This week: Workshop to establish the IUCN threat categories for Ecuadorian frogs

In order to focus conservation efforts on the most threatened species of amphibians, conservation entities around the world now use the threat categories and criteria developed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The IUCN keeps a global “Red List” of threatened species, based on these categories. It is important to periodically update the threat levels assigned to species whose populations have recently crashed due to habitat loss and introduced diseases, and it is also important to assign threat categories to the many new species described in the last few years.

To accomplish this task, 16 experts on Ecuadorian amphibians have gathered together today at Cabanas San Isidro. Over the next few days they will assign or update IUCN threat categories for 200 Ecuadorian amphibians. The experts are mostly from Ecuador, of course, but also include scientists from Colombia, Argentina, and Costa Rica. Our own reserve manager and herpetologist, Juan Pablo Reyes, is there to work on Andean species, including many that he discovered in and around our reserves. When the smoke clears and all these species have been assigned threat categories, I will post the categories assigned to our own species, and discuss actions we can take to protect other species newly identified as critically endangered.

Lou Jost
EcoMinga Foundation

New book on reptiles and amphibians of our reserves, plus a trip to our Rio Zunac Reserve

Cover of our new book.

Cover of our new book.


Our reserves were originally chosen to protect habitats of rare locally-endemic plants, especially orchids. These orchids evolved in response to unusual climates, geology, or history. The same factors could lead to the evolution of endemic species in some other groups of flora and fauna, including amphibians and reptiles (collectively known as herpetofauna or “herps”). Our reserve manager, Juan Pablo Reyes, is a herpetologist, and he and his colleagues at the Museo Ecuatoriano de Ciencias Naturales, led by Mario Yanez-Muñoz, have been studying the herps of EcoMinga’s reserves for several years. It turns out that the upper Rio Pastaza watershed, where our reserves are located, is indeed a very interesting place for herps, and they many new species! I’ll write about some of them in the future, but for now I just want to announce the publication of a new mostly-Spanish book on the reptiles and amphibians of our reserves and those of the Jocotoco Foundation (a foundation similar to EcoMinga but aimed at bird conservation). This book highlighting the conservation importance of private reserves, and also serves as a field guide to the herps of these reserves. It was financed by Nigel Simpson, one of our directors, and is published by the Museo Ecuatoriano de Ciencias Naturales and by the Jocotoco and EcoMinga Foundations. It consists of articles on the Jocotoco Foundation’s reserves, articles on the three oldest EcoMinga reserves, and species descriptions. It was released a few weeks ago, with many of Ecuador’s leading herpetologists in attendance.
Juan Pablo Reyes at the book launch, talking about the hard work and the excitement of herpetological explorations.

Juan Pablo Reyes at the book launch, talking about the hard work and the excitement of herpetological explorations.

The book has a forward kindly written by Sir David Attenborough:
“If you protect a patch of the natural world, you should know what lives in it. Your list may not be complete. There will always be surprises. But if you do not have it, how can you measure your success or failure in protecting that community? How can you appreciate the environmental shifts that are part of virtually all ecosystems and take the necessary actions? How can you guard against future dangers?

In some parts of the world making such a faunal list, while time-consuming, does not present too great a challenge for competent naturalists. In the English Midlands where I grew up, there were eleven species of amphibians and reptiles. But in Ecuador there are at least 822.

The numbers alone are daunting. When you add to that the wildness and inaccessibility of the places where the researchers had to work, from the bleak misty slopes of the paramo down to the warm humid rainforests of the Amazon basin, the magnitude of the task they faced becomes truly alarming.

This book lists the amphibians and reptiles that are found in eleven reserves belonging to Fundacion Jocotoco and three of the five on the eastern side of the Andes belonging to Fundacion Ecominga. A team from the Ecuadorian Museum of Natural Sciences over ten years has worked in them all, in some cases several times and often in difficult conditions. They have identified and described 339 species of which 20 are new to Ecuador and at least eight new to science.

This remarkable book is the fruit of all that labour. Its value is immense for it will make it possible to check on the welfare of the creatures it lists as the years pass and the threats to their survival continue to increase. And that sadly, is likely to happen for amphibians world-wide are endangered by the spread of a chytrid fungus which infects their porous skin, choking its surface through which the animals breathe.

It is to be hoped that this remarkable book will set an example for successive volumes that will survey all the other major groups of animals for which these Jocotoco and Ecominga reserves are such a valuable refuge. Its publication is truly a cause for great celebration and congratulation.” –David Attenborough

I’ve now had a chance to use the book, as I spent the last three days with herpetologist Sam Crothers and two other friends in the scientific station we have built in our 700 hectare Rio Zunac Reserve (more about our station in a later post). We were exhausted each night after hard all-day hikes in the mountains, but we had enough energy (just barely) to go out at night looking for frogs. This was the first time I’ve ever done that in these forests (I am a botanist, a mostly-diurnal occupation). The first thing we saw was a flattened, leaf-like toad which also happens to be one of the first amphibians in the herp book, Rhinella festae. This particular individual was lighter colored than the one in the book, but these are highly variable in color. According to the book, it had already been found by the authors in this reserve, and in our Rio Anzu Reserve. It has not yet been found in the Jocotoco Foundation reserves.

