Science

Mysterious Amazon Animal Seen Alive for First Time in 80 Years

This beautiful creature was first discovered by scientists in late 1930’s but has successfully eluded man ever since…

 

Laura Marsh is the director of the Global Conservation Institute, nature activist and a foremost expert on saki monkeys, a species whose habitats can be found throughout the Amazon and several other areas of South America.

In late 2014, Marsh successfully identified five new species of saki monkeys which are also called “flying monkeys”, living in places where human presence is minimal. However, she was most interested in seeing if she can find a particular species of saki monkeys called the Vanzolini bald-faced saki, who got its name after the Brazilian zoologist Paulo Vanzolini. So, in the summer of 2014, she organized a small expedition to see if she can find this extremely elusive animal.

The four-month expedition consisted of scientists, conservationists, jungle guides and photographers. They worked day and night, spending almost all of this time sailing in a small houseboat down the Eiru River in close proximity of the Brazil – Peru border.

The team’s general mission on this journey was to document and research the natural biodiversity of the jungle, but the search for the missing Vanzolini saki was the number one priority. Laura Marsh could not contain her tears when she first saw the Vanzolini saki in the jungle.

“It was fantastic,” she told the National Geographic in a phone interview. “I was trembling and so excited I could barely take a picture.”

Marsh has dedicated years of her career studying the unique physical characteristics of this species of monkeys, but the missing piece of the puzzle so far has been actual photographic evidence of its existence. She said she easily identified this species from the rest by its unique physical appearance.

The first official account of a Vanzolini sighting is from 1936, by an Amazon expedition led by Ecuadorian naturalist Alfonso Ollala. The Vanzolini sakis were again spotted by an expedition in 1956 which also managed to collect dead saki specimens.

The lack of scientific information regarding this region of the Amazon is understandable, given the difficult terrain and high cost of sending expeditions there.

The 2014 expedition led by Laura Marsh consulted extensively with locals to better navigate the river maze of the western Amazon and find this lost species of monkeys. According to journalist Christina Selby, who was part of the expedition, the group first saw the Vanzolini saki monkey four days into their journey.

Easily distinguishable from other monkey species, it was running through the trees as the group burst with excitement of their first sighting. The Vanzolini saki monkeys cannot jump from one tree branch to the other, as they do not have the necessary prehensile tail of other monkeys. So, they look more like cats when walking on tree branches on all four.

Natives hunt them when they get too close to the villages so they can be wary of people in those areas. Away from the villages though, they can even be seen approaching people sailing down the river. When threatened, males have been seen running away from the mother and baby sakis in an effort to get the predator’s attention and create conditions for others to escape.

The International Union for the Conservaton of Nature keeps population records of all known animal species and determines their protection status. Laura Marsh stated that she will most likely recommend the Vanzolini sakis be classified as an endangered species, but that will depend on the rate at which sakis are hunted in the region.

She also said that her team is very pleased to have found the monkey so quickly but was shocked by some of the other sights she witnessed in their relatively short journey in the Amazon.

“I have never seen so many armed people in such a small territory. We saw guns everywhere we turned. People searching and hunting. We did not see any forest birds, and the large birds were so rare…The Amazon is not homogeneous. There are little corners of the forest that are home to species which cannot be found anywhere else.”

Marsh’s reports on this region align with an alarming trend of a growing human presence in the Amazon. Rapid population growth and urban development projects paint a grim picture for what the future holds for the Amazon forest. The numerous nature protection laws and regulations seem to do very little so far, as their implementation is very challenging. The Amazon rainforest houses about 10 percent of the global biodiversity, making its protection a pressing issue among conservationists.

In a few months, the final story of the monkey’s discovery will be published in the Oryx journal. So far scientists have established the physical differences between the Vanzolini and the other saki species, but there is still a lot of work to be done in trying to understand the behavioral and genetic differences as well.

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