“I can’t tell you how special it is to hold something we never thought we’d see again.” Michigan State University doctoral student Kyle Jaynes said after a trip to South America to look for harlequin frogs.
Jaynes, a member of MSU’s Department of Integrative Biology and ecology, evolution, and behavior program, was part of a team that helped resurrect as many as 32 species of harlequin frogs, at least academically.
The team, through a combination of literature review and fieldwork, showed that some of the colorful, patterned, and variegated Neotropical species, which once ranged throughout the Ecuadorian Andes range but have in recent decades become thought they were extinct, they still survive in the wild. .
It’s a story below the frog, as Matt Davenport said in an MSU Today article. The team’s findings are presented in a new study published in the journal Biological Conservation.
Since the 1980s, a pathogenic fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis has killed members of more than 500 amphibian species, according to a recent estimate. It has been characterized as a National Geographic Apocalypse.
The fungus has decimated populations around the world for about 40 years, driving many species to extinction. The harlequin frog genus has been exceptionally affected and experts believed that more than 80% of its species became extinct, Davenport reports.
However, at the beginning of the 21st century, people began to detect species that had been missing, some for decades. The reports became more frequent as time went on, but the sightings were being recorded as individual incidents.
In 2019, Jaynes won a prize of $8,770 for one year. National Geographic Society grant that enabled him to piece together disparate reports to provide a fuller account of the state of the frogs, which he, Sarah Fitzpatrick, assistant professor at the Faculty of Natural Sciences based at the WK Kellogg Biological Stationand his colleagues in Ecuador have done so.
The grant also enabled MSU researchers to travel to five different sites in Ecuador in late 2019 and spring 2020 to search for rediscovered frogs in a variety of habitats. Fitzpatrick described the first discovery of a harlequin frog in the field as “very dramatic.”
“We were all spread out across this field, but no one thought we were going to see this frog,” he said. “Then one of our collaborators started yelling in Spanish: ‘I found one!’”
When the researchers found a frog, the team collected saliva samples for genetic studies.
“If you’ve ever done an ancestry test that uses your saliva, that’s the idea,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s like 23andMe for frogs.”
They also took samples of their skin to see what microbes, including Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, were living on them.
Jaynes said experts didn’t believe frogs existed a decade ago. They now have your DNA samples, providing invaluable information.
By examining the DNA, the team found that species that had been missing and thought to be extinct for the longest had less genetic diversity than frogs that disappeared more recently. Low genetic diversity could indicate that a species is more susceptible to future stressors, such as a new strain of the fungus, climate change or habitat loss, Davenport reported.
The information is needed to develop strategies to conserve and protect the rediscovered species, but researchers still need to collect much more information, Jaynes and Fitzpatrick said.
This research provides some hope for amphibians. But the researchers also hope it will create a sense of urgency around conserving rediscovered species that are still critically endangered. Rediscovery does not equal recovery, Jaynes said.
“This story is not over for these frogs, and we are not where we want to be in terms of conservation and protection,” he said. “We still have a lot to learn and a lot to do.”