Mozart and ventriloquial frogs sound a note of hope and warning for Haiti’s recovery

12 January 2011 | International news release

As the people of Haiti mark a painful anniversary this week and slowly rebuild their earthquake-torn country, scientists from Conservation International (CI) and the IUCN Amphibian Specialist Group (ASG) report news they hope might become a source of pride and hope for the country’s environmental future: the surprising re-discovery of six species of globally unique frogs in the country’s severely degraded tropical forests, which had been lost to science for nearly two decades.

Inspired by Conservation International’s global search for “lost frogs”, the announcement follows an expedition to the remote mountains of southwest Haiti last October, led by CI’s Amphibian Conservation Specialist Dr. Robin Moore in partnership with Dr. Blair Hedges of Pennsylvania State University. Their goal was to search for the long-lost La Selle Grass frog (E. glanduliferoides) which had not been seen for more than 25 years, as well as assess the status of many of Haiti’s 48 other native species of amphibians, many of which depend on the country’s shrinking mountain regions - Massif de la Hotte in the southwest and Massif de la Selle in the southeast.

While the missing frog continued to evade scientists, the team reported six other species of amphibian re-discoveries that had not been seen for nearly two decades, including: a whistling frog named after composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; a burrowing frog with huge jet-black eyes and vivid orange markings on its hind legs; an elusive ventriloqiual frog that has the ability to ‘throw’ its voice to confuse potential predators; and a speckled frog with extremely rare, sapphire-coloured eyes.

“It was incredible”, says Dr. Robin Moore. “We went in looking for one missing species and found a treasure trove of others. That, to me, represents a welcome dose of resilience and hope for the people and wildlife of Haiti.”

With large-scale deforestation leaving the country less than 2% of its original forest cover and degrading most of the fresh water ecosystems Haitians depend on, the cloud forests of the southwest mountains stand as two of the last remaining pockets of environmental health and natural wealth in Haiti. In fact, the Massif de la Hotte has been highlighted by the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) as the third-highest site-level conservation priority in the world, with 15 endemic amphibian species found there and nowhere else.

“A common assumption about Haiti is that there is nothing left to save”, says Dr. Moore, who also documents his findings as a photographer with the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). “That is not entirely true. There are biologically rich pockets intact, despite tremendous environmental pressures. Haiti now has the opportunity to design its reconstruction plans around these pockets, and grow them, so they can more effectively act as natural buffers to climate change and natural disasters.”

"However, there is precious little time to waste", says Dr.Blair Hedges. "As in other parts of the world, Haiti’s amphibian populations are in danger of disappearing with a staggering 92% of the country’s amphibian species listed as threatened. Globally, more than 30% of all amphibian species are threatened with extinction."

"The biodiversity of Haiti, including its frogs, is approaching a mass extinction event caused by massive and nearly complete deforestation. Unless the global community comes up with a solution soon, we will lose many unique species forever”, says Dr. Hedges.

Dr. Moore, along with Dr. Hedges and several others, spent eight days and nights in the southern Haitian cloud forests, scouring trees, riverbeds and ground cover for amphibians. In that time, the team found an encouraging 23 unique species out of the country’s 49 known native species.

“The devastation that the people of Haiti are still coping with is almost unimaginable. I have never seen anything like it”, says Dr. Moore, who has explored regions in Haiti three times, before and following the earthquake. “Clearly, the health of Haiti’s frogs is not anyone’s primary concern here. However, the ecosystems these frogs inhabit, and their ability to support life, is critically important to the long-term well-being of Haiti’s people, who depend on healthy forests for their livelihoods, food security and fresh water. Amphibians are what we call barometer species of our planet’s health. They’re like the canaries in the coal mine. As they disappear, so too do the natural resources people depend upon to survive.”

Among the team’s amphibian re-discoveries are the following six species, which are all listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™:

1. Hispaniolan Ventriloquial Frog – last seen in 1991. (Eleutherodactylus dolomedes) Maximum length: 21.6mm. Elevation 1120 m. This frog is named after its call, which it projects like the ventriloquist which inspired its name. Its unusual call consists of a rapid, seven-note series of chirps, with the initial four notes rising slowly in pitch before plateauing; the call is released in widely-spaced intervals, often minutes apart. Prior to this expedition, the species was only known from a few individuals.

2. Mozart’s Frog – last seen 1991. (E. amadeus) Maximum length: 25mm. Elevation 1000-2340 m. Called Mozart’s frog because when Blair Hedges, who discovered the species, made an audiospectrogram of the call, it coincidentally resembled musical notes. Its call is a four-note muffled whistle at night, usually given as a shorter, two-note call at dawn and dusk.

3. La Hotte Glanded Frog – last seen 1991. (E. glandulifer) Maximum length: 53mm. Elevation 303-1886m. This frog’s most distinctive feature is its striking blue sapphire-coloured eyes – a highly unusual trait among amphibians.

4. Macaya Breast-spot frog – last seen 1991. (E. thorectes) Maximum length: 15.1mm. Elevation 1700-2340m. Approximately the size of a green grape, this is one of the smallest frogs in the world. In Haiti, this species has a very restricted range, occurring only on the peaks of Formon and Macaya at high elevations on the Massif de la Hotte.

5. Hispaniolan Crowned Frog – last seen 1991. (E. corona) Maximum length: 19.1mm. This species was named after a subtle row of protuberances that resemble a crown on the back of its head. Prior to this expedition, the species was known from less than 10 individuals, and is likely to be extremely rare. It is an arboreal species, occurring in high-elevation cloud forest. Males call from bromeliads or orchids, which they appear to require for reproduction.

6. Macaya Burrowing Frog - last seen 1996. (E. parapelates) This is the first record of this species from this area (previously only known from two localities on the Massif de la Hotte). This is now the only place where two burrowing frogs are known to share the same habitat. This species is quite spectacular, with big jet black eyes and bright orange flashes on the legs. Males call from shallow, underground chambers and eggs are also laid underground, where they hatch directly into froglets.

Conservation International’s Search for Lost Frogs, which was launched in the summer of 2010, is an unprecedented search to locate species that have not been seen for a decade or more and which are feared to be extinct. The search, which has expanded to local teams in 19 countries on five continents, has led to three species rediscoveries in the past six months, including a Mexican salamander not seen since it was discovered in 1941, a frog from the Ivory Coast not seen since 1967 and another frog from Democratic Republic of Congo not seen since 1979.

“Finding six lost species in these relatively small corners of the country tells us that, despite tremendous human pressures, nature is hanging on in Haiti," says Dr. Moore. "There is reason to hope. Managed properly, these species and ecosystems can become a source of natural wealth and national pride for the country, that we hope will offer long-term benefits for its people.”

The first phase of the Search for the Lost Frogs campaign has concluded, and further rediscoveries are expected to be announced this winter, with a new search launching later this year. To follow the campaign, please visit: www.conservation.org/lostfrogs

For more information or to set up interviews, please contact:

Kim McCabe, Media Director, Conservation International,  t. +1 703 341 2546, m. +1 202 203 9927, e. kmccabe@conservation.org

Patricia Yakabe Malentaqui, International Media Manager, Conservation International, t. +1 703-341-2471, m. + 1 571 225 8345, e. pmalentaqui@conservation.org

Kelsey Rosenbaum, Media Coordinator, Conservation International, t. +1 703 341 2853, e. krosenbaum@conservation.org

Photos of Haiti's rediscovered amphibians are available from: http://bit.ly/hpilIa (please include photo credits)

Video reports on the search for Haiti’s amphibians are available from: www.caribnature.org