Erica Cuellar (©Rolex Awards/Thierry Grobet)

Erica Cuellar (©Rolex Awards/Thierry Grobet)

A new mammal species – Erika’s tuco-tuco (Ctenomys erikacuellarae) has been named after 2007 Whitley Award winner, Erika Cuellar, who helped to discover it . The rodent genus Ctenomys – commonly known as tuco-tucos – is one of the most diverse found in South America. It was previously thought that there were nine species in Bolivia, however, a number of tuco-tucos were recorded beyond their previously known ranges. Therefore, extensive analyses of the morphology and DNA sequences of a number of specimens were conducted to assess their taxonomic status. As a result, four new species have now been described; bringing the total number of species of Ctenomys in Bolivia up to 12.

Tuco-tucos are small rodents that live underground and are endemic to South America. There has been limited research into their biology and their geographic distribution is poorly defined; however, scientists estimate there to be between 38 and more than 60 species in the genus. This high species diversity can be explained by the formation of the Andes, creating numerous ridges, valleys and canyons in Bolivia. This varied topography has created unique microclimates and ecological conditions, which in some areas, change across very short distances. The mountains and ridges also act as geographic barriers to the movement of animals, which when combined with the varying microclimates, are likely to cause high species diversification in subterranean rodents.

Erika’s tuco-tuco  can be found at three known localities that all occupy the same river drainage area, with each population separated by distance rather than geographical barriers. It is a medium-sized tuco-tuco that can be found on the eastern edge of the Cordillera Oriental of the Andes of south-central Bolivia.

Erika runs the Guanaco Conservation Project, a bi-national effort between Bolivia and Paraguay to improve rangeland management for the natural recovery of guanacos. She is committed to ensuring the local indigenous group, the Isoseño, become managers of the largest protected tropical dry forest in the world, Kaa-Iya. Mostly hunters, under Erika’s training, local people have been transformed into skilled conservationists, making it possible for those living closest to the land to be responsible for protecting it.