January 19, 2010
In the midst of a seesaw political battle to save Yasuni National Park from oil developers, scientists have announced that this park in Ecuador houses more species than anywhere else in South America—and maybe the world.
"Yasuní is at the center of a small zone where South America's amphibians, birds, mammals, and vascular plants all reach maximum diversity," Dr. Clinton Jenkins of the University of Maryland said in a press release. "We dubbed this area the 'quadruple richness center.'"
An explosion of life
The number of species inhabiting Yasuni is staggering. According to the study, published in PLoS ONE the region breaks records for numerous taxa, including amphibians, trees, bats, and insects.
More trees grow in a single hectare (2.47 acres) of upland rainforest in Yasuni—655 species—than in the continental US and Canada combined. In 25 hectares, the number of tree species rises to 1,100.
"In just one hectare in Yasuní, there are more tree, shrub, and liana (woody vines) species than anywhere else in the world," said Gorky Villa, an Ecuadorian botanist working with both the Smithsonian Institution and the conservation organization with offices in Maryland and Quito, Ecuador, Finding Species.
The same incredibly high diversity applies to amphibians, according to Shawn McCracken of Texas State University.
"The 150 amphibian species documented to date throughout Yasuní is a world record for an area of this size. There are more species of frogs and toads within Yasuní than are native to the United States and Canada combined."
However the numbers of insects in Yasuni may eclipse all of these: according to entomologist, Dr. Terry Erwin, a single hectare of rainforest may contain as many as 100,000 unique insect species. This estimate is the highest per unit area in the world for any taxa, plant or animal.
"One of our most important findings about Yasuní is that small areas of forest harbor extremely high numbers of animals and plants," said lead author Margot Bass, President of Finding Species. "Yasuní is probably unmatched by any other park in the world for total numbers of species."
In one of the park's well-studied areas, Tiputini Biodiversity Station, researchers have cataloged 247 amphibian and reptiles, 550 birds, and 200 mammals—over a hundred of which are bats. The station consists of only 6.5 square kilometers (1,600 acres).
"The station is the richest site in the world for bats,” asserts researcher Dr. Thomas Kunz of Boston University
Twenty-eight vertebrates inhabiting Yasuni are currently threatened with extinction according to the IUCN Red List, including the white-bellied spider monkey, Poeppig's woolly monkey, the giant river otter, and the Amazonian manatee. Few plants and invertebrates, such as insects, have been evaluated by the IUCN.
"What makes Yasuní especially important is its potential to sustain this extraordinary biodiversity in the long term," said Dr. Matt Finer of Save America’s Forests. "For example, the Yasuní region is predicted to maintain wet, rainforest conditions as climate change-induced drought intensifies in the eastern Amazon."
Troubled plan to save Yasuni from oil
To protect this vast web of biodiversity, as well as indigenous tribes in Yasuni, the Ecuadorian government has come up with an innovative and ambitious plan called Yasuni-ITT. The plan calls for industrialized nations to pay Ecuador $3 billion over ten years to keep the oil in the ground, thereby preventing massive carbon emissions due to deforestation and the burning of the oil. However this plan has encountered its share of difficulties.
After two years, the proposal still has no confirmed donors. So far, Spain, Germany, Belgium, France, and Sweden have all shown interest in the idea, but have yet to put forth any cash.
The slow response of industrialized countries has frustrated Ecuador's President, Rafael Correa; while demands from possible donors—such as having a say in how the money is spent and requiring additional land to be protected—has left Correa irate. Last week he called any such stipulations "unacceptable".
"If they don't accept our conditions, they can keep their money and we'll drill," Correa said according to The New York Times.
Following his statement, Correa's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fander Falconi, resigned along with three other advisers.
However, this week Correa has toned down his criticism, saying that "The Yasuni-ITT initiative will continue and we will double our efforts to make it a success," according to The Wall Street Journal.
The authors of the new paper say that Yasuni-ITT is the best chance to save the startling biodiversity of Yasuni National Park. They call for a moratorium on all oil exploration, concluding that oil cannot be extracted from the park without irreversible damage to the ecosystem and its priceless biodiversity.
"If the Yasuní-ITT Initiative does not succeed, the tragic reality will be drilling for oil in the core of the most biodiverse rainforest on Earth," says Matt Finer.