Field Journal: Surprise Frog Finds in Ecuador

Harlequin frog found on a 2009 RAP expedition in Ecuador's Nangaritza region.

For 20 years, field scientists participating in CI’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) have been exploring some of the world’s most abundant, mysterious and threatened tropical ecosystems; to date, they’ve discovered more than 1,300 species new to science. In this excerpt from RAP’s new book, “Still Counting,” herpetologist Jessica Deichmann remembers her first RAP survey — conducted in 2009 in Ecuador’s Nangaritza River Valley.

The tepuis in southeastern Ecuador may not be quite as grand as those of the Guianas, but they are impressive in and of themselves. Table-top mountains rising above the other peaks on the border with Peru, these tepuis (pronounced te-poo-ees), with their dwarf vegetation and potential to contain unique species, were little wonderlands to me that I couldn’t wait to explore. This was the site of my first RAP survey. Before the trip, I thought I would see some really cool things and that we might even find new species — after all, we were going to an area that few scientists had ever visited — but I really had no idea just how exciting this trip would be for me.

One afternoon, my colleague Elicio and I were searching for frogs and lizards along the margins of a small stream near our first camp. An hour or so passed with no luck — frogs in particular are typically more active and easier to find at night. My eyes were getting a little fuzzy (we had been out late searching for herps the night before) as I approached a rock wall that bordered the stream. I ran my eyes across the wall and suddenly did a double take — staring back at me, blending in perfectly with the orange and green moss, was a small harlequin frog, about the size of my thumb! For a herpetologist in the mountains of South America, this is like finding a diamond in a coal mine. Harlequin frogs (which are actually toads) of the genus Atelopus, among many other amphibian species, have been largely wiped out in the Andes of South America by a nasty fungus which kills frogs by preventing regulation of electrolytes. That night, I went to sleep excited to have found an Atelopus, but a little sad because I assumed that she was simply an unlikely individual that had temporarily survived in the wake of the fungus.

Jessica Deichmann checks a harlequin frog for the chytrid fungus.

Trudging miles back to base camp down the mountain in the dark, after searching all night for herps at the top of the tepui, was absolutely exhausting. To avoid the back and forth, we decided to make a satellite camp closer to the top and stay there for the next few days. After a muddy trek to the base of the tepui, and a treacherous climb up to a flatter area where camp was to be set up, we decided to rinse off in the mountain stream flowing next to our new camp. I slowly stepped down into the cold water and glanced at my feet. Once again, I couldn’t believe my eyes — the rocks at the bottom of the stream were teeming with tiny, shiny black and gold critters — Atelopus tadpoles! Over the next few days, we found other healthy adult frogs; these combined with lots of healthy tadpoles was a good indication to us that we hadn’t just found an unlikely individual survivor, but rather an entire healthy population of harlequin frogs.

Without this RAP survey, we may never have found this Atelopus population. Local communities and NGOs are now working hard to give this population the protection it deserves. Who knows, these frogs might even teach us something about how they have managed to survive a global epidemic to which so many other amphibian species have succumbed.

Jessica Deichmann works for CI’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP). Check out other posts in our series commemorating RAP’s 20th anniversary.

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