CU alum makes discoveries in the Peruvian cloudforest

July 31, 2019
 Cloud forest

This is what a day at the office looks like for Clarion University alum Sean McHugh ('13), who is busy making discoveries in the Montane Forests of the region Junin, Peru.

Every single day, somewhere in the world, somebody discovers something. Last fall, in the Montane Forests of the region Junin, Peru, Sean McHugh was that somebody. The something was the yellow-tailed woolly monkey, not previously known to inhabit the Colibri cloudforest of Peru.

McHugh ('13) is a research biologist with Rainforest Partnership, an international nonprofit organization based in Austin, Texas. The group's mission is to protect and regenerate tropical rainforests by working with the forests' indigenous people to develop sustainable livelihoods that empower and respect both people and nature.

In Peru, McHugh, along with filmmaker Jasmina McKibbin, used trail cameras in 28 locations to document at least 25 mammal species.

"The current scientific literature suggests that much of the mammal communities we discovered in these central Peruvian cloudforests were actually not supposed to be in our study area," McHugh said.

The findings are redrawing the maps on the range of several of these mammals, from the first recording of spectacled bears in the Junin region of Peru, to the discovery of a never-before-seen population of woolly monkeys related to one of the rarest primates in the world, hundreds of miles from its known range. McHugh said the monkeys he observed have unique characteristics that distinguish them from other woolly monkeys, and they could constitute another species.

"You can't protect what you don't know," said Niyanta Spelman, CEO of Rainforest Partnership. "This project is important in so many ways, from informing and educating the community and every level of government in Peru, additionally adding to the scientific knowledge about the range which these fascinating mammals occupy, something that is not part of the recorded science for this area."

"It is absolutely imperative to further study and protect these forests before they are degraded permanently," McHugh said.

The cloudforest he studied was at an elevation that was favorable to air plants, diversity of animals, and tree growth.

"Half an hour up the mountain, there were no trees. Half a mile down the mountain was tropical rainforest," McHugh said. "It was perfect elevation."

The spectacled bear thinks so, too. It found an elevational niche, where it doesn't have to compete with puma and jaguar.

"Of eight species of bear, it's the only one in South America. It's the second most herbivorous bear," McHugh said. "It mostly eats air plants."McHugh and McKibben also observed a Junin red squirrel, a red brocket (type of deer), a southern naked-tailed armadillo, a pacarana (a large, rare rodent), a collared peccary, a brown agouti and a pair of neotropical otters. The cameras also captured wild cats, including the ocelot, margay and white-fronted capuchin.

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 The spectacled bear is protected from predators in the Junin region of Peru.

Last Updated 7/31/19