When exploring Earth's most biologically rich region on foot, you had better watch where you're stepping. On a recent trek through the Colombian Andes, Professor Carlos Rocha and a team of researchers from the country's Pedagogical and Technological University (UPTC) crossed paths with a frog no one has seen in 11 years. Announced this week, the rediscovery of Atelopus ebenoides marinkellei
in the state of Boyac marks an important glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak situation for amphibians around the world.
Some Good News for Frogs
Updated with new information for 2006, the World Conservation Union's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species shows a negative trend in the status of more than 16,000 plant and animal species many amphibians among them. Today, roughly 32 percent of all amphibian species are threatened with extinction, more than mammals (25 percent) and birds (12.5 percent). While 34 amphibian species are officially extinct, as many as 130 have gone unrecorded for many years and are possibly extinct. Until now, A. e. marinkellei was one such subspecies.
The endemic A. e. marinkellei
hadn't been seen since 1995 despite numerous expeditions to find it, and was feared to have disappeared entirely from its habitat in the northernmost region of the Tropical Andes Biodiversity Hotspot. Just as the conservation community was ready to declare the frog locally extinct, however, Rocha discovered what may be its single remaining population tucked under mossy vegetation and jumping in and out of freshwater streams in the highlands of Boyac.
"The scientific importance of this finding constitutes a hope that must motivate us to adopt urgent measures to conserve this last population," says Fabio Arjona, executive director of Conservation International (CI) in Colombia.
Fungus Is the Root Cause
Like almost all threatened amphibian species and subspecies, A. e. marinkellei is sensitive to the effects of habitat loss, climate change, invasive species, and pollution in both terrestrial and aquatic environments. According to scientists, however, the driving force of this species' decline is believed to be a lethal skin fungus known as chytridiomycosis.
Since it was first suggested as a cause of species decline in the 1980s, the chytrid fungus has ravaged amphibian populations across the Americas and in Australia, and it may soon affect amphibians around the world.
Unlike other threats, the chytrid fungus seems impervious to standard conservation tactics like creating protected areas. Though roughly 25 percent of the Tropical Andes hotspot remains intact, 42 of the more than 113 species of Atelopus
found in and around it have experienced population declines of up to 50 percent. Twenty additional species are likely extinct, and the chytrid epidemic may be to blame.
Next Steps: Conserving Atelopus
Occurring from Costa Rica, south to Bolivia and eastward into the Guyanas, nearly two-thirds of all Atelopus species commonly known as harlequin frogs can be found in Colombia. The country's amphibian population is considered among the most diverse on Earth; thus conservation in Colombia may be key to protecting amphibian species worldwide.
Funded by CI-Colombia in partnership with the British government's Darwin Initiative and Colombia's Fund for Environmental Action and the Childhood, Rocha's expedition was among several efforts to monitor and conserve the various and vulnerable species of Atelopus
. CI will be involved with its partners in the recovery of Rocha's A. e. marinkellei
specimens and future captive breeding projects, and plans are being designed to extend Atelopus
conservation initiatives into Peru and Bolivia. These and other efforts signal CI's continued involvement in the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan, the strategic initiative resulting from the IUCN's 2004 Global Amphibian Assessment.
"There have been only a few other instances in recent years in which similar rediscoveries have occurred," says Neil Cox, an IUCN program officer in CI's Center for Applied Biodiversity Science. "Right on the heels of the 2006 Red List release with new figures to illustrate the plight of amphibians, it is particularly satisfying to hear that with support from the Colombian government and community organizations, Atelopus ebenoides marinkellei
might escape extinction."