Today CI announced exciting news from our “Search for the Lost Frogs” campaign — the discovery of three amphibian species new to science on an expedition in western Colombia. Dr. Robin Moore describes his team’s experience finding a species that has never before been documented.
Our dirty, scratched and sore fingers told the story — we had spent two days sifting leaf litter on steep slopes in Antioquia, Colombia with the image of a small, pointed-nosed toad seared in our minds. The focus of our quest, the elusive Mesopotamia beaked toad (Rhinella rostrata), was last seen before even my grandparents were born. Alternating between giddy excitement at the prospect of finding it and a sober realization that our chances were miniscule, every new leaf turned was a new opportunity followed by a small disappointment.
As the light started to fade on the second day of our search, the team walked back to the car in silence, heads hanging low in shared disappointment. Over dinner that night, a calorific soup of fried pork skin and beans, we discussed our options. We agreed that our chances of finding the toad in this area weren’t looking good, and we decided to head to a new area the next day — an area with potential for more discovery and home to other lost frogs.
We woke at 4:30 a.m. and bundled into two vehicles to make the 10-hour drive. As the road snaked down into lush forest, I felt a rush of excitement. Clouds hung low with a promise of rain: perfect weather for frogs.
We found some promising forest, left the car at the side of the road and scrambled up a steep, muddy slope in the rain. We had been walking for about an hour when a voice behind us alerted us to something unusual. Alonso, our Colombian partner, ran to meet us, holding a small, brown toad with bright red eyes. He knew instantly that what he was holding was a new species. The air buzzed with excitement as we clambered to take a look.
It was a true honor to be looking at a species new to science, a species yet to even be named. Of course, the toad is not new — it has been doing its thing here in the cloud forests of the Chocó region as long as it can remember. The amazing part is that nobody, in the history of its existence, has ever recorded its presence. It is tantalizing to be reminded that there are still pockets of the unknown that provide us with a chance at discovery. All we knew about this species was what we could see in Alonso’s hand.
The next few days were incredible. Searching day and night, we found delicate glass frogs and red-toed treefrogs. And then, a discovery that flabbergasted even the local scientists: an unidentified small toad with a sharp pointed nose. It was hard to believe, but here was an entirely new species of beaked toad! Decorated with delicate orange speckles and blue ribbons, the toad truly was a beautiful specimen.
Our final bounty on the trip was a delicate rocket frog with bright red legs, found hopping among rocks at the side of a gurgling stream. Lucy Cooke, a journalist who had accompanied us for a story for the Telegraph magazine, was the first to lay eyes on it. It was the icing on the cake of what was already a compelling story, and she was almost bouncing off the rocks in excitement. “I have fulfilled my dream!” she exclaimed. Again our local partners, impressive in their knowledge of the area, confirmed immediately that they believed this to be a species new to science. Its brilliant red legs gave it away.
In three days we had uncovered three new and unique species, in addition to many other frogs. We left tired but very happy. Our disappointment at not finding the Mesopotamia beaked toad was tempered with excitement in our new discoveries. The next step will be to name these species. Not to mention, of course, returning to the Chocó to see what else we can uncover.
To read more about the trip and the findings please see Lucy Cooke’s excellent account in the Telegraph magazine and website.
Robin Moore is an amphibian conservation officer at CI. Learn more about the “Search for the Lost Frogs.”