Comunicado de prensa bilingüe del Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad sobre nuestra nueva rana, Hyloscirtus sethmacfarlanei.
Today, Sept 29 2022, four years after our discovery of the most beautiful frog we had ever seen, we and our Ecuadorian and international colleagues have finally published its formal scientific description:
This is a very rare frog found only at high elevations in a remote part of our Machay Reserve (the subject of World Land Trust‘s “Forests in the Sky” appeal in 2015), so it took us these four years to find enough individuals to make a thorough description of it. (We still have only found four individuals, about one per year.) The team involved in the description included experts in morphology, genetics, frog osteology (bones), and biogeographic modeling, and also included two EcoMinga wardens whose sharp eyes and curiosity led to the discovery in the first place.
This is much more than a beautiful frog. Those bright red and black colors are, like the colors of a monarch butterfly, warning predators that this would be a very bad choice for a meal. Some non-poisonous animals also have such warning colors, hoping to fool a predator, but this frog is the real thing, as our EcoMinga guards Darwin and Fausto (Tito) Recalde discovered when they caught and handled the adult female in the first photograph above. Their hands and fingers, and even Darwin’s elbows, started to itch and tingle, and the pain continued even several hours after they had put the frog down. The juveniles are bright yellow and they also exude an unpleasant substance from their skin.
We were very interested in knowing when this species diverged from its relatives. Had it evolved during the Pleistocene inter-glacial warm periods, when high elevation species would have moved higher up mountains and would have formed small “island” populations? As the paper explains, we were able to answer that question, and the answer surprised us. With high confidence, this species diverged from its relatives more than five million years ago; our best estimate is a divergence time of nine million years +/- four million years. This is even older than the last major uplift of the Ecuadorian Andes. To put this in perspective, humans and chimps diverged just three million years ago. This is a very distinctive species.
At the request of the Rainforest Trust, we named this species after Seth MacFarlane, the famous television producer, perhaps best known for “Family Guy”. He is a passionate conservationist and supporter of nature around the world. We are proud to honor him for those efforts, and grateful to Rainforest Trust for helping to fund management of our reserves.
This video was taken by me the day after the discovery of the species, close to the site of its capture.
In the following days I will upload a dialogue with all the authors, including first-person accounts of the effects of the frog’s toxins.
Lou Jost, President, Fundacion EcoMinga.
[Traduccion en espanol abajo]
We have experienced very heavy rain in the Banos area over the last week, and heavy rainfall always means landslides in this mountainous area. Normally these landslides happen in unpopulated areas, but on Aug 11 a large chunk of a steep mountain fell on the community of El Placer, the gateway community for our Cerro Candelaria and Naturetrek reserves and the home town of most of our Banos-area reserve guards. The mountain was very steep, and the material fell vertically nearly a quarter of a mile (500m), smashing into the town with enormous kinetic energy. A house in its path was destroyed, killing three people and leaving a young child alive but orphaned.
Several of our staff missed being killed by just one minute — they had been crossing the landslide zone just a minute before the landslide struck. They saw the wall of rocks and soil come crashing down on their friends and relatives, and later saw the bodies. Understandably they were deeply shaken and scared.
Will the mountain make another landslide? Is the town still in danger? The local government attempted to fly a drone to look more closely at the source of the landslide to answer that question, but for some reason it couldn’t go high enough to be useful. We have good drones (thank you Matt Scott and Steve Mandel) so I did an inspection. I post the results here so that authorities, safety specialists, and community members can see what the upper parts of the landslide look like. We have no special knowledge about this; we are providing this data to the local community without interpretation.
Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga
On May 22 my friend John Burton passed away in the UK after a long and valiant battle against cancer. He and his wife Viv were the co-founders of the World Land Trust, one of the world’s most important conservation organizations. This is the organization that transformed Fundacion EcoMinga from a small organization with a few hundred acres of reserves to a landscape-level conservation foundation with many thousands of acres of protected forest. They similarly transformed dozens of other conservation foundations around the globe. We had just recently honored his work and that of his wife with a new frog named after them, Pristimantis burtoniorum.
John was a maverick and often questioned conventional wisdom. He had been particularly critical of mainstream global conservation organizations for their ineffectiveness. In the 1980s and 1990s these groups concentrated on important but indirect conservation efforts: education, training, capacity-building. All very valuable contributions, but slow to have an impact. Given the rapid rate of habitat destruction globally, John argued that more direct action was needed. His radical idea was to seek donations that would empower local partners to directly purchase or lease important habitat.
