Andean toad, thought to be extinct in Ecuador, has just been rediscovered in our Dracula Reserve!


Rhaebo colomai, a critically endangered species of Andean toad. This is the first individual found in Ecuador since 1984. Photo: Carolina Reyes-Puig.

A few weeks ago, at a major herpetology conference in Ecuador, our reserve manager Juan Pablo Reyes presented his recent work. After the conference his sister, herpetologist Carolina Reyes Puig from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, led a group of herpetologists from the Natural History Museum of London (Jeffrey Streicher, Mark Wilkinson, Gabriela Bittencourt Silva, Simon Maddock), and the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (María Torres Sánchez)  on a field trip to our Dracula Reserve in northwestern Ecuador. The Natural History Museum group was primarily interested in caecilians, strange legless snakelike amphibians that are very poorly known.


A caecilian found by this group of scientists in the Dracula Reserve. Photo: Carolina Reyes-Puig.

While they were exploring our reserve mosaic, they found a fancy toad which Carolina immediately recognized as a species thought to be extinct in Ecuador, Rhaebo colomai! This species had been discovered near Chical, the town closest to our reserve, in 1983. It was last seen in Ecuador in 1984. Another population was discovered two years ago in nearby Colombia. It is classified as Critically Endangered in the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Here is an excerpt from a news item about this discovery, which just appeared in the Amphibian Survival Alliance newsletter:

An expedition in July 2017 found a small population in the Dracula Reserve, in the northwestern Andes of Ecuador. The expedition was carried out by scientists from the Laboratory of Terrestrial Zoology of University San Francisco de Quito USFQ, the Natural History Museum of London, and the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad INABIO.

“We found these little toads near streams of crystal clear water with lush surrounding vegetation. When we saw the first individual, we immediately knew that we were in front of a species thought extinct”, said Carolina Reyes-Puig, professor and researcher at University of San Francisco de Quito USFQ.

The Dracula Reserve is the only protected area in Ecuador that could maintain populations of this threatened species today. This reserve is managed by the Ecominga Foundation and is key for the conservation of not only amphibians but also other rare and threatened biodiversity, such as Dracula and Lepanthes orchids and Spectacled Bear.

This toad is the closest living relative of another “lost” species, Rhaebo olallai, which was rediscovered recently in our new Manduriacu Reserve. These discoveries are exciting news for conservation—they prove that the current mass extinctions affecting so many tropical amphibian species can sometimes leave pockets of survivors. If those pockets can be preserved, perhaps the species will survive. EcoMinga now protects the only known Ecuadorian habitats for both these Rhaebo species.


Rhaebo olollai from our Manduriacu Reserve. Photo: Ryan Lynch

We’d like to thank the School for International Training (SIT) for sponsoring Juan Pablo’s participation in the herpetology conference!

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation.




How to land a fixed-wing drone in a dense forest

Answer: Giant butterfly nets!

Ryan Lynch and Sebastian Kohn have been using an expensive fixed-wing drone, owned and operated by  Pablo Melo and Diego Andrade of Drone And GIS, to map our Manduriacu Reserve in exquisite detail. I’ll show some of those results later as they are processed and assembled. Fixed-wing drones can travel much farther than electric helicopter-drones. But there are some practical difficulties to this work. How do you land one of these fragile multi-thousand-dollar things in a forest full of trees? This is the technique that Pablo and Diego and Sebastian and Ryan used. So far it has worked.


The drone rides a mule to the launch site. Photo: Sebastian Kohn.


The small clearing around the Manduriacu cabin is big enough to launch the drone but not big enough, or flat enough, to land it. Photo: Sebastian Kohn.


Off it goes! Photo: Sebastian Kohn.


The drone takes detailed photos of the canopy. Courtesy Sebastian Kohn.

Thanks to Pablo Melo and Diego Andrade and their company, Drone And GIS, for their hard work to map this reserve.


More posts on the Manduriacu Reserve:

Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga

Jaguar returns to our Manduriacu Reserve

Jaguar rear end as it walks past Sebastian Kohn’s camera trap last month.

A few months ago Sebastian Kohn’s camera trap at Manduriacu Reserve in western Ecuador had a close brush with a jaguar– so close that all we could see were some blurred black spots on a light background. It happened at night so there was no color either. Was this jaguar just passing through or was it a resident? Was it a healthy animal? We couldn’t tell. But this new video provides evidence that jaguars are regularly using the Manduriacu Reserve, and this one looks quite healthy. It is probably eating the Collared Peccaries that Sebastian has frequently recorded in his camera traps, such as these (which I’ve posted before):


Though jaguars have a wide distribution in Latin America and are not yet globally endangered, they are one of the first animals to disappear with human impacts. Jaguars are killed directly buy humans, but humans also hunt the jaguar’s prey species to local extinction. Large predators such as jaguars need very large home ranges, so they are also severely affected by habitat fragmentation, as deforestation leaves isolated forest patches that are too small to support viable populations of predator and prey.

In western Ecuador deforestation is extreme. We often drive for hours through endless banana and oil palm plantations without ever seeing a patch of native vegetation. Almost all of the lowland rainforest in western Ecuador is gone, and much of the foothill and cloud forest is also gone or severely fragmented. Based on satellite imagery, scientists now estimate that 90% of the original natural vegetation of western Ecuador has been removed. The effect of this is catastrophic for a large predator like a jaguar.

A recent study surveyed the Machalilla National Park in western Ecuador and concluded that the jaguar has been extirpated there. The four largest forest patches remaining in western Ecuador were also recently surveyed for jaguars and White-Lipped Peccary, by Zapata-Rios et al (2013). They used camera traps, field work, and interviews with local people.  They only found evidence of jaguars in one of those four patches, the  Cotocachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve. The density of jaguars recorded was very low;hey only captured nine independent jaguar photos in 2500 trap-nights.  The authors conclude that “it appears both species [jaguars and White-lipped Peccaries] have been extirpated already in the other three large forest remnants in the region, and their long-term persistence depends on immediate conservation actions in the Cotocachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve.” Our Manduriacu Reserve borders this national reserve, and acts as  a forested corridor between it and Los Cedros Reserve.

We still need help to buy the core lot in this reserve, which is also the only known site in the world for the Tandayapa Andean Toad Rhaebo olallai; please write me (loujost at yahoo com) for more info.

Lou Jost, EcoMinga Foundation

Manduriacu Reserve from the air

In my last two posts (here and here) I discussed our new Manduriacu Reserve and its inhabitants. Today I present Sebastian Kohn’s drone video which shows the reserve from above. Note the high misty ridgeline in the background at around the 2:40 mark– the reserve extends to that ridgeline at around 2000m.

Thanks, Sebastian, for making this video!

Lou Jost

The pacarana (Dinomys branickii)

Surely the strangest animal of our new Manduriacu Reserve is the Pacarana (Dinomys branickii), the world’s third-largest rodent in terms of length (after the capybara and the beaver). It is almost a meter long and weighs up to 15 kg (more than 30 lbs). It is a rare, slow-moving nocturnal animal whose natural history was until very recently almost completely unknown. None of us has ever seen it, but several grainy infrared images captured by Sebastian’s camera traps prove its presence in Manduriacu.

It was first discovered in Peru in 1873, and immediately recognized as belonging to a new family of mammals never seen before. It had many odd features, such as four-toed paws rather than the usual five. No more individuals reached the scientific community (though surely many reached the cooking pots of local campesinos) until 1904, when a captive pair was given to a Brazilian zoo. In 1921 the first pacarana from Colombia was found and described as a distinct species (D. gigas); later, once the variation within populations was better understood, this form was lumped with the original D. branickii.

Captive animals turned out to be tame and affectionate. Karl Shuker notes that “…They actively seek out their human visitors to nuzzle them and rub themselves against their legs almost like cats, or even to be picked up and carried just like playful puppies.”

Nevertheless the scientific name of the genus comes from one of the same Greek words as the term “dinosaur”, which means “terrible (or terrifying) lizard”. “Dinomys” literally means “terrible mouse”! Before you laugh at this apparent oxymoron, though, let’s get some historical perspective on this guy’s relatives. Dinomys branickii is the sole survivor of an ancient and once very diverse family of South American rodents, the Dinomyidae, which split off from other rodent families about 17-21 million years ago. The family descended from a caviomorph rodent which probably drifted to South America from Africa 40 million years ago. (It is thought that the ancestor of all South American monkeys arrived from Africa the same way, at around the same time.) When these ancestral rodents got to South America, they found an island continent with many unfilled or inefficiently-filled ecological niches. They diversified to fill these niches, apparently out-competing many weird endemic South American mammals. They eventually evolved into several different rodent familes, including the Dinomyidae.

The living Pacarana (Dinomys branickii, below) and its extinct relative, Josephoartigasia monesi. Figure 3 from Rinderknecht and Blanco (2008).

The living Pacarana (Dinomys branickii, below) and its extinct relative, Josephoartigasia monesi. Figure 3 from Rinderknecht and Blanco (2008).

