A frog spotting can evoke different extremes of emotion. Some people can’t wait to hear the return of their spring ribbits and look with reverence at these tiny amphibians that play such an important role in maintaining ecological integrity. Others are put off by their bulging eyes, sudden jumps and throaty croaks. We at Nat Hab think that the only difference is education about these wonderful creatures, and what better time to start than Save the Frogs Day!
April 28 is Save the Frogs Day, which was created to increase awareness of the struggle of threatened frog species around the world. Amphibians are critical components of the global ecosystem, both as indicators of environmental stability and as contributors to human health. Unfortunately, frog populations have declined dramatically since the 1950s. In fact, around a third of the world’s more than 7,400 species are critically endangered, while more than 120 species are believed to have been extinct since the 1980s.
The extinction of certain frogs has been traced back to emerging fungal diseases like chytridiomycosis (caused by the chytrid fungus), habitat destruction and alteration, pollution, climate change and pesticide use.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Four new species of frogs were recently found by scientists around the world. (Yes, we’re aware that they obviously aren’t actually “new” but rather “newly discovered.”) And we’re here to celebrate them for Save the Frogs Day!
1. The Silent Ukaguru Spiny-throated Reed Frog
Just when we thought we knew some basic things about frogs (like that they croak), nature goes and shows us something new. Up in Tanzania’s Ukaguru Mountains, researchers have met a new-to-science frog species that doesn’t actually make any sound. The small Ukaguru spiny-throated reed frog (Hyperolius ukaguruensis) doesn’t croak, chirp, sing or even ribbit.
Lucinda Lawson, a conservation biologist and assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, and her team first excitedly encountered this quirky frog in 2019 while they were trying to find another species, the elusive Churamiti maridadi tree toad. That a species has only been spotted twice in the wild by scientists, and, unfortunately, experts fear it may be extinct.
But back to the good news!
“It’s a very odd group of frogs,” says Lawson of the newly discovered Ukaguru spiny-throated reed frog. “The male frogs don’t call like most other frogs do. We think they may use the spine as something like Braille for species recognition. Without a call, they need some other way to recognize each other.”
Thirty million years ago, the Ukaguru Mountains in central Tanzania were covered by rain forest. But about 10 million years ago, a drier and cooler period transformed the lowland forests into savannas, leaving the mountainous areas as “islands” of tropical forest. (Fun fact: This is why they are sometimes now called “sky islands.”) The consistently humid climate and the isolation of each peak in the range have led to a high degree of endemism: Nearly 25% of all vertebrate species that occur in the Ukaguru Mountains are found nowhere else on Earth.
“The Ukaguru Mountains are part of the greater Eastern Arc Rift, a fascinating cradle of biodiversity, with many species endemic to single mountain blocks,” study co-author H. Christoph Liedtke, a postdoctoral researcher with the Spanish National Research Council, explains. “The fast population growth in Tanzania means that the mountain forest habitats are under growing threats from people.”
Understanding how many of these frogs exist in the wild and where they live is an integral part of their conservation. While you wouldn’t encounter the rare and quiet Ukaguru spiny-throated reed frog on our Tanzania Migration Safari, conscientious travel to the country helps preserve even the wildlife we don’t necessarily see (or hear!) by showing that environmental conservation matters and is valued internationally.
2. The Fantastic Rio Negro Stream Tree Frog (Named After J.R.R. Tolkien)
While its habitat is the clear water streams of the tropical Andes in Ecuador and not Middle Earth, the Rio Negro stream tree frog (Hyloscirtus tolkieni) looks, with its colors and spots, straight out of a fantasy novel. It’s also rather large for a tree frog, coming in at an impressive 2.5 inches.
In 2020, researchers explored different regions of Río Negro-Sopladora National Park in southern Ecuador, from the forests at 3,300 feet to the páramo grasslands at 10,200 ft. “We found a single individual of this new species of frog, which we found impressive due to its coloration and large size,” says Juan Carlos Sánchez Nivicela, associate researcher at the Museum of Zoology of the San Francisco de Quito University and co-author of the study, which was published in the international journal ZooKeys.
Because only one frog was found in only one location, scientists don’t have sufficient information to determine the conservation status or risk of extinction for it. But the authors of the study say “urgent research and monitoring actions should be established to study its life history and ecology, population size and trends, survey new sites where additional populations may exist and evaluate if threats are impacting its long-term conservation, such as invasive species, emerging diseases, or climate changes.”
In reassuring news, the frog’s habitat is already protected. Río Negro-Sopladora National Park was declared a protected area in 2018 and covers over 75,000 acres of healthy páramo and cloud forest ecosystems. The park is an integral part of the Sangay-Podocarpus Corridor, a 100-mile stretch of protected ecosystems in the Andes that’s home to over 450 bird species and 100 mammal species, including the endangered Andean tapir (Tapirus pinchaque) and Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), as well as many other endemic plants and animals.
