A “lost” toad rediscovered: We join the effort to protect Rhaebo olallai

Fig. 4. Andinophryne ollalai
Juvenile Rhaebo olallai, a “lost” amphibian recently rediscovered after a 43 year disappearance. Photo by one of the rediscoverers, Ryan Lynch.

In my last post I wrote about the amphibian experts who had secluded themselves in a remote cloud forest lodge, San Isidro, in order to work on updating the IUCN Red List status of 200 Ecuadorian frog species. They have finished their task, but the proposed threat categories for each species still need to be reviewed by other specialists. The categories assigned to each species will only become official after this review.

Nevertheless for some species, conservation can’t wait, and I will write a few posts here about some species that we believe are likely to be officially classified as Endangered or Critically Endangered, and which require urgent conservation action.

Andinophryne ollalai
Another view of Rhaebo olallai, the Tandayapa Andean Toad. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

One of the most dramatic frog conservation stories involves the Tanadayapa Andean Toad, Rhaebo (formerly Andinophryne) olallai. This species was first discovered in 1970 near the town of Tandayapa about 50 kms west of Quito, but then it disappeared. The area has become a very popular ecotourism destination and is often visited by scientists, so its disappearance from the area seems to be real and not the result of lack of searching. In fact the area was searched multiple times by trained herpetologists looking specifically for this toad, for a total of at least 150 hours of search effort, without success. Another Ecuadorian member of the genus, R. colomai, also disappeared shortly after its discovery, and the current IUCN Red List notes that R. colomai may be extinct.

In 2012 biologists Ryan Lynch and Sebastian Kohn (whose parents are EcoMinga board members) were surveying the forest of Manduriacu, 40 kms north of the site where R. olallai had been discovered forty-three years earlier. They were surprised to find an unusual fancy toad during their night walks, and immediately realized this was something special. Upon investigation they realized that they had rediscovered R olallai! And not just a few individuals. They eventually found large numbers of them, in all age categories. Their photos were the first ones ever published of live individuals. They also were the first humans to see the fancy color pattern of the juveniles, as shown in Ryan’s photos at the top of this post. As they mature they lose their pattern, as shown in the photo below. These dramatic color changes are not found in most other species of the genus.

Andinophryne ollalai
Adult Rhaebo olallai. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

The rediscovery was described in a scientific article, and also in article for the Amphibian Survival Alliance. The latter article explains the conservation situation of this toad:

Its scarcity earned the species a spot on the World’s “Lost Frogs” List by Conservation International. “This is a truly exciting and important rediscovery,” stated Dr. Robin Moore who launched the Global search for Lost Frogs, adding “In order to prioritize what and where to protect, it is imperative to know whether rare species such as this still exist. Hopefully this remarkable find will lead to some concrete conservation actions to ensure the species stays off the Lost Frogs List.”…

The article continues:

The region surrounding Manduriacu has received attention by conservationists in recent years due to the expansion of hydroelectric, mining, and logging activities, all of which could threaten the well-being and survival of unknown numbers of rare and endangered species such the Tandayapa Andean Toad in the region. “The last time we visited the property we encountered a freshly clear-cut plot of land less than a kilometer from the rediscovery site, which is home to the only currently known population of the species” stated Lynch, adding “so land preservation in the region can’t come quick enough.”

Santiago R. Ron from Museo de Zoología QCAZ, Universidad Católica del Ecuador, who oversees ongoing population studies of Andinophryne [Note added by LJ: that genus is now included in Rhaebo] in Ecuador stated “The discovery of the Tandayapa Andean Toad in Manduriyacu demonstrates that the forests have unique properties and, presumably, unique communities”, adding “so the study and conservation of this area should be considered a priority for both the Ecuadorian government and the international conservation community.” In addition to the Tandayapa Andean Toad, four threatened amphibian species have been recorded in Manduriacu…

Fig. 1. Manduriyacu Location
Map of Manduriacu.


