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"Extinct" Frog Found in Honduras, Experts Say

By Ker Than
for National Geographic News
September 26, 2008
 
A rough-skinned frog species thought to have gone extinct more than 20 years ago has been found alive in a Honduran rain forest, experts said.

Craugastor milesi—also called the miles' robber frog—was considered "locally abundant" in Honduras until the 1980s, when attempts to find the frog proved unsuccessful.

The culprit was thought to be a chytrid fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), which now threatens to wipe out numerous frog species worldwide.

(See related: "Deadly Frog Fungus Spreads in Virus-Like Waves" [April 1, 2008].)

While trekking last year through Cusuco National Park in Honduras, Jonathan Kolby, a senior herpetologist with the conservation group Operation Wallacea, stumbled across a frog that he had never seen before.

"I knew it was different," Kolby said. "By then I was pretty familiar with what should and shouldn't be there."

Kolby failed to nab the frog that first time, but after returning to the same spot this past June—with funding from National Geographic's Conservation Trust—he spotted and collected a very similar looking species.

"Uncanny"

"It was uncanny. It was basically one foot (30 centimeters) away from exactly where it was sitting last year," Kolby said.

"It's easy to say that it may have been the same frog, but I'm hopeful that it's not."

Kolby sent the specimen to Florida-based James McCranie, an independent expert on Honduran frogs, who identified it as the miles' robber frog.

The adult male specimen Kolby had captured showed no signs of Bd infection. This was surprising, because Kolby's previous research had shown that the stream where the frog had been found was rife with Bd-infected amphibians.

That the frog was an adult is also significant. "If he was a juvenile, you could say maybe he just beat the odds so far," Kolby said. "For it to be an adult and to be sitting in proximity to infection all around him really implies resistance."

Kolby suspects that a population of miles' robber frogs was already immune to the infection before it struck. Or perhaps the resistance later developed in individuals that had survived the initial outbreak of the fungus.

"It's kind of hard to say at this point," Kolby said.

Cautious Optimism

Mike Sears, an ecologist at Southern Illinois University, called the news "very exciting indeed." But he added that it's still an open question as to how some frogs can survive amid Bd.

It could be that some species have evolved to be resistant, Sears said. Or it could be that some animals "use parts of the habitat which are not favorable to the growth of and infection by Bd, such as warmer and drier places."

Zoologist Karen Lips, of Southern Illinois University, said "I think its great that they found one."

"Hopefully there are others and they're reproducing. If we're lucky, [frogs] will really adapt and deal with this fungus," said Lips, who was not involved in the study.

Lips warns, however, against assuming that miles' robber frogs are now in the clear.

"Every time somebody finds a frog or something that hasn't been seen in quite some time, the media rushes to press and says it's not extinct," she said. "Well, it was never extinct. It was just really rare, and it's still really rare."

Unless the surviving population of miles' robber frogs is reasonably large and genetically diverse, the species is still in danger of vanishing completely, Lips said.

"You can hold out for a while, but you're really susceptible to random, chance events, such as a bad year of weather or a big outbreak of the disease again," she said.

"Bd never goes away. It's always there."
 

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