Last year on Valentine’s Day, Bolivia’s Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny in Cochabamba put up a Match.com profile for Romeo, a male Sehuencas water frog thought to possibly be the last of his kind. While no lady-frogs messaged him back, lots of humans did, donating $25,000 to efforts to find more of the endangered amphibians. Now, that generosity is paying dividends. Researchers in Bolivia have found five more Sehuencas frogs, including an adult female croaker, which they hope will be a love match with Romeo.
Damian Carrington at The Guardian reports that the species was once fairly abundant in Bolivia’s tropical cloud forests, known for low-hanging cloud cover. But in recent decades, water frog species across Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru faced a variety of threats, including habitat destruction, climate change, pollution, Chytrid fungus and invasive trout that nibble frog’s eggs.
Ten years ago, Romeo was collected from the wild in hopes of establishing a captive breeding population in case his species went extinct in the wild. But subsequent searches for more Sehuencas frogs came up empty handed, and Romeo spent many lonely years in solitude. Herpetologists worried he might suffer the same fate as Toughie, the last known Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog, which died in captivity in Atlanta in 2016.
The funding raised from last year’s matchmaking profile, however, allowed the non-profit Global Wildlife Conservation and the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny to mount a new expedition. But things didn't go well at first.
After inspecting streams where the frogs were found in the past and others that appeared to have the right conditions, the search party struck out. The team decided to investigate one more stream before packing up, but they didn't hold out much hope.
Close to a waterfall, however, expedition leader Teresa Camacho Badani saw a frog jump.
“When I pulled it out, I saw an orange belly and suddenly realized I had in my hands the long-awaited Sehuencas water frog,” Badani, who works for the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny in Cochabamba, tells Carrington. “My first reaction was to yell ‘I found one!’ and the team came running over to help me and pull the frog to safety. It was an incredible feeling.”
In total, the expedition collected five frogs, two females of the species and three males. Chris Jordan, Central America and Tropical Andes coordinator at Global Wildlife Conservation, says in a press release that there is some danger in bringing the rare animals into captivity.
“There is always risk in bringing animals in from the wild to build an insurance population, and it isn’t a step that should be taken lightly,” he says. “But at this point it seems there are too few water frogs in the wild for them to retain a viable population over the long-term, so there’s a greater risk if we don’t do anything.”
The wild frogs are currently in quarantine. Two of the wild frogs will likely form a breeding pair of their own and the adult female frog, known now as Juliet, will be paired up with Romeo. Helen Briggs at the BBC reports that the researchers hope opposites attract.
“Romeo is really calm and relaxed and doesn't move a whole lot. He’s healthy and likes to eat, but he is kind of shy and slow,” Badani says. Juliet is more active. “She’s really energetic, she swims a lot and she eats a lot and sometimes she tries to escape.”
It’s possible that even more Sehuencas could make it into the museum’s love nest. The research team plans to continue scouring the cloud forest for more individuals until March. And the effort could help the species not only survive, but make it back to their natural habitat. According to the release, similar captive breeding programs have helped save imperiled species, like Spain’s Mallorcan midwife toad and Tanzania’s Kihansi spray toad, which have both been reintroduced into the wild.