For 20 years, field scientists working with Conversation International have been exploring some of the world’s most abundant, mysterious and threatened tropical ecosystems.
To date, they have discovered more than 1,300 species new to science – although so far only 500 or so have been formally described by taxonomists, in terms of classification and naming.
And now, to celebrate their 20 years of cataloguing, the group has released 20 of their favourite finds.
While some – like the fish that flashes a beautiful array of colours when it is in love – make a great sight, others are more than likely to quiver, such as the giant blue scorpion, or the ants which hook on to each other with sharp barbs when threatened.
And arachnophobes – take a deep breath, because this is what is thought to be the largest tarantula known to exist – oh, and it eats lizards.
The giant spider is the Goliath bird eating spider (theraphosa blondi) and is the largest (by mass) spider in the world, reaching the weight of 170g and leg span of 30cm.
It was observed by Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program scientists in Guyana in 2006, where it lives in burrows on the floor of lowland rainforests.
Despite the name, it feeds primarily on invertebrates – but have been observed eating small mammals, lizards and even venomous snakes.
They have venom fangs, which are not deadly to humans, but their main line of defense are hairs that cover their entire body – when threatened their rub their legs agains the abdomen and send a cloud of microscopic barbs that lodge in the skin and mucus membranes of the attacker, causing pain and long-lasting irritation.
Meanwhile the emperor scorpion (pandinus imperator) has an eight-inches-long body, this is one of the largest scorpions in the world – a species from India is reputedly slightly longer.
Observed by scientists in Atewa, Ghana in 2006. Despite their enormous size they feed primarily on termites and other small invertebrates, and its venom is not particularly harmful to humans.
The venom of this species contains compounds that are being tested as potential drugs to control arrhythmia (a heart disease) and the blue fluorescent betacarbolines that cover its body (visible only in ultraviolet light) are studied in order to understand degeneration of proteins in human eye lenses, which leads to cataract blindness.
Not new to science, but observed by the RAP team, is the fish-hook ant. Scientists, as well as mammal and bird predators, think twice before messing with this large (1.5 cm) ant in the forests of Cambodia – their curved spines can easily slice through skin and tend to hold on for a while.
These ants live in large numbers in nests in dead tree trunks on the forest floor, and when attacked they swarm out and hook onto each other, making extracting an individual ant by a predator difficult.
The hooking together behavior is inadvertent – they do not seek each other to hook together – but nevertheless quite effective as a defense mechanism.
Ants play an important ecological role as scavengers – they are often some of the first organisms to feed on dead insects and animals, which help to recycle organic material back into the ecosystem and to keep dead animals from piling up.
The RAP project’s achievements are highlighted in the new book ‘Still Counting…’ edited by Leeanne Alonso, Director of CI’s Rapid Assessment Program in collaboration with other leading scientists.
Part memoir, part historical report, part methodology guide, ‘Still Counting…’ revisits RAP expeditions to some of the most remote and least known areas on the planet, recounting the physical challenges and personal highlights experienced by its scientists and features more than 400 amazing color photographs of rare and exciting species from around the globe.
‘It’s been an amazing adventure,’ said Alonso, who has coordinated and led surveys for the past 13 years.
‘Despite the pressures we put on nature, it continues to mystify, inspire and teach us with a wealth of hidden treasures and ecosystem services that people rely on, and that we’re still only beginning to understand.’
To mark the twenty years, CI has designated the Top 20 ‘RAP stars’ of the program’s history. Species include some of the most biologically surprising, unique, or threatened discoveries of the teams’ surveys, and include poster species that have captured the public’s and media’s imagination with popular nicknames like the ‘Pinocchio frog’.
Launched in 1990, the idea behind the creation of CI’s Rapid Assessment Program was to build a team of the best field biologists from different disciplines, and create what CI founder, CEO, and Chairman Peter Seligmann described in the foreword to the book as ‘An ecological SWAT team that could accurately assess the health of an ecosystem in a fraction of the time it would normally take’.
Among the program’s achievements, are the completion of 80 surveys in 27 countries, including 51 terrestrial RAPs, 15 MarineRAPs and 13 freshwater AquaRAPs.
The next animal on the list is the strumigenys tigris ant, which lives in the leaf litter of rainforests of Papua New Guinea.