12/1/11

The Painted Hula: A Frog Hits Prime Time

The amphibian crisis is an environmental issue that hasn’t really hit the mainstream yet. Most people we talk to are surprised to hear that an entire class of animals is in deep trouble, with one-third of amphibian species facing extinction. So we were very happy when Rachel Maddow did a piece two weeks ago on her show about the newly discovered Hula painted frog (Discoglossus nigriventer) (see video below).

painted hula frog from Y Net News

Painted Hula Frog from Y Net News Website

Here’s the story of the hula painted frog, from Conservation International’s website:

The frog was discovered in Israel’s Lake Hula, one of the world’s oldest documented lakes, which provided fertile hunting and fishing grounds for humans for tens of thousands of years.

In the early 1950s, the lake and surrounding marshes were drained as a way of tackling malaria. But the costs for doing this were high. Among other environmental problems, draining the lake led to the near extinction of an entire ecosystem and the unique endemic fauna of the lake, including the Hula painted frog. Ironically, species such as the painted frog feed on mosquitoes that carry malaria.

Concern over the draining of Hula grew among the people of Israel, leading to the formation of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and a movement to reflood the Hula Valley. It took 40 years for the protesters’ voices to be heard, but in the mid 1990s, parts of the valley were reflooded.

While much of the ecosystem was restored, not all species re-appeared and it was believed to be too late for the Hula painted frog; the species was declared extinct in 1996 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The frog became a poignant symbol for extinction in Israel.

Only three adult Hula painted frogs had ever been found. Two of these were collected into captivity in the 1940s, but the larger one ate the smaller one, leaving just one specimen to remember the species by.

The enigmatic frog was selected as one of the “top ten” species during the Search for Lost Frogs last year, highlighting the global importance of this species. It was lost but not forgotten.

Recently, however, Nature and Parks Authority warden Yoram Malka was conducting his routine patrol of the Hula Nature Reserve when something jumped from under him. He lunged after it and caught it: he was holding in his hand the first Hula painted frog seen since the 1950s.

To quote the CI site:

This rediscovery is the icing on the cake of what is a major victory for conservation in Israel: the restoration of a rare and valuable ecosystem. Because Israel has given the Hula Valley a second chance to thrive, the Hula frog has gone from being a symbol of extinction to a symbol of resilience.

Mazel tov, Dr. Moore! And thanks, Rachel, for reporting the story.

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07/19/11

Rare Rainbow Toad Rediscovered after 80 Years

Conservation International has announced the rediscovery in Malaysian Borneo of a vanished amphibian: the long-legged Borneo rainbow toad. Below is one of the first photographs ever of this long-legged brightly colored toad.

Photo © Indraneil Das, courtesy Conservation International

Inspired by Conservation International’s (CI) Global Search for Lost Amphibians, scientists with support from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak found three individuals of the missing toad species, up a tree during a night time search after months of scouring remote forests.

The Sambas Stream Toad, or Bornean Rainbow Toad (Ansonia latidisca) was last seen in 1924. Prior to the rediscovery,  the mysterious and long-legged toad was known only by illustrations. The rare toad was listed by Conservation International as one of the World’s 10 Most Wanted Lost Frogs, in a global campaign to seek out amphibians that have not been seen in a decade or longer.

Dr. Indraneil Das of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) and his team searched at night along the high rugged ridges of the Gunung Penrissen range of Western Sarawak. They did not find the elusive toad after searching for several months, but the team didn’t give up. Dr. Das eventually changed his team’s strategy to include higher elevations and they resumed the search. Pui Yong Min, one of Dr Das’s graduate students, found a small toad up a tree.  When he realized it was the long-lost toad, Dr. Das expressed relief at the discovery:

Thrilling discoveries like this beautiful toad, and the critical importance of amphibians to healthy ecosystems, are what fuel us to keep searching for lost species. They remind us that nature still holds precious secrets that we are still uncovering, which is why targeted protection and conservation is so important. Amphibians are indicators of environmental health, with direct implications for human health. Their benefits to people should not be underestimated.

Amphibian specialist Dr. Robin Moore of Conservation International, who launched the Global Search for Lost Amphibians to raise awareness of the serious plight of the world’s declining amphibian populations, also expressed disbelief when Das shared the good news. As he said, “It is good to know that nature can surprise us when we are close to giving up hope, especially amidst our planet’s escalating extinction crisis. ”

The Global Search for Lost Amphibians, launched by Conservation International (CI) and the IUCN Amphibian Specialist Group (ASG), with support from Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), sought to document the survival status and whereabouts of threatened species of amphibians which they had hoped were holding on in a few remote places.

The search  took place between August and December 2010 in 21 countries, on five continents, and involved 126 researchers. It represented a pioneering effort to coordinate and track such a large number of “lost” amphibians. The goal was to establish whether populations have survived increasing pressures such as habitat loss, climate change, and disease, and to help scientists better understand what is behind the amphibian crisis.

