In the shadow of the volcano: race against time for the Quito rocket frog

An imminent eruption of the Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador would wipe out the last population of the Quito rocket frog. On International Save the Frogs Day, researcher Santiago Ron from Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE), a grantee with IUCN’s SOS initiative, describes efforts to save the species from extinction.

Freddy Almeida doing field work

Amphibians are one of the least studied groups of animals and the most vulnerable to extinction. During the last two decades distribution ranges of many amphibian species have shrunk, with catastrophic population declines and extinctions around the world. Amphibian numbers are decreasing even in the most pristine of habitats.

Once common around Ecuador’s capital city, the Quito rocket frog (Colostethus jacobuspetersi) is now one of the most threatened amphibian species in the world.

During the late 1980s to early 1990s a wave of extinctions affected many Andean species of frog; among these the Quito Rocket frog suffered a hasty population decline. It was last observed by scientists in 1989 and has virtually disappeared since. The main causes of these declines are thought to be an emerging infectious disease and climate change.

Almost 20 years later, in 2008, scientists rediscovered a surviving population of the Quito rocket frog. On the banks of the Pita River, about 30 km south of Quito, hidden under rocks and between ferns, the last individuals of this species were still clinging to life.

The situation became critical last year however, when the Cotopaxi Volcano, one of the highest peaks in Ecuador, became active. The Pita River receives its water from the Cotopaxi glaciers.

“An eruption will melt the glaciers and send large volumes of lava and mud flowing down the Pita River, wiping out the last population of the Quito rocket frog” says Santiago Ron, professor at PUCE and curator of amphibians at PUCE’s Zoology Museum, the Museo de Zoología de la Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, also known by its acronym Quito-Católica-Zoología or QCAZ for short.

Alarmed, researchers of QCAZ at PUCE developed an emergency rescue plan. Armed with nets and flashlights they went to the Pita River and collected tadpoles, which were temporarily moved to Balsa de los Sapos (Life raft of the frogs), an amphibian ex-situ facility that maintains over 1500 frogs for research and conservation purposes. The PUCE research team also includes Freddy Almeida, Pol Pintanel, and Andrés Merino, director of Balsa de los Sapos.

The tadpoles will be kept at ‘Balsa de los Sapos’ until the Cotopaxi menace passes – or until the habitat of the Quito rocket frog is restored. Freddy Almeida, the lead keeper, says: “The tadpoles are doing very well. Some of them are already starting to grow their hind and front legs. We are hoping for a successful metamorphosis, as this is a critical phase in the frog’s life cycle.”

Much has been done since the tadpoles first arrived. Researchers are now trying to find ways of breeding this species in captivity. Everything counts, from finding the correct food to the temperature of the water. As they take care of the tadpoles, they are also learning more about the natural history of this secretive species. In the long term, they plan to reintroduce the Quito rocket frog to its historic habitats and boost its chances of survival.

This project is just one of 108 conservation projects supported by IUCN’s SOS initiative to date. With your valuable support we can continue to find and fund the best frontline conservation tackling issues like habitat degradation, invasive species, wildlife crime, species recovery and alternative livelihoods. Please donate now and help SOS save more species.

This blog post is part of a series highlighting frontline conservation work from grantees of SOS – Save Our Species, a global initiative created by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the World Bank and IUCN, since joined by numerous other donors. Managed by IUCN, SOS aggregates and redistributes much-needed funding to high-impact species projects implemented by conservation organisations worldwide.

Work area: 
Forests
Members
Protected Areas
Species
Amphibians
Red List
Location: 
Mesoamerica
South America
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