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In Panama, a tiny rainfrog named after Greta Thunberg endures

Greta Thunberg's rainfrog

  • A tiny tree frog, new to science, has been named after climate activist Greta Thunberg and her work highlighting the urgency of climate change.
  • Scientists found the frog on an expedition to Panama’s Mount Chucantí, home to many unique and endemic species, but which has lost more than 30% of its forest cover in the past decade, mostly to small and medium-scale cattle ranchers.
  • High-elevation species like the Greta Thunberg’s rainfrog (Pristimantis gretathunbergae) are vulnerable to fine-scale changes in the environment and climate change and “face a constant risk of extinction,” the study authors write.
  • The Panamanian nonprofit Adopt a Rainforest Association created a privately patrolled nature preserve on the mountain where 56 undescribed species have been found by scientists. However, funding shortages made worse by COVID-19 have led to a lack of rangers to protect this unique, forested “sky island.”

Up in the trees of a misty sky island, folded into the foliage, a tiny rainfrog bears the name of a climate giant. The new-to-science species, found on a mountain in Panama, has been named after climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Greta Thunberg’s rainfrogs (Pristimantis gretathunbergae) are minuscule (about 3 to 4 centimeters or 1.1 to 1.5 inches long) and spend much of their time tucked away in bromeliads, the leafy plants attached to trees. There, they sleep, mate, and lay their eggs. Their distinctive black eyes, the researchers say, are rare among tree frogs in Central America.

A complete description of Greta Thunberg’s rainfrog was published this week in the journal ZooKeys.

A Greta Thunberg’s rainfrog (Pristimantis gretathunbergae) perched in a bromeliad. “Rainfrogs” belong to the genus Pristimantis and although many are arboreal, they are not considered true tree frogs. Photo by Abel Batista.

Scientists found the new frog on a 2012 expedition to Mount Chucantí, the tallest peak in the Majé mountain range in eastern Panama. At 1,439 meters (4,721 feet), the mountaintop forms a “sky island” habitat: cool, damp, cloud forest, rising up from a sea of lowland tropical rainforest.

Abel Batista, a researcher at Chiriquí Autonomous University in Panama, and Konrad Mebert from the State University of Santa Cruz in Brazil, along with local guides, rode horses and hiked up the steep muddy slopes of the mountain to access the forest. Once there, they set up a base camp to survey for amphibians and reptiles.

Because the mountain is high and isolated (more than 100 kilometers away from any other cloud forests), many unique and endemic species have evolved there, making it ripe territory for species discovery.

The cloud forest on Mount Chucantí, home to the new frog species and many other unique species. Photo by @AdoptaBosque.

“During the first night, on the way to the top of the mountain, the forest was very dark and all covered by clouds,” Batista told Mongabay. “At about 10 p.m., in between bromeliad leaves, we saw a yellow-lipped and big black-eyed frog. Immediately, we had the cue that it could represent a different species to those found in Panama up until that time.”

Using DNA analyses, the researchers confirmed that the frog was indeed new to science. And then came the naming. The Rainforest Trust, a conservation nonprofit, hosted an auction offering the naming rights for several new species, including the rainfrog. The auction winner named the frog in honor of Greta Thunberg and her work highlighting the urgency of climate change, according to a Rainforest Trust press release.

“The plight of the Greta Thunberg Rainfrog is closely linked to climate warming, as rising temperatures would destroy its small mountain habitat,” Batista said.

Greta Thunberg’s rainfrogs cling to a few, high-elevation pieces of habitat. As climate change raises temperatures, the frog species may have nowhere left to go. Photo by Macario González.

When temperatures rise, many species adapt by moving to higher elevations. But for species that already live at the top, there’s nowhere else to go. High-elevation species are especially vulnerable to fine-scale changes in environment and climate, and “face a constant risk of extinction,” the paper says.

Beyond climate change, the tree frog faces habitat loss and the risk of exposure to the deadly chytrid fungus, a notorious tropical amphibian killer. Because of these threats and its small, fragmented, and high-elevation habitat, the authors have suggested that Greta Thunberg’s rainfrog be listed as vulnerable to extinction according to IUCN Red List criteria.

“An urgent conservation plan is required to protect the cloud forests and the distribution of this new, unique and endemic species,” the paper says.

A) Frog habitat on Cerro Chucantí  B) Understory bromeliad with new frog C) Frogs in amplexus  D) Female guarding eggs E) female taking care of its eggs with a male holding on the female in reverse position  F) female with eggs about to hatch. Figure from (Mebert et al 2022).

One group working toward this goal is the Panamanian nonprofit Adopt a Rainforest Association (ADOPTA). In 2005, ADOPTA began purchasing land on Mount Chucantí to create the now 600 hectare (nearly 1,500 acre) Cerro Chucantí Private Nature Reserve.

In his years of working as a forest guide, ADOPTA founder and executive director Guido Berguido often brought tourists to the mountain to see birds and wildlife, including black-headed spider monkeys (Ateles fusciceps rufiventris), great curassows (Crax rubra), and (if they were lucky) a cougar. But year after year, he witnessed something else.

“We witnessed the rainforest [as it was] slashed and burned,” Berguido told Mongabay. “But our frustration led to one of the largest private nature reserves in Panama, where dozens of organisms previously unknown to science have been discovered.”

At least 56 new-to-science species have been found in the reserve, Berguido said, though not all of the species have been formally described by science as the process is costly and time-consuming.

Local law enforcement joins private rangers to patrol the Cerro Chucantí Private Reserve. Photo by @AdoptaBosque.
A cougar (Puma concolor) caught via camera trap (hidden camera) in the Cerro Chucantí Private Reserve in 2019. Image via @AdoptaBosque.

Over the past 10 years, the region around the reserve on Mount Chucantí has lost more than 30% of its forest cover, according to the Rainforest Trust. This deforestation is driven by small and medium-scale cattle ranchers, Berguido said, made worse by government policies that incentivize development.

Now, private game rangers patrol the Cerro Chucantí Private Reserve to protect the forest from ranchers, squatters, illegal loggers and poachers. But, due to funding shortages made worse by COVID-19, only two rangers are currently working, which Berguido said is “not nearly enough.” ADOPTA sometimes manages to cover the expenses of local law enforcement to join forest patrols, but this is expensive.

“This work is very gratifying,” he added, “but can be quite frustrating when we don’t receive enough support … We feel there are only a few of us against a giant foe.”

Citation:

Mebert, K., González-Pinzón, M., Miranda, M., Griffith, E., Vesely, M., Schmid, P. L., & Batista, A. (2022). A new rainfrog of the genus Pristimantis (Anura, Brachycephaloidea) from central and eastern Panama. ZooKeys, 1081, 1-34. doi:10.3897/zookeys.1081.63009

Banner image of Pristimantis gretathunbergae by Macario González.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough

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