The habitat of Rhaebo olallai in Manduriacu. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

One of the other threatened amphibian species of Manduriacu is the Darwin-Wallace Poison Dart Frog, Epipedobates darwinwallacei, recently described by Diego Cisneros-Heredia and EcoMinga director Mario Yanez. It is endemic to foothill forests just west of Quito, in Pichincha, Santo Domingo, and Cotopaxi provinces. Poison dart frogs are unusual among frogs for the care they give to their offspring; the adults sometimes carry their tadpoles on their backs to put them in new pools of water in the canopy, often bromeliad crowns. Females of some species visit these pools and lay infertile eggs in them to feed their offspring. The first photo below shows an adult carrying tadpoles.

Another rare and local endemic is Lepidoblepharis conolepis, restricted to Pichincha and Cotopaxi provinces:

Lepidoblepharis conolepis
Lepidoblepharis conolepis. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Some other reptiles and amphibians of Manduriacu, all from Ryan Lynch’s website:

Anolis gemmosus
Anolis gemmosus. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Anolis aequatorialis
Anolis aequatorialis. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Pristimantis muricatus
Pristimantis muricatus. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Diaphorolepis wagneri
Diaphorolepis wagneri. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Centrolene peristictum
Centrolene peristictum. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Espadarana prosoblepon
Espadarana prosoblepon. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Hyloscirtus cf. alytolylax
Hyloscirtus cf alytolylax. Note that this species is hiding under a leaf while calling, exactly like the Hyloscirtus I had photographed in our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Pristimantis scolodiscus
Pristimantis scolodiscus. Photo: Ryan Lynch.

Since this is the only known place in the world where the Tandayapa Andean Toad exists, and since other very rare species are also present there, clearly this threatened forest should be preserved. Sebastian Kohn has long been committed to conserving this forest, and he was able to buy several lots in the Manduriacu watershed where the toad lives. These lots total 969 acres and range in elevation from 1100 to 2100m. He enrolled these properties in the Ecuadorian government’s SocioBosque program, which pays the owner to conserve the forest. Sebastian uses all of the annual government payment to fund the salary of a permanent forest guard, who happens to also be the president of the local community.

Shortly after they rediscovered the toad, Ryan and Sebastian approached us for help in protecting this watershed, and we agreed. The Manduriacu lots protected by Sebastian are now under our control. Sebastian has turned them over to us to manage, and will give us all the money he receives from the SocioBosque program, to pay our costs for that management, so that there is no cost to us. In addition he has generously agreed to donate all of his land to EcoMinga when his SocioBosque contract ends. (We do not want him not to donate it to us now, because that would cut off the SocioBosque management money; the SocioBosque program applies only to individuals and communities, not to foundations.) So we are proud to announce that Manduriacu becomes EcoMinga’s newest reserve, with Sebastian’s original purchases as its core!

However, there is still a 325 acre property in the middle of this watershed that has not been bought. It splits our protected forest in half. EcoMinga has still not been able to find all the funding for this purchase. We have promises of about $10,000 but need another $63,000 for the lot. (We may be able to buy it with less money if we can find an entity that would match the donated funds; we have sometimes been able to do this in the past.) This property contains excellent primary forest and lots of wildlife, including big cats, peccaries, and much else. The highest parts, at 2000m elevation, have not yet been explored but should contain a very high diversity of Dracula orchid species (and these would mostly be different species from those in our Dracula Reserve, which is much farther north near the Colombian border). If there are any US readers who would like to help us with this purchase, the Orchid Conservation Alliance can accept donations and give tax deductions. Please specify that your donation should go to EcoMinga/Manduriacu, and also write me to let me know.

Note added July 28 2016: Something seems to be wrong with the Orchid Conservation Alliance Paypal button; it will be better to send a check directly to them and write an email to the president, Peter Tobias, with copy to me, advising him that the donation is for EcoMinga/Manduriacu:
Peter Tobias, President
Orchid Conservation Alliance
564 Arden Drive
Encinitas, CA 92024
USA
Thanks Jim Knight for bringing the problem to my attention.

