 scientists in collaboration with students and the region's indigenous Trio people.

Leeanne Alonso, a former director of the RAP program who is now with Global Wildlife Conservation, said the scientists were impressed by "the amazing diversity of birds and mammals of the region."

"You can really get up close to wildlife here," she said in a news release. "A camera trap recorded a jaguar about one hundred yards from our camp." The cameras captured nighttime glimpses of a giant armadillo, a peccary and an ocelot as well.

The scientists also observed cave petroglyphs near the Trio village of Kwamalasamutu, at a site that Conservation International is helping local communities preserve as an ecotourism destination. The site, known as Werehpai, is the oldest known human settlement  found in southern Suriname: Radiocarbon dating and archaeological studies suggest that the first signs of habitation go back at least 5,000 years.

"The Kwamalasamutu area's pristine nature and cultural heritage make it a unique destination for more adventurous tourists, who enjoy trekking through the dense rainforest to discover flora and fauna," said Tjon Sie Fat, executive director of Conservation International's operation in Suriname. "CI-Suriname and the Trio are hoping to further develop a niche market ecotourism site here."

The region's newfound species add to the strangeness of the setting. Among the finds reported in the RAP Bulletin of Biological Assessment series are these:

  • Cowboy frog: This potentially new species of frog (Hypsiboas sp.) was discovered during a night survey in a swampy area of the Koetari River. It has white fringes along its legs and a spur on each heel — which inspired the amphibian's nickname.
  • Armored catfish with spines: There are numerous species of catfish that are "armored" with external bony plates, but this one (Pseudacanthicus sp.) is unique because of the spines covering its plates of armor. Larsen noted that the fish live in a river that is infested with giant piranha fish. "Presumably, the spines are adapted to protect against the piranha," he said.
  • Crayola katydid: The Suriname species (Vestria sp.) is one of only a few types of insects that are named after the popular brand of crayons, because of their striking coloration. The "Crayola" critters are the only katydids known to employ chemical defenses to repel bird and mammalian predators.

Such species will take their place alongside other strangely named critters found in that region of Suriname, including the Pac-Man frog and the conehead katydid. And there may be more to come: Conservation International is planning to send another RAP expedition to southern Suriname in March.

More about species:

Don't miss our slideshow featuring the strange species of Suriname.

Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.