Marcio Pie was ready to give up.
He and his team had left Paraná, Brazil (map), at the crack of dawn for a long, bumpy ride in a beat-up 4x4. Parking at the base of a mountain called Serra do Quiriri, the group left their vehicle and began a steep ascent into the cloud forest, exhausted and drenched.
Then, Pie heard a quiet croak. Tiptoeing through the forest in nearly complete darkness, he tracked the sound back to a small, red-bellied toad in the branches of a bromeliad. (See "Seven New Mini-Frogs Found—Among Smallest Known.")
Listen to the new frogs singing.
Their perseverance had paid off: The team had discovered the first of three new toad species in the cloud forests of southern Brazil. They are Melanophryniscus biancae, M. milanoi, and M. xanthostomus.
“These frogs are really temperamental. If it’s too dry or too wet, you won’t be able to catch them,” says Pie, an evolutionary biologist at the Federal University of Paraná in Brazil.
Warty Plant Dwellers
Preliminary DNA work indicates that the warty new critters—which are dark in color with red belly patches—are very closely related and evolved just a few thousand years ago.
Listen to the new toads sing.
At just over an inch (2.5 centimeters) long, the three species are on the small side for toads. Many Melanophryniscus toads are also poisonous, although it isn’t yet clear whether this is true for the new species. (See "Why Some Poison Frogs Taste Bittersweet When Licked.")
Unlike other Melanophryniscus toads, which lay their eggs in ponds and streams, these amphibians lay their eggs in the water that collects in plants, which is known as phytotelm breeding.
Because the pools of water are so small, females generally lay fewer eggs (less than 50) than do other toads.
Their tadpoles are also larger and less able to swim, according to the study, published December 2 in the journal PLOS ONE.
Name of the Game
The discoveries are among the many gems that have emerged from eastern Brazilian cloud forests since the 1990s.
These isolated forests, which surround mountain peaks, "are like islands in the sky,” Pie says.
That means a species often lives on one mountaintop and nowhere else—resulting in amazing diversity. In this project alone, the team has discovered 11 new species.
But such a small range can also be dangerous—if the one population is wiped out, that's the end for the species. The newfound toads "are already under threat" due to climate change and forest loss, Pie says.
Since cloud forests are some of the first habitats to be affected by climate change, Pie and his team rushed to get their findings to print.
In addition, formally naming the animals is the first step in making sure they can be survive, Pie says.
“Without a species name, an animal can’t be protected because legally it doesn’t exist."
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