Merida (Venezuela) (AFP) – Huge expectations hang on the tiny, endangered amphibian perched on a rock in a plastic box: the Mucuchies frog must produce offspring if its species is to survive.
The dark, spotted creature is listed as ‘critically endangered’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species – the last step before an animal is declared “extinct in the wild”.
But there is reason to hope.
Driven by a ‘passion’ to save the unassuming two centimeter (0.8 inch) creature, biologist Enrique La Marca and a team started a breeding project at the REVA amphibian conservation center in Merida, in the north -western Venezuela.
To date, some two dozen captured adults have created about 100 tiny jumping frogs released into the wild, La Marca said, more or less double the previously known number of Mucuchies frogs in the wild.
This should help the species which, according to the Red List, has seen 98% of its habitat in the forests of the Venezuelan Andes lost to deforestation.
Today, its entire population is restricted to an area of less than 10 square kilometers (3.9 square miles).
The streams have dried up
“Most of the population disappeared… 15 to 25 years ago” from areas around the Mucuchies region where it was once abundant, La Marca said.
The main reasons, according to the IUCN: crops and aquaculture encroach on nature and pollute water sources, as well as the abstraction of surface water for irrigation.
“There are streams that have dried up and springs that have diminished considerably… All of this has a negative impact on the organisms that are directly associated with water,” La Marca told AFP .
The Mucuchies frog is a species that breeds during the rainy season, laying eggs on leaf litter.
The male guards the eggs until they hatch, then carries the tadpoles on his back and releases them into small pools where they complete their development.
Frog Song, ‘The Greatest Joy’
But before the REVA project started in 2018, “we didn’t know what it (the frog) was feeding on, what breeding was like, we were improvising and learning on the fly,” La Marca said.
They have since found that for an amorous mood, the frog needs a pinch of plants such as bromeliads, rocks and leaves to roam about, the sexy sounds of a simulated stream and a steady diet of insects and larvae.
The resulting offspring are raised in the laboratory for about a year after transitioning from tadpole to four-legged frog before being released.
Then comes the “maximum challenge”, according to La Marca: “to survive in the new natural conditions that they will face”.
During frequent field trips, the team searches for slippery frogs between stones or on river banks, but it is difficult to track the entire shy brood.
“The biggest joy comes when…we notice there are more songs in the place, an indication that they are procreating,” La Marca said.
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