As the Dinomyidae diversified into new ecological niches, they also diversified in body size. The smallest of the fifty known fossil Dinomyidae species, Myoprocta, had a mass of only 1 kg. But most of the diversification wasa towards larger body sizes. Some of these “mice” had body sizes approaching those of hippopotamus, rhinoceros, and buffalo!!! “Terrible mouse” indeed! The largest Dinomyid, Josephoartigasia monesi, weighed about 1000 kg (one ton), the largest rodent that ever lived. Its front incisors were disproportionately huge, and may have been used to dig, or to fight. South America was full of buffalo-sized rats until continental drift linked it to Central America, introducing new forms that could in turn out-compete or eat these giants, just as the Dinomyids had outcompeted many of the earlier South American endemic mammals. The same wave of Central American newcomers (eventually including humans) also eliminated the giant ground sloths and many other strange endemic South American mammals and birds, probably helped along by a change to a drier climate.

As the Pleistocene ended, the only Dinomyid that survived all these changes was our unassuming Pacarana. It still has a large range, mostly on the eastern slopes of the Andes and adjacent Amazonia, with a narrow almost-disjunct population in the foothills on the west side of the Andes (where Manduriacu is located). Limited gene flow between the west and east populations, coupled with the different selective pressures on each side, may have led to genetic differentiation between them, but this has not yet been studied.

Pacarana range map, from IUCN Red List (

Even though the range is large, individuals are seldom seen, and they are hunted intensely for their meat. Their rate of reproduction is very slow compared to that of other rodents: its gestation period is 220-280 days, and it only bears one or two young at a time. This slow rate of reproduction means that even very light hunting pressure will exterminate it from an area.

Jorge Brito, expert in Ecuadorian mammals, reports that he once found a hunter with a Pacarana carcass in what is now our Dracula Reserve in western Ecuador near the Colombian border, so these animals once existed there. We have no evidence of their continued presence, though they might still be there somewhere. We have also not seen any Pacarana in our extensive camera trap surveys of our upper Rio Pastaza reserves, though Jorge Brito once caught a glimpse of one in nearby Parque Nacional Sangay. That is the only individual that Jorge ever saw, so this is a very rare and/or hard-to-detect mammal. Undoubtedly it has been eliminated near human settlements.

It may be useful to look for the animal’s scat and foraging damage. A study in Colombia by Carlos A. Saavedra-Rodríguez1, Gustavo H. Kattan, Karin Osbahr, and Juan Guillermo Hoyos (2012), Multiscale patterns of habitat and space use by the pacarana Dinomys branickii: factors limiting its distribution and abundance, in the journal Endangered Species Research vol 16:273–281, Supplementary Material, contains photos of these signs of Pacarana presence:

<img src="" alt="Pacarana foraging marks. From Supplementary Material, Carlos A. Saavedra-Rodríguez1, Gustavo H. Kattan, Karin Osbahr, and Juan Guillermo Hoyos (2012), Multiscale patterns of habitat and space use by the pacarana Dinomys branickii: factors limiting its distribution and abundance, in the journal Endangered Species Research, vol 16:273–281. Fair Use license. ” width=”584″ height=”373″ class=”size-full wp-image-2220″ /> Pacarana foraging marks. From Supplementary Material, Carlos A. Saavedra-Rodríguez1, Gustavo H. Kattan, Karin Osbahr, and Juan Guillermo Hoyos (2012), Multiscale patterns of habitat and space use by the pacarana Dinomys branickii: factors limiting its distribution and abundance, in the journal Endangered Species Research, vol 16:273–281. Fair Use license.

Since conservation resources are limited, global resource managers must always think carefully about which animals and ecosystems they should protect. One important criterion for protection is “evolutionary distinctiveness”. An animal that has no close living relatives carries many genes that are not found in any other animals, and may have unique biochemical and ecological traits, so it should have a higher conservation value than an animal with many close relatives. An ecosystem with such a phylogenetically distinct animal is more valuable than a community with the same number of species but less phylogenetic diversity. (My colleague Anne Chao and I have developed mathematical methods for quantifying the phylogenetic diversity of an ecosystem; see below for citation.) The pacarana, last survivor of the once terrible Dinomyidae, adds much to the conservation value of Manduriacu.

See this site for more information about the living species, and this one for some information about the extinct ones.

For the mathematics of diversity measures that incorporate phylogenetic diversity, see Chao, Chiu, and Jost 2010.

Lou Jost
Fundacion EcoMinga