Texas A&M faculty, students continue active role in international Red List work
- Writer: Steve Byrns, 325-653-4576, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Contact: Dr. Thomas Lacher, 979-845-5750, email@example.com
- Nicolette Roach, 510-520-0649, firstname.lastname@example.org
COLLEGE STATION – What do an international gathering of some 10,000 people, a small fuzzy animal thought to be extinct for a century and Texas A&M University have in common? A lot, said a Texas A&M professor involved with all three.
The animal is the Santa Marta Toro. The gathering is the International Union for the Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress, which runs from Sept. 1-10 in Hawaii. As for Texas A&M — it plays an integral role with both, according to Dr. Thomas Lacher, professor of wildlife and fisheries sciences.
Lacher and Nicolette Roach, applied biodiversity sciences doctoral student in the wildlife and fisheries department at Texas A&M, both at College Station, will be among the thousands of participants from more than 150 countries expected to attend the conservation congress. They will be assisting in the presentation of the results of the reassessment of extinction for all the world’s mammals, and will present on the results for nearly 3,000 small mammals, including the Toro.
The IUCN is best known for its Red List of Threatened Species. Lacher said the main purpose of the list is to catalogue and highlight plants and animals facing global extinction.
“Texas A&M has several major roles within the IUCN,” Lacher said. “We are the site of the IUCN Small Mammal Specialist Group responsible for assessing the risk of extinction for half of the world’s known mammals. We also assist the non-governmental organization Global Wildlife Conservation in the Global Amphibian Assessment. I’m also a member of the IUCN Red List Committee, responsible for developing the IUCN Red List Strategic Plan.”
Lacher added that Texas A&M is the only U.S. university that is a partner with the IUCN and that the university is renewing a new five-year memorandum of agreement with the organization.
But where does the small fuzzy animal fit into all this? Lacher explains.
“Student participation is integral to the success of the IUCN Red List process as they are who will eventually carry the efforts forward,” he said. “All of our students involved with the Red List must pass a rigorous training course, and several have had the opportunity to travel with graduate students doing Red List-related research to Costa Rica, Mexico and the UK.”
Roach was one such student. She completed her undergraduate studies in wildlife and fisheries conservation biology at University of California-Davis and her master’s in wildlife and fisheries biology at Clemson University. Coming to Texas A&M for her doctoral program led her to Colombia.
Roach said Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the world’s tallest coastal mountain range and a global biodiversity hotspot. The region, once plagued by political instability, now boasts a growing ecotourism industry and expansive coffee farms.
“Many species that live in this mountain range are rare and elusive, including a number of critically endangered frogs, small cats and a plethora of invertebrates,” she said.
“But what has really caused worldwide excitement since its rediscovery in 2011 is the Santa Marta Toro, Santamartamys rufodorsalis, a medium-sized fuzzy red rodent that casually made its appearance at the eco-lodge El Dorado Reserve. The story of its rediscovery sparked an international frenzy of excitement…as extinction which this animal was thought to be for a century, is irreversible.”
Lacher said the discovery was made by two birdwatching assistants who had no idea what it was and took some pictures.
“It was sitting in the balcony of the lodge,” Lacher said. “When they posted the pictures on social media, mammalogists realized that it was an amazing rediscovery.”
Roach said the Toro has become a symbol of hope for conservation across the world, igniting the belief that conservationists will be able to enact effective policies and save a species initially thought to be gone forever.
“I think the most interesting thing about the Toro is that it is a very charismatic species in that it has bright red fur and a long black and white tail, yet it remained hidden from the general public eye for over 100 years, though locals have seen it a few times during that period.”
Actually seeing the critter, even though its existence is confirmed, is extremely difficult as it’s nocturnal, solitary, arboreal and probably very shy, Roach said.
“Part of Nikki’s work in Colombia was to try to find it in the natural habitat,” Lacher said. “None popped up this summer, but we are continuing the search next year.”
But if nobody seemed to miss it for 100 years, what value is it?
“Small mammals fill lots of ecological roles but particularly as seed dispersers and ecosystem regenerators,” she said. “They are vital for healthy functioning forests. If we lost these animals we would see very negative impacts on the health of our forests.
“We’ve only scratched the surface of Earth’s biodiversity and natural wonders,” Roach said. “What we really need are more resources to document these species in their natural habitats to gather a better understanding of their life history and ecology. Then we will be able to enact effective conservation policies. Humans are altering ecosystems across the globe before we get a chance to figure them out and it is very humbling to realize we really have only scratched the surface of what is happening in the jungles of Colombia and other parts of the world.”