John’s and Vivian’s first big project aimed to protect 100000 acres of rain forest in Belize. They teamed up with a local organization, Programme for Belize, and they raised enough money for the local organization to buy the threatened forest. For the next thirty years John and Viv, and the WLT team which they assembled, went on to repeat this success over and over throughout the world. In each country, they worked with trusted local conservation partner organizations that were trying to conserve important and unique ecosystems. The local partner would own and manage the resulting protected area. It was a dynamic, world-changing idea. At last grassroots organizations all over the world gained the power to really save their countries’ endangered ecosystems, if they could make a strong enough case for their importance.
This was such an effective strategy that it inspired several other organizations around the world to use the same strategy of facilitating direct conservation via trusted partners. Some of these have also become our partners, like Rainforest Trust (once known as World Land Trust- US) and the IUCN-Netherlands.
John will be deeply missed by all of us. He is survived by his partner Viv, his daughter Lola, and the many organizations in around the world whose success he facilitated:
Some groups of animals just don’t get enough love. The little forest mice of the genus Chilomys are such a group. They are hardly ever seen, and they all look pretty much the same at first galnce. Taxonomists have not paid much attention to them, and all specimens of Chilomys from the northern Andes of South America were lazily classified into just one or two species (depending on the taxonomist). However, in recent years there have been suggestions that there may be more species of these little mice. It is hard to know for sure, though. If all we have are a few specimens, each from different locations, how can we know that subtle differences between them are not just due to geographical variation of a single species? And if we have two slightly different specimens from a single location, how do we know that the differences between them are not simply due to individual variation (like hair color in humans)?
In order to answer these questions, we need more information. We need to look at many different individuals in a single location, and we need to look at more locations. And we have to look at many different traits, not just one or two. Then we will be able to see if the individuals can be grouped into discrete groups, with no intermediate individuals between groups. That will indicate the groups probably represent good species; DNA evidence can then be used to confirm this conclusion. (Recall that a biological species is a population that can freely interbreed , but which rarely or never breed with other populations.)
A few years ago a team of scientists led by Jorge Brito began the difficult task of trying to figure out these questions for the small rodents of Ecuador, including Chilomys. I’ve written before about the new genus of mammal that he discovered in the course of this work. This week he finally published the results of his long study of the Chilomys mice. The new publication reports the discovery of at least five new species of Chilomys mice in Ecuador! Two of them are known only from our Dracula Reserve in northwest Ecuador (province of Carchi), while a third new species is more widespread and occurs in our Naturetrek-Viscaya Reserve in east-central Ecuador (Banos area, province of Tungurahua).
One of the new species from the Dracula Reserve was named Chilomys georgeledecii after the international conservationist George Ledec. It lives at a wide range of elevations, from 1500m to more than 2300m, and it is one of the smallest members of the genus in Ecuador. It lives in the same forests as the other new species from the Dracula Reserve, which was named C. carapazi after the Olympic bicycle racing gold-medalist Richard Carapaz, who is a native of Carchi province where the species was discovered. He is a hero in Ecuador, a role model and inspiraton, and everyone in Carchi looks up to him. Jorge Brito was very pleased to be able to honor him in this way. This species is the biggest member of the genus and it was found at an elevation of 2350m.
Another of the newly recognized species is C. percequilloi, named after a Brazilian mammologist. It lives from 1600m to over 4000m on the eastern slope of the Andes in Ecuador, including our Naturetrek-Viscaya Reserve. Two other species were also discovered, C. neisi from Zamora-Chinchipe and El Oro provinces in Ecuador at 2500-2900m, and C. weksleri from the west-central Andes of Ecuador from 1600-3200m.
DNA analysis performed by the authors shows that the genus Chilomys is a relatively young genus, less than 2.5 million years old, so the species described here are probably young species which evolved due to repeated Pleistocene isolation events driven by glacial cycles. This is similar to the time scales we see in Andean orchids, but much younger than some of the frog species we have discovered, as I will report shortly.
The previously-hidden diversity of these Chilomys mice is probably not unique. Other closely related genera (Neusticomys, Microryzomys, Oreoryzomys, Neomicroxus, etc) are also apparently far richer in species than we currently believe. Surely there will be more mammal discoveries to report here soon!
Jorge Brito’s work was made possible in part by donations to EcoMinga by Rainforest Trust and the University of Basel Botanical Gardens. Our reserve guards, especially Eduardo Pena and Fausto Recalde, worked closely with Jorge’s team in the field and helped prepare the specimens. Their salaries are paid by World Land Trust’s Keepers of the Wild porgram and Humans For Abundance.
Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga