What does a month in the Cordillera Vilcabamba get you? If you’re herpetologist Jose Padial and his team, an expedition to this Peruvian mountain range lets you find more than a dozen new species of reptiles and amphibians — even if, technically, you’re unable to reach your ultimate goal.
Padial, chief herpetologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, had serious research time already logged in the rainforests of Peru. But the Vilcabamba is something else: As Green Light noted when profiling Padial back in December, it’s a national park, but so remote that it had never been visited by scientists, nor indeed by any outsiders for more than a half-century. (The last visitors parachuted in.) Padial says the Peruvian government considers the area a war zone, historically disputed by the military, cocaine-traffickers and leftist rebels. Special government permission was required even to visit; an OK was needed also from the indigenous Ashaninka people — who themselves have had no reason to ascend the mountain range to anywhere near the 12,000 feet Padial hoped to reach (let alone the 13,400-foot high point).
The team included six biologists (most of them Peruvian), a park ranger, a cook, a filmmaker, and a journalist working for the California Academy of Sciences museum. While a newer paved road got them to their base village, the actual trek was more arduous, even with help from up to half a dozen Ashaninka aides.
The terrain is spectacular: cliffs, waterfall, lakes, most still unnamed. “It’s the most amazing landscape I have seen in Peru,” says Padial. “It’s completely unexplored.” To traverse it, the expeditioners had to trailblaze, hacking their way through dense vegetation, scrambling up steep slopes, even weaving through the roots of big trees, all while laden with gear — and under frequent soaking rains, with temperatures that dropped to 40 degrees F at night. In some spots, Ashaninka helpers crafted log bridges to permit river crossings.
The party’s mission was to survey wildlife at different altitudes, to see how species changed with temperature and humidity — partly as a baseline for future conservation efforts, partly to begin learning how climate change is affecting this part of the world. Padial wanted to reach 10,000 feet because that’s where the forest is replaced by grasslands, the last significant change in habitat on the way up. But at about 9,300 feet, the trek stalled: The path was so rough it would have taken two or three days to climb the final 700 feet of altitude, and already “we were very tired,” says Padial. The crew descended, planning to get a military helicopter to take them to the higher altitude. But the chopper couldn’t land because of excessive cloud cover.
That was a disappointment. But the trip (which was supported by the Carnegie Discoverers funders’ group) was hardly a failure. While past Padial-led teams had found about 10 reptiles or amphibians previously unknown to science, this trip alone added as many as 14 to that total. “We had never found so many new species in a single trip,” he says. “It was very productive scientifically.”
As before, many of the finds were frogs, including new examples of species that develop directly from eggs, with no tadpole stage. There were also two high-altitude snakes and “several beautiful new lizards,” Padial says. He hopes to have a scientific paper ready by year’s end.
Remote as it is, the Vilcabamba is threatened by agriculture — coca cultivation and other kinds of farming that strip the forest and devastate its biodiversity.
In any case, Padial knows there’s much left to learn there.
“I have to go back,” he says. Perhaps as soon as next year — except maybe this time in the dry season, when animals might be less active, but a helicopter ride would have a better chance of getting researchers a little further up the mountain.