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Race to halt global amphibian crisis boosted by rediscovery of endangered Colombian frogs


New protected area proves timely in fight against fungus epidemic

The rediscovery of two frog species feared extinct has made a new Colombian protected area the focal point for efforts to save amphibians from a deadly fungus decimating their populations in Central and South America.

Scientists recently found the two Critically Endangered frogs – the Santa Marta harlequin frog (Atelopus laetissimus) and the San Lorenzo harlequin frog (Atelopus nahumae) – for the first time in 14 years in the El Dorado Nature Reserve established in March on the northwest slope of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta massif, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

The reserve is an important home for threatened species, and its protection was a top priority of the Alliance for Zero Extinction – a 62-member group of conservation organizations battling global extinctions. In March, alliance members Conservation International (CI) and American Bird Conservancy (ABC) helped Fundación ProAves of Colombia purchase the 1,600-acre site to protect it as a nature reserve.

Neither of the rediscovered frog species had the deadly fungal disease chytridiomycosis, raising hopes that the species can be saved in the new protected area or through captive breeding. The fungus has been found as close as 40 kilometers (25 miles) away on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and scientists will study the frogs to learn how they have avoided it.

"It’s a race against time to prevent chytridiomycosis from wiping out amphibian populations, but now we have discovered what appear to be healthy populations of these endangered species," said Claude Gascon, CI’s senior vice president for regional programs. "Creating the El Dorado Nature Reserve has given Colombia and the world a unique jewel that will prevent the extinction of threatened species of birds and frogs found nowhere else on the planet." El Dorado is the sole breeding ground of the Endangered Santa Marta Parakeet, and home to five threatened amphibians found nowhere else. The site also is a vital stopover point for declining neotropical migratory birds that breed in the United States and Canada, such as the Cerulean and Golden-winged Warblers.

Fundación ProAves staff at the reserve and Magdalena University researchers found the two rediscovered frog species while conducting research funded by the Darwin Initiative and the National Environmental Action Fund (FPAA).

"This rediscovery is a momentous leap of hope for saving species across the Andes," said Alonso Quevedo, the Fundación ProAves president and an active herpetologist. "The extinction crisis is wiping out so many important environmental indicator species, such as Atelopus frogs, before our very eyes, so this is a real boost for conservation efforts."

The Alliance for Zero Extinction ( issued a report in December 2005 that pinpointed 595 sites around the world containing the last significant habitat for one or more endangered species of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and plant. It listed the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta site as one of the most crucial to protect.

In late December, Fundación ProAves learned of the impending sale of plots from the site for construction of vacation homes. It alerted the Alliance for Zero Extinction, and in less than a month, ABC and CI had secured the funding necessary for Fundación ProAves to buy the entire site that now comprises the El Dorado Nature Reserve. Additional support for the reserve purchase was provided by more than a dