When Valentine’s Day rolled around last year, Romeo found himself without a date. That’s because Romeo is a Sehuencas water frog and, as far as scientists knew at the time, he was the last surviving member of his species. The last time he even bothered calling for a mate was apparently some time in late 2017.
Romeo’s luck has changed, however, as biologists in Bolivia have now found him a mate – just in time for Valentine’s Day 2019 – as well as a few other Sehuencas water frogs they plan to use to start a captive breeding program that may eventually lead to the species thriving once again in the wild.
When Romeo was first found and collected by biologists a decade ago, the Sehuencas water frog was already facing severe threats to its continued survival. The fully aquatic frog species could formerly be found living in abundance at the bottoms of small streams, rivers, and ponds in the montane cloud forests of Bolivia, but the impacts of climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, and the lethal chytrid aquatic fungal pathogen had already taken a heavy toll, causing a steep decline in populations of water frogs and many of the other amphibians of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru.
The Sehuencas water frog (Telmatobius yuracare) is currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, but that’s based on an assessment of the species’ conservation status from 2004. (You can hear IUCN Director General Inger Andersen discuss how the IUCN Red List gets updated on the latest episode of the Mongabay Newscast.)
Scientists weren’t successful 10 years ago in finding any other Sehuencas water frogs to accompany Romeo, who currently lives in an aquarium at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny in Cochabamba City, Bolivia. That meant they couldn’t start a conservation breeding program to give the species a shot at survival. So last year, the teams at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny and the NGO Global Wildlife Conservation set up a dating profile for Romeo on Match.com as a means of raising money to fund an expedition into Bolivia’s cloud forests in search of a Juliet.
That expedition led to the rediscovery of the Sehuencas water frog in the wild and the collection of three males and two females, one an adolescent but the other of mature breeding age. The newly found frogs were taken to the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny’s K’ayra Center for Research and Conservation of Threatened Amphibians, where they are currently in quarantine as they acclimate to their new surroundings and get treatment for the chytrid fungal disease. Once the quarantine period is over, Romeo will finally meet his Juliet – and the species just might make a comeback from the brink of extinction.
Teresa Camacho Badani, the museum’s chief of herpetology, led the expedition that rediscovered the Sehuencas water frog in the wild. “It is an incredible feeling to know that thanks to everyone who believes in true love and donated for Valentine’s Day last year, we have already found a mate for Romeo and can establish a conservation breeding program with more than a single pair,” Badani said in a statement.
Badani and the expedition team will continue looking for more companions for Romeo and Juliet until March, which will help them determine if the species still exists in the wild in any other locations and learn more about its preferred habitat. These insights, in turn, could help in devising a plan for returning Romeo and Juliet’s future offspring to their natural environment.
“Now the real work begins – we know how to successfully care for this species in captivity, but now we will learn about its reproduction, while also getting back into the field to better understand if any more frogs may be left and if so, how many, where they are, and more about the threats they face,” Badani said. “With this knowledge we can develop strategies to mitigate the threats to the species’ habitat, while working on a long-term plan to return Romeo’s future babies to their wild home, preventing the extinction of the Sehuencas water frog.”
According to the scientists at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny and Global Wildlife Conservation, concerns about the effect of removing these frogs from the wild population are outweighed by the precarious conservation status of the species.
“There are likely too few water frogs in the wild for them to retain a viable population over the long-term at this point,” the groups note in a statement. “Much of their historical habitat has been destroyed and their numbers are badly impacted by invasive trout that eat their eggs and by the deadly amphibian disease chytridiomycosis. Chytrid appears to have wiped out all frogs from these streams (not just water frogs), so the highest conservation priority is to rescue the animals for a conservation breeding program so that one day, once the threats have been mitigated, we are able to return this species to the wild.”
The groups point to conservation success stories, such as the Mallorcan midwife toad in Spain and the Kihansi spray toad in Tanzania, as examples of captive breeding and reintroduction being integral parts of larger strategies to help species recover in the wild.
“There is always risk in bringing animals in from the wild to build an insurance population, and it isn’t a step that should be taken lightly,” Chris Jordan, Global Wildlife Conservation’s Central America and Tropical Andes coordinator, said in a statement.
The species could be lost if we don’t take action now, so the greater risk would be to do nothing, Jordan added: “We have a real chance to save the Sehuencas water frog – restoring a unique part of the diversity of life that is the foundation of Bolivia’s forests, and generating important information on how to restore similar species also at grave risk of extinction.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.