Fact is sometimes stranger than fiction – and when you hear the story about the remarkable Darwin’s frog (Rhinoderma darwinii) and the efforts that are taking place to save it, you will know what I mean.
Dante Fenolio, PhD, the amphibian conservation scientist at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, has led efforts to save the frog and to establish a conservation breeding population in its native Chile. Working in conjunction with Zoológico Nacional de Chile in Santiago and the Center for Advanced Studies of Ecology and Biodiversity at the Catholic University of Chile, Dante has led efforts to develop a breeding center. The goal is to establish an ex-situ population that can be used to return the frog to the wild given the right conditions and approval from the Chilean government.
So what makes this little frog unique you ask? Darwin’s frogs are the only frogs on Earth known to brood their young inside their vocal sac. The female Darwin’s frog deposits a small clutch of eggs which the male then fertilizes. As the eggs hatch, the male scoops them into his mouth and manipulates the tadpoles through the vocal slit beneath his tongue and into his vocal sac. The developing larvae remain there for 50-to-60 days.
“Once metamorphosed into tiny miniatures of the adults, the male “coughs” them up in what can be described as a process that appears labored,” says Dante.
The main threat to Darwin’s frog to date has been habitat loss due to agriculture and forestry development that has overrun much of the frog’s habitat. More recently, the arrival of the amphibian chytrid fungus in the Darwin’s frog populations of southern Chile is an ominous sign.
“Our conservation breeding program can help the Darwin’s frog retain genetic diversity and create a population for reintroduction programs, should a solution to amphibian chytrid fungus be found and relatively safe places for release are located,” says Dante.
Fenolio’s dedication to the Darwin’s frog is matched by that of his Chilean partners: Dr. Mauricio Fabry, Marcela Tirado, Osvaldo Cabezas, and Andres Charrier.
“I attribute this program’s success to them,” says Dante. “In my time working with my partners in Chile, I have learned a tremendous amount about practical conservation methods, public relations, public education and Chilean amphibians. Without them, the project could not succeed.”
Each year, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Conservation Endowment Fund (CEF) selects a number of peer-reviewed projects to fund. Dante’s work with Darwin’s frog in Chile has been one of those projects – The CEF and AZA’s Amphibian Fund have awarded a total of over $38,000 dollars to help save this very special frog.
To learn more about Dante’s work with the Darwin’s frog, visit http://www.savedarwinsfrogs.org.