The Manduriacu forest contains important mammals like the Brown-headed Spider Monkey, listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, and many other species. Below is a herd of Collared Peccaries (Pecari tajacu) eating its way through the Manduriacu undergrowth at night:

and a Brocket Deer (Mazama species):

And here is a potential predator of the peccaries and deer, a Puma (Felis concolor):

There is also evidence that jaguars use the forest, including this camera-trap photo:

Apparently a Jaguar (Panthera onca) passing close to Sebastian's camera trap in Manduriacu.

Apparently a Jaguar (Panthera onca) passing close to Sebastian’s camera trap in Manduriacu.

But the weirdest animal of all is the Pacarana (Dinomys branickii), which will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

For more inspiration see all of Ryan Lynch’s beautiful photos of the reptiles and amphibians of Manduriacu Reserve:
http://ryanlynch.zenfolio.com/manduriacu

More info on Ecuador’s amphibians:
Amphibians of Ecuador, Universidad Catolica de Quito: http://zoologia.puce.edu.ec/Vertebrados/Anfibios/AnfibiosEcuador/Default.aspx

Lou Jost
Fundacion EcoMinga

Recently-described snake shows up in my bedroom

In 2008 a team of Ecuadorian and international herpetologists stopped to eat at Dona Marcia Pacheco’s roadside grilled-chicken restaurant in southeast Ecuador. The ever-vigilant herpetologists noticed a strange banded snake in a jar of alcohol in the restaurant. It was a distinctive species that none of them had ever seen before. Their scientific article explains: “After negotiating with the owner of the restaurant, the specimen was acquired and later determined to be a species of Siphlophis. However, it could not be keyed out to any known species. During a second joint herpetofaunal survey by the MECN [Museo Ecuatoriano de Ciencias Naturales] and the ARDRC-UTA [University of Texas- Arlington] of the upper Pastaza River drainage in March 2008, a second specimen was found alive at El Topo, in the province of Tungurahua.” El Topo is the community at the entrance to our Rio Zunac Reserve.

Siphlophis ayauma. Photo: Omar Torres-Carvajal, FaunaWebEcuador, bajo licencia CC (BY-NC 3.0).

Siphlophis ayauma. Photo: Omar Torres-Carvajal, FaunaWebEcuador, bajo licencia CC (BY-NC 3.0).

The species was published scientifically in 2014 and named Siphlophus ayauma. A few examples were later found in other places, always in the eastern Andes of the provinces of Tungurahua, Morona-Santiago, and Zamora in southeast Ecuador. Our herpetologist and reserve manager, Juan Pablo Reyes, sent me the article and said that this species might even occur where I live, above Banos in Tungurahua province.

A few evenings ago when I entered my bedroom I saw a long slender snake slowly moving on the floor. Since it looked vaguely like a coral snake, I was cautious, and carefully caught it without touching it. I put it in a plant pot to photograph, and sent the photos to Juan Pablo. He told me that it was in fact this newly-described Siphlophis ayauma!! Quite an exciting thing to find in my house…

Siphlophis ayauma, a recently-described species endemic to the eastern Andes of southeast Ecuador. This is the individual I captured in my bedroom. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Siphlophis ayauma, a recently-described species endemic to the eastern Andes of southeast Ecuador. This is the individual I captured in my bedroom. Click to enlarge. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

References

Coleman M. Sheehy III, Mario H. Yánez-Muñoz, Jorge H. Valencia, Eric N. Smith (2014). A New Species of Siphlophis (Serpentes: Dipsadidae: Xenodontinae) from the Eastern Andean Slopes of Ecuador. South American Journal of Herpetology 9: 30-45.

