The Mesopotamian Beaked Toad hasn’t been seen since 1914. Scientists only have this artist’s rendition to go on. (© Paula Andrea Romero Ardila)
Roughly a third of all amphibians are at risk of extinction. Scientists don't know what species still exist and which need better protection. Over the next year and a half, a team of researchers will travel to 20 different countries in search of frog species that haven't been seen for at least a decade. Conservation International herpetologist Robin Moore tells host Jeff Young about some of the unusual species of missing frogs.
YOUNG: You may have heard about a newly discovered species of frog called a micro frog. It’s about the size of a pea. It was discovered living inside pitcher plants in Borneo by a team of scientists searching the world for lost amphibians. Over the next year and a half they’ll travel to 20 countries in search of more than 40 species no one has seen in more than a decade. Robin Moore is one of the Conservation International herpetologists getting ready for one of these rugged trips.
MOORE: My first expedition will be to Colombia in the mountains, very remote forests, we’ll probably be hiking for about five hours to get to the localities that we need to get to. We’re going to be searching for four species, the most interesting species to me, I think, is the Mesopotamia Beaked Toad, and it hasn’t been seen since 1914. All we have is an artist’s rendition of the species. If we do find this, we’ll be able to capture the first photos of this, the first video. To me, it’s going to be an exciting search!
YOUNG: How do you even know where to look? I mean, if all you have to go on is an artist’s drawing from 95 years ago?
MOORE: Yeah, it’s a tricky one. We also believe that this toad doesn’t need water to breed. So, it probably lays eggs, which hatch directly into toadlets. So, that also makes it tricky because we can’t rely it being in or around water. So basically, it could be anywhere in the forest. And, it’s designed to look like a leaf; it’s designed to be camouflaged and to hide. So, the fact it hasn’t been seen for 96 years definitely suggests that it’s good at not being found.
MOORE: We’re going to try and thwart it.
YOUNG: Well, lets say that you get lucky, and you do find one of these, well, then what?
MOORE: The next step if we do find one of these is to determine whether the species is doing ok, whether it’s threatened, whether the habitat its in needs protection, and also to highlight the species as a flagship species for conservation.
YOUNG: And, we have a recording, I think, of one of the frogs that you’re going to be looking for. This is the sharp-snouted day frog. Let’s listen to a bit of that.
[SHARP-SNOUTED DAY FROG SOUNDS]
MOORE: This is a species from Northeast Australia, from Queensland. Since 1994, only three individuals have ever been seen, and the last one was spotted around 1997. It’s believed to have possibly gone extinct as a result of a disease, which has been spreading around the world, and has really impacted a lot of amphibians. And, it lives in a region, which has been affected by this fungus, which is why we think it could have succumbed. But, you know, you just never know.
YOUNG: How is that fungus spreading?
MOORE: The mechanism by which it’s spreading is largely a mystery. There’s some theories that it originated in Africa. The earliest known record is from an African frog, the African Clawed Frog, which is actually, used to be used for pregnancy testing in people. So it was transported around the world, which would have been one way that it spread. In other instances, it shows up in places where we don’t really know how it got there. You know, maybe it traveled there on the leg of a bird, or an insect. There’s so many ways that it could enter an area that we’re still getting a grasp on exactly how this fungus works, how it moves. At the same time, it’s absent from some areas where we would expect it to occur. Madagascar seems to be free from the fungus.
YOUNG: You know, just looking down the list of some of the animals here, the names alone are so evocative. The Venezuelan Skunk Frog, Schneider’s Banana Frog, Gastric Brooding Frog…. Where do these names come from?
MOORE: The common name is usually a local name that’s been given to the frog depending on appearance or behavior. The Gastric Brooding Frog is one of the most interesting ones. What they do is when they lay their eggs, the female actually takes the eggs, ingests them into her stomach. She turns off her digestive juices, and the eggs develop into tadpoles and actually develop all the way into small froglets in the stomach. And then she gives birth to fully formed frogs out of her mouth.
YOUNG: That’s amazing!
MOORE: This to me, would be a phenomenal finding. It hasn’t been seen since the mid ‘80s and with its disappearance really went the opportunity to do research into what exactly is happening here with the brooding. There have been suggestions that we could have learned a lot about mechanisms for turning off the digestive juices that could have helped us control things like stomach ulcers.
YOUNG: Well I guess that points to the larger question about…why do this? I mean, why go to the jungles of Colombia and these far flung places, which can’t be easy, why is this important?
MOORE: Yeah, it’s a good question. Yeah, it’s certainly not easy. Hearing back from some of our search teams who have already started going into the field about land, mudslides and heavy rains. You’re really up against the elements when you’re out there, and it’s not easy. I think that this important because we’ve known for a while that amphibians are not doing well. We know that a third are threatened with extinction, and there are many species that we suspect have gone extinct.
And, I think, to loose a third of an entire class that’s around 2,000 species, would have devastating consequences. Amphibians play a number of vital roles. First of all they feed on insects, such as crop pests and disease vectors, so mosquitoes, which carry malaria. And they also, play a very important role in cycling nutrients. They form a link between the aquatic and terrestrial environments. So, if you remove an amphibian from the system, it’s also like losing two species because very often you’re removing the tadpoles which are regulating the nutrients in streams. They’re keeping the streams clean, they’re eating the algae.
And you’re also removing the adults, which are feeding on the invertebrates, the insects in the forest, and helping recycle leaves back into the system. So if you remove amphibians, we really don’t know what the cascading impacts will be. And personally, I don’t really want to find out the hard way. Because, once we lose these, we can’t bring them back.
YOUNG: Here we are watching this mass extinction most of us are aware of this, I think, to some degree…and yet, not doing much about it, for the most part. Kind of reminds me of the old song about putting a frog in a pot of water and slowly raising the heat.
MOORE: It’s hard sometimes for people to really relate to something that’s so removed from their everyday life. And, I think, one of the things that we wanted to achieve with this campaign is to engage people. You know, I know the list is depressing, when you think these haven’t been seen for along time. But we’re hoping that by finding some of these, that we’ll also have some good news stories that will allow us to show that there is still hope. There is still a lot out there worth saving and I think tapping into that sense of exploration and discovery is something that we need to do to really help to connect people with the world around us.
YOUNG: Robin Moore is a herpetologist and amphibians’ conservation officer for Conservation International. Thank you very much!
MOORE: Thank you!
YOUNG: And, hey- if you happen to find the Mesopotamian Beaked Toad, you’ll let us know, right?
MOORE: I will do, I will do. I hope we can report some good news.
Frog Talk- Conservation International scientists talk about why they like frogs.
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