Murrysville native makes exciting discoveries in Peru's 'cloud forest'
When he was in high school, Sean McHugh remembers reading about the discovery of a new animal in some jungle far, far away from his hometown of Murrysville.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s so cool, how would you do that?’” he said.
This fall, McHugh, 28, found out exactly how. On a research expedition in the mountainous cloud forests of Peru, his work led to the discovery of two potentially new primate species.
McHugh works as a wildlife researcher for the Rainforest Partnership , a nonprofit whose mission is to protect and regenerate tropical rainforests by working with native populations “to develop sustainable livelihoods that empower and respect both people and nature,” according to the organization’s website.
McHugh met the group’s CEO while doing research at one of its sites in Ecuador.
“They asked to use some of my camera footage from the rainforest, and we ended up organizing a research expedition to one of their sites in Peru,” McHugh said.
That site is the Colibri Cloud Forest in Peru’s Junin province. Cloud forests are just what they sound like: a tropical area that is high enough in the hills and mountains to sustain seasonal cloud cover in its canopy.
This fall, McHugh and research partners Jasmina McKibben and Eusebio Quiñones were the first to conduct a wildlife survey of the cloud forest, which is difficult to traverse.
“It’s a region that’s relatively off-the-map,” McHugh said. “It’s way up in the Andes, and it’s so hard to get to.”
McHugh set up 30 stationary cameras to record photos and video of passing wildlife, and McKibben, a professional photographer, documented the mammals, insects and other animals they encountered.
“It took a lot of planning,” said McKibben, 23, of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. “I had to make sure my camera wasn’t going to get damaged, Sean had to figure out where to put his cameras, and we had a ton of extra batteries, SD cards and hard drives.”
That planning paid off: they not only captured a robust population of Andean spectacled bears but also returned with footage of two types of monkeys observed hundreds of miles outside their known ranges.
“We found a black Black-Faced Spider Monkey about 80 miles west of its typical, documented range,” McHugh said. “It’s a primate community that’s never been documented.”
The most exciting discovery, however, was a Yellow-Tailed Woolly Monkey that McHugh thinks could be a new member of the woolly monkey family.
“It was exactly like a regular Yellow-Tailed Woolly Monkey, except without the yellow tail and it had very distinct white eyebrows,” he said. “So we either discovered a new population of one of the rarest primates in the world, a new subspecies, or a species completely new to science.”
The woolly monkey was spotted more than 200 miles from its accepted range.
“It’s just really far from where these monkeys would normally be,” McHugh said.
The discovery of a rare animal didn’t just catch McHugh’s attention. It also perked up the ears of Peru’s National Service of Natural Protected Areas when McHugh and McKibben presented their findings.
“It could help lead to some additional protection for the area,” McHugh said.
The next step for McHugh and McKibben is publishing their work on the Yellow-Tailed Woolly Monkey they observed. They will seek to determine if it is indeed a subspecies or a new species altogether, and will present their findings to a Peruvian congressional forum in March.
“We’re going to continue to work down there to try and increase the level of protection (for the cloud forest),” McHugh said. Determining that rare species live in the region is an important step in securing conservation protection against the regular, rapid deforestation happening throughout South America, he said.
For McKibben, it’s all about getting more footage.
“From a documentary standpoint, I’m really interested in continuing to document the primate communities there,” she said.
McHugh said Rainforest Partnership officials are hoping to secure funding to build a permanent research station “where we can employ locals and teach science.”
“It’s the most understudied region I’ve ever been to,” he said. “And it’s a really amazing place.”
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.