Lou Jost

Undergraduate student projects in our reserves: Alex Bentley studying the pit viper Bothrocophias micropthalmus


Every semester for many years, we have hosted undergraduate students doing independent study projects for a study-abroad program run by the School for International Training in Quito. This year we had six students, each doing independent study projects lasting about two weeks. They are assisted in the field by our reserve guards Santiago, Luis, Fausto, and Jesus Recalde, and they usually stay with families in the commmunities around our reserves. It is a nice way to integrate the reserves with the surrounding communities. Students really enjoy the experience, and their studies are often useful to us for conservation planning. Sometimes they even discover new things!

This semester’s students are finishing up their reports now. I will post excerpts from a few of the more photogenic projects here in the following weeks (and I hope to go back and write about some of the nice projects of past students as well, as time permits).

Alex Bentley is intensely interested in herpetology, so he chose to study our impressive pit viper, Bothrocophias micropthalmus. I’ve written about this snake previously here, here, and here. Alex told me that as he looked for internet data on this snake, my blog posts were almost the only field observations he could find. So clearly there was a need to do more.

Alex spent his time in the Rio Anzu area, where we have a reserve at 1100m-1200m. He stayed much of the time at a nearby Rio Anzu reserve, Sumak Causay, which has a cooperative agreement with us. He found plenty of Bothrocophias in his two weeks. I’ll wait for his paper to write more about his actual study, but for now I just want to put up some of his beautiful photos of our area’s reptiles and amphibians.

Today will be Lizard Day.

Enyalioides praestabilis near the Rio Anzu. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.

Enyalioides praestabilis near the Rio Anzu. Photo: Santiago Recalde/EcoMinga.


Enyalioides praestabilis again. Photo: Alex Bentley.

Enyalioides praestabilis again. Photo: Alex Bentley.


Lizard near Rio Anzu. Photo: Alex Bentley.

Lizard near Rio Anzu. Photo: Alex Bentley.


Closer view of the previous lizard. Photo: Alex Bentley.

Closer view of the previous lizard. Photo: Alex Bentley.


Sleeping lizard near Rio Anzu. Photo: Alex Bentley.

Sleeping lizard near Rio Anzu. Photo: Alex Bentley.


Potamites ecleopus near the Rio Anzu. Photo: Alex Bentley.

Potamites ecleopus near the Rio Anzu. Photo: Alex Bentley.

Spectacled Bear and Ocelot videos from our new Dracula Reserve! Plus Brown-headed Spider Monkeys!!

The latest purchase for our Dracula Reserve, a forest with some giant old Podocarpus trees like the one pictured here. The featured mammal videos were taken in this parcel. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The latest parcel purchased for our Dracula Reserve, a forest with some giant old Podocarpus trees. The featured mammal videos were taken in this parcel. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

We have been quietly negotiating the purchase of a mosaic of cloud forest parcels in the Choco bioregion of northwest Ecuador near the Colombian border, southwest of the frontier town of Chical. This area is a center of diversity and endemism for the strange orchid genus Dracula, whose flowers often imitate mushrooms to attract their fungus gnat pollinators. It is also home to many other strange locally endemic plant species. There are no national parks in this region at these critical middle elevations, so private protection is the only option. I will write much more about the special plants of this area in future posts. Today I just want to share two mammal videos made last week by camera traps placed in our newest parcel, a forest of large Podocarpus trees (a tropical American broad-leaved conifer) at about 2200m elevation.

The first video was made by our reserve manager, Juan Pablo Reyes, and our new Dracula Reserve warden, Hector Yela. It is of a big male Spectacled Bear (Tremarctos ornatus) marking his territory by rubbing his back on a special repeatedly-used tree. Juan Pablo and Hector are good at recognizing these trees, and Juan Pablo has successfully filmed this behavior several times in our Banos-area reserves; I posted a Banos-area video of a back-scratching bear here, and posted more information about this species here. But today’s video is clearer than that earlier one. This bear shakes himself to dry after rubbing on his tree, like a wet dog.

