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E. semipalmatus male

New Hope for Long Lost Frogs

11/28/2014

One of the most gratifying moments in our daily life is finding a lost object, like your car keys or your phone. Even better is finding a wrinkled up twenty-dollar bill in your pocket. But even more gratifying is finding something that is more than just possession, like a lost pet who ran off after you left the garage door open for just five minutes, or a long lost family member or old high school friend (though Facebook pretty much took away the fun in that last one).
 
So imagine how it feels when you find a frog that was supposed to be extinct!
 
That unexplainable feeling is exactly what happened to us this past September when we found the Tiburón stream frog while searching for frogs in one of the last patches of forests left in Haiti. This frog was feared extinct until its rediscovery in 2012 by evolutionary biologists Dr. Blair Hedges and the team from Societé Audubon Haiti at Grand Bois in the Massif de la Hotte in Haiti.

E. semipalmatus female

The Tiburón stream frog (Eleutherodactylus semipalmatus) is unique among the Caribbean land frogs in that it actually has a membrane between its fingers, a trait that is supposed to be absent on the genus Eleutherodactylus. Unfortunately, the Caribbean stream specialist in this genus has suffered greatly, and most are thought to be extinct. The Tiburón stream frog was one of them, until its rediscovery in 2012. Now the confirmation of a new population of the species occurring at a different site gives us a renewed hope.

The Tiburón stream frog was found through the mid and high elevation mountain streams on Massif de la Hotte and the northwest part of Massif de La Selle. It was thought to be extinct due to the fact that over 95 percent of its habitat has been destroyed, and the few efforts to locate the species yielded no frogs. As its name implies, it lives along streams on the mountainsides, and many of these have been destroyed as a result of the almost complete deforestation of these foothills. It is already eradicated from all of its known sites in Massif de la Selle, and many feared the populations on Massif de la Hotte had followed the same fate. It wasn’t until 2012 when it was rediscovered from a single locality as part of the ‘Lost Frogs of Haiti’ conservation campaign. Many efforts to find it at additional sites were not successful until now.
 
Anderson Jean, agronomist and field biologist from Sociètè Audubon Haiti, was part of the rediscovery team of 2012 and is currently one of our team members. During our latest visit to Grand Bois, in September 2014, we visited a different watershed with a small stream where he thought we might be able to find the Tiburón stream frog. After an excruciating six-hour hike from the Tiburón river bed up 1,300 meters through barren sun scorched hills, we finally arrived to the last remaining patches of tropical cloud forests in extreme southwest Haiti. This locality (known as Grand Bois or the “big trees”) represents one of the last hopes for the biodiversity of Haiti. Lush magnolia trees, sierra palms, tree ferns, moss covered tree trunks and a plethora of birds and orchids make you think you are in any tropical paradise besides Haiti.
 
Yet this lush landscape is abruptly interrupted. A desolated sight appears as we approach an area that used to be pristine forest and now is completely hacked and burned. Nothing is left in this patch but a small house of the settlers who will now prepare this area for charcoal-making and bean gardens. We continue our hike over the mountain, and after cresting descend again to about 1,100 meters in elevation, we finally arrive to the house of Klezida Dupiton and her husband Jeran. We greet the Dupitons, set up our camp near their house and get ready for lunch. Our plan is to start hiking again to the potential site for the Tiburón stream frog just after dark.

Kay Klezida

Grand Bois is one of the last strongholds for mid-elevation tropical forests in Haiti, but this site’s only protection is its isolation from cities and large settlements. As a result, the area still suffers from immense pressure from local peasants and farmers who have no other means of income than working the land. We are trying to help solve this issue and find a better outcome for the forests and the people that currently depend on it.

To our surprise, we are camping in a lush tropical forest. This is a rare sighting in Haiti, and as the sun starts to set we begin to listen to a huge chorus of critically endangered orange-legged land frogs and whistling bromeliad frogs. We begin our hike down along the ridge, and the forest stops abruptly. We see corn and yam fields all around us. We hear a few Hispaniolan green tree frogs calling, which means that the stream is right below us. After a steep descent, we approach a small ravine and hear more Hispaniola green tree frogs calling. This species of treefrog, present through Massif de la Hotte, favors swift flowing mountain streams as breeding sites, and their tadpoles are specially adapted to the swift water currents.

Anderson and Maxon

The orange-legged frog (Eleutherodactylus lamprotes), the Bromeliad whistling frog (Eleutherodactylus heminota, the green spiny frog (Eleutherodactylus nortoni) and the Hispaniolan green treefrog (Hypsiboas heilprini) are but a small sample of the endemic frog fauna found in Grand Bois. Anderson Jean (left) and Maxon Fildor (right) get ready to measure frogs while the peasants from Grand Bois take a look.

As we manage to crawl our way into the stream, we hike back into perfect riparian forest habitat, just what the Tiburón stream frog needs. Right after we spot the first boulder in the stream, we see a very distinct brown little guy sitting at water level. It looks different from the other frogs I’ve seen in Haiti, with shorter legs, a rounded snout, and large gray eyes, and as I start to wonder what it can be, I realize YES! We have found a new population of a critically endangered frog that was thought to be on the verge of extinction.
 
This is definitely very exciting! We see our first frog, then another one, and then a third one. We see a total of six individuals, males and females, foraging along the stream. This finding makes Grand Bois an even more precious piece of land. The amount of amphibian diversity present at this site—a total of 14 species—rivals that one of Pic Macaya and Pic Formon, which are currently the two most diverse frog sites in the entire Caribbean. More importantly, this site is home to Hispaniolan trogons, solenodons, agoutis, Hispanolan parrots and Hispaniolan parakeets, and many other endemic animals all threatened by habitat destruction.
 
Together with Societé Audubon Haiti, Conservation International and the Haitian government, we are trying to protect this lost world of lush green forests, one of the most critically endangered ecosystems in the world. The efforts made by us at the Philadelphia Zoo are possible in part thanks to the support of the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund.