In his journey through Southern Chile and the forests of Validvia the English naturalist Charles Darwin discovered a new species of amphibian. It was a small, brilliantly-colored frog that camouflaged itself as a fallen leaf as a defense mechanism.
Unfortunately, over the last decades, Darwin’s frog, as the species became known, had become almost extinct. The good news is that this will soon change thanks to a successful program of breeding in captivity led by the Universidad de Concepciónin conjunction with the Santiago Metropolitan Park Zoo.
Prior to this initiative, which seeks to repopulate the forests of the south of Chile with this unique species, the last specimen had been seen as far back as 1978 and for many years it was thought to have disappeared. The reason for this was undoubtedly a reduction of its natural habitat, in addition to the devastating action of the Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis fungus, which caused the population to dwindle considerably, a process that the scientists are now seeking to revert.
The species was declared “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but 11 small specimens collected in the locality of Coñaripe, on the shores of Lake Calafquén renewed the hopes for Darwin’s frog.
Saving a species
Supported by the Leipzig Zoo, in Germany, the Zoology Department of the Universidad de Concepción decided to rear the specimens in a laboratory in order to encourage their reproduction. Work began last April and, after spending four months in quarantine to ensure that they were not infected, they were transferred last December to a specially-prepared terrarium.
Once they were established in an appropriate setting, the seven males began to sing, voicing to the females their willingness to breed. “We’re very happy and satisfied, because there were serious doubts as to the viability of the experiment”, explained Juan Ortiz Zapata, the project leader.
The process of reproduction in captivity of Darwin’s frog is not easy, because the species has a very singular incubation system: it is necessary for the male to store the eggs in his mouth, where they remain until they complete the larval development stage. But in spite of the difficulties, the Chilean biologists were able to bring about the birth of 16 frogs.
Ortiz qualifies the first phase of the project as a “total success”, and hopes it will serve as a precedent to save other species that are in danger of extinction. “The idea is that this experience of breeding species in a laboratory can serve to reintroduce them to locations where the environment is still conserved”, the scientist said.
The next step is to help the small frogs born in captivity to reach full maturity and be able to reproduce naturally, after which their reintroduction to their natural habitat will be attempted. The researcher says, “it’s possible that in the not-too-distant future we may see them jumping around again in the rainforests of the south of Chile.”