When Andrés Merino-Viteri talks about frogs, he refers to them with great tenderness, using the diminutive form—las ranitas—as if they were his own children. His feelings for amphibians first manifested when he was just five years old, on a kindergarten field trip to the forests on the fringes of Quito, Ecuador. “We were running around when I noticed the other kids had gathered in one spot. I couldn’t see what it was they were circling around, nor could I get past the crowd to notice what they were doing,” Merino-Viteri recalls. “But then I noticed a couple of the boys waving sticks up in the air while the others cheered, and underneath them, I could see the toad.”
Its body was a deep black color but its belly was red—he can’t remember if what he’d seen was the blood of the animal or the color of its skin. “I felt such incredible sadness,” he says—sadness over the boys’ impulse to kill a harmless animal, sadness for the animal itself.
Fifteen years later, during his first year as a biology major at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, Merino-Viteri realized what kind of amphibian it had been: an Atelopus ignescens, commonly known as a Jambato toad, which had last been seen six years before, in 1988. The inch-and-a-half-long black toad with a fiery red belly was once a common sight among the hills surrounding Quito; by the time Merino-Viteri was able to piece together his memory of the small animal, it was extinct. It came to him like an epiphany. Suddenly, he had found his life’s purpose: saving frogs.
With a territory that’s a little more than 100,000 square miles, Ecuador has a great diversity of amphibians—especially in the tropical forests of the Amazon basin, a few hours’ drive east of Quito. The country is home to about 10 percent of amphibian species, including 500 different kinds of frogs and toads. But new research points to a count that could be up to five times higher, due to the fact that many of the frogs in the biodiverse Amazon region are so-called cryptic species—species so physically similar that they can be mistakenly identified as the same one.
In 2014, Ecuadorean researchers led by Santiago Ron, Merino-Viteri’s colleague at Pontificia Universidad Católica, in Quito, discovered that the ochre-colored and bug-eyed Gunther’s banded tree frog (Hypsiboas fasciatus) and the very similar-looking convict tree frog (Hypsiboas calcaratus)—one that gets its common name from the striped markings on its flanks, resembling a traditional convict’s overalls—were actually not the same frog. Not only that: The two could actually be split into as many as eleven different species.
The news was a boon for Ecuadorean herpetologists like Ron and Merino-Viteri. But it also meant that each one of those frog species had smaller populations than previously thought, making them more susceptible to habitat destruction and climate change. Around a third of Ecuador’s amphibians are currently threatened with extinction. Sixteen other species are likely already gone, including the red-bellied Jambato toad that Merino-Viteri saw as a child.
The decline in amphibian populations is happening swiftly on a worldwide scale. As many as half of all species are under threat. The reasons are complex: Global warming, for example, affects species’ survival, reproduction, and dispersal capabilities; diseases and pathogens such as amphibian chytrid fungus are wiping out entire species; pesticides and other pollutants are impacting food availability and the predator-prey relationships frogs rely on to survive. Modern-day herpetologists are equal parts explorers, laboratory researchers, and conservationists: They must try to learn as much as they can about frogs—from their eating and mating habits to their habitat range—while trying to save any species from extinction, even if that only means saving their DNA inside a lab.
On the morning of August 14, 2015, Ecuador’s Secretary of Risk Management alerted people in Quito to troubling news that seemingly had nothing to do with frogs. Cotopaxi, a volcano located about thirty miles outside the capital, was beginning to blow steam and ash. Cotopaxi had been dormant for nearly seventy years. Now its imminent eruption threatened to be a big one, with a mixture of lava, mud, and ash expected to churn downhill over a ten-mile radius, destroying everything in its path.
Historically, the temperate forests surrounding Cotopaxi had been home to at least twenty-six amphibian and reptile species that favored the area’s plentiful freshwater sources. But just as had happened elsewhere near the big city, these woods eventually became inhospitable to most wildlife, largely due to water pollution and other consequences of encroachment by human populations.
One species believed to have been gone for good was the rocket frog (Colostethus jacobuspetersi), known for its ability to jump straight up into the air. Records say the inch-long, brown-speckled frog went extinct in 1989, though its absence wasn’t mourned much outside the amphibian-conservation community. Rocket frogs are somewhat dull looking. Frogs generally aren’t charismatic species (they don’t evoke the kind of sympathy or admiration that elephants or pandas do). And, of course, they’re slimy to the touch.
The one thing rocket frogs do have going for them is their unlikely story of survival. The species had been on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as “critically endangered or possibly extinct.” Then, one day in 2007, a friend of Merino-Viteri’s, who happened to be an amateur frog enthusiast, rediscovered it. He’d called the zoology museum at Pontificia Universidad Católica with some good news: He was pretty sure he’d seen a rare frog during his hike along the Pita River, a three-foot-wide stream fed by Cotopaxi’s snow melt. He snapped a bad photo of the frog with his cell phone and texted it to experts at the museum. The file was then forwarded to Ron and the other herpetologists from Balsa de los Sapos, an amphibian research and conservation lab located in the basement of the university’s biology department. Ron and his colleagues confirmed what the photo suggested: The Quito rocket frog was alive.
Excited about his friend’s find, Merino-Viteri’s team headed out to look for more of the frogs and found a few tadpoles in a couple of privately owned, undeveloped lots along the ice-cold Pita River.