The second video, taken from exactly the same spot, is of an ocelot (Leopardus pardalis). We saw tracks of this animal a few months ago when we were checking out this property for purchase, but of course these cats are hardly ever seen by humans. Camera traps are the only way to observe them reliably.

This camera trap is courtesy of the PCTA (Proyecto Conservacion del Tapir Andino) and Fundacion Oscar Efren Reyes; thanks!!

The former owner of this parcel told us that he had also seen spider monkeys here. These would be the critically endangered endemic subspecies known as the Brown-headed Spider Monkey (Ateles fusciceps fusciceps).

Brown-headed Spider Monkey from Canande, a Jocotoco Foundation reserve at much lower elevation than our Dracula Reserve. Photo taken by one of EcoMinga's directors, Nigel Simpson.

Brown-headed Spider Monkey from Canande, a Jocotoco Foundation reserve at much lower elevation than our Dracula Reserve. Photo taken by one of EcoMinga’s directors, Nigel Simpson.


Recently my friend Marc Dragiewicz and his wife Denise managed to film this subspecies at a lower-elevation reserve (Itapoa) dedicated to protecting them. Here is an amazing leap, characteristic of this most agile of all New World monkeys.

It is very exciting to see the richness of the mammal life here!

Also last week, while EcoMinga’s Javier Robayo was investigating properties in the area, he found this magnificent snake on the road. This turned out to be a very rare species, Liophis vitti, previously known from only a few examples from a small area in northwest Ecuador and western Colombia.

Rare snake, Liophis vitti. Photo: Javier Robayo/EcoMinga.

Rare snake, Liophis vitti. Photo: Javier Robayo/EcoMinga.

We look forward to discovering more about the animal and plant life of this extraordinary mosaic! These purchases were initiated in a joint project with the University of Basel Botanical Garden, and continue with the help of the Rainforest Trust, the Orchid Conservation Alliance, the Quito Orchid Society, and some very generous individual donations. Special thanks to Vera Lee Rao, Steven K. Beckendorf and Cynthia L. Hill, Anne Chao, Mark Wilson, Max Annen, Susann Ziegler, Eric Veach, and Luanne Lemmer. The donors to the University of Basel Botanical Garden are listed on their site.

Recently-described Dracula trigonopetala, only known from this immediate area. Note the central modified petal which imitates a mushroom with gills. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Recently-described Dracula trigonopetala, only known from this immediate area. Note the central modified petal which imitates a mushroom with gills. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Lou Jost

Snake relocation

For at least the last three weeks (and probably much longer, without our noticing it) we’ve had a deadly pit viper, Bothrocophias microphthalmus, living next to the entrance trail to our Rio Zunac Reserve. I wrote about him here and here (with video). The venom of this pit viper is especially dangerous, according to the herpetological literature and the Venomous Animals Database. Because this individual hadn’t moved from this heavily-used trail in three weeks, we became concerned that a possibly fatal accident was likely. So yesterday we reluctantly decided to move it to a place not visited by humans. Today we did it.

How to move a deadly snake without risking our own lives? Juan Pablo Reyes, our reserve manager, is a herpetologist with lots of experience handling snakes, though they almost all had been non-venomous species. He had two snake hooks at home. He would be the snake handler. Our reserve guard, Fausto Recalde, and I would be his assistants. We took a 4 inch diameter, 2 meter long plastic water pipe to put the snake in; this was so long that it would be impossible for the snake to strike the hand that closed the tube after the snake was inside. I brought a portable hand-pumped watering device which I use to care for my orchids; my plan was to make the snake think it was raining, so that it would calmly uncoil from its strike position and head for its shelter log (which I had found when I made my video of the snake a few days ago). I also thought cold water might make the snake more lethargic and easier to handle. I also brought a “shield” of polycarbonate greenhouse plastic to protect our legs, and an aluminum tube to help manipulate the snake from a safe distance.

The snake was waiting for us in its usual spot. Photo: Fausto Recalde/EcoMinga.

The snake was waiting for us in its usual spot. Photo: Fausto Recalde/EcoMinga.

