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Townsend Leads International Team Investigating Honduran Cloud Forest Biodiversity, Publishes Two Studies

Professor Josiah Townsend, new this semester to the Department of Biology, is the lead investigator on a team of scientists studying cloud forest biodiversity in Honduras and has just published their discovery of a hot spot for amphibians and reptiles and of two new species of venomous pitvipers.

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Townsend (left) and Luis Herrera from the National Autonomous University of Honduras encountering an unnamed species of arboreal salamander (photo: Ben K. Atkinson)

Townsend and his team discovered the previously unknown hotspot for amphibian and reptile diversity in the Texíguat Wildlife Refuge, a cloud forest reserve in Honduras. During a rapid biodiversity inventory, the team documented 47 species, including at least three new species and a total of 14 endemic species—those found nowhere else on earth.

The high number of endemic species makes the refuge one of the most important sites for herpetofaunal endemism in Central America.

In addition, the team rediscovered an endemic tree frog previously feared to have gone extinct and the second known male of a rare subterranean snake species.

Townsend's team included scientists and parascientists from the University of Florida; National Autonomous University of Honduras; University of New Mexico; University of California, Berkeley; and rural communities in Honduras. The team comprised not only herpetologists but also specialists in mammals, birds, plants, and community-based conservation.

Their findings have been published in the latest issue of the journal Salamandra as "A Premontane Hotspot of Herpetofaunal Endemism on the Windward Side of Refugio de Vida Silvestre Texíguat, Honduras."

In another recent study, Townsend and collaborators from the University of Colorado and University of Texas discovered two previously unrecognized species of venomous Middle American Montane Pitvipers, genus Cerrophidion.

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The Honduran Montane Pitviper (Cerrophidion wilsoni), one of the new species discovered (photo: Joe Townsend)

Prior to this, populations of Cerrophidion from Mexico to Costa Rica had been considered to be a single species with a fragmented distribution.

Analysis of DNA sequence data revealed that three different species were present, each with a geographically discrete distribution. This is an example of cryptic diversity, referring to species that are clearly distinct evolutionary lineages yet are difficult to recognize using traditional morphological characteristics.

Their findings appear in the latest issue of Zoologica Scripta as "Cryptic diversity in disjunct populations of Middle American Montane Pitvipers: a systematic reassessment of Cerrophidion godmani."

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The Honduran giant anole (Anolis loveridgei), an endemic species from Texíguat Wildlife Refuge documented by Townsend's team (photo: Joe Townsend)

Townsend's research emphasizes the inherit connections between systematic biology and conservation and integrates phylogenetics, morphological systematics, population genetics, and macroecological modeling into a framework that uses taxonomic inventory and monitoring to promote education and extension in support of broader conservation goals.

He and his team have collaborated with the Smithsonian Institution’s Laboratory of Analytical Biology and Division of Herpetology to generate a DNA reference dataset for over 1,500 samples of Mesoamerican amphibians and reptiles, work that has led to the description of more than a dozen new species from Central America.

Townsend has research opportunities available in his lab; interested undergraduate and graduate students are encouraged to contact him.

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