Field notes from the Lost City

Editor’s note: A team of researchers with Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program recently returned from the Lost City in Honduras, a newly discovered set of ruins deep within the Mosquitia rainforest.

The group conducted a biological survey of the surrounding area, a previously unexplored tract of pristine forest. In this post, the expedition’s lead scientist, Trond Larsen, reflects on the team’s findings and recalls an unexpected encounter.photo-Numerous streams and rivers crisscross the area surrounding the Lost City. The intact forest purifies these crystal clear waters. (© Trond Larsen)

A warm drizzle beaded on my face as I scoured overhanging leaves with my headlamp in search of creatures heard but unseen. The varied calls of crickets, birds and frogs pulsed through the forest. As I returned down a narrow canyon to my camp, I looked up and froze with shock. A large pair of glowing orange eyes, set afire by my light, emerged from the inky blackness.

This is the rainforest surrounding the Lost City.

Twelve months earlier, I was on a helicopter to visit this remote patch of Honduran rainforest, traveling with unlikely company. The president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, glowing with pride for his country’s archaeological finds at the Lost City, personally showed me this previously unexplored area. He explained to me that very little about the region’s flora and fauna was known, and he asked for assistance.

A parrot snake adopts a defensive posture. Of the reptiles and amphibians encountered on the RAP, several represent species threatened with extinction, highlighting the critical need to conserve this rich area. (© Trond Larsen)

The Lost City is also known under various legends as the City of the Monkey God and the White City (“Ciudad Blanca” in Spanish and “Kaha Kamasa” in the local Miskito language). It represents a recently discovered and previously unknown civilization buried deep within a massive swath of unexplored forest. The archaeological findings at the site have received widespread coverage in various film and print outlets in the past few years.

To complement this wealth of archaeological knowledge, Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program conducted an expedition to document the area’s biological diversity. Our team consisted of 12 expert scientists specializing in plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, butterflies and dung beetles. All but two of the biologists were from Honduras, representing multiple institutions including Zamorano University and the National Autonomous University of Honduras.

The nictitating eye membrane — the third eyelid — of a red-eyed tree frog. Each species has a distinctive color pattern that is useful for identifying closely related species. The expedition discovered 57 species of amphibians and reptiles during the rapid survey of the Lost City. (© Trond Larsen)

After months of preparation and with support from two tireless U.S. colleagues, Steve Elkins and Bill Benenson, as well as the director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, Virgilio Paredes, and the Honduran Institute of Science and Technology, our scientific team was airdropped by the Honduran military into a remote and inaccessible corner of the Mosquitia rainforest. Following the rapid assessment model, we acted as an “ecological SWAT team” to quickly assess as much of the area’s biodiversity as we could in a 10-day blitz, using machetes, nets, pole cutters, ropes, baited traps and any other means at our disposal. Heavily armed soldiers, there to protect the extraordinary artifacts, accompanied us in the forest and assisted with the fieldwork.

Our study will help better understand how the natural history of Ciudad Blanca compares with its cultural heritage. Combining these two avenues of research is a critical step toward ensuring the long-term preservation of the broader landscape surrounding Ciudad Blanca in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve. These life-sustaining forests and watersheds are threatened by rapidly spreading and unsustainable illegal encroachment by loggers and cattle ranchers. The president and government of Honduras are committed to protecting this outstanding Mesoamerican jewel — providing a rare opportunity to conserve one of the last large intact forested regions in Central America.

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