Many species are inhabitants of montane forests, living in riparian zone microhabitats of the Andes Mountains. For the majority of the described species, the tadpoles are stream adapted and have a sectorial disc around their mouths, enabling the larval amphibians to hold onto the substrate in considerable water flow. In some high elevation habitats in the Andes, harlequin toads represented a significant percentage of the total biomass present. In fact, Atelopus peruensis used to move in such massive numbers that during their breeding migrations, they would cover the railroad tracks in the mountains of Peru and derail trains!
In the past three decades, harlequin toads have declined in nearly all habitats where they are found. Habitat loss is key among the issues pushing the declines but other issues are considerable. For example, emergent infectious amphibian diseases have ravished many populations, bringing some populations, and even entire species, to extinction. Some forces pushing the declines are less obvious. For example, introduced, non-native trout have been introduced to mountain streams to build fishing-based tour industries. But trout feed on the tadpoles of harlequin frogs and clear out entire generations of these toads. Of the 97 described species, 85 are critically endangered, at least three are believed to have gone extinct.
Of the species of Atelopus found in Peru, over 95% of them are considered critically endangered. Most of the species inhabit montane forest. Many of the high elevation species (inhabiting cloud forest) have not been seen in over a decade. We collaborate with a Peruvian biologist who has rediscovered three species of Atelopus, that were all believed extinct, and had not been seen in a decade or more: Atelopus patazensis, A. epikeisthos and A. pachydermus (see Figs 1,2,3). All of these species are found in either small habitat fragments or in degraded habitat. Urgent conservation action is necessary to avoid extinction events with these three critically endangered species.
PHFWG General Plan
In collaboration with Peruvian biologists and institutions, two zoos are spearheading urgent conservation actions for these critically endangered amphibians: San Antonio Zoo and Roger Williams Park Zoo. Several conservation actions are planned that can significantly change the probability of extinction:
- Funding has been provided ($30,000 USD) to Peruvian biologists to perform critically important population assessments of these species in 2022. Field work will start in May. By this fall, we will know rough population estimates for the remaining populations that have been rediscovered.
- Peruvian wildlife authorities have preliminarily agreed to consider providing a permit to collect small groups of each of these three species. The toads will be sent to the San Antonio Zoo where the highly accomplished amphibian team will work to develop husbandry and breeding protocols. Dr. Fenolio runs the Center for Conservation and Research and has already bred several species of harlequin toads closely related to these species.
- The PHFWG has identified a potential location for an amphibian breeding lab at a private facility in Lima, Peru. Estimated costs for the lab are $30,000 - $50,000 USD.
- San Antonio Zoo and Roger Williams Park Zoo will seek out 6-8 partner zoos/aquariums to collaborate in development of the amphibian breeding lab complex in Lima, Peru.
- Two individuals will be identified as keepers of the animals that will ultimately live in the Lima (Peru) facility. These keepers will be flown to the US for a training program with Atelopus.
- Once the keepers have been trained, once live food cultures are producing food in the Lima facility, and once all permits are in hand, Peruvian biologists will collect founder groups of all three species and deliver them to the Lima labs complex.
- Any captive bred offspring from the Lima lab complex will be candidates for release onto the landscape in protected forest fragments that are within the original range of each species but do not currently have frogs present.
Proposed Conservation Actions
- We will develop captive husbandry guidelines for all target species and publish them.
- We will develop captive breeding protocols for all focal species and publish them.
- We will implement a conservation breeding lab for the focal species in Lima, Peru.
- We will hire and train two amphibian keepers to manage live animals in the Lima facility.
- We will breed animals in the Lima facility.
- We will work with Peruvian authorities to put captive bred offspring back onto the landscape in protected forests.
- We will establish new populations of these critically endangered amphibians within their traditional ranges. New populations will be defined as self-reproducing populations originating from animals placed back onto the landscape. Captive bred animals will only go into forest fragments currently without toads present.
SPECIAL THANKS TO:
- Servicio Nacional Forestal y de Fauna Silvestre (SERFOR)
- Servicio Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas por el Estado (SERNANP)
- Instituto Peruano de Herpetología (IPH)
- Centro de Ornitología y Biodiversidad (CORBIDI)
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