World News

Is This the World’s Most Diverse National Park?

Posted May 22, 2018 3:56 p.m. EDT

Madidi National Park in Bolivia goes from lowland to mountaintop, from 600 feet to almost 20,000 feet above sea level. It covers more than 7,000 square miles of wildly different habitats. It is, says Rob Wallace, an ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bolivia, “a place where the Amazon meets the Andes.”

It has cloud forests, lowland jungle, rivers, streams, wetlands. It even has glaciers.

“Madidi was put together on the hypothesis that it could be the world’s most biologically diverse protected area,” Wallace said. And, he said, it is — for mammals, birds, plants and butterflies.

In June 2015, a team of scientists, almost all Bolivian, set out on a three-year survey of life in the park, concentrating on 15 sites. The on-the-ground search, supported by the conservation society, was complemented by a less adventurous investigation — of the scientific literature. The goal of the project, Identidad Madidi, was to identify as many species that lived in the park as they could.

The results are in: The total number of species documented for Madidi is now 8,524. The team in the field found about 4,000 species, 1,362 of them never before recorded in Madidi. They estimate, based on other information of how species are distributed, that there are probably 11,395 living in the park, even though some of those have not yet been spotted. That includes all creatures with backbones, all plants and butterflies. Tackling all the insect species was a step too far.

Among the finds were 124 species and eight subspecies believed to be new to science, like the spiny rat, whiptail lizard and Cyrtochilum orchid.

They documented 13 new species of butterfly.

Of course, the conclusion of the survey raises a question: Why does it matter which park is most diverse?

Bolivia is not headed for a World Cup-style confrontation with other protected areas, like Manu National Park in Peru, which has been considered the most diverse up to now, or Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, which is still ahead of Madidi in amphibians and reptiles like the Bolivian coral snake, which is highly venomous.

Fish, including the harmless pupfish, are still being counted.

In fact, the conservation society provides support to both those parks and many others. But national pride can be a motivator for conservation and Wallace said that the survey was initiated largely because “people in Bolivia did not know how special Madidi really was.”

The survey made scientific sense because having a baseline record of diversity in any protected area is important for understanding what happens as climate and development around the area change. For researchers interested in how species interact with one another and their environment, the first step is knowing about the species themselves, like the Madidi titi monkey, discovered in the park in 2000 by Wallace and Humberto Gómez, and deemed a new species in 2004.

Species counts are never definitive, however. How many people are counting, what areas they choose to sample, time of year, changes in environment over time — all can affect the final totals. Manu National Park, or Yasuni National Park, or another protected area could conduct new counts and totals could change.

The point, of course, is to protect as many species as possible, in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador or anywhere on the planet. But a little national pride in one’s own preservation efforts can only help protected animals and plants to flourish.