“I can’t tell you how special it is to hold something we never thought we’d see again,” Kyle Jaynes, a PhD student at Michigan State University, said after a trip to South America in search of… harlequin frogs.
Jaynes, a member of MSU’s Department of Integrative Biology and Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior program, was part of a team that helped bring back up to 32 species of Harlequin Frogs, at least academically, from between the dead.
The team, through a combination of literature review and fieldwork, showed that some of the colorful, patterned, and varied neotropical species once widespread throughout the range of the Ecuadorian Andes, but that thought to be extinct in recent decades, still survive in the wild. .
It’s an underfrog story, as Matt Davenport said in an MSU Today article. The team’s findings are presented in a new study published in the journal Biological Conservation.
Since the 1980s, a pathogenic fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis has killed members of more than 500 amphibian species, according to a recent estimate. It has been called an apocalypse by National Geographic.
The fungus decimated populations around the world for about 40 years, pushing many species to extinction. The harlequin frog genus has been exceptionally affected and experts believe more than 80% of its species have been driven to extinction, reports Davenport.
At the turn of the 21st century, however, people began to spot species that had been extinct, some for decades. Reports became more frequent over time, but sightings were recorded as individual incidents.
In 2019, Jaynes won an $8,770 year-long grant from the National Geographic Society that allowed him to pull together disparate reports to provide a more comprehensive account of the status of frogs than he, Professor Sarah Fitzpatrick, assistant to the College of Natural Science based at the WK Kellogg Biological Station, and their colleagues in Ecuador did.
The grant also allowed MSU researchers to travel to five different sites in Ecuador in late 2019 and spring 2020 to search for rediscovered frogs in a range of habitats. Fitzpatrick described the first discovery of a Harlequin Frog in the field as “very dramatic”.
“We were all lying across that field, but no one thought we were going to see that frog,” she said. “Then one of our staff started shouting in Spanish, ‘I found one!'”
When the researchers found a frog, the team was taking saliva samples for genetic studies.
“If you’ve ever done an ancestry test that uses your saliva, that’s the idea,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s like 23andMe for frogs.”
They also swabbed his skin to see what microbes, including Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, were living on it.
Jaynes said experts didn’t believe frogs existed a decade ago. Now they have their DNA samples, providing invaluable information.
By examining the DNA, the team found that extinct and presumed extinct species longer had less genetic diversity than frogs that became extinct more recently. Low genetic diversity could indicate that a species is more susceptible to future stressors like a new strain of fungus, climate change or habitat loss, Davenport reported.
The information is needed to develop conservation and protection strategies for rediscovered species, but researchers still need to gather much more information, Jaynes and Fitzpatrick said.
This research gives some hope to amphibians. But researchers also hope it will create a sense of urgency around conserving rediscovered species that are still critically endangered. Rediscovery doesn’t equal recovery, Jaynes said.
“This story is not over for these frogs, and we are not where we want to be in terms of conservation and protection,” he said. “We still have a lot to learn and a lot to do.”
Contact Bryce Airgood at 517-267-0448 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bairgood123.
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