Exploring a Lost World

The New Yorker leaves their modern city to plunge into a genuine wilderness on an expedition into La Mosquitia, a long-abandoned settlement in the jungles of eastern Honduras – where they found, along with the ancient ruins, an ecological “lost world” as well:

When the discovery of this apparently forgotten world was first reported, Conservation International, one of the world’s leading environmental organizations, sent a team of twelve biologists into the valley to do a “rapid assessment” of its ecology. Most of the biologists were from Honduras or Nicaragua, and many had done research in the Mosquitia region before. The expedition’s leader, Trond Larsen, described it as an “ecological SWAT team.” The group’s goal, he explained, was “to quickly assess as much of the area’s biodiversity as we could in a ten-day blitz.”

Using the old base camp as a reference point, Larsen and his colleagues cut four miles of trail in each of the four cardinal directions. As they slashed their way through the jungle with machetes, wading rivers and climbing slippery mountains, they documented, photographed, and collected specimens of the local flora and fauna. Along streams and animal trails, they also set up twenty-two motion-activated camera traps, which took ten-second videos or series of pictures when creatures passed by.

“Our team was astounded,” Larsen told me. The ecology of the valley was indeed pristine, showing little evidence of human entry for a very long time, perhaps centuries. Species that are rare and even thought extinct outside the valley were found in abundance inside, including varieties of butterflies, birds, bats, snakes, and big mammals, as well as critically endangered plants. The spider monkeys showed an unusual color pattern, suggesting that they might belong to a new subspecies.

The camera traps collected images for six months. Last September, a Honduran biologist named Manfredo Turcios Casco returned to the valley to retrieve the cameras for Conservation International. He nearly perished in the effort. The rivers were swollen from torrential rains, and Turcios was swept away several times trying to cross them, losing some of his gear in the process. He was assaulted by disease-bearing insects, including sand flies carrying leishmaniasis. He battled an eye infection and went without food for two days when the helicopter was delayed by bad weather. “When you are alone there, it is like someone or something is watching you,” he told me. “You can feel eyes, or a force, following you. There is like a guardian in that place. That is very scary.” Even so, it was an inspiring experience. “This is the most incredible record of species I’ve ever seen,” he said. While collecting the camera traps, he and the Honduran Special Forces soldier with him, a Miskito Indian from the region, spied a most unusual animal that neither had seen before. It “had the head of a giant rodent,” Turcios recalled, “with a hairy tail” and was about two and a half feet long. With the help of an artist, Turcios worked up a drawing of the mysterious creature immediately after his return. Whether the animal is a mammal unknown to science (something almost unheard of), a variant or mutant, or a species outside its normal range, are all open questions.

Video and some really striking images at the link.