The Quito rocket frog (Hyloxalus jacobuspetersi) disappeared before it even got a name. It was first described for science in 1991, but it wasn’t spotted after 1989, with some scientists claiming that no one had laid eyes on them since the 1960’s. Story goes that it was once widespread across the Ecuadorian Andes, jumping from stream to stream only worrying about eating and reproducing, until it wasn’t anymore, with no apparent reason for its disappearance. It was considered lost, gone forever.
Things weren’t looking good for the rocket frog, but they got even more complicated, not only for the Quito rocket frog, but for most species of amphibians around the world. In 1998, all hopes of spotting our frog were lost when a nasty unpronounceable fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, started decimating wild populations of amphibians. The fungus creates a layer of spores on the skin of the victim until the layer becomes so thick that the amphibian is not able to breathe anymore. This nasty fungus joined forces with climate change and spread like wildfire. From one year to the next, species of frogs would disappear in the wild and close to one third of all the amphibian species on Earth are threatened with extinction because of it.
And then, in 2007, when all hope was lost, and the frog had already been declared as possibly extinct by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an amateur frog enthusiast spotted what he thought was a rare frog during a hike along the Pita River. He took a poor quality picture with his phone and sent it to researchers at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE), in Quito. The photo passed around from expert to expert until they announced a miracle: the Quito rocket frog lived! It had survived in the banks of a river, less than 1 m wide, that was fed by snow melt of the Cotopaxi volcano. As far as it is known, it is to this day the only location where the species is present. Researchers from the university rushed to the ‘secret’ place to see the lost frog with their own eyes. And there they were, in a privately owned land that had escaped urban development, along the narrow river.
Underground sex labAn area less than 800 hectares or 8 km2 was the last safe haven for these frogs. That, and an underground lab at the PUCE, where the frogs are being kept in case a tragedy occurs, like a volcano erupting or something of the sort, and they go missing again. The frogs in the Balsa de los Sapos (which means Life Raft for Frogs) are being paired up in order to reproduce and butch up their numbers. No more flexibility of reproducing on their own terms and where they see fit. Mate or condemn the species to oblivion, is the kind of pressure the frogs are under.
The Balsa de los Sapos lab started officially in 2005, after the success of an exhibition in the centre of Quito (Ecuador’s capital) that attracted over 100.000 people in only three months. Over the years, many species have come and gone from the lab, and some have stayed. It is hard to save every species, and the researchers working there have seen some disappear in front of their eyes, unable to do anything to prolong their existence. Nowadays there are 70 species housed there.
This underground lab has dozens of small aquaria with frogs of all sizes, colours and shapes, from the most colourful and small poison dart frogs to some brown and big dull ones that looked awfully generic. The job of the researchers and technicians is to pamper the frogs and tend to their every needs, feeding them enriched meals whilst trying to recreate the perfect conditions for reproduction before it is too late. For some species, it is easier to get them to perform than others, and the Quito rocket frog is a good example of where things went by the book.
When I visited this hopefull lab, there was one tank that was particularly big and I was later told that it housed the precious Quito rocket frogs. There were supposed to be four adults in that tank but none of them could be spotted, probably due to their brown and grey colours blending in perfectly with the environment. The adults had been captured from the wild and the eggs they produced were being collected and reared into tadpoles and then small frogs in the hope they could eventually be released back into the wild.
Andrés Merino-Viteri, the man in charge of the lab, got some small boxes and opened them for me. Inside were tadpoles of the prized species. It is a strange feeling to look at a few tadpoles and know that the future of an entire species might depend on those little squirmy things. They looked totally oblivious of their importance towards the fate of the species, and it’s probably better that way, no need to add more pressure to the situation.
This is not the only ‘frog sex lab’ around and it’s actually more common than one might think. The reasoning behind it is to come up with a foolproof formula of getting the frogs to have viable and resistant little froggies that withstand most pathogens and then reintroduce them into the wild should the original population vanish, or to reinforce their comeback. True liferafts.
One extra challenge
Surviving climate change, the nasty fungus, the destruction of their habitat and the scientists probing at them to copulate is not an easy undertaking. These ones have yet an extra challenge, to survive the aftermath of a volcano, Cotopaxi, that woke up from its 140 year-long sleep in 2015 and has been threatening to explode ever since. The glaciers from the top of the volcano are the very ones feeding water to the river where the frogs are found. Now, if the said volcano exploded, instead of water there would be lava, mud and volcanic rock going down that river, and chances are the frogs wouldn’t take this change very well.
Assuming the current river banks wouldn’t be suitable anymore, the team from the Balsa de los Sapos would then try to reintroduce the frogs raised in their lab to areas where it was known to inhabit before disappearing from there, or in other areas that were deemed suitable and wouldn’t put at risk any other residents.
Hopefully, that volcano will not go off any time soon, but if it does, at least this particular species of frog couldn’t be in safer hands.
- Coloma, L. A., Ron, S. (2004). Colostethus jacobuspetersi. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2004: e.T55098A11241853.
- Guidi, R. (2016, March 29). Preserving the Quito rocket frog from volcanic destruction. Deutsche Welle. Retrieved from: http://www.dw.com/en/preserving-the-quito-rocket-frog-from-volcanic-destruction/a-19135901
- Guidi, R., & Guerra, B. (2016). Rocket Frog: A Lost Species, Rediscovered. Virginia Quarterly Review, 92(3), 44-53.
- Holland, J. S. (2015, October 19). Un volcán podría ocasionar la extinción de la rana cohete. National Geographic en Español. Retrieved from: http://www.ngenespanol.com/naturaleza/ecosistemas/15/10/16/volcan-podria-ocasionar-la-extincion-de-la-rana-cohete/