In June of this year, herpetologist Andrés Charrier took some of his colleagues to view the Loa water frog, a small and speckled critter that dwells exclusively in a stream outside the Chilean city of Calama. But upon arriving at the site, the group found that the stream was dry—and the population of water frogs, already critically endangered, seemed to have shrunk to just 14 sickly individuals that languished in a pool of muddy water.
“It’s something we talk about all the time—frogs are at risk, animals and the environment are at risk, climate change and drought, extreme weather conditions,” Charrier tells Megan Shersby of BBC Wildlife. “But I have been working in conservation for the last 10 years with frogs and I never expected to see something like this.”
The team, which consisted of conservationists, government officials and indigenous leaders, knew that time for the Loa water frog, or Telmatobius dankoi, was running out fast. So they collected the paltry group of surviving individuals and transported them to the National Zoo of Chile—with the hope of eventually launching a breeding program.
Some 63 species of the genus Telmatobius can be found across South America, making their homes in such countries as Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina. Like the Loa water frog, most Telmatobius species are microendemic, meaning that their range is restricted to a single, small location. This in turn makes them highly vulnerable to changes to their habitat; in fact, according to Sabrina Imbler of Atlas Obscura, the majority of recognized Telmatobius are endangered.
The Loa water frog’s stream had dried up due to illegal water extraction for mining, agriculture and real estate development, per Shersby. And the parched amphibians had nowhere else to go.
The frogs were profoundly malnourished upon their rescue, so the first order of business at the National Zoo of Chile is helping the animals recover. Imbler reports that the Loas are being fed a steady diet of snails and invertebrates, supplemented with vitamins. If the frogs fare well, experts plan to breed them. But as Alejandra Montalba, director of the National Zoo of Chile, points out in a Global Wildlife Conservation statement, “[U]ltimately we need to work very hard to restore their environment because it’s pointless to breed them if they don’t have a home to go back to in the wild.”
To that effect, a group of experts have released a public declaration calling on Chile’s relevant authorities to launch an immediate plan for the protection and recovery of the Loa frogs’ habitat.
“We know that this is a complex task, since there is high human pressure in the area with a consequent impact on local water resources,” the declaration reads. “Even so, we appeal to your support to avoid a new irreversible extinction event.”
Crucial to saving the Loa water frogs may be getting the public to care about them. Speaking to Imbler, Gabriel Lobos, an associate researcher at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History of the Atacama Desert and a member of the froggy rescue mission, noted that Loa frogs are one of “those species that receive no attention and that are unknown.”
Fortunately, the Loa frog conservation team is getting tips from experts at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny in Bolivia, which have successfully made a mascot out of Romeo, a Sehuencas water frog that was once the only known specimen of his kind. Last year, researchers made Romeo a Match.com profile in an effort to draw attention to their search for a mate for the lovelorn frog. The stunt worked: Donations poured in, and researchers were able to track down a potential partner, who is, of course, named Juliet. (The team also made a Spotify mixtape for the Loa frogs, packed with wide-ranging, mixed genre hits including "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey; "Water Me" by Lizzo; "Help!" by The Beatles; and more.)
Romeo is already lending the Loa water frogs some of his star power, “writing” an encouraging letter to the rescued population. “Humans need us amphibians,” the note reads. “Pollute our water, take away our water, and anyone else who depends on water (read: all things living) will eventually be in the same kind of trouble. So really, they have to take a hint at this point. Right?”