I found the snake immediately in its usual spot, coiled and ready to strike. It hadn’t moved more than two meters from its trailside nest in the last three weeks. Plan A was to see if we could persuade the snake go into our plastic tube by itself, to shelter from the rain I would make. Fausto laid the pipe’s entrance near the snake’s head. I filled my watering sprayer with cold water from the nearby stream and started spraying water on the coiled snake. After quite a long time, the snake began to calmly uncoil as I’d hoped it would, but it didn’t go into the pipe. That would have been too easy.

The snake uncoils and begins to move towards us. Time to put the camera away and concentrate on the task. Photo: Fausto Recalde/EcoMinga.

The snake uncoils and begins to move towards us. Time to put the camera away and concentrate on the task. Photo: Fausto Recalde/EcoMinga.

Onto Plan B. With my legs protected by the bicarbonate shield, I kept spraying water on the snake, which made it want to go towards its nest. Fausto moved the tube to anticipate the snake’s movements, though we were hampered by a barb-wire fence. Juan Pablo tried to direct the snake into the plastic tube, but that didn’t work and the snake retreated to a difficult spot. While it sat there I used the aluminum tube and some duct tape to extend Juan Pablo’s snake hook, so he could stay at a safer distance. I then gave the snake more cold water until it once again headed for its nest. Several times Juan Pablo managed to work the snake hook under the snake and pick it up briefly, but not for long enough to get the snake into the tube. By then the snake was in the path, crossing to the other side which had lots of hiding places that would make things harder for us. I blocked it with the polycarbonate shield, and Juan Pablo was able to lift the heavy snake for longer periods, while Fausto kept maneuvering the plastic tube’s mouth to keep it under the suspended snake. We failed a few more times; sometimes the snake’s head went into the tube, but the body was powerful and it would emerge again before the tail got in. Finally it slid in, and I capped the tube and taped it shut with duct tape. We’d done it! Just then a group of schoolchildren walked by quickly on their way out of the forest. We didn’t say anything. They had no idea that on their way in, they had been within a meter or two (perhaps much less) of this pit viper.

The snake is in the tube! Fausto Recalde, the tube handler, is at left; Juan Pablo Reyes, the snake handler, is at right. The plastic shield is at bottom left, the water sprayer at bottom right. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The snake is in the tube! Fausto Recalde, the tube handler, is at left; Juan Pablo Reyes, the snake handler, is at right. The plastic shield is at bottom left, the water sprayer at bottom right. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

We were very pleased that neither us nor the snake nor anybody else had been hurt. The snake had been amazingly docile during the whole process (as it had been on Dec 11 when it didn’t react at all as I nearly stepped on it). Not once did it strike at us, though there were times when its neck was tensed into its ready-to-strike position.

We rather proudly carried our snake-in-a-tube into town. Fausto made an interesting observation as he carried the tube: he could feel the warmth of the snake through the tube! We all felt it, and it was quite warm, much warmer than ambient temperature. There had been very little sun either, at least while we were there (in fact it was raining hard by the time we finished). It was a surprise to feel that much warmth coming from the snake.

Snake-in-a-tube!  This is the tail end of our Bothrocophias microphhalmus pit viper, safely inside a PVC tube for transport to an unpopulated area. We had put the dead leaves in the tube beforehand to cushion the snake a bit. Photo: Juan Pablo Reyes/EcoMinga.

Snake-in-a-tube! This is the tail end of our Bothrocophias microphhalmus pit viper, safely inside a PVC tube for transport to an unpopulated area. We had put the dead leaves in the tube beforehand to cushion the snake a bit. Photo: Juan Pablo Reyes/EcoMinga.

We drove the snake to a remote spot far from people and trails, and let it out of the tube. It was very lethargic at first, and we worried we had hurt it. But after a few seconds it slithered off to its new home, where it will live out its life in peace.

Lou Jost
www.loujost.com
www.ecominga.com

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