It’s a special place, too, because multiple other new-to-science species have been recently found here. A one-day survey celebrated the finding of this frog, a salamander and a caecilian (a limbless amphibian resembling a snake).
Curious about getting to know other fascinating wildlife of Ecuador? Consider joining us on our Classic Galapagos tour.
3. A Tapir Frog That Looks Like It’s Made of Chocolate
In the Amazon peatlands, a boggy wetland dense with decaying plants and one of the rarest habitats in the Peruvian Amazon rain forest, a team was surveying for reptiles and amphibians as part of the Chicago Field Museum’s Rapid Biological and Social Inventory of the Lower Putumayo Basin.
Scientists found one juvenile and two adult tapir frogs (Synapturanus danta) that are all about the size of a quarter and long-snouted, with smooth, rich brown skin that looks freakishly similar to chocolate. The tapir frog’s small body is ideal for burrowing into soft, wet peat. These movements affect soil and water infiltration, meaning the tapir frog plays an important role in the peatland ecosystem. Because they live mostly underground, the scientists only found them when they heard an unrecognized “beep, beep” call.
Once the sound was triangulated, the team had to be patient, because they would go silent when they got near them. After about 20 minutes of digging, they found the first adult specimen whose DNA analysis was enough to determine that the frog is indeed a species new to science.
The tapir frog’s peatland habitat is inside a proposed conservation area on unclassified federal land. It neighbors a titled Indigenous territory, as well as Yaguas National Park. The people of Peru’s Comunidad Nativa Tres Esquinas actually led the researchers to the tapir frog. While this frog was new to science, it was a known friend to the locals, showcasing the importance of respecting the deep knowledge of Indigenous cultures.
The Putumayo River is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Amazon Basin, making it an important pathway for wildlife. If you’d like to experience the wonder of the Amazon for yourself, join us on our Great Amazon River Expedition.
4. This Tapir Valley Tree Frog Kept Scientists Searching for Months
Donald Varela-Soto, co-owner of the private Tapir Valley Nature Reserve in a valley between two volcanoes in Costa Rica, searched for the source of a shrill frog call on the edge of a wetland for over six months. “I kept hearing this different sound in the wetland but was unable to find it,” Varela-Soto said. “Then, on a particularly rainy day, the water rose in the wetland, pushing the frogs out to the edges, and that’s when I saw it in person. It was like, wow, this is amazing! This is beautiful!”
The brilliant-green Tapir Valley tree frog (Tlalocohyla celeste) is only about the size of a small bottlecap, with a unique yellow line that runs halfway around its bright body. Research on species has now been published in Zootaxa.
After Varela-Soto found the first male frog, biologist Valeria Aspinall found a female frog and was ecstatic to then find mating frogs that laid eggs. The research team collected eggs and observed their metamorphoses into tadpoles and mature frogs; their observations and DNA analyses confirmed that the species is new to science.A conservation success story, Varela-Soto and Melvin Rodriguez bought the property that would become Tapir Valley Nature Reserve 18 years ago when the current forest was mostly cattle pasture. They rehomed the livestock and began rewilding the fields into a forest that has become a perfect habitat for plants and animals from surrounding forests, such as collared peccaries (Pecari tajacu), jaguars (Panthera onca) and Baird’s tapirs (Tapirus bairdii).
“I love this frog, because it tells a larger story,” study co-author Esteban Brenes-Mora, executive director of the Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation (CRWF) and senior Mesoamerica associate for Re:wild, said in a statement. “When [Soto] started Tapir Valley Nature Reserve, it was to protect tapirs and help them move between forests. He didn’t know that there were completely new species to science living on the reserve, but if he hadn’t protected this place for tapirs, we might not have ever discovered this little frog.”
Although Costa Rica has more protected areas as a percentage of its total area than any other Latin American country, the forests still face threats. Near Tapir Valley, for example, pineapple monocultures are becoming popular, and they are constantly doused with dangerous herbicides and pesticides that end up in wetlands and creeks. Do your part to contribute to sustainable tourism and local conservation efforts by joining us on a carbon-neutral journey to explore Costa Rica.
What can you do to celebrate Save the Frogs Day?
- Spend a fun day together gathering with friends or neighbors and pick up garbage from your local rivers, forests and wetlands.
- Make a small pond “wetland” in your backyard. If you build it, frogs will come!
- Manage your yard without using pesticides, fertilizers and weed killers, as the great majority of these are highly poisonous or lethal to amphibians. Plant only native plants in your garden, which use less water and are hardy enough to survive without pesticides and fertilizers. Native plants also support so many more insects than non-natives do—and insects are amphibian food.
- Create a protective cover for frogs to hide in. Amphibians are yummy treats for many wildlife species, so make sure to offer plenty of spots where they can be protected from predators (including kids and pets). They like densely planted beds of native wildflowers, groundcovers, ferns and shrubs. You can even leave a pile of autumn leaves in a corner for them to burrow into.