With funding from the National Geographic Society and the American Orchid Society, Elisa Levy helped organize the Richer Than Gold expedition. This expedition brought together a team of scientists from all over Ecuador and the United States to conduct the first cross-kingdom biodiversity survey ever performed deep in the heart of the Los Cedros Protected Forest.
Braving torrential downpours, steep mountainous terrain, and the risk of confrontation with miners illegally entering the Protected Forest, scientists traveled by foot up into the cloudy heights of the Cordillera de la Plata, a full day’s hike above the small Los Cedros Research Station. There, they established a base camp where researchers would stay for more than a month, documenting the incredible diversity of plants, fungi, and animals found there. Every day, they made discoveries of rare and endangered species, and sometimes even species entirely new to science.
The Los Cedros Protected Forest is home to more than two hundred endangered species, according to the Ecuadorian government. It is one of the only places where all three species of monkeys found in the western Andes co-exist, including the Brown-Headed Spider Monkey, one of the most endangered monkeys on the planet, and the most highly threatened primate in Ecuador.
The researchers of the Richer Than Gold expedition documented hundreds of species of plants and fungi, collected thousands of insects, photographed and catalogued frogs and lizards, tracked monkeys through swaying the treetops, and logged hundreds of bird species. These records of such stunning diversity, deposited at the Ecuadorian National Institute of Biodiversity and including records of many species entirely new to science, serve as a foundation for the legal case to protect Los Cedros from mining development.
Expedition scientists included Roo Vandegrift (our own producer, far right) and his Ecuadorian colleague Jorge Flores (far left, center), both of whom study mushrooms and fungi; Gustavo Pazmiño (not pictured), who studies frogs and lizards; Elisa Levy (back row, secord from left), who is a specialist in butterflies; Marco Monteros (back row, fourth from left) and Chiara Correa (center row, fourth from left, in front of Marco), both orchid specialists from Ecuador’s National Botanical Garden in Quito; and so many, many more. The expedition was carried out in collaboration with the Ecuadorian Institute of Biodiversity (INABIO) and its National Herbarium, with support from their Curator of Fungi, Rosa Batallas (back row, third from left, with Elisa), who is an integral part of this mission of scientific discovery.
In an excerpt from an interview at the Richer Than Gold expedition’s field camp, high in the misty cloud forests deep in the heart of the Los Cedros Protected Forest, Jorge Flores discusses the importance of the Los Cedros and the Richer Than Gold expedition. Jorge is a mycologist (someone who studies mushrooms and fungi) from Quito, Ecuador, and part of what became affectionately known as MycoTeam, a diverse group of mycologists and volunteers focused on cataloging the diversity of rare and undiscovered fungi at Los Cedros.