The Jambato harlequin frog was not always a rarity. Many villagers from the mountains of northern Ecuador remember the days when the little frog was a common sight: dwelling in damp corners of their houses, being prodded by curious children, and not infrequently being ground up for medicine.
Amphibian of the Andes
The Jambato harlequin frog is a striking little creature: black-backed, but with a flaming orange belly that presumably inspired its species name (Atelopus ignescens, ‘ignescens’ being Latin for ‘to catch fire’). Western science has known of its existence for over 150 years. Spanish adventurer Marcos Jiménez de la Espada, animal collector and hardcore amphibian enthusiast, first described its mating behaviour in 1864 when exploring the Americas. Reports from as recently as 1986 showed that it was still thriving in certain areas not long ago.
But then, in the late 1980s, it all but vanished overnight, along with a host of other Andean amphibians. Nobody quite knew why. For those scientists who had studied Ecuador’s wildlife for decades, this sudden spate of disappearances felt especially tragic. Dr Giovanni Onore of the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador (PUCE) has fostered a fascination for the frog over decades, inspired when advising Luis Coloma on his thesis in the 1980s. “We became friends and did a lot of field work together all over Ecuador,” Dr Onore remembers. “Coloma is a frog man at heart, and he involved me in the frog world.” The pair of them have made great contributions to Ecuadorian conservation, Dr Onore even having a frog named in his honour – Atelopus onorei, a close relative of Atelopus ignescens. But even this privilege is tainted with tragedy: Onore’s harlequin frog is now sadly thought extinct.
A Thousand Bucks Well Spent
Nobody saw the Jambato harlequin frog for years. “Every time I undertook field trips in the Andes I looked out for this frog, but always in vain,” says Dr Onore. Dr Luis Coloma, now of the Jambatu Centre for Research and Conservation of Amphibians, offers some likely causes: “Our studies and hypotheses point to climate change and pathogens as the main culprits behind its decline.” Extensive surveys around the turn of the century came back empty-handed. It seemed the Jambato harlequin frog had croaked.
Most gave it up as lost. Another amphibian casualty, victim of an increasingly human-dominated world. Many of the frog’s relations, including Atelopus onorei, had also dramatically declined in number at around the same time. Things looked gloomy.
But then, a potential lifeline appeared. “At the beginning of 2016 I visited an Italian missionary and some volunteer friends in the mountainous Angamarca region,” recounts Dr Onore. “Suddenly I had the feeling: Atelopus ignescens must be here. If I were an Atelopus, this would be my ideal habitat!” He decided he had to act on his instinct. The Jambatu Centre put forward a $1000 reward to anybody that could find even a single specimen of the frog. They waited with bated breath.
Some alleged sightings came in, temporarily raising spirits, but proved to be misidentifications. Apart from one. “Just when we were losing hope, a peasant family from a remote place told us that their child had seen the frog,” says Dr Coloma. A photograph soon followed. “We confirmed that it was the species that we were looking for.”
Search and Rescue
The researchers rushed to the village and, through an intensive sweep of the surrounding area, found 43 individuals. “This unique population might have survived because of either a particular climate envelope at the site or some sort of genetic resistance – or both,” says Dr Coloma. The prize money was dutifully handed over to the boy, a mighty boost to his education fund.
Next came the debate on how best to go about protecting this
handful of frogs. Although taking them into the laboratory sounded safer, Atelopus
frogs are known to be tricky to breed in captivity. The clincher arrived with
the sound of bulldozers: the government was building a road at the site, potentially
destroying the refuge. The frogs were not safe there, so they were taken back
to the Jam
abatu Centre and treated like royalty.
The Jambato harlequin frog was not gone forever – not yet. But the species was
still on shaky ground.
A year passed. No frogs bred. And then, miraculously, frogspawn was discovered in an enclosure. “When the first clutch of eggs was obtained, I felt an overwhelming elation,” says Dr Coloma. The eggs hatched into healthy tadpoles and another clutch has followed since, paving the way for the captive population to begin to tentatively expand. The species seems safe, at least in the laboratory, and Dr Coloma is optimistic about its survival prospects.
A Future for the Frog?
But could the little frog ever be returned to the wild? “Reintroduction will be hard and will take time, given that the apparent causes of their decline are not under control,” says Dr Coloma. He’s talking about climate change and two notorious amphibian diseases, chytridiomycosis and ranavirus – between them, these two factors are the main reasons why 40% of amphibians are potentially facing extinction. Yet Dr Coloma remains grimly determined. “It will take a large amount of resources and dedication, but reintroduction will be possible,” he says.
Before the species can be properly reintroduced, he says we need to sort out the state of the world. “We as humans need to stop the emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and to change our attitude of resignation towards species extinctions. We need to open our minds to the multiple warnings by the scientific community,” says Dr Coloma. “In particular, as a matter of urgency we need to set new and realistic goals to save amphibians. Appropriate funding is needed, and we must get more scientists, the government, and local and international communities to become more seriously committed and involved with their recovery.”
It’s easy to discount success stories like these as one-off miracles amidst a sea of extinctions, but this little frog is not alone: three of its closest relatives, also presumed extinct, have been found alive and hopping in various pockets of Ecuador. It’s likely that more of these refuges exist, yet to be discovered. Maybe Onore’s harlequin frog is hunkering down in one of them. Considering what they’re up against, the whole family of frogs are surprisingly resilient; and, with a little help from us, it’s not impossible that one day they may regain their former warty glory.
- AmphibiaWeb. 2019. <http://amphibiaweb.org> University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA. Accessed 25 Jun 2019. https://amphibiaweb.org/species/55
- Ron et al. 2003. Population Decline of the Jambato Toad Atelopus ignescens (Anura: Bufonidae) in the Andes of Ecuador. Journal of Herpetology, 37(1), 116-126.
- Tapia et al. 2017. Rediscovery of the Nearly Extinct Longnose Harlequin Frog Atelopus Longirostris (Bufonidae) in Junín, Imbabura, Ecuador. Neotropical Biodiversity, 3(1), pp. 157–167.
- Coloma LA, Quiguango-Ubillús A. 2018. Atelopus ignescens. En: Centro Jambatu. 2011–2019. Anfibios de Ecuador. Fundación Otonga. Quito, Ecuador
- Bishop et al. 2012. The Amphibian Extinction Crisis – what will it take to put the action into the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan? », S.A.P.I.EN.S , 5.2, 2012. Accessed 25 June 2019.