After 80 years, the rainbow toad is most definitely ready for his/her close up:

Photo © Indraneil Das, courtesy Conservation International

Read more about Conservation International’s Search for Lost Frogs.

01/20/11

Rediscovering Haiti's Lost Frogs

Haiti recently marked the anniversary of the January 12, 2010, earthquake that devastated the country, killing over 300,000 people, and leaving almost a million people homeless.

Recently scientists from Conservation International (CI) and the Amphibian Specialist Group (ASG) of IUCN reported a bit of news they hope might become a source of pride and hope for the country’s environmental future: the surprising re-discovery of six species of  frogs in the country’s severely degraded tropical forests, species that had been lost to science for nearly two decades.

Large-scale deforestation has left the country with less than two-percent of its original forest cover and has degraded most of the fresh water ecosystems. Yet Haitians depend on the cloud forests of the southwest mountains as two of the last remaining pockets of environmental health and natural wealth in Haiti.

This expedition was part of Conservation International’s global Search for Lost Frogs campaign, in which CI’s Amphibian Conservation Specialist Dr. Robin Moore, in partnership with Dr. Blair Hedges of Pennsylvania State University, searched for the La Selle Grass frog (E. glanduliferoides), which had not been seen in more than 25 years. They also hoped to assess the status of Haiti’s 48 other native species of amphibians.

The scientists did not find the La Selle Grass frog, but to their surprise, they rediscovered several other remarkable frog species, most of which haven’t been seen since 1991. As Dr. Moore says, “We went in looking for one missing species and found a treasure trove of others. That, to me, represents a welcome dose of resilience and hope for the people and wildlife of Haiti.”

Dr. Moore says that a common assumption about Haiti is that there isn’t anything left to save. Yet this is not true. According to Moore, there are biologically rich pockets intact, despite tremendous environmental pressures. Haiti now has the opportunity to design their reconstruction plans around these pockets, and to protect them, so that these natural areas can more effectively act as buffers to climate change and natural disasters. However, there is little time to waste: 92 percent of Haiti’s amphibian populations are listed as threatened and are in danger of disappearing.

“The biodiversity of Haiti, including its frogs, is approaching a mass extinction event caused by massive and nearly complete deforestation. Unless the global community comes up with a solution soon, we will lose many unique species forever,” said Dr. Hedges.

Amid the backdrop of Haiti’s struggle to rebuild, Moore added some important context:

The devastation that the people of Haiti are still coping with is almost unimaginable. I have never seen anything like it. Clearly, the health of Haiti’s frogs is not anyone’s primary concern here. However, the ecosystems these frogs inhabit, and their ability to support life, is critically important to the long-term well-being of Haiti’s people, who depend on healthy forests for their livelihoods, food security, and fresh water. Amphibians are what we call barometer species of our planet’s health. They’re like the canaries in the coal mine. As they disappear, so too do the natural resources people depend upon to survive.

Here are a few of the rediscovered frogs:

Hispaniolan Ventriloquial Frog (Eleutherodactylus dolomedes). This frog is named after its call that the frog projects like a ventriloquist. Its unusual call consists of a rapid seven-note series of chirps, with the initial four notes rising slowly in pitch before plateauing; the call is released in widely-spaced intervals, often minutes apart. Prior to this expedition, the species was only known from a few individuals.

Mozart’s Frog (E. amadeus). Called Mozart’s frog because when Dr. Hedges, who discovered the species, made an audiospectrogram of the call, it coincidentally resembled musical notes. Its call is a four-note muffled whistle at night; usually given as a shorter two-note call at dawn and dusk.

La Hotte Glanded Frog (E. glandulifer). This frog could be called Old Blue Eyes: its most distinctive feature are its striking blue sapphire-colored eyes – a highly unusual trait among amphibians.

La Hotte Glanded Frog, Eleutherodactylus glandulifer. Copyright Claudio Contreras /iLCP.

Macaya Breast-spot frog. (E. thorectes). Approximately the size of a grape, this is one of the smallest frogs in the world. In Haiti, this species has a very restricted range, occurring only on the peaks of Formon and Macaya at high elevations on the Massif de la Hotte.

Juvenile Macaya breast-spot landfrog, E. thorectes. Photo copyright Robin Moore/iLCP

Hispaniolan Crowned Frog. This species was named after a row of protuberances that resemble a crown on the back of its head. Prior to this expedition, the species was known from less than 10 individuals, and is likely to be extremely rare. It is an arboreal species, occurring in high-elevation cloud forest. Males call from bromeliads or orchids, which they seem to require for reproduction.

Macaya Burrowing Frog. Haiti is now the only place where two burrowing frogs are known to share the same habitat. This species has big jet black eyes and bright orange flashes on the legs. Males call from shallow, underground chambers and eggs are also laid underground, where they hatch directly into froglets.

For more information, please visit Conservation International’s site, which includes more photos, recordings of the frogs’ calls, and a video.