This February, several researchers were selected to participate in the first biological exploration of the archaeological site known as T1 in the remote interior of La Mosquitia. The objective was to find out as much as possible about the biological diversity of a site recently identified by archaeologists as harboring the ruins of the legendary White City. The trip organized by Trond Larsen of Conservation International counted on ZAMORANO for scientists and for much of the scientific equipment needed for the undertaking. The objective was not to come out with a complete list of everything that is found there, but to assess the importance of the site in terms of its biodiversity. Worldwide there is a crisis in biodiversity with vast numbers of species going extinct.
The process known as RAP (Rapid Assessment Program) is a common conservation tool used to prioritize little known regions of the planet for conservation before they are lost. We can tell from maps and satellite imagery where there are forests, but the maps do not tell us how diverse or important those forests are. Thus, experts are selected to spend a few days at the site then report back in a short time frame about the biodiversity in each group that was examined. In this case researchers from the ZAMORANO Biodiversity Center: Eric van den Berghe, Carlos Funes and John Van Dort were invited to look at fish, bird, orchid, and butterfly diversity.
Each researcher tried to answer the following questions for their focal group: Are there species that are new to science? Are there endangered species? Are there a lot of species? The team goes into the area and must answer these questions quickly. To get a complete inventory of a site takes years, this team had ten days.
For this expedition, the team flew in by helicopter from the town of Catacamas and then spent the week trapping, listening, searching, fishing, photographing, and recording everything that was found. By the end of the week, they had documented and identified some 700 species, which is not in itself extraordinary since nearly all of them are species found in rainforests and nowhere else. The site was truly extraordinary in the sense that it is one of the few places where animals do not associate humans with danger. There are no indigenous peoples living anywhere nearby and the previous civilization disappeared at least 500 years ago. All the expedition members hope to return during the rainy season when many more species are likely to be found, especially insects and amphibians which tend to be more abundant in the wet season. The team definitely concluded that not only this site, but the forests of La Mosquitia are a world heritage site that must be a high priority for conservation so that the record of what was found will not be a record of what once was. At this time, the details of all the species are still being worked on, and a report from Conservation International in a few months will detail exactly what was found.