As word got around about the return of the species, Merino-Viteri was asked why the rocket frog had survived in that particular spot. No one knows. The frogs were living in an area that is probably less than three square miles in size, and their distribution was severely fragmented. But their hidden little home next to the face of the mountain, under the shade of tall trees and with a steady supply of fresh, clean water, surely had helped to preserve them. (In addition to its role in amphibian reproduction, water is also an important medium of communication for some frogs: Through it, their calls travel from one to another, making it possible for the species to defend their habitats and attract mates.)
When news of the impending Cotopaxi eruption reached him last August, Merino-Viteri drove out to the rocket frog habitat, which was well within the area of the volcano’s pyroclastic flow. No one could predict when Cotopaxi would erupt. But if it did, Merino-Viteri’s team would be about an hour away in Quito, while a deadly combination of lava and gas and ash would get to the frogs in less than fifteen minutes.
They needed to find a way to cover the cost of traveling the twenty-two miles from Quito to the Pita River every couple of weeks until they gathered about 100 specimens—enough to ensure the diversity of the frogs’ DNA, as well as their survival and potential to reproduce at Balsa de los Sapos.
The problem was finding a source outside more familiar academic circles. In Ecuador, funding for field research is typically not provided by government or academic institutions. Instead, researchers must file a daunting amount of paperwork in order to prove a legitimate need to foundations in the US and Europe. Merino-Viteri and others knew they’d be hard pressed to make a strong enough case to channel funding to save the homely rocket frog and not another, more attractive species from the threatened Amazon region.
Ron suggested they turn to the public for support. Crowdsourcing has funded everything from independent films to humanitarian causes—so why not the rescue of a species? They needed about $14,000 to help them acquire a water-cooling system, pay a full-time caretaker at Balsa de los Sapos, and cover travel costs to and from the Pita River. The campaign was launched online in mid-October 2015 and lasted until the following February. In the end, they were only able to raise a total of $3,500, which they used to get more field gear and tanks.
Balsa de los Sapos is a wonder box of living species, each one rarer than the next. In the cold room, sitting inside a corner terrarium, is the so-called Titicaca water frog (Telmatobius culeus), the largest aquatic frog specimen in the world, found only in the Lake Titicaca basin that straddles Bolivia and Peru at 12,555 feet above sea level. By contrast, another frog found at Balsa de los Sapos, the bright yellow and green—yet rarely seen—fringed leaf frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) lives high in the tree canopies of the Amazon of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru; it’s a cryptic species that had been classified in the wrong genus for years, until researchers from Latin America and the US tested its DNA.
Currently, the Balsa de los Sapos facility hosts around thirty threatened amphibian species, some of which were found by the staffers themselves: In 2011 they came upon three new species; in 2012 and 2013, a total of eighteen. Once the frogs arrive at the facility, they go on to live the rest of their days in temperature-controlled tanks. Freddy Almeida, the caretaker at Balsa de los Sapos, is in charge of the more than fifty rocket frog tadpoles the team has caught since learning of the pending eruption. “We give them the best conditions,” he says, surrounded by brightly lit terrariums. “Typically, when the frogs come into this facility they are feeling stressed. The color of their skin changes and so do their feeding habits. My job is to make sure that they have a clean new environment waiting for them here, that they start eating and moving about regularly again.”
On a recent quiet weekday morning at the privately owned nature reserve of El Molinuco, Merino-Viteri and Almeida put on their rubber boots and knelt down atop the moss-covered pebbles by the edge of the river. With them was Pol Pintanel, a young Ph.D. student from Spain who had come to Ecuador to study how climate change was affecting amphibian life. Pintanel has been catching frogs since he was a kid, so he’s developed something of a technique. He is “an expert frog catcher,” said Almeida, laughing. “The ones I’ve heard are always hiding underneath the rocks on the face of the rock above us somewhere, so I haven’t been able to get to them,” Pintanel said as he put on a headlamp. “But the tadpoles are easy. They are in the quieter parts of the river, avoiding the stream.”
The three young men got to work, looking for the evasive tadpoles, one by one, on the edges of the stream and under the rocks. Merino-Viteri held out a small speaker that played a recording of rocket frogs making the female’s soprano-like mating call, which they hoped would lure other frogs out of hiding. The loud, syncopated sounds played over and over, but not one of them sprung forward.
A couple of hours passed. Almeida, Pintanel, and Merino-Viteri were hunched over, facing the stream, concentrating. Pintanel found a few tadpoles and stowed them away inside Gatorade bottles that contained a splash of river water, so they could be taken back to Balsa de los Sapos. Another forty-five minutes passed; the noon-time sun was broiling, making it difficult for them to concentrate.
Pintanel shouted, “¡Un adulto!”—an adult. Almeida and Merino-Viteri rushed over to Pintanel, who held the tiny rocket frog in his right hand like a prize. As far as they were concerned, Pintanel’s discovery was remarkable—researchers hadn’t been able to recover an adult rocket frog in its habitat since 2011.
The frog was nervously trying to jump back into the stream, its hind legs stretching to find purchase while Pintanel gently struggled to show him off without letting him slip away. They placed the frog inside a bottle filled with river water, then passed the bottle back and forth for a while. Pintanel was beaming.
Just then, they heard children’s voices—a group of kindergarteners on a field trip, walking along the trail just above them and headed their way. The three biologists took off their rubber boots and stowed the plastic bottles in their backpacks. It was time to go, lest they draw attention to the site where the rocket frog still lives.