Biologists Make Strides to Save the Endangered Lake Titicaca Frog

Biologists Make Strides to Save the Endangered Lake Titicaca Frog

Susan Cosier
Published: 05/05/2011

Courtesy of the Denver Zoo

Nestled between the Peru and Bolivia border, South America’s largest lake boasts one of the rarest and unique animals on the planet: the Lake Titicaca frog. For the first time, captive frogs in Peru have laid fertile eggs, a victory for biologists racing to save the species.

"We did lose the tadpoles, but from an amphibian biologist point of view, getting them to produce eggs and spawn is a huge obstacle to get over, and we did that," Tom Weaver, area supervisor at the Denver Zoo, which is helping the effort, told Scientific American. "We can learn and replicate and hopefully get to the point where captured propagation is figured out."

Habitat loss and pollution threaten the species, but more than anything else, overharvesting the amphibian for its skin—thought to be able to cure diseases and increase male virility—has caused the frog’s population to plummet 80 percent over the last three generations, scientists have found. In 2004, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources listed the frog as critically endangered, but researchers say that its population has been declining over the last 40 years, ever since Jacques Cousteau first featured the amphibian in a 1971. Chytrid fungus may also be a danger, even though it has yet to be found in the species.

These hazards prompted researchers at the Denver Zoo to help create an exhibit at the Huachipa Zoo in Lima, which shows the public the fascinating frogs that have wrinkled skin, allowing them to breath underwater by absorbing oxygen. Weighing in a nearly a kilogram and measuring more than 50 centimeters, the frog has a significant effect on the lake’s ecosystem. It’s also known as an indicator species, meaning that if its not healthy, its likely that the entire habitat is sick.

Captive frogs successfully spawned at the Bronx Zoo in the 1970, but the tadpoles died then, too. "Our goal is to go in, get the animal in captivity, and see if we can reproduce it there," Weaver said, ensuring that the species would survive even if their numbers continue to decrease in the wild. "The tadpoles did last for two weeks. Next time we're going to have better success."