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.