A new note authored by our collaborator Alex Ttito and published today in Zootaxa documents new geographic records for the southern Peruvian terrestrial breeding frog Oreobates amarakaeri. This species was recently described from the foothills of the Andes in the Cusco province of Quispicanchis, but our surveys broaden the known distribution northward to Manu NP and southward to Bahuaja Sonene. Near Bahuaja, we found O. amarakaeri very close to the type locality of O. granulosus, although the two species do not seem overlap altitudinally.
Alessandro attended the 3rd Colombian Congress of Herpetology in Bogota the first week of December. He was one of the plenary speakers for a symposium dedicated to Herpetofauna Conservation organized by Vicky Flechas, Aldemar Acevedo, Nicolas Urbina and Orlando Armesto.
A paper authored by lab member Andrew Rubio and published today in the journal Diseases of Aquatic Organisms investigates the possible role of the antifungal bacterium Janthinobacterium lividum in protecting high-elevation Andean water frogs of the genus Telmatobius. These frogs are highly susceptible to chytrid fungal infections, and populations of most species inhabiting cloud forest streams have sharply declined or have not been seen since the chytrid epizootics that occurred over the last two to three decades.
The bacterium Janthinobacterium lividum inhibits the growth of Bd on the host, reduces morbidity, and improves survival. It produces a purple compound, as seen in the picture here, which inhibits fungal growth. Despite the widely documented vulnerability of Telmatobius frogs to chytridiomycosis, populations of T. intermedius, T. marmoratus and other high-elevation species persist in southern and central Peru. These species inhabit streams and wetlands above the treeline, in open habitats exposed to sunlight during the day, so there could be multiple environmental factors contributing to population persistence. In this study, we wanted to investigate whether the presence of J. lividum in several populations of Telmatobius was correlated with prevalence and intensity of chytrid infection.
We sampled nearly 130 adult frogs for both chytrid and bacterium, and found that the probability of an individual being infected with the chytrid disease was independent of the presence of the protective bacterium. However, we did detect a protective effect of J. lividum with respect to intensity of infection. The wide distribution of J. lividum in the high Andes stands in stark contrast to its rarity in lower elevation cloud forest habitats, where most species of Telmatobius have disappeared.
During the weekend of 3-4 November our lab traveled to Archbold Biological Station for a lab retreat. Archbold is a unique type of station and private reserve, protecting a large remnant of the southernmost extension of the highly endangered Florida scrub habitat. The station has amazing infrastructure, including an education center, a GIS lab, collections, active research labs and cabins for visiting researchers. We rented two of these cabins for an intensive brainstorming session with hiking and cooking breaks. Very happy to have chosen Archbold as our destination for our first lab retreat in Florida.
Great news for the lab, Kenny and Alex were awarded FIU Tropics grants for field research (Kenny) and to attend a bioinformatics workshop (Alex). Congrats to both of them! FIU Tropics is research center at FIU and was launched in 2016. FIU Tropics is recognized as a collaborative endeavor with great potential to provide unique student opportunities and pioneer research and engagement. FIU Tropics integrates more than 50 faculty members in synergistic projects focused on describing biodiversity, discovering uses and sustainable production systems for tropical natural products, conserving tropical species and ecosystems, and shared capacity building and education with partners around the globe.
This week Tropical Conservation Science publishes our last contribution to a survey of chytrid prevalence in lowland Amazonian forests led by our collaborator Dr. Rudolf von May from the University of Michigan. The chytrid fungus has caused precipitous population declines and the collapse of many amphibian species throughout the world, especially in mountains and in places that are moist and moderately cool - just the conditions many amphibians like.
However warm and moist places such as tropical lowland forests are the ecosystem of greatest amphibian species richness. The highest species richness is found in lowland Amazonian forests, known to be home to over 90 species of amphibians at a single site. Considering that chytrid is capable to infect and cause mortality in multiple amphibian hosts, there is potential for for this disease to wreak havoc in these mega diverse places. Yet most of the lowland Amazon amphibian communities that are being surveyed are not declining due to chytrid.
One reason this might not be happening has traditionally been associated to the constant high temperatures found in the lowland Amazon, which are supposed to exceed the thermal tolerance of the fungus. When grown in the lab, the chytrid fungus does not grow and zoospores are killed at temperatures above 28C. Our study shows that temperatures above 28C occur frequently at Los Amigos, a biological station in lowland Amazonian Peru.
Therefore one would expect not to find chytrid in the lowland Amazon, or to find very few infected animals. That's not what we found after surveying the frog community of Los Amigos, in southeastern Peru, because nine species, including Adenomera andreae shown here and Hamptophryne boliviana shown above, were infected by chytrid. Although infection levels were low, our findings suggest that the chytrid can affect amphibians even in very warm places.
At the beginning of the month we traveled to Pampas Galeras National Reserve in Peru for the field course on ecology and conservation of high-Andean amphibians. This course gathered 24 participants coming from throughout the Americas, including Peru, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, the US and Canada, and ranging from undergraduate to graduate students and professionals in biological and veterinary sciences.
The field course was organized in collaboration with the Reserve and with the local NGO Pro Fauna Silvestre. The course was led by instructors Alessandro Catenazzi and Sarah Kupferberg, with lectures by our collaborator Victor Vargas of SERFOR and Pro Fauna Silvestre, and by Allan Flores, head of the Reserve. We emphasized field applications in stream and tadpole ecology, and experimental approaches with mesocosms in the stunning landscape of Pampas Galeras.
The main objectives of the course were to develop skills in experimental design and execution of ecological studies, and to learn new field techniques in population monitoring, field experiments, environmental sampling, and data analysis. Lectures ranged from introduction to physical processes and flow regime adaptations in streams, to tadpole feeding ecology, amphibian ecophysiology, frog skin microbiota and disease ecology. Students then split into six groups to conduct field projects, and everyone helped search for tadpoles and frogs in the frigid nights of Pampas Galeras.
The star of the course was the Water Andean frog, Telmatobius sp., which despite epizootics of chytridiomycosis that have swept central and southern Peru since the early 2000s, persists at Pampas Galeras with good populations. In the picture we are measuring the body temperature of a female, the surface of the creek where she lives often freezes at night.
The six group projects covered the following topics: (1) effects of water depth and stream microhabitat on biofilm productivity; (2) estimating population abundance of adult Telmatobius frogs using photographic recognition and mark recapture estimation; (3) study of skin symbiotic bacterial diversity in adult Telmatobius; (4) effects of mouthpart degradation caused by chytrid on tadpole feeding ecology; (5) bioacoustics of Telmatobius intermedius and Telmatobius sp. and (6) thermal ecology of aquatic frogs.
Last July we embarked on a search for Atelopus loettersi, shown in the picture here taken from the description by I. De la Riva and colleagues. The type locality is near Quincemil, in a trib of the Nusiniscato river. Sadly this river, similarly to many other rivers in the upper Madre de Dios, Araza and Inambari watersheds, is the target of indiscriminate gold mining, which is affecting river turbidity and sedimentation, and likely introducing mercury into the riverine ecosystems.
The original description already warned us the task would not be easy, since a single adult had been found at this locality. However, some juveniles had also been found during a previous visit, so we were hopeful we could again confirm presence of this species. Harlequin toads have declined throughout their geographic range from Costa Rica to Bolivia, yet lowland and submontane species such as A. loettersi (the type locality is at 480 m a.s.l.) have generally fared better than mid-and high-elevation species..
We spent two nights at the stream where the species was first discovered, and at an adjacent stream which also looked like great harlequin toad habitat. Both streams had rich macroinvertebrate communities, and although one had water withdrawals for a nearby miner's camp, they generally appeared to be in good shape. We unfortunately did not see any sleeping A. loettersi at night. We again went back during the day and similarly failed to spot or hear any harlequin toad, or to find any of their tadpoles in side pools of the creek. During the two nights, the concomitant full moon and mostly clear skies certainly did not help with making the night surveys very successful. Despite these shortcomings, we were able to swab the skin of ~20 frogs of other species, which will provide information on presence of cythrid fungus. We also helped an Engystomops freibergi have one of her best nights, after inadvertently destroying a short segment of a termite tunnel.
During the month of March we resurveyed amphibian communities along the elevational gradient in the Kosñipata Valley of southern Peru, near Manu National Park. These amphibian communities collapsed during the early 2000s during epizootics of chytridiomycosis, as we have previously documented. Our previous surveys compared anuran communities observed in 2008 and 2009, after chytridiomycosis invaded the valley, with those observed from 1996 to 1999, when we started working in this region. Furthermore, there are rich specimen collections made by teams of the Smithsonian in the early 90s, and Kansas University in the early 70s, which further document the diversity of anuran communities prior to epizootics of chytridiomycosis. Nine years after our last comprehensive survey (2009), we decided to return to the valley and re-sample the same localities from 1200 to 3700 m.
Our previous comprehensive surveys in the wet seasons of 1999, 2008 and 2009 consisted of two approaches: surveys of leaf-litter frogs using 10x10m quadrats, with four quadrats within each 100-m elevational band; and nocturnal surveys along the road that connects the mountain pass of Acjanaco at 3400 m to the town of Chontachaca at 900 m. We returned to the same sites along the road, and repeated the same sampling design during this last wet season. Our field crew included students and recent graduates from the University in Cusco, along with field assistants from the nearby town of Pilcopata, including two people who had already participated in previous surveys. We were able to sample all 100 leaf-litter quadrats (each takes about 2 hours to complete by three people), and to survey at night at elevations up to 3100 m (above 3100 m, nocturnal surveys are not effective because few frogs are active at night).
We captured over 600 frogs over the course of three weeks. Ccommunities of arboreal and stream-breeding frogs observed during nocturnal surveys continue to show a substantial deficit in species richness (see graph). Our data are preliminary because we still need to compute sampling effort, but the snapshot shows a slight recovery in species richness. This pattern is corroborated by "rediscoveries" of a few species that were abundant in 1999, but absent in 2008 and 2009. However, our preliminary data also suggest a decrease in frog density, and confirm that most species that disappeared from 2000 to 2008 continue to be absent from the valley.
We will next process swab samples to examine how infection dynamics have changed over the years. In the years following the epizootics of the early 2000s, prevalence varied widely along the elevational gradient, with populations at mid elevation (1500-2000 m) most infected by the chytrid fungus. We are especially interested in studying current infection patterns in species that have persisted despite being susceptible to chytridiomycosis. Understanding how susceptible species are able to persist and even recover despite the continuous presence of the pathogen may help develop strategies to mitigate the negative effects of the fungal disease on amphibians.
The work of our collaborator Vanessa Uscapi is featured in this beautiful video made by Katie Garrett. Vanessa, seen below weighing a frog with the help of a field assistant, has been working with the frogs of the Madre Selva montane forest near Quincemil, in the Peruvian Andes, for several years. As part of her field work, she discovered a new, minute terrestrial-breeding frog, Noblella madreselva, which we described in 2015. Her studies contribute to the protection of this fragile ecosystem. Many montane forests in the Andes are threatened by logging and the expansion of agriculture. Yet they often contain highly endemic species such as Noblella madreselva and other small frogs that inhabit the humid leaf litter at high elevations.
News from the lab