Denver Zoo is thrilled to announce it hatched the first batch of Lake Titicaca frog tadpoles in North American history on February 14. The roughly 200 tadpoles are the offspring of two of the 20 frogs that arrived from the Huachipa Zoo, in Lima, Peru, in November 2015. Currently, Denver Zoo is the only institution in the northern hemisphere to house this critically endangered species. Zookeepers have been watching the tadpoles carefully since their hatching and say they are doing great. Most of the tadpoles can be seen by the public now at the Zoo’s Tropical Discovery building.
It has been more than 20 years since a Lake Titicaca frog has resided in the United States. Since the initial arrival of the Zoo’s Lake Titicaca frogs, Zoo staff members have studied their behavior and looked to increase their population. The Zoo’s goal has been to raise awareness of the plight of these amphibians while also gaining important insight into the care of the species. Eventually, when the tadpoles develop into frogs, some will stay at Denver Zoo while many will be rehoused at other Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited institutions, furthering the message of conservation and awareness for this neglected species.
“In the time we’ve had the Lake Titicaca frogs, we have gained so much insight to this unique species,” said Assistant Curator of Reptiles and Fish Tom Weaver. “We feel very proud that we are able to provide that opportunity.”
Denver Zoo has worked with partners in Bolivia and Peru to conserve the species since 2007 and is currently the only zoo in the United States to support research in Peru. In addition, Denver Zoo also has staff based in Peru working who are working with other zoos, local government and in the field to further conservation efforts for the Lake Titicaca frog.
“This hatching and the research we’ve done with Lake Titicaca frogs at the Zoo and in Peru speaks to our role as a true conservation organization,” said Director of Conservation Education Matt Herbert, “Our work is raising much-needed awareness for the plight of this frog for our guests, children and adults, and will soon do the same for those who visit the other institutions which will soon be a home for the species.”
The Lake Titicaca frog, the world’s largest entirely aquatic frog, lives only in its namesake lake and the surrounding rivers and streams of the catchment. Lake Titicaca is one of the world’s highest navigable lakes, lying about 12,500 feet above sea level and straddling the Peruvian and Bolivian border. The frogs can grow up to 20 inches long and weigh more than 2 pounds. The species’ saggy, seemingly excessive, skin absorbs oxygen, allowing it to remain submerged indefinitely while still breathing and able to respire.
The Zoo’s first population of frogs hatched as tadpoles in March of 2015 at Huachipa Zoo. Their parents were the offspring of wild-born frogs that were confiscated by authorities on their way to a market for consumption purposes. Although illegal, local Peruvians and Bolivians routinely harvest the frogs. In Peru, the frogs are consumed in a shake-like drink that is believed to enhance virility, among other benefits. This, along with disease, pollution and the introduction of invasive species, are main reasons the species faces extinction. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Lake Titicaca frog’s population has declined 80 percent over the last three generations and is now classified as “critically endangered.”
While there is much conservation effort in Peru, there is little work being done on amphibians of the high Andes, which makes this project so important. Denver Zoo, working with local governments, leads conservation efforts in support of the frogs, such as conducting research and raising awareness about them, while also empowering local communities to prevent their extinction. Educators teach school children about the importance of the species and support local communities in their efforts to earn a living from the frog through handicraft sales and tourism.
Due to these efforts, the Lake Titicaca frog has recently transformed into a symbol of pride for the people of Puno, the largest Peruvian city that borders the lake. In 2012, the Regional Government of Puno issued an ordinance declaring the frog a tourist attraction in the Lake Titicaca region.
About Denver Zoo: Home to 4,100 animals, representing more than 600 species, Denver Zoo brings science education to life and provides extraordinary experiences every day for its animals and guests. It is the most visited cultural destination in Colorado, serving 2 million people per year. Located in Denver’s City Park, the Zoo is a nonprofit organization accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which assures the highest standards of animal care. With the mission to secure a better world for animals through human understanding, Denver Zoo commits more than $2 million annually to field conservation for programs around the world.
Photo: Denver Zoo’s Lake Titicaca frog tadpoles © Denver Zoo