Last month saw the publication of a new species of glass frog, Nymphargus manduriacu (Centrolenidae), discovered in EcoMinga’s Manduriacu Reserve, in Imbabura province northwest of Quito. Glass frogs are famous for their transparent belly skin; from below, depending on the species, you can often see structures such as their bones, the contours of their intestines, and even their hearts pumping away! Of the roughly 150 species of glass frogs in the New World tropics, the genus Nymphargus has about 36 known species, mostly very local endemics.
The new species was found and studied by a team of biologists from The Biodiversity Group, Fundacion Condor Andino, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, the Third Millenium Alliance, Tropical Herping, and Fundacion EcoMinga. Team members include Juan Guayasamin, Ross Maynard, Paul Hamilton, Scott Trageser, Jose Vieira, Sebastian Kohn, Gabriela Gavilanes, Ryan Lynch, and Diego Cisneros-Heredia.
The authors analyzed the new species’ DNA, along with that of many other glass frogs, and this analysis revealed that its closest relative is “lost species” Nymphargus balionotus, which previously had been tentatively placed in the glass frog genus Centrolenella. Nymphargus balionotus had not been seen anywhere for the last fifteen years, but this team of scientists found healthy populations of both N. manduriacu and N. balionotus living together at Manduriacu. The genetic divergence between these two sister species is considerably greater than the divergence between most sister-species pairs in the genus; the N. manduriacu and N. balionotus lineages each contains more unique evolutionary history than all but two of the other Nymphargas species analyzed. This makes N. manduriacu and N. balionotus especially important species for conservation of phylogenetic diversity, and our Manduriacu Reserve maintains the only known breeding populations of these two species.
The “family history” constructed by the authors based on their DNA sequences gives some clues about how the different Nymphargus species evolved. The authors noted that on the eastern slope of the Andes, most of the species evolved by geographical isolation. On that slope, sister species are usually geographic neighbors, and the distributions of sister species usually do not overlap. In contrast, on the west slope of the Andes, sister species can overlap, as N. manduriacu does with N. balionotus. Apart from N. balionotus, the other two species most closely related to N. manduriacu are actually from the east slope of the Andes in southeast Ecuador and Peru; this sub-group of glass frogs is an ancient one, and N. manduriacu is one of its few surviving lineages.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Ecuadorian government has concessioned almost the entire Manduriacu Reserve to Cerro Quebrado, the Ecuadorian arm of the world’s largest mining company, BHP Billiton, without our consent or that of the previous owners. (In Ecuador the government owns all subsoil rights and can concession them to whoever it wants, though its constitution recognizes the rights of nature and gives local communities a voice about land use.) The goal of this company is probably to mine copper here, in an open-pit mine similar to the one proposed for nearby Intag. Intag has been the scene of an intense conflict between members of the community and the mining interests, as documented in the film “Under Rich Earth”. Something similar may happen in and around Manduriacu Reserve. BHP Billiton is one of the mining companies responsible for one of Brazil’s biggest environmental disasters:
We cannot and should not oppose all mining. We use copper just like everyone else, and the people of the region do need jobs. But neither should open-pit mines be dug indiscriminately in the region; the long-term consequences of such mining can be serious. A reasonable balance would be to avoid affecting the region’s privately and publicly protected ecological reserves, especially when those reserves contain unique species not found anywhere else in the world. Our Manduriacu Reserve is now the only known home not only for the Manduriacu Glass Frog and its sister species N. balionotus, but also for another amphibian, Rhaebo ollalai, the Tandayapa Andean Toad, which still survives in our reserve but has become extinct everywhere else in its former range. Nearby Los Cedros Reserve is also concessioned for mining and likewise holds unique species. A recent scientific paper explores the potential impact of mining on the biodiversity of this area. The paper did not specifically study Manduriacu, but the authors found that the impact of mining on the region’s biodiversity would be devastating. Inclusion of Manduriacu’s unique species would have substantially strengthened the paper’s conclusions.
The mining company involved in our Reserve, Cerro Quebrado/BHP Billiton, has entered our reserve and made campsites without our permission, contrary to Ecuadorian law. Bitty Roy, lead author of the scientific paper just mentioned, has talked with a manager of BHP Billiton about their plans for the region. The manager claimed that the company had written permission to enter our land, though EcoMinga had not been asked about nor given this permission. We suspect the local company representatives either misidentified the ownership or misled their superiors.
After these conversations with a manager of BHP Billiton, Dr Roy reports that the company is unlikely to respect private conservation areas or even state-protected forests (such as Bosque Protectores) apart from the National Park system, since the state which sets the rules for protection is also the entity that gave them the mining concession to those areas. The company was also unaware of the sensitivity and conservation importance of Manduriacu. Their corporate operating guidelines state “We do not operate where there is a risk of direct impacts to ecosystems that could result in the extinction of an IUCN Red List Threatened Species in the wild.” When the concession was granted, the threat level of the most endangered Manduriacu species, the Tandayapa Andean Toad (Rhaebo olallai), was not officially evaluated by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Like many poorly-known species, it was listed as “Data Deficient”, meaning there was not enough information to assess its status. It had been discovered near Tandayapa, about 30km south of Manduriacu, but it has disappeared from there, perhaps eliminated by the frog-killing chytrid fungus that has swept Central and South America beginning in the 1980s. No additional individuals were found for the next 40 years, until a healthy population was discovered in Manduriacu in 2012. Now, after 40 years of failure to find it anywhere outside of Manduriacu Reserve, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has officially listed the species as “Critically Endangered”, the highest threat category. Dr Roy noted that the company’s management told him that the presence of critically-endangered species would be a reason for not mining the area, so perhaps they will follow their own directives and leave us alone. Manduriacu also hosts Ecuador’s most critically endangered mammal, the Brown-headed Spider Monkey.
The discovery of the Manduriacu Glass Frog, and the threat that mining poses to its future survival, has been widely covered in the media. See for example:
The Ecuadorian and international conservation community will continue to monitor and publicize the fate of this frog and the other endangered species of the region. Dr. Roy says that the corporate manager he spoke with has decided not to mine the nearby Los Cedros Reserve, because of the presence of critically endangered species. We hope that BHP Billiton will do the right thing and avoid our Manduriacu Reserve (which is small compared to Los Cedros) for the same reason.
Many thanks to the team that investigated our reserve and contributed their wonderful photos to this blog, and to the supporters of this reserve!
Lou Jost, Fundacion EcoMinga