- Rocket FrogA Lost Species, Rediscovered
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When Andrés Merino-Viteri talks about frogs, he refers to them with great tenderness, using the diminutive form—las ranitas—as if they were his own children. His feelings for amphibians first manifested when he was just five years old, on a kindergarten field trip to the forests on the fringes of Quito, Ecuador. “We were running around when I noticed the other kids had gathered in one spot. I couldn’t see what it was they were circling around, nor could I get past the crowd to notice what they were doing,” Merino-Viteri recalls. “But then I noticed a couple of the boys waving sticks up in the air while the others cheered, and underneath them, I could see the toad.”
Its body was a deep black color but its belly was red—he can’t remember if what he’d seen was the blood of the animal or the color of its skin. “I felt such incredible sadness,” he says—sadness over the boys’ impulse to kill a harmless animal, sadness for the animal itself.
Fifteen years later, during his first year as a biology major at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, Merino-Viteri realized what kind of amphibian it had been: an Atelopus ignescens, commonly known as a Jambato toad, which had last been seen six years before, in 1988. The inch-and-a-half-long black toad with a fiery red belly was once a common sight among the hills surrounding Quito; by the time Merino-Viteri was able to piece together his memory of the [End Page 45] small animal, it was extinct. It came to him like an epiphany. Suddenly, he had found his life’s purpose: saving frogs.
With a territory that’s a little more than 100,000 square miles, Ecuador has a great diversity of amphibians—especially in the tropical forests of the Amazon basin, a few hours’ drive east of Quito. The country is home to about 10 percent of amphibian species, including 500 different kinds of frogs and toads. But new research points to a count that could be up to five times higher, due to the fact that many of the frogs in the biodiverse Amazon region are so-called cryptic species—species so physically similar that they can be mistakenly identified as the same one.
In 2014, Ecuadorean researchers led by Santiago Ron, Merino-Viteri’s colleague at Pontificia Universidad Católica, in Quito, discovered that the ochre-colored and bug-eyed Gunther’s banded tree frog (Hypsiboas fasciatus) and the very similar-looking convict tree frog (Hypsiboas calcaratus)—one that gets its common name from the striped markings on its flanks, resembling a traditional convict’s overalls—were actually not the same frog. Not only that: The two could actually be split into as many as eleven different species.
The news was a boon for Ecuadorean herpetologists like Ron and Merino-Viteri. But it also meant that each one of those frog species had smaller populations than previously thought, making them more susceptible to habitat destruction and climate change. Around a third of Ecuador’s amphibians are currently threatened with extinction. Sixteen other species are likely already gone, including the red-bellied Jambato toad that Merino-Viteri saw as a child.
The decline in amphibian populations is happening swiftly on a worldwide scale. As many as half of all species are under threat. The reasons are complex: Global warming, for example, affects species’ survival, reproduction, and dispersal capabilities; diseases and pathogens such as amphibian chytrid fungus are wiping out entire species; pesticides and other pollutants are impacting food availability and the predator-prey relationships frogs rely on to survive. Modern-day herpetologists are equal parts explorers, laboratory researchers, and conservationists: They must try to learn as much as they can about frogs—from their eating and mating habits to their habitat range—while trying to save any species from extinction, even if that only means saving their DNA inside a lab.
On the morning...