Updated at 11:10 a.m. ET, Wednesday, Jan. 25.
A spiny armored catfish and a cowboy frog are among 46 species that may be new to science discovered in the South American country of Suriname, researchers now reveal.
The species were discovered in a scientific expedition into southwest Suriname, which holds one of the world's last pristine tropical forests.
"Our team was privileged to explore one of the last remaining areas of vast, unroaded wilderness in the world," said Trond Larsen, director of Conservation International's Rapid Assessment Program. "As a scientist, it is thrilling to study these remote forests where countless new discoveries await, especially since we believe that protecting these landscapes while they remain pristine provides perhaps the greatest opportunity for maintaining globally important biodiversity and the ecosystems people depend upon for generations to come."
The three-week survey, an initiative of the nonprofit Conservation International, explored three remote sites along the Kutari and Sipaliwini Rivers near the village of Kwamalasumutu from August to September 2010 to catalog the regions' wildlife and help develop sustainable ecotourism opportunities for the local indigenous people. The expedition included 53 scientists, indigenous Trio people, and students. [Photos of new species in Suriname]
"Water pervaded everything on our expedition," Larsen told LiveScience. "After boating many hours upstream, breaking a propeller, nearly capsizing, and porting the canoes past raging rapids amid electric eels and stingrays, we built a makeshift campsite in the forest. Our kitchen, built of sticks by the edge of the river, flooded after days of heavy rain."
"Our daily descent from our tents down a steep hill at mealtimes became a muddy game of slip-and-slide," Larsen recalled. "As I lost my footing one night, I felt fortunate to be able to grab a passing palm trunk, only to discover it was covered with long, needlelike spines. After only a few days, our soggy, moldy clothes were strewn across branches around the forest, in a vain attempt to dry them in fleeting spots of sun passing through the dense forest canopy."
He added, "Entering my tent on the first night, I was surprised to find my sleeping bag already occupied by a bullet ant, a gigantic insect named after its devastating sting that causes constant throbbing pain for 24 hours."
Despite these challenges, the researchers documented nearly 1,300 species, an incredible diversity of plants, fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds, small mammals, large mammals, ants, katydids, dragonflies and damselflies, aquatic beetles and dung beetles.
The many new species include:
- An "armored catfish" (Pseudacanthicus sp.), whose armor of external bony plates is covered with spines to defend itself from giant piranhas that inhabit the same waters. One of the local guides on the expedition was actually about to eat this specimen as a snack until scientists noticed its unique traits and preserved it. Only a handful of Pseudacanthicus specimens are known from Suriname, and this is the first from the Sipaliwini River.
"We were working closely with the Trio people, who depend heavily on subsistence hunting and fishing," Larsen said. "They caught and ate many fish during our expedition, including a wide variety of catfish species. Once you get past the spines, I suppose it tastes like most catfish."
- The "cowboy frog" (Hypsiboas sp.), named for the white fringes along its legs and the spur on its "heel." The amphibian was discovered low on a small branch during a night survey in a swampy area of the Kutari River. It looks quite similar to the "convict treefrog" (Hypsiboas calcaratus) but lacks its black-and-white lateral stripes, according to the researchers.
- The "crayola katydid" (Vestria sp.), so named because of its striking coloration — the front of its body is pink with dark spots, while its rear is yellow with blue spots. Katydids are large long-horned grasshoppers — this new insect is the only katydid known to employ chemical defenses, which are effective at repelling bird and mammalian predators.
"It contains toxic chemicals in its body," Larsen told LiveScience. "It is not harmful to handle the katydid, but I suspect eating it would make a person sick."
Other fascinating species discovered in the region that scientists had seen before include:
- The "Pac-Man frog" (Ceratophrys cornuta), a gluttonous sit-and-wait predator with an exceptionally wide mouth that allows it to swallow prey nearly as large as its own body, including birds, mice and other frogs. One researcher using a radio collar to track birds found a bird under study and its collar in the belly of this frog.
- The "spectacular conehead katydid" (Loboscelis bacatus), previously only seen in Amazonian Peru. This katydid has fluorescent green-and-pink coloring, and feeds on seeds, fruits, snails and other insects. This sighting in southern Suriname significantly extends its known range.
- The "great horned beetle" (Coprophanaeus lancifer) is a giant dung beetle the size of a tangerine, weighing more than 6 grams. It is metallic blue and purple. Both males and females possess long horns on the head, which they use as weapons against each other during battle.
"The area was paradise for the entomologists among us, with spectacular and unique insects everywhere — I didn't even have to look for ants, because they jumped out at me," said Leeanne Alonso, a former director of Conservation International's Rapid Assessment Program who is now with Global Wildlife Conservation. "You can really get up close to wildlife here — a camera trap recorded a jaguar about one hundred yards from our camp."
The scientists also uncovered extensive cave petroglyphs, or rock carvings, near the village of Kwamalasamutu in a site known as Werehpai, the oldest known human settlement in southern Suriname, with recent estimates suggesting first signs of habitation 5,000 years ago. Conservation International is working with local communities to preserve and promote Werehpai for ecotourism — it offers the most concentrated set of petroglyphs ever recorded in the Amazonian Basin.
"The Kwamalasamutu area's pristine nature and cultural heritage make it a unique destination for more adventurous tourists, who enjoy trekking through the dense rain forest to discover flora and fauna," said Annette Tjon Sie Fat, director of Conservation International's Suriname program.
Researchers will head back to southern Suriname in March to continue the exploration of this region.
"While it is necessary to document and understand biodiversity in order to protect it, one of the most important outcomes of this expedition was the chance to work with the local Trio community," Larsen said. "Our findings will help the Trio to promote sustainable ecotourism, providing new economic opportunities while also supporting conservation of their surrounding ecosystems. Our scientists worked with numerous Surinamese students on the expedition, providing valuable training for the next generation of biologists and conservationists."
The findings of the 2010 expedition were published in December in the Conservation International's Rapid Assessment Program's Bulletin of Biological Assessment series.
Editor's Note: This article was updated to include comments from the researchers involved in the expedition.