“Lost” Amphibian Stages Amazing Reappearing Act in Borneo after Eluding Scientists for 87 years

7/13/2011

Herpetologists celebrate incredible rediscovery of one of the world's Top 10 “most wanted” lost amphibians in Malaysian Borneo; First-ever photos reveal long-legged Borneo Rainbow Toad

(Borneo, Malaysia / Arlington, VA, U.S.) – One of the world’s most elusive amphibians has made a surprising reappearance recently in Malaysia’s Sarawak State, providing science with its first-ever photographs of the Endangered spindly-legged species and new hope for the region’s biodiversity.  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, up a tree during a night time search after months of scouring remote forests.

 GALLERY:  FIRST-EVER PHOTOS OF THE REDISCOVERED TOAD

The Sambas Stream Toad, or Bornean Rainbow Toad as it’s also called (Ansonia latidisca) was previously known from only three individuals, and was last seen in 1924 - the same year Vladimir Lenin died, and Greece declared itself a republic.  Prior to the rediscovery, only illustrations of the mysterious and long-legged toad existed, after collection by European explorers in the 1920s. (SEE ILLUSTRATION

Because of this, scientists with CI and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) SSC Amphibian Specialist Group believed that chances of finding the species alive were slimmer than the toad's unusually slender limbs, so they listed it as one of the 'World's Top 10 Most Wanted Lost Frogs', in a global campaign to seek out amphibians that had not been seen in a decade or longer.  They hoped that the campaign would inspire researchers around the world to employ local expertise to mobilize targeted searches.

Dr. Indraneil Das of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) was one of those inspired researchers.  After announcing his new discovery of a tiny pea-sized frog in Borneo last summer, the Old World’s smallest, Das and his team targeted the missing Sambas Stream Toad species for rediscovery last August.

Initial searches by Dr. Das and team took place during evenings after dark along the 1,329 m. high rugged ridges of the Gunung Penrissen range of Western Sarawak, a natural boundary between Malaysia’s Sarawak State and Indonesia’s Kalimantan Barat Province. The team’s first expeditions proved fruitless in their first several months, but the team did not give up.  The area had barely been explored in the past century, with no concerted efforts to determine whether the species was still alive. So Das changed his team’s strategy to include higher elevations and they resumed the search.

And then one night, Mr. Pui Yong Min, one of Dr Das's graduate students found a small toad 2m up a tree.  When he realized it was the long-lost toad, Dr. Das expressed relief and near disbelief at the discovery before his eyes.

“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,” said Dr. Das.  “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.” 

Three individuals of the missing toad were documented up three different mature trees in an unspecified area of Penrissen, a region outside the protected area system of Sarawak that is listed among the Important Bird Areas of the world by BirdLife International, and is threatened by resort development, poaching and habitat fragmentation.  They include:  an adult female, an adult male, and a juvenile, ranging in size from 51 mm. to 30 mm., respectively. All three exhibited elongated limbs and bright dorsal pigmentation. The species is listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List, and may warrant protection under the Sarawak Wildlife Ordinance 1998.

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, expressed incredulous disbelief when Das shared the good news.

“When I saw an email with the subject ‘Ansonia latidisca found’ pop into my inbox I could barely believe my eyes. Attached was an image - proof in the form of the first ever photograph of the colorful and gangly tree-dwelling toad. The species was transformed in my mind from a black and white illustration to a living, colorful creature.”

Moore added,  “To see the first ever pictures of a species is a special kind of privilege. To see the first pictures of a species that has been lost for almost 90 years defies belief. 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.  Amphibians are at the forefront of this tragedy, so I hope that these unique species serve as flagships for conservation, inspiring pride and hope by Malaysians and people everywhere.”

The Global Search for Lost Amphibians, launched in August 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 – a first of its kind – took place between August and December 2010 in 21 countries, on five continents, and involved 126 researchers. (See list of countries below). 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. Amphibians are the most threatened group of vertebrates, with over 30 per cent threatened with extinction due to habitat loss and a fungus that causes chytridomycosis -- an infectious disease -- among others.

Prior to the recent Malaysian rediscovery, the striking, spotted and Critically Endangered Rio Pescado stubfoot toad (Atelopus balios), of Ecuador was the only species identified in the campaign’s “Top 10 Most Wanted” list to be found. The Rio Pescado stubfoot toad survives only in Ecuador and is restricted to a very small area -- four localities in the Pacific lowlands of southwestern Ecuador.