Rhinella festae. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Rhinella festae. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Next came a beautiful streamside frog that we could not find with certainty in the book. We had tracked it down by its call. After I returned from the trip, Juan Pablo identified the frog in the photo as Pristimantis acuminatus, which was in the book’s lists for the Rio Zunac Reserve, but not illustrated.

Pristimantis acuminatus. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Pristimantis acuminatus. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.


Then we heard a chorus of loud frogs dispersed over a wide area above a small shallow rocky stream only a few meters wide. It took us a while to localize one of them. It was sitting on a leaf that was directly below another leaf, so that the frog was invisible from above and could only be seen from the side. The next calling individual we tracked down was doing exactly the same thing. Once we realized that this was a characteristic habit of this species, it became easy to locate many individuals. The closest thing to it in the book was Hyloscirtus phyllognathus, which the authors had also found here. Juan Pablo later confirmed our ID.
Hyloscirtus phyllognathus calling between two leaves. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Hyloscirtus phyllognathus calling between two leaves. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.


Hyloscirtus phyllognathus

Hyloscirtus phyllognathus. Photo Lou Jost/EcoMinga.


One of the most exciting things about night hikes are all the weird arthropods that one never sees during the day. We found a gigantic arachnid that looked like a cross with a lobster, and some amazing cryptic phasmids (stick insects).
Monster arachnid. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Monster arachnid. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.


Rio Zunac phasmid. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Rio Zunac phasmid. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.


The stream was a busy place at night. We also found frog eggs, pollywogs, and even recently emerged frogs that still had tails. We also heard many other species of frogs, but we were so tired and sore from our daytime adventures that we could not stay awake any longer, so we returned to the station. Later I’ll write about the extraordinary plants we saw on those daytime hikes.
Freshly laid frog eggs in the Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Freshly laid frog eggs in the Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.


Recently emerged frog. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Recently emerged frog. Photo: Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

On our hike back to civilization, we saw one last frog, much like Pristimantis altamazonicus, though it was more dramatically colored than the individual illustrated in the book. Juan Pablo later identified it as P. ventrimarmoratus, listed for the Rio Zunac Reserve but not illustrated. It is another frog the authors have not yet found in the Jocotoco Foundation reserves.

Pristimantis ventrimarmoratus. Photo Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

Pristimantis ventrimarmoratus. Photo Lou Jost/EcoMinga.

The book, “Herpetofauna en areas prioritarias para la conservacion: El sistema de Reservas Jocotoco y EcoMinga“, is available from us for a donation of $20 or more, plus shipping costs from Ecuador. If in the US, please send the donation (check or Paypal) to our partner, the Orchid Conservation Alliance . The “Donate” PayPal button is on this webpage. Their mailing address is:

Peter Tobias
The Orchid Conservation Alliance
564 Arden Drive
Encinitas, CA 92024-4501
Telephone: 760-753-3173
It is important to let them (and me) know that this donation is for the EcoMinga herp book (they have many other projects going on), by writing to Peter Tobias (peter@orchidconservationalliance dot org). It would be good to let me know too by alerting me in the Comment section here or writing me at my gmail address (my first and last name, as one word, followed by gmail.com) . By the way, larger donations are gratefully accepted and much needed, and are tax-deductible. Make sure to earmark it for EcoMinga.

In Ecuador write Juan Pablo Reyes at foer2005(arroba)yahoo(dot)com or call him at 0998286903.

I’ll also maintain an “Errata and updates” page here on this blog.

Lou Jost
Banos, Tungurahua, Ecuador
www.loujost.com
www.ecominga.com

A caecilian biting off more than it can chew

Caecilian eating giant earthworm

A caecilian (legless amphibian) trying to eat a Giant Earthworm in our Rio Zunac Reserve. Photo: Luis and Fausto Recalde/ EcoMinga

Caecilians are poorly-known legless amphibians that live in wet forests (some species are aquatic). They are seldom encountered, and scientists do not even know what many of the species eat. Our forest guards are always walking around in the wet forests of our reserves, though, so they see some very unusual things which help fill in the gaps in our knowledge of cloud forest biology. In this case, our guards Luis and Fausto Recalde came upon this caecilian repeatedly biting a Giant Earthworm. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these earthworms, they can stretch out to be two to three feet long, and when they move underground in swampy soil, we can often hear the gurgling sounds they make as they pass through the muck. This particular Giant Earthworm is much too big for this little caecilian. Nevertheless it kept trying to eat this worm for the twenty minutes that our guards stayed to watch it.

Caecilians belong to an ancient lineage that split off from other amphibian lineages even before the frogs and salamanders began to diverge from each other. Jerry Coyne recently posted about these enigmatic creatures in his website, Why Evolution is True; there you can see some fancy, colorful  ones. Ours are always bluish like the one eating the worm. We actually see them often. Here is another individual:

Another caecilian. This one was in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve. Photo: Luis Recalde/ EcoMinga

Our frequent encounters suggest that caecilians are not rare but rather overlooked. My friend Harold Greeney, who has a biological station (Yanayacu) a few hours’ drive from our area, made an interesting observation that suggests the same thing. He made observations of the nest of a Barred Hawk (Leucopternis princeps, sometimes classified as Morphnarchus princeps). Most of the prey brought to the nest were caecilians!

Luis Recalde with a caecilian.