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Scientists identify Ecuador national park among world's most biodiverse places

Posted by Jayme Blaschke
University News Service
January 19, 2010

Shawn McCracken

Shawn McCracken

A team of scientists, including a Ph.D. candidate in the Texas State University-San Marcos Aquatic Resources program, has documented that Yasuní National Park, located in the core of the Ecuadorian Amazon, is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. The new study details how Yasuní shatters world records for a wide array of plant and animal groups, from amphibians to trees to insects.

“The 150 amphibian species documented to date throughout Yasuní is a world record for an area of this size,” said Shawn McCracken of Texas State. “There are more species of frogs and toads within Yasuní than are native to the United States and Canada combined.”

The study, published in the open-access scientific journal PLoS ONE, is available online at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0008767

“Yasuní is at the center of a small zone where South America’s amphibians, birds, mammals, and vascular plants all reach maximum diversity,” said Clinton Jenkins of the University of Maryland. “We dubbed this area the ‘quadruple richness center.’”

The scientists also confirmed that an average upland hectare (2.47 acres) in Yasuní contains more tree species, 655, than are native to the continental United States and Canada combined. The number of tree species rises to over 1,100 for an area of 25 hectares.

“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 Finding Species.

Perhaps the most impressive statistic of all is that a single hectare of forest in Yasuní is projected to contain 100,000 insect species. According to eminent entomologist Terry Erwin, that is the highest estimated diversity per unit area in the world for any plant or animal group.

“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, a non-profit with offices in Maryland and Quito, Ecuador. “Yasuní is probably unmatched by any other park in the world for total numbers of species.”

The extraordinary diversity of Yasuní is best exemplified at the 6.5 km2 (1600 acre) Tiputini Biodiversity Station, located on the northern edge of the park.

“The Tiputini Biodiversity Station is home to 247 amphibian and reptile species, 550 bird species, and around 200 mammal species, including 10 primates and an array of large predators,” said Kelly Swing of the University of San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador.

“In addition, the station is the richest site in the world for bats,” added researcher Thomas Kunz of Boston University. “We estimate that over 100 different bat species inhabit this small area.”

Yasuní also contains 28 endangered vertebrates on the IUCN Red List, including threatened large primates (White-bellied Spider Monkey and Poeppig's Woolly Monkey) and aquatic mammals (Giant Otter and Amazonian Manatee), and a number of regional endemic species found nowhere else on Earth.

“What makes Yasuní especially important is its potential to sustain this extraordinary biodiversity in the long term,” said 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.”

The authors warn, however, that current and potential oil development projects represent the greatest threat to Yasuní.

The paper concludes with a number of science-based policy recommendations. One key recommendation is as a moratorium on new oil exploration or development projects within the park, particularly in the remote and relatively intact—but oil rich—northeast corner that contains oil blocks 31 and ITT.

The Ecuadorian government is currently promoting a revolutionary plan, known as the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which would leave the park’s largest oil reserves in the ITT block permanently under the ground.

“This plan, however, urgently needs international funders to step up and make it a success, or else more drilling in Yasuní may become a tragic reality,” said Finer.

For more information, contact Shawn McCracken, Texas State Department of Biology, at smccracken@txstate.edu.