Amphibians provide many important services to humans such as controlling insects that spread disease and damage crops and helping to maintain healthy freshwater systems. The chemicals in amphibian skins have also been important in helping to create new drugs with the potential to save lives, including a painkiller 200 times more potent than morphine, not to mention their incalculable role in human cultures, from classical literature to fairy tales, and the aesthetic worth of their bright colors and melodic calls.

Dr. Das has said he will refrain from divulging the exact site of rediscovery at this time, owing to the intense demand for brightly-colored amphibians by collectors who supply the pet trade. His team has a two-year project on the altitudinal distribution of amphibians on Mount Penrissen, and work on the ecology of Ansonia latidisca will continue.

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AVAILABLE CONTENT FOR MEDIA (*USE AVAILABLE WITH MANDATORY CREDITS*):

Photos and an illustration of the long-lost toad are available for download here:  http://ow.ly/5DDwG

See a poster of the TOP 10 ‘MOST WANTED’ amphibians: http://ow.ly/5DDKC

Read more about the campaign at: www.conservation.org/lostfrogs


THE GLOBAL SEARCH FOR LOST AMPIHBIANS” - CAMPAIGN FACTS & FIGURES:
• Timeline:  August 2010 to December 2010
• 126 researchers
• 5 Continents
• 21 Countries:  Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, DRC, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Ivory Coat, Liberia, Malaysia, Mexico, Rwanda, South Africa, Toto, Venezuela, Zimbabwe
  
THE TOP 10 “LOST” AMPHIBIAN SPECIES
• Golden toad (Incilius periglenes) Costa Rica - last seen in 1989
• Gastric brooding frog (Rheobatrachus vitellinus and R. silus) Australia - last seen in 1985
• Mesopotamia Beaked Toad (Rhinella rostrata) Colombia - last seen in 1914
• Jackson's climbing salamander (Bolitoglossa jacksoni) Guatemala - last seen in 1975
• African Painted Frog (Callixalus pictus) Dem. Republic of Congo/Rwanda - last seen in 1950
• ((FOUND)):  Rio Pescado Stubfoot Toad (Atelopus balios) Ecuador
• Turkestanian salamander (Hynobius turkestanicus) Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan/Uzbekistan - last seen in 1909
• Scarlet frog (Atelopus sorianoi) Venezuela - last seen in 1990
• Hula painted frog (Discoglossus nigriventer) Israel - last seen in 1955
• ((FOUND)):  Sambas Stream Toad (Ansonia latidisca) Borneo - last seen in the 1920s


For more information, contact:

Patricia Malentaqui, International Media Manager, Conservation International
Mobile +1 571 225-8345 / p.malentaqui@conservation.org

Kim McCabe, Media Director, Conservation International
Office +1 703 341-2546 / mobile +1 202 203-9927 / kmccabe@conservation.org

Professor Indraneil Das, Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation
Office: +60 82 582996 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting  +60 82 582996     
mobile: +60 194821298 and +60 128301208/ email:  idas@ibec.unimas.my


Note to editors:

Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawa  (UNIMAS): The mission of the Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation is to promote and conduct fundamental and applied research in priority areas of tropical biodiversity and environmental conservation so as to enhance our understanding of the ecological principles which support conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. For more information, visit: www.ibec.unimas.my

Conservation International (CI) -- Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature for the well-being of humanity. With headquarters in Washington, DC, CI works in more than 40 countries on four continents. For more information, visit www.conservation.org

IUCN Amphibian Specialist Group (ASG) - The ASG of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) strives to conserve biological diversity by stimulating, developing, and executing practical programs to conserve amphibians and their habitats around the world. This is achieved by supporting a global web of partners to develop funding, capacity and technology transfer to achieve shared, strategic amphibian conservation goals. For more information, visit: www.amphibians.org

Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) – GWC supports life on Earth by advancing both academic and applied approaches to conservation research, action, and education. Along with its strategic worldwide partners, GWC is pursuing a common goal: to save wildlife species from extinction and better understand and maintain the natural world and its biological diversity. For more information, visit: www.globalwildlife.org