Rediscovering a Species … in a Rubbish Bin

Unseen for 30 years, the Silent Valley tropical frog was rediscovered in a rubbish bin during the Search for Lost Frogs campaign.

After five months of expeditions in 21 countries, researchers participating in CI’s Search for Lost Frogs have rediscovered 15 amphibian species not seen in more than a decade — and found three additional species that may be new to science. Here, CI’s amphibian conservation officer Robin Moore recounts his experience unearthing a species lost for 30 years.

Lost things usually turn up in the last place you expect to find them. Car keys behind the fridge. Glasses in a flowerpot. But the last thing I expected to find in a rubbish bin in India’s Western Ghats was something last seen the year “The Empire Strikes Back” hit the big screen. Yet, as I slowly lifted the lid covering a small plastic bin in the kitchen of our retreat, I am not sure who was more surprised: me or the frog that started bouncing from wall to wall like a pinball.

And so it was that the Silent Valley tropical frog (Micrixalus thampii) was rediscovered after 30 years. It was an auspicious start to the “Lost! Amphibians of India” campaign, inspired by our global Search for Lost Frogs and launched just two days earlier at the University of Delhi.

There is something rewarding about finding something you thought was lost. I always appreciate house keys a little more after they have been missing. And so it is with amphibians; finding species that we thought were gone provides a rare good news story and reveals a second chance at survival.

Why is this important? Because amphibians are at the forefront of a “sixth great extinction” — the largest since the dinosaurs disappeared from our planet. We have a crucial opportunity to understand why some species survive while those around them are vanishing. Knowledge of what makes a species resilient to the driving forces of extinction could help us stem the crisis and maintain our lifeline to a healthy future.

But as teams of scientists set out on an unprecedented collaborative global effort to search for “lost” species in August last year, I really didn’t know what to expect. I would be lying if I said I didn’t worry that all teams would come back empty-handed.

Alonso Quevedo, President of Fundación ProAves, searches for the Mesopotamia Beaked Toad in the rainforests of Colombia.

Then the field reports started pouring in, so evocative and dripping with enthusiasm that I felt like I was right there with the researchers, wading up streams and turning over logs. I was transported from the high Andes of Chile to the dense jungles of Cameroon and Malaysia. I quickly became immersed in the thrill of the chase; the element of exploration ignited my childlike sense of curiosity. The passion of all the teams was contagious and inspiring.

And then there were moments of unadulterated joy. On Saturday, September 4th, I opened my inbox to find an email from N’Goran Koume, sent from a cybercafé in Danané, Ivory Coast: “Dear Robin, Yes, it is fantastic. The Mount Nimba reed frog [Hyperolius nimbae] has been found after 43 years!” I almost fell out of my chair. The excitement in the email was palpable. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.

Although the successes were few and far between, each was like a generous shot of tequila (the good stuff).

Eventually I was lucky enough to accompany teams of local and international herpetologists into the field to join the search. I clambered around steep hillsides in Colombia, drove through rivers to reach craggy peaks in Haiti, and came face-to-face with elephants in India. Long hours of fruitlessly searching for creatures that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years only strengthened my respect and admiration for the people that are dedicating their lives to understanding our planet and its fascinating inhabitants. I was bowled over by the dedication of local scientists, and reminded that we should never underestimate the knowledge of local communities, who frequently steered search teams in the right direction.

Now that the Search for Lost Frogs has come to a close, it is time to reflect on what it means for amphibians — and for us. We are working with local partners in Ecuador toward the protection and monitoring of the Rio Pescado stubfoot toad (Atelopus balios), which clings onto survival in one stream. Through the “Lost! Amphibians of India” campaign, we have forged partnerships and created a platform to catalyze conservation efforts in the forests of the Western Ghats, one of the richest and most threatened habitats on earth.

Robin Moore

But what about the species that were not found? More than nine out of ten of the species searched for did not turn up, a sobering indication that many of these species may indeed be gone forever. They are sounding an alarm that the ecosystems upon which they, and we, depend for survival are sick. It is up to us to do something about it. Whether it is helping to protect the last home of the Rio Pescado stubfoot toad, or spreading the word about the amphibian extinction crisis and why we should care, please join me in protecting these jewels.

While time is of the essence, with each rediscovery comes a reassurance that it is not too late. Let’s not wait until it is.

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