Collectively, the islands of the Caribbean constitute a major biodiversity hotspot – a region rich in endemic species that are threatened with extinction, most of them because of a long history of human-mediated environmental degradation. Puerto Rico, my home island, is no exception to this.
Puerto Rico is the smallest of the Greater Antilles (approximately 112 x 40 miles), located between Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and the Virgin Islands. It consists of the main island and various smaller islands, including Vieques and Culebra (both island municipalities), Mona, Desecheo and Caja de Muerto. Due to our location in the Caribbean, we enjoy a year-round tropical climate and temperatures do not change drastically throughout the seasons. This offers relatively uniform climatic and to some extent, physical conditions that might be related to greater species richness along with the heterogeneity of the biological environment, thus providing many opportunities for a variety of life styles.
We might not have salamanders or caecilians, but we do have an amazing diversity of 25 anuran species – 18 of which are endemics, one native and the six remaining, introduced. Among these 18 endemics lies probably the most recognizable and famous animal of Puerto Rico: the Coqui Frog. “Coquí” (pronounced ko-kee), is the generalized name used to identify our 17 species in the Eleutherodactylus genus. This species are onomatopoeically named for the very loud call (listen here) made at night by the males of two species: the Common Coqui (Eleutherodactylus coqui) and the Upland Coqui (E. portoricensis).
In general, coqui frogs are small and slender with gray-brown coloration, and are characterized by three main features:
- Webless fingers and toes since they don’t reproduce in water or are adapted to swim, except for the Web-footed Coqui (Eleutherodactylus karlschmidti) which had completely webbed feet;
- Presence of T-shaped terminal phalanges, with disks or pads at the tips of the fingers and toes to help them adhere to moistened or slippery surfaces;
- Direct development in which eggs hatch directly into small frogs, completely bypassing the tadpole stage, except for the Golden Coqui (Eleutherodactylus jasperi) who gave birth to live young.
Coquí frogs are virtually everywhere, from forests to mountains to urban areas, and are considered the most important nocturnal predators in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, even though some species are still abundant and widespread, most are vulnerable and threatened by habitat loss, and 3 species are already considered extinct.
To us Puerto Ricans, coqui frogs are not just an integral part of Puerto Rico’s ecosystem but a symbol of our country, our culture and our people. It’s our responsibility to protect and save them. We lose a species, we lose an image, a sound, we lose a story that will not be repeated.
By: Billy J. Santiago-Merced