Chocolate frog? New burrowing frog species unearthed in Amazon’s rare peatlands
- Researchers dug up a new-to-science species of burrowing frog in the Peruvian Amazon that resembles chocolate. The frog has been nicknamed the tapir frog for its distinctive-looking snout.
- Herpetologists used the frog’s call to locate and dig up three individual frogs. DNA analyses confirmed that, although the species was known to locals, it had not yet been described by science.
- The team found the small frogs in one of the rarest habitats in the Amazon rainforest, the Amazon peatlands. A past study found that peatlands in the Peruvian Amazon store 10 times the amount of carbon as nearby undisturbed rainforest.
- The discovery was made during a rapid inventory of the Lower Putumayo Basin. A conservation area is proposed for the region and researchers say the tapir frog is yet another reason to conserve this peatland and the surrounding area.
A photo of an odd-looking amphibian drew attention on Twitter last week, where it was described as a ‘smooth lil fella’, compared to a melted tootsie roll candy, and likened to the chocolate frogs from Harry Potter.
‘I’m quite surprised at how fast the popularity of this frog is rising up,’ Germán Chávez, a researcher at the Peruvian Institute of Herpetology, and one of the scientists to describe the frog, told Times of Nation in an email. ‘I’m not sure whether it is because of the tapir-like profile or its chocolate-texturized skin.’
Chávez and colleagues found the small, long-snouted frog during a rapid inventory in Peru, in one of the rarest habitats in the Amazon rainforest, the Amazon peatlands, a boggy wetland thick with decaying plants.
The tapir frog’s slight body is well suited for burrowing into soft, wet peat. The researchers suspect that it, as well as other burrowing animals, may affect soil and water infiltration, playing important roles in the peatland ecosystem.
‘The frogs are tiny, about the size of a quarter,’ said Michelle Thompson, a researcher in the Keller Science Action Center at Chicago’s Field Museum who was part of the team that found the frog. ‘[T]hey’re underground, and they’re quick,’ she said, so the team relied on sound. When they heard an unfamiliar ‘beep, beep’ call, they sprang into action.
‘Suddenly we heard one of the males calling, from underground!!!’ Chávez said. ‘I had to put my ear directly on the soil, touching it, to be able to locate where exactly this frog was calling from.’
Another member of the team, David Sánchez, from the Amazon Institute for Scientific Research in Colombia, suggested making an imaginary square around the source of the call and digging by hand, Chávez said.
‘Once we triangulated the sound, we had to be patient as we closed in on where to dig because they would go silent when we got near them,’ Thompson told Times of Nation, ‘we would have to turn off our lights, be still and wait until they called again. Then when we heard them we would frantically dig and eventually we got lucky!’
‘After 15 to 20 minutes of digging and looking for them,’ Chávez said, ‘I heard Michelle [Thompson] screaming, and to me that could only mean that she and David had found the first adult.’
The team found one juvenile and two adult frogs on the expedition. These specimens, along with the recording and DNA analysis, were enough to determine that the frog is a species new to science. It has been named Synapturanus danta (danta is Spanish for tapir, a large rainforest mammal with a unique snout). The complete description of the frog was published in the journal Evolutionary Systematics.
The herpetologists found the frog while surveying for reptiles and amphibians as part of the Chicago Field Museum’s Rapid Biological and Social Inventory of the Lower Putumayo Basin. During these rapid inventories, biologists and social scientists intensively study and survey an area to learn what species it holds, how locals manage the land, and how to make the case for the area to be better protected.
‘Even though it’s called a rapid inventory, it could take a year or more to plan these things, and then it could take a year or a decade to do the conservation follow-up,’ Thompson said. ‘The rapid part is where you spend a month in the field. And it’s a total whirlwind.’
The whirlwind survey included both the forest and the rare peatlands, an often overlooked but important habitat both for wildlife and for climate change. One study found that, hectare for hectare, peatlands in the Peruvian Amazon store 10 times the amount of carbon as nearby undisturbed rainforest. In a typical forest, as trees die and decay, much of the carbon they hold is released back into the atmosphere. However, because peatlands are waterlogged, plants decay slowly and the carbon accumulates as peat.
The tapir frog’s peatland home lies inside a proposed conservation area on unclassified federal land, and neighbors a titled Indigenous territory as well as Yaguas National Park.
The region is home to many Indigenous people, including the people of Peru’s Comunidad Nativa Tres Esquinas, who led the researchers to the tapir frog. The species may be new to science, but it was old news to the locals.
Currently, there isn’t much evidence of deforestation or mining around the peatland, Chávez said, most likely because it’s far from the river or any roads. But ‘habitat loss [from logging, farming, and mining] in the Amazon is a threat wherever we go, so we have to keep an eye on that,’ he said.
The Putumayo River is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Amazon Basin, with no planned or existing dams, making it a critical pathway for wildlife and a source of unrestricted lifeblood for the whole basin. There’s a ‘huge conservation opportunity to conserve the whole corridor, watershed and surrounding area,’ Thompson said. ‘This tapir frog is another piece of evidence of why scientists and local people need to work together to protect this region.’
Chávez, G., Thompson, M. E., Sánchez, D. A., Chávez-Arribasplata, J. C., & Catenazzi, A. (2022). A needle in a haystack- Integrative taxonomy reveals the existence of a new small species of fossorial frog (Anura, Microhylidae, Synapturanus) from the vast lower Putumayo basin, Peru. Evolutionary Systematics, 6(1), 9-20. doi-10.3897/evolsyst.6.80281
Banner image of Synapturanus danta by Germán Chávez.
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Times of Nation. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough_
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