Off the coast of northern Colombia lies a formidable mountain, which towers over the small Caribbean city of Santa Marta. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (SNSM) is the tallest coastal mountain range in the world, rising from sea level to over 5,700 m. Older than the Andes, the Sierra Nevada’s dramatic topography has made this mountain the crown jewel of the Colombian coastline.

Aside from its majestic beauty, the SNSM boasts high levels of cultural and biological diversity. There are few reserves in the region, and the most well-known is the El Dorado Bird Reserve, located at 1,900 m above sea level and about a three-hour trip from Santa Marta. Birders flock here to see the 300 + bird species that reside in El Dorado Reserve, especially the 26 endemic species – those which are found nowhere else in the world.

The Santa Marta Toro or Red-Crested Tree Rat was deemed extinct for over 113 years until 2011, when an individual was photographed at the El Dorado Bird Reserve.  Two volunteers spotted the small, fuzzy red rodent with a long black and white tail sitting on the bannister outside the dining area. It is unusual to see mammals so up close in this area and so volunteers quickly photographed the adorable creature.

The Santa Marta Toro, an endemic species, is known from only three individuals, and had never been photographed in the wild before 2011. Since then, the Toro has not been documented by biologists (however there have been local sightings). Virtually nothing is known about the Toro and it remains a mystery to scientists.

While exploring ideas for my PhD and working with the Small Mammal Specialist Group, I had an opportunity to go look for the Santa Marta Toro. I was excited about the return to Colombia (in 2010 I spent a week in the Choco region looking for “lost frogs” with Global Wildlife Conservation) but I was apprehensive about the sheer lack of information on the animal. Nobody knows anything about the life history of the Toro: what it eats, which habitat it prefers, or its behavior. I literally was trying to find the needle in the haystack. But this time the needle was a guinea-pig sized rodent that was hidden somewhere within the dense vegetation and mist that seeped through the cloud forest.

While most people shudder when I tell them I study rats and frogs, I have always been attracted to the species that lack champions. The species that are seemingly uncharismatic. During my master’s I studied North America’s most elusive marsh bird and I did not see my study species once! I heard them, but I never saw the elusive Black Rail. When faced with my PhD, I could have picked an animal that was large and charismatic, many of my colleagues study mammals using camera trapping – a very popular technique for searching for large mammals. But I chose to study amphibians and a rat. Maybe I like the challenge, but I think these species deserve a voice, and if we don’t fight for them who will?

I spent the summer of 2016 at El Dorado Reserve conducting night surveys for the Toro. While we saw a Margay, a small and very elusive jungle cat, Kinkajous, a nocturnal mammal related to the raccon, a still undescribed species of Night Monkey and plenty of amphibians, there was no sign of the Toro. After long, difficult hours slipping and sliding down the muddy trails, we came up empty handed. I became familiar with the tingling feeling of suspense that you’re on the precipice of a great discovery, only to be showered with a quick dose of disappointment.

I am an extremely pragmatic person but conservation biology can at times be downright depressing. We are constantly besieged with news of mass extinctions, violent conflict in national parks, and illegal poaching and resource extraction; it can be difficult to take it all in. However, there are moments of hope, as when new species are discovered or an ecosystem is restored. In fact, there has been a recent discovery of a tree rat species in the South Pacific, as technology offers new ways to draw scientific insights into the secretive behavior of these species’. These moments are why I do my job and why I believe the Toro is still out there.

People often ask, but what if you don’t find the Toro? Well, that is a potential outcome of this project. However, it would take an all-out exhaustive effort – which would be incredibly difficult in the SNSM – to confidently declare the Toro extinct. The SNSM still maintains incredible swaths of intact forest, and its rugged terrain makes much of this forest completely inaccessible to outsiders – which is an inadvertent blessing for species and their habitats.

Although the search for the Toro is challenging, it is important to uncover the biodiversity dwelling in Earth’s remote forests. Conserving forests is good for people and animals. Healthy forests increase biodiversity, advances the field of medicine, and contributes to clean air, soil, and water. Even if we don’t find the Toro, conserving the forest would conserve many other species and give the Toro a better shot at survival. I have hope that the Toro is out there. This year, we again will be searching for it using arboreal and terrestrial camera traps, hopefully to gain insight into their behavior and ecology.

I may not be the one to re-discover the species, but it’s not about me, it’s about the Toro’s ability to persist in its native habitat. Even if I don’t see this animal, safeguarding its habitat and contributing to conservation planning in the region may alone be what saves this species from extinction. At the end of the day, as a conservation biologist, I want to prevent and/or decrease the possibility of species’ extinctions. Plus, I get to work in a magical place, and all in all I’d call myself pretty lucky.

Author: Nicolette Roach

Nicolette (Nikki) Roach is a PhD student at Texas A&M University studying the impacts of land use and climate change on threatened species in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. She is living in Colombia for the academic 2017 – 2018 year on a Fulbright Fellowship. Follow her adventures here .

Photos credits: Nicolette Roach except for the Toro photo: Lizzie Noble.