Exploration

Animal Holy Grail: Find Toro

Researchers are using cherry lollipops to try and lure the elusive mammal.

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A fuzzy, reddish-hued rodent known as the Santa Marta Toro, or the Toro for short, is one of the most wanted animals alive.

The Toro (Santamartamys rufodorsalis) was thought to have been extinct for 113 years before one was spotted on the porch of a Colombian ecotourism lodge in 2011. Captivated by this animal holy grail, Nicolette Roach, an associate research scientist at Global Wildlife Conservation and a doctoral student at Texas A&M University, is leading a search this summer for the elusive rodent.

"I believe the Toro is likely both rare and shy, making it all the more difficult to find and study," Roach told Discovery News.

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Since the lodge where the Toro was rediscovered -- the El Dorado Reserve -- is located in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta in northeastern Colombia, Roach and her team are camped out there. The search happens both day and night for the Toro, which is thought to be a member of the Echimyidae family of spiny rats. It is one of the most poorly understood small mammal families.

"They are notoriously difficult to study due to their elusive nature and life history strategies -- some are completely arboreal, nocturnal, and solitary," Roach said, adding that anecdotal sightings of the Toro have happened when clearing the Colombian forest for coffee farming.

Instead of coffee, the researchers are using cherry-flavored lollipops to lure their prize.

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"Nobody knows exactly what the Toro eats, but based on dentition, and discussion with other biologists at the reserve, (it) probably eats fruits and maybe invertebrates too," Roach said.

One of the biologists who initially rediscovered the shy rodent, Sam Waller, suggested that Roach use cherry lollipops as lure. Aside from the well-known sweet tooth of rodents, Roach explained, "Because we are not live trapping, it was easy to tie lollipops to trees and replace them when necessary."

Thus far, the lollipops have attracted the attention of sweets-loving squirrels, but no Toro yet.

If the scientists do find one, they hope to collect some harmless samples like hair and saliva. Roach said that only three known specimens of this species exist in the American Museum of Natural History, so any information on it would be an immense help toward understanding its basic life history and ecology.

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Paul Salaman, a scientist from the Rainforest Trust who confirmed the identity of the species, said, "The El Dorado Nature Reserve represents the ultimate Noah's Ark, protecting the last populations of many critically endangered and endemic flora and fauna; a living treasure trove like no other on Earth."

Roach can attest to that. One of the sites that she visited was full of breeding Atelopus laetissimus, a critically endangered frog native to the area. She and her team also found a rare margay (Leopardus wiedii) sitting in a tree. They watched the small spotted wild cat for 20 minutes.

"It is one of the most beautiful animals I have seen," Roach said. "Prior to our sighting, it had never been officially recorded on the El Dorado reserve."

The team also has daily -- and often nightly -- encounters with what she calls "gorgeous" moths, insects and spiders from the region, including a tarantula (Kankuomo marquezi) whose species was only just documented recently.

As the summer rolls on, so does the search for the Toro.

"While we have not found the Toro yet, I remain hopeful," Roach said. "Now that I have talked with local people and conducted preliminary surveys, I have a better understanding of the region and I plan to return next year with more equipment, as well as revised survey methods." SEE PHOTOS BELOW:

Researchers are now on the hunt for the elusive Santa Marta Toro (Santamartamys rufodorsalis), a fuzzy reddish-brown rodent that was thought to have been extinct for 113 years before it was rediscovered in the jungles of Colombia in 2011. Only a handful of images exist for the elusive Toro; this is the clearest one.

Photo: One of a handful of known photographs of the Santa Marta Toro (Santamartamys rufodorsalis). Credit: Lizzie Noble, Global Wildlife Conservation

Finding the shy rodent is like looking for a needle in a haystack, or, in the case, looking for a modest-sized furry animal in a dense jungle canopy.

As for why Roach is so fascinated by the animal, she explained that she first visited Colombia when she was 22 years old. Then an intern for Global Wildlife Conservation, she was part of a field expedition searching for "lost frogs," referring to frogs that had been documented by scientists, but that had not been seen for 10 years or more.

Roach later studied the world's most elusive marsh bird, the black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis). She said, "I found myself drawn to elusive, threatened and seemingly uncharismatic species." The story of the mysterious Toro then completely captivated her.

Photo: A forest in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, northeastern Colombia. Credit: Nicolette Roach, Global Wildlife Conservation

Trying to lure a Toro is a challenge, given that so little is known about the rodent. The researchers are hoping to lure the Toro to camera traps with cherry lollipops.

Photo: Researcher Nicolette Roach holds up the cherry lollipops that she is using to try to lure a Toro to camera traps in Colombia. Credit: Nicolette Roach, Global Wildlife Conservation

Camera traps have been set up throughout the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, Colombia, in hopes of capturing photos of the Toro.

Photo: Camera trap. Credit: Nicolette Roach

The image may not be the clearest, but it is important. It is one of just a handful of photos taken of the Toro when it was rediscovered in 2011. It was snapped sitting on the bannister of an ecotourism lodge porch.

Photo: Toro on the porch of the El Dorado Reserve, Colombia. Credit: Lizzie Noble, Global Wildlife Conservation

While searching for the Toro, Roach and her team spotted several breeding Atelopus laetissimus -- a critically endangered frog native to the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta in northeastern Colombia.

Photo: The frog Atelopus laetissimus. Credit: Nicolette Roach

While hunting for the Toro, the researchers also found a margay, which is a rare, small wild cat. They observed the spotted feline for about 20 minutes.

Photo: Margay cat (Leopardus wiedii). Credit: Malene Thyssen, Wikimedia Commons

The researchers encountered this newly discovered tarantula, named after novelist Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez, while searching for the Toro.

Photo: A female Kankuamo Marquezi tarantula. Credit: Zookeys, Wikimedia Commons

Since many rodents like the Toro are nocturnal, the researchers are conducting night as well as day surveys of northeastern Colombia.

Photo: Nicolette Roach (right) with a field assistant. Credit: Nicolette Roach, Global Wildlife Conservation

Anecdotal sightings of the Toro include locals seeing the rodent in areas cleared for coffee plantations.

Photo: Coffee beans. Credit: Nicolette Roach, Global Wildlife Conservation

The northeastern Colombian region where the elusive Toro lives is a mountainous area that is important for conservation. UNESCO recognized it as a "Biosphere Reserve" in 2013. In addition to its rich wildlife, the area is home to a number of indigenous people who are impacted by changes to the ecosystem.

Photo: El Dorado Reserve, Colombia. Credit: Robin Moore, Global Wildlife Conservation

Researchers in Colombia continue to search for the Toro, whose unique coloration and thick fur coat likely evolved for survival in the area's varied plantscape and climate.

Photo: Toro. Credit: Lizzie Noble, Global Wildlife Conservation