[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][text_output]A first-person account from the researchers who find the science-defying amphibian
One would think that it would be warm hanging out on the equator, but at an elevation of 1,750 meters on a rainy night, it’s actually fairly cold. My husband Tim and I, however, are warmed by adrenaline because around every slippery turn, we find something new—or at least new to us. E.O. Wilson calls Ecuador a hotspot of biodiversity, and he is so right.
Since 2005, we have been slowly walking the misty trails of Reserva Las Gralarias at night, surveying the amphibians, scanning the leaves and ground for frogs and caecilians with our flashlights and listening for frog calls to help direct us to them. For nine years, Tim and I have joined students and volunteers from the reserve to find amphibian populations that are located nowhere else in the world. One discovery in particular, the one described this week in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, was arguably one of our most exciting experiences to date. We had not only discovered a new species, but a new species that could do something no other vertebrate has been documented to do!
When we first found the Mutable rainfrog, dubbed the “punkrocker” frog, we were pretty certain we had discovered a new species. It took three long years before we could re-find the frog and that’s when we discovered that finding a new species to science was not even the most important part of the journey.[/text_output][text_output]“I found the punk rocker!” I exclaimed that night. We collected it without hesitation. We routinely collect frogs we can’t easily identify in the field, bringing them back to the guesthouse and photographing them before returning them to the same location we found them. So the following morning we were photographing the frogs we found the previous night. I was particularly excited to get some good photos of this particular frog because it was absolutely gorgeous, with spiny tubercles all over its body. When we first saw the species three years ago, we started to call it the punk rocker because of those tubercles protruding from its skin. We hadn’t been able to identify the species using published keys, so we needed some detailed photographs to share with the knowledgeable herpetologists at the university in Quito.
I carefully took the frog out of the plastic container, and placed it on a smooth white board to take its photo. Tim uses a white background to bring out the colors and characteristics of the frogs, a trick he learned from National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore.
[/text_output][text_output]“Kathy this frog is not the Punk rocker,” Tim said when I set the frog down. “It is smooth.”
“That’s not the frog I collected,” I exclaimed.
“That is the one you put in the cup,” Tim replied, clearly a little exasperated.
Annoyed with myself, I placed the frog back in the cup, adding a little moss to make it a more comfortable home until we could return him to the forest.
“I must have picked up the wrong frog,” I muttered.
Tim and I had been searching for another one of these frogs for years now, and here I had picked up the WRONG frog! I was angry at myself, and confused about how I could have actually done that. These frogs are fast—but not magical, I thought. Tim was disappointed too, but tried not to make me feel too bad. But I could tell he was frustrated.
[/text_output][text_output]A few minutes later I checked on the frog, sitting in the little moss pile in the cup.
“Ummm. Now he has spines,” I timidly stated.
Tim looked in the cup and then up at me. We couldn’t believe our eyes. We had never heard of a frog changing its texture. We placed the frog back onto the white board and Tim began to take photos. I counted “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten” (click goes the camera); “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten” (click); “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten” (click).
The spines started disappearing.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten” (click).
We continued counting and photographing for five minutes, by which time we were staring at a small, completely smooth frog…with no spines at all. We could hardly speak, so choked up with excitement. We knew this frog was probably a new species, which is amazing in itself, but one that changes shape? It was remarkable.
And, in my opinion, magical.
By Katherine Krynak
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