The Discovery of a Tiny Frog in Remote Bolivia Could Be the First of Big Wildlife Finds

Scientists are spending 18 months trekking the Madidi wilderness and sharing their discoveries on social media.

Herpetologist James Aparacio of the Bolivian Faunal Collection and the National Natural History Museum examines a new species of robber frog, which he and other scientists found in Bolivia's Madidi National Park. (Photos: Mileniusz Spanowicz; Rob Wallace /WCS)

Aug 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Just two months into an 18-month exploration of a major Bolivian nature reserve called the Madidi, biologists have come across dozens of animals never before seen in the park—and at least one species completely new to science.

That critter is a frog that’s barely an inch long, with golden goggle eyes and mottled greenish-brown skin across its head and back. Orange skin patches on its inner thighs mark it as a species of robber or big-headed frog, which are native to the Amazon and Andes.

“The herpetologists knew straightaway that it was strange,” said Robert Wallace of the New York–based Wildlife Conservation Society, who lives in Bolivia and is a member of the project. The frog’s status must be confirmed with genetic analysis, which will take around six months. But “based on the morphological characteristics, they’re confident it is a new species,” Wallace said.

RELATED: Meet the Amazon Tribespeople Who Beat Chevron in Court

The team also found a catfish and a lizard that may be new to science but must do additional research on the two species to be certain.

The Identidad Madidi expedition “is about trying to increase the number of confirmed species” in Madidi National Park. It’s knowledge that will help the Bolivian government protect and manage the area, Wallace said.

“The thing that’s really interesting,” he added, “is that we’re trying to share that knowledge in real time with an increasing audience” in Bolivia by sending updates every few days to Facebook, posting first in Spanish and then in English.

“There were in early expeditions letters from the field, going back a century ago, that would have taken a long time to get back and published,” Wallace said. “Today there are different possibilities [for fast communication] to increase the general recognition that Madidi is really special.”

One thing that makes Madidi extraordinary is its vast size: The park covers about 7,300 square miles of remote northwestern Bolivia, bordering a number of other protected areas, including Peru’s storied Manu Biosphere Reserve.

Another is its remove from South America’s increasing urbanization. “From La Paz, it’s a minimum of a one-day drive—basically a 12-hour drive—to get to the park,” Wallace said. “Depending on where you go, that could turn into three or four days easily, [and] the most remote parts are another seven or eight days walking.”

And then there’s the scope and variety of the park’s ecological zones, which range from Amazon rainforest to Andean peaks that sit 17,000 feet above sea level.

Thanks to its size, relative isolation, and diverse habitats, Wallace believes Madidi may possess more varied wildlife than in any other protected area in the world.

“Before we started, the list was at close to 1,500 confirmed species,” he said “But we believe there are at least 2,000, and more like 2,250, vertebrate species in the park.” They may include up to 1,100 bird species—11 percent of all bird species in the world, Wallace noted—nearly 300 types of mammals, 350 to 400 species of amphibians and reptiles, and around 450 species of fish.

In the first two months of the expedition, the scientists have added 25 species of mammals, 15 fish, 11 reptiles, five amphibians, and four birds to the official record of wildlife living in the park.

Madidi’s size and isolation have not spared it from human impacts, however. “As with most of the Andes, the glaciers have noticeably retreated in the last 15 or 16 years we’ve been working in the park,” said Wallace.

Identidad Madidi will help establish a baseline for the status of wildlife in the park, particularly species at higher elevations, so that scientists can manage and track the effects of warming temperatures and vanishing glaciers.

“The cliché is that you can’t protect something if you don’t know about it,” Wallace said. “Our hope is that this expedition will harness even more support for Bolivian wilderness and biodiversity.”