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New giant flying frog discovered near city of 9 million

Helen's tree frog. Photo courtesy of Jodi Rowley.
Helen’s tree frog. Photo courtesy of Jodi Rowley.

Jodi Rowley is no stranger to discovering new amphibians—she’s helped describe over 10 in her short career thus far—but she was shocked to discover a new species of flying frog less than 100 kilometers from a major, bustling Southeast Asian metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City. Unfortunately, the new frog, dubbed Helen’s tree frog (Rhacophorus helenae), may be on the verge of extinction, according to the description published in the Journal of Herpetology.

“To discover a previously unknown species of frog, I typically have to climb rugged mountains, scale waterfalls and push my way through dense and prickly rainforest vegetation,” Rowley with the Australian Museum explains. “I certainly didn’t expect to find a new species of frog sitting on a fallen tree in lowland forest criss-crossed by a network of paths made by people and water buffalo, and completely surrounded by a sea of rice-paddies.”

Measuring 10 centimeters long, the new species is described as a giant flying frog. Flying frogs don’t actually fly, but instead use webs between their hands and feet to glide from one tree to another. Researchers believe Helen’s tree frog went unnoticed for so long, because it stuck to the high canopy.

The frog persists in just two lowland forest patches in southern Vietnam, not far from Ho Chi Minh City: Nui Ong Nature Reserve and Tan Phu Forest. The forests are 30 kilometers apart and surrounded by agriculture, making it impossible for the two population to meet.

“It is likely that [Helen’s tree frog] was once widespread over southern Vietnam but now persists in small fragments of remaining
lowland forest. The continued survival of [Helen’s tree frog] is threatened by further habitat loss and degradation due to
encroachment (e.g., livestock grazing and collection of forest products) and habitat isolation,” the researchers write in the paper.

Lowland rainforests are incredibly scarce in this part of the world where booming populations, agriculture, and industrial development have left most standing forests only on hillsides and in mountains.

“Another, more well-known species reliant on lowland forests, the Javan rhino, was confirmed extinct in Vietnam in October 2011,” says Rowley. “The new species is at great risk due to ongoing habitat loss and degradation—the greatest threat to amphibians throughout Southeast Asia—but hopefully it has been discovered just in time to help protect it.”

Rowley says that more information is needed before scientists decide how best to proceed in conservation efforts.

“The first step is finding more about the species—is it really just distributed in a couple of lowland forest fragments or it is more widely distributed? What is the population size of the species? Both these things are going to be incredibly hard to figure out, due to the arboreal nature of the frog. Based on what we know at the moment, I’d say the frog is likely to be highly threatened—primarily by habitat loss and modification.”

Rowley named the new species after her mother, who was recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“To be told I was to have a frog named after me was wonderful, I don’t know anyone who has had anything named after them,” Rowley’s mother, Helen, said.

The edge of Nui Ong Nature Reserve. Photo courtesy of Jodi Rowley.
The edge of Nui Ong Nature Reserve. Photo courtesy of Jodi Rowley.

Another view Helen's tree frog. Photo courtesy of Jodi Rowley.
Another view Helen’s tree frog. Photo courtesy of Jodi Rowley.

CITATION: Jodi J. L. Rowley, Dao Thi Anh Tran, Huy Duc Hoang & Duong Thi Thuy Le (2012). A New Species of Large Flying Frog (Rhacophoridae:
Rhacophorus) from Lowland Forests in Southern Vietnam. Journal of Herpetology. 46:480-487.

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