Aug 15

Since its inception in 1982 each Wildscreen Festival has utilised wildlife photographs or illustrations to provide each year with a unique and memorable visual identity.  As the 2018 Festival draws closer, we are incredibly excited to introduce the illustrations will become the face of this year’s Festival!

The 2018 Festival focusses on telling the story of biodiversity – the amazing diversity of life on Earth, from species to ecosystems.  We value the world’s more underappreciated and endangered species and habitats, and have therefore chosen five to showcase as the 2018 Festival Mascots!

Here, photographer and conservationist Robin Moore recounts his expedition to search for the lost salamanders of northern Guatemala, including the incredibly striking Muller’s Mushroomtounge Salamander.

Muller’s mushroomtongue salamander. Illustration by Lorna Leigh Harrington

In July 2014 I was lucky to join an expedition to the cloud forests of northern Guatemala in search of lost salamanders. Among our team were Paul Elias and Jeremy Jackson, who had discovered and described many of our target species some 38 years previously, and Carlos Vasquez, a young Guatemalan biologist who had rediscovered two of these salamanders over three decades later.

Elias first ventured to Guatemala in 1974, when he made discoveries so remarkable that he was compelled to return. He writes of that first visit, “I was 18 years old and had a chance to visit Guatemala, and so I went to eminent herpetologist Dave Wake to ask what would be of use to him. He gave me a one-page photocopy of a map of Guatemala and circled the Cuchumatanes.” The Cuchumatanes mountains were, according to Wake, a final frontier for exploration in Central America.

After being dropped off by his parents at a road rising sharply up to a karst plateau, Elias hitchhiked as far as he could away from civilization and into uncharted territory, sleeping nights on a dirt floor among “bugs, predatory spiders, scorpions and centipedes that had gathered”. He found a couple of hundred salamanders in three weeks. “I had no guide to the species in Guatemala so I had no idea if I had anything of value or not,” he says.

A colourful bus wends its way through cloud forest in northern Guatemala en route to the Cuchumatanes mountains | © Robin Moore

His hard work and discomfort paid off. When Elias returned to Berkeley he left some of his specimens to soak in water before preserving them. It was here that Wake happened upon them, and he was astonished. Elias recalls, “both, which would later be named, the Long-limbed Salamander and Finca Chiblac Salamander were in that collection and turned out to be significant missing links in the Neotropical lungless salamander radiation. Word traveled to me by rumor in the next day or two and I suddenly discovered that I had found something extraordinary”.

Elias launched further expeditions to the Cuchumatanes the following two summers, bringing Jeremy Jackson with him to help. Rain-soaked weeks spent crashing through cloud forest and lifting rotting logs resulted in the discovery of Jackson’s Climbing Salamander, named by Elias in honor of his friend. They called the salamander the “golden wonder” because of its brilliant colouration. But over months of fieldwork only two individuals of the species were ever found, and neither Elias or Jackson could have predicted that, a quarter of a century later, none of the three salamanders that they had discovered would have been seen again.

In 2009, during an expedition led by local biologist Carlos Vasquez in collaboration with the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley, the Finca Chiblac Salamander was rediscovered, 32 years after it was last seen. The following year the Long-Limbed Salamander also re-appeared. The still-missing Jackson’s salamander, however, climbed its way into the top ten “Most Wanted” amphibians in the world in 2010.

A Long-limbed Salamander on a mossy trunk in the Cuchumatanes mountains | © Robin Moore

As I sit with Elias and Jackson in a rural village near Laguna Maxbal in the remote Cuchumatanes mountains in July 2014, Elias pours over his original field notes — every page photo copied and bound, noting how things have changed in the 38 years since they last set foot here. It is day 5 of our expedition, and we have yet to find a salamander – and spirits are beginning to dampen. Expectation is heavy in the air, as is the bitter prospect of disappointment. As a heavy afternoon downpour subsides, we don our headlamps and head into the forest and to an area with large buttressed trees. As soon as light has drained from the forest the Long-limbed Salamanders emerge from among the tangle of roots to scale the trees — our best chance of seeing them is soon after they have emerged and before they climb out of sight.

We quickly strike gold. Jackson describes the moment: “When I spied that oh so familiar pose of a Long-limbed Salamander basking in the rain with feet splayed and spine bent with that beautiful long tail hanging down, I was thrilled. It really brought back much of what it had been like in ‘76; going out night after night in the rain. Finding this salamander is as rewarding as it was years ago.”

The next day we found our first Finca Chiblac Salamander under a rotting log. Elias shared Jackson’s excitement at seeing the salamanders again, telling me after the expedition, “I was really moved to see both the Long-limbed Salamander and Finca Chiblac Salamander alive and happy in their forest. The Long-limbed Salamander in particular is just an extraordinary animal; its high speed agility, and its goofy polka dots make it something almost unlike a salamander. I never thought I would see one alive again. The fact of these two missing links living in that primeval forest on the ancient karst uplands makes one think that the Cucuchumatanes were the old cradle of the great salamander radiation of Central America.”

A Finca Chiblac Salamander | © Robin Moore

Our search continued for Jackson’s Climbing Salamander and other species including the beautiful Muller’s Mushroomtongue Salamander. We spent our days with our backs arched sifting through leaf litter, and under the cloak of darkness illuminated leaves and mossy trunks in the forest with our headlamps, willing salamanders to appear before us.

The golden wonder eluded us, as did Mullers Mushroomtongue Salamander, but on our final day before leaving the remote reaches of the Cuchumatanes we were treated to a surprise. Locals from a small town proudly presented us with a salamander that they found close by – a beautiful Müller’s Mushroom-tongue Salamander, an uncommon chocolate brown animal with a splash of yellow running down its back. It looked as if it had walked under a leaky tin of royal yellow paint, and was undoubtedly one of the most striking salamanders I had laid eyes on.

A striking Mullers Mushroomtongue Salamander brought to us by locals on the final day of our expedition | © Robin Moore

The 11-day expedition helped to shine the spotlight on the incredible value of the forests of the Cuchumatanes, but it also uncovered impending threats to this remote area. Some core forest habitat was slated for coffee cultivation by international investors within the year. A global consortium of conservation groups rapidly formed and responded. Global Wildlife Conservation partnered with the Amphibian Survival AllianceRainforest TrustWorld Land Trust and International Conservation Fund of Canada to quickly raise the support needed to create a sanctuary for the salamanders of the Cuchumatanes – a 2,000 acre parcel of land to be managed by local group FUNDAECO in collaboration with local communities. Elias said of the outcome, “to see this reserve take shape under the imaginative genius of Carlos Vasquez and partners, and to be able to help that happen in a small way, is the culmination of a forty year dream for me.”

Vasquez didn’t give up on his quest to find the golden wonder. He launched multiple expeditions, and brought photos of the beautiful animal to show reserve guards, urging them to keep an eye out. In October of last year, as I emerged from a quest to find and photograph the Javan Rhino in Indonesia, I received incredible news. As one of the reserve guards sat down to eat his lunch on the edges of the reserve, a yellow and black salamander on a nearby tree caught his eye. He had just rediscovered, after four decades, the Jackson’s Climbing Salamander.

Global Wildlife Conservation leveraged the attention garnered by the rediscovery to raise support to expand the salamander reserve, and are now working on protecting more tracts of valuable forest habitat in northern Guatemala, home to unique salamanders among other wonders. The future for the golden wonder, Mullers Mushroomtongue Salamander, and other threatened species that call these cloud forests home is starting to look brighter.

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