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New ‘sleeping beauty’ frog discovered in fragmented Peruvian forest

  • The new species belongs to the Pristimantis genus and is named after the central Amazon mountain range in which it was found.
  • Scientists found two populations of the frog: one in Tingo Maria National Park and another outside the park in an area heaviy deforested for agriculture.
  • The surrounding region has become a hotbed of cattle ranching in recent years, yet has hasn’t attracted conservation attention given to other areas of Peru.

The world of amphibians has a new official member, with a species of rain frog discovered recently in and near Tingo Maria National Park in Peru’s central Andes. The new frog, Pristimantis pulchridormientes, is described in a study published this month in ZooKeys, and at least part of its population occurs in forest habitat that’s been highly fragmented by agriculture.

Located in Peru’s Huallaga basin in the Huanuco Department, researchers found individuals of the new species in lower-montane forest in the national park between 1,000 and 1700 meters in elevation. The landscape in this region is a chain of small but isolated mountains commonly known as “La Bella Durmiente” – Spanish for “the sleeping beauty” – for their resemblence to the shape of a sleeping woman. The newly discovered frog, too, is named after the same mountains; its species name, pulchridormientes, is a combination of two Latin words meaning “beautiful” and “sleeping.”

Scientists Germán Chávez of the Centro de Ornitologia y Biodiversidad (CORBIDI) and Alessandro Catenazzi, affiliated with both CORBIDI and Southern Illinois University, discovered the frog during a rapid biodiversity inventory conducted in November 2014. As their name suggests, rain frogs are active during the rainy monsoon season in the Neotropics, and the forests come alive with their calls during the months of November and December.

It was these calls that first alerted Chávez and his team to the possibility of a new species. He told Mongabay that when they first heard the chorus of male frogs, their first thought was about how strange the call was. Their suspicions intensified upon seeing the frog. No other Pristimantis species they knew of had such a bright red color on its rear limbs and groin – in stark contrast to its otherwise yellowish-brown body.

The newly described Pristimantis pulchridormientes showing off its vibrant legs. Photo by Germán Chávez
The newly described Pristimantis pulchridormientes shows off its vibrant legs. Photo by Germán Chávez
Photo by Germán Chávez
Photo by Germán Chávez

And there are many different kinds of Pristimantis frogs – 131 known species in Peru alone.

“Frogs of the genus Pristimantis comprise one of the most striking, richest and understudied groups in the Neotropics,” write Chávez and coauthor Alessandro Catenazzi in their study.

Analysis of the frog’s morphology – its physical appearance – and comparison with known similar species, confirmed that this frog was in fact a new species. The difference, Chávez said, wasn’t just the new frog’s bright red color, but also the shape of its head and body. Still, the new frog is somewhat similar to other species in the same genus, particularly Pristimantis lacrimosus. However, Chávez told Mongabay that when the scientists looked at its genetics, they determined that “…despite its appearance, which resembles other species of Pristimantis, genetic sequences of this new species show clear differences with [those] of other species.”

Discovered in the midst of destruction

With limited knowledge on the species’ current distribution, authors of the study are recommending Pristimantis pulchridormientes be placed in the Data Deficient category of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. However, they caution that part of its population is already known to be living in highly fragmented forest.

The new rain frog was found in two different areas: one was an undisturbed part of Tingo Maria National Park; the other was a much more degraded region outside the park’s bounds.

The new rain frog was discovered in the La Bella Durmiente mountains. Photo by Germán Chávez
The new rain frog was discovered in the La Bella Durmiente mountains. Photo by Germán Chávez
Forest habitat of Pristimantis pulchriormientes. Photo by Germán Chávez
Forest habitat of Pristimantis pulchriormientes. Photo by Germán Chávez

At 4,700 hectares, Tingo Maria is relatively small compared to many of Peru’s other national parks – including 2.3 million-hectare Cordillera Azul National Park 30 kilometers (19 miles) to its north. Very few biological surveys have ever been carried out in the Tingo Maria National Park, with terrorism and drug trafficking making the area largely inaccessible during the 1980s and ’90s. Subsequently, the park’s biological diversity is poorly understood.

“Tingo Maria National Park is one of the most amazing places to watch fauna, and we are convinced that is the main shelter for many endemic species from central Peru,” the researchers said in a statement.

The park offers a refuge in a landscape pockmarked by deforestation. The forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch shows the park lost just 12 hectares of tree cover from 2001 through 2014 while the 32,000 hectares surrounding it lost more than 2,000 hectares – or nearly 7 percent of its tree cover in 14 years. Agriculture is considered a major driver of deforestation the region.

Global Forest Watch shows large areas of forest around Tingo Maria National Park have been lost since 2001.
Global Forest Watch shows large areas of forest around Tingo Maria National Park have been lost since 2001.

Chávez said that the attention that areas like Loreto and Madre de Dios receive is most likely the result of a large number of people working on tourism and conservation in those places for many years. That, however, is not the case in the central Amazon because past illicit activities made it very difficult and dangerous for individuals or institutions to work there. Today, Chávez told Mongabay, “there [are] no signals of terrorism, but drug [trafficking] has produced deforestation of many areas in this region, including most of the territory around this national park.”

Although the new rain frog was also found outside Tingo Maria National Park, Chávez believes that the park is where this new species has the best opportunity to thrive since it has been largely protected from the deforestation surrounding it.

“Small and isolated populations of the new species are probably occurring along premontane forests of the Huallaga basin,” he said, but only in the national park is there a “great and healthy population.”

For the new frog and other species living in the region, Chávez said, “the main threat is habitat loss” from conversion of forest to cattle pasture and other agricultural activities. Any action that increases deforestation is a threat for this new frog and other forest wildlife, he told Mongabay.

Some of this wildlife may yet remain undiscovered – or, as Chávez hinted, discovered but not yet unveiled to the outside world.

“Despite its small area and still poor knowledge that we have about this, we have recorded a new species,” in a place that is still relatively untouched and unexplored, leaving many things to be discovered yet, Chávez said. “We have more surprises from this expedition and hopefully, [they] will be published soon.”

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