I discovered a little frog that lives its entire life in a single plant | The threatened species

I remember the park rangers saying, “Why are you going up there? There is no water at the top and you won’t find any frogs. I said, “Well, I’ll check it out.” »

The Espinhaço mountain range in eastern Brazil is a very special and largely unknown place. My house overlooks the mountain of Pico do Itambé National Park, so I have breakfast looking at it every morning. You are surrounded by thunderstorms and strong winds, and humidity is high. I waited for heavy rain and went to climb to the top.

What caught my eye were the bromeliad plants, which look like the tip of a giant pineapple. Each plant can hold up to 2 liters of water, and inside there’s so much going on. Larvae, beetles and all kinds of invertebrates live there: it’s a whole ecosystem in a tiny space. The center cup holds a lot of rainwater and I thought frogs might use it.

Indeed, I was right. And that led me to discover a new species of frog, which I have dedicated my life to protecting.

That day I found a frog in the very first bromeliad I looked in. I thought, wow, I’ve never seen a frog so small, it was the size of my fingernail. I couldn’t catch it – the plant was like a maze inside.

Itambé crossodactylodes inside a bromeliad. Photography: Michel Becheleni

I looked in the next bromeliad and there was another frog. They got them all. I saw about 20 frogs that night and caught three. I took them to the museum for identification, but found no match. I ended up walking around with three little frogs in my bag for a year, preserved in alcohol in a jar. I would take them to meetings with me and ask people if they had ever seen them before. Then I met a taxonomist from São Paulo who examined them and told me they were a new species.

Not only was it a new species, but it turned out to be a very rare and special frog. The entire species lives within a radius of 0.5 km² on a plot of land located at 1,800 meters above sea level. These frogs spend their entire life cycle inside the plant: they lay their eggs, become tadpoles, and do everything inside.

I have officially described the species as Itambé crossodactylodes in 2013, four years after finding it. I decided to focus my research on this frog and work to save it.

I never thought I would dedicate my career to studying frogs, but it feels like an obligation to complete this work and make sure they are protected. I hope to inspire others to do the same, to spend their entire lives researching a single species and doing something with it – because by protecting one species, I am protecting an entire habitat.

During my research, part of the area where these frogs live was destroyed by fire, which poses the greatest threat. Fires from surrounding communities reach the top of the mountain very quickly. So we have to find ways to stop them. Climate degradation will make fires worse: we have dry weather, it is extremely hot and fires are breaking out everywhere.

Bela Barata on the pitch.
Bela Barata on the pitch. Photography: Michel Becheleni

I really want the local community to feel proud and want to protect this local wildlife. Because otherwise, this frog does not have a very bright future. I just do my best to try to keep their habitat safe. I don’t want to think about their disappearance. I try to be optimistic that these frogs will be here for as long as I live, and even beyond that. I think that will be my legacy, protecting this little frog. I hope someone will take over, because the work will not stop.

  • Like I told Phoebe Weston. Dr Bela Barata is a Brazilian ecologist working at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Instituto Biotrópicos. She specializes in the conservation of frogs living in tropical mountain areas..

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