May 28, 2018

By Lauren Augustine, Curator of Herpetology 

Centro de Jambatu

This past March, I was fortunate to visit the Centro de Jambatu, an amphibian conservation and research center in Quito, Ecuador. With over 580 described species of frog in Ecuador, the center currently houses over 50 different species. The director of the center, Dr. Luis Coloma, has dedicated his career to saving Ecuador’s amphibians. The gated facility, which was once Dr. Coloma’s parents’ house, is impressive, utilizing the existing infrastructure for amphibian housing, veterinary facilities, quarantine, lab space and offices. Additionally, several “pods,” or shipping containers, are outfitted for frogs, frog food and preserved specimens around the property. These pods serve not only to increase capacity for frogs, but also to safeguard the center’s collection in the event of an emergency. The primary concern is the eruption of the Volcano Cotopaxi which would flood Quito and threaten the center’s collection and equipment. In the event of an evacuation these “pods” can be transported to higher ground protecting the center’s work and minimizing the impact on the animals.

As we toured the center, I was impressed by their creative use of space, the variety of diet items they cultivate and their foresight to include a preserved specimen collection for future research. Dr. Coloma openly discussed the center’s successes and challenges, mentioning the number of undescribed species he and his team have discovered over the years. He is concerned, however, that these species are disappearing faster than they can be described. As we walked through the center’s many rooms, we saw the amphibian keepers caring for the collection, two biologists examining and preserving specimens, a staff member working to produce a variety of insects for frog food, and a student working on editing photos for  an encyclopedia of amphibians of Ecuador that Dr. Coloma is writing. The center is currently under construction to add much needed electrical support and hopes to become an educational facility open to the public by July 2018. With windows providing a view into each of the pods and the buildings, visitors will be able to learn about the diversity of amphibians in Ecuador and get an inside look at the magnitude of the center’s work.  This center is truly amazing!

In The Field

After a few days in Quito we headed out into the field to look for some remnant populations of frogs. We visited two field sites, the first was just an hour outside Quito, where we searched for the last remaining population of rocket frogs. This population was last surveyed five years ago and at that time, the population had declined a staggering 70%. As we approached the site we passed an adventure park equipped with a waterpark, cable car ride and more. The trail to the waterfalls crosses directly over the frogs’ habitat. Biologists from the Centro de Jambatu previously worked with the adventure park owners to move the existing path and build a small bridge to minimize the impact on the frogs. After an exhilarating cable car ride and a short hike, we arrived at the site which was marked with a rocket frog sign . This particular species of frog is diurnal, or active during the day, so we arrived around noon and began to search for signs of the frogs. The area is very small, bordered by a rock wall with a small water seepage on one side and the path to the waterfall on the other. Unfortunately, we did not find or hear any frogs. The frogs are likely extirpated from this area, and now likely extinct.

The second, longer excursion was to Intag, Ecuador, about five hours outside of Quito. The drive was gorgeous, taking winding roads through the Andes into the Cloud Forest. A four-wheel drive vehicle is certainly a requirement for this trip. This high elevation site is comprised of highly fragmented cloud forest, but it is where, in 2016, scientists rediscovered the longnose harlequin frog, a species that was thought to have gone extinct in 1989.

We arrived at the eco-lodge just outside the small city of Junin in the late afternoon. After unpacking our gear and eating dinner we headed out into the dark forest surrounding the lodge in search of the longnose harlequin frog. Our guide, Xavier, grew up in the region and knew where the frogs had been found previously. Even though it was the rainy season in Junin, there hadn’t been any rain for serval days. We hiked down the narrow path with our headlamps, searching the leaf surfaces for frogs. Within a short time, we found two frogs resting on leaves just off the path, both rain frog species (Pristomantis sp.). Each frog found had a photograph taken in its habitat before being collected in a plastic bag for safe transport back to the lodge. After another couple of minutes, Mark Wanner, Zoological Manager of Herpetology & Aquatics at the Saint Louis Zoo, found a longnose harlequin frog. This early sighting was exciting! As we continued throughout that night and the following two, we found several different frogs, but unfortunately, no other harlequin frogs. Dr. Coloma told us that in the past  this type of forest was full of frogs.  It is sad to see such a drastic decline in numbers. In total we found 35 frogs from 10 different species on this expedition. Not a lot for Ecuador.

Declining Numbers

Why such drastic population declines? Habitat destruction, disease and pollution are the leading causes of frog decline across the world and Ecuador is no exception. The Intag region is now being further impacted by copper mining, a practice that is already polluting the waters and will undoubtably destroy the last remaining habitat in this region. For this reason, Dr. Coloma’s team is collecting frogs and attempting to develop breeding colonies in the center to  safeguard the species.

The Center de Jambatu is conducting extremely important work saving frogs. Many species have gone extinct and many more are likely to have the same fate. Without Dr. Coloma’s team, these species would be lost forever.

Click the photos below to see a larger image.

Check out these other blogs on Ecuador. 

Ecuador's Cotopaxi Volcano Threatens Endangered Amphibians
The World's Most Frog-diverse Nation is Losing Its Beautiful Creatures