A team of researchers working in one of the most hostile field sites in Colombia has recently reported the discovery of two new frog species.

In the humid tropical forests of north-eastern Colombia, much of the native fauna and flora remains something of a mystery. For over five decades, civil unrest and armed conflict in the area have made biodiversity surveys extremely risky. Data collection has also been hindered by the limited resources available for ecological and conservation research.

Yet, fresh hope has emerged for protecting life in this hazardous hotspot. Back in 2010, an intrepid team of researchers led by Aldemar Acevedo was awarded the Future Conservationist Award by the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP), a partnership between Fauna & Flora International (FFI), BirdLife International and WCS, to assess the conservation status of amphibians inhabiting these Andean forests. Since gaining this springboard for its critical work, the team has spent the last decade uncovering previously hidden secrets about these amphibians and mitigating threats to their survival.

The Colombian Andes, the habitat of the two newly discovered frog species. Credit: Aldemar Acevedo
The Colombian Andes, the habitat of the two newly discovered frog species. Credit: Aldemar Acevedo

One of the team’s most recent successes is the discovery of two new endemic species of rain frogs. The newly described species both belong to the genus Pristimantis, a large group of frogs widely distributed throughout Central and South America. Occupying a wide variety of habitats and altitudes, Pristimantis frogs have diversified into approximately 500 species, of which about half are found in Colombia. The team’s recently published findings include molecular analyses and morphological comparisons with the frogs’ close relatives to reveal they are new species, as well as a description of their distribution in the region.

A leap forward

Although the team has only just published the discovery, it actually found the new species a decade ago. Although they suspected the frogs were new species, the researchers didn’t have the resources to obtain the required evidence at the time. Specifically, they needed to perform genetic analyses involving expensive molecular techniques that would show the frogs had genetically diverged from their ancestral relatives into new species.

In the end, the researchers had to wait ten years to be able to use these techniques. “The molecular techniques are now more accessible and affordable, and finally helped us to uncover robust genetic evidence showing that the frogs are new species,” says Aldemar. “Interestingly, during this process, we obtained molecular sequences from geographically related species so we could rule them out, which resulted in the discovery of at least three more new species that we hope will be published soon.” Along with these analyses, the team also compared the frogs to specimens of close relatives they found in natural history museums, revealing key differences in their morphology and diagnostic characteristics.

“We have also constantly evaluated threats to the amphibians in the area, especially in relation to the impact of the pathogenic chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), which is the main cause of the dramatic decline in amphibian numbers worldwide,” adds Aldemar, who last year co-authored a research paper evaluating the global impact of Bd.

A helping hand

Along with support from CLP and Save Our Species, Aldemar also credits his team’s accomplishments to the late Colombian herpetologist, Professor María Cristina Ardila-Robayo – so much so, that they named one of the new species, P. ardilae, as a tribute to her. “Professor Ardila-Robayo contributed significantly to our knowledge about the amphibian fauna of Colombia and she trained a lot of new herpetologists,” he explains.

The name of the other new species, P. bowara, is the team’s tribute to the local U’wa community, as bowara means ‘jungle’ or ‘forest’ in their dialect. “The indigenous people play such an important role in the preservation of natural resources, especially in such remote areas. On some occasions, we have exchanged knowledge with this community and in the future we would like to more actively involve them in conservation programmes,” says Aldemar.

Pristimantis bowara, one of the two new species, that was discovered along with P. ardilae (banner image). Credit: Aldemar Acevedo
Pristimantis bowara, one of the two new species, that was discovered along with P. ardilae (banner image). Credit: Aldemar Acevedo

Looking ahead

Threats to amphibians in the Andean zones range from the destruction of habitats to climate change. The team will now use the results from a decade of research to generate a conservation management plan to enable local environmental, educational and political institutions to conserve these rich natural treasures.

This article has been adapted from an original version on the Conservation Leadership Programme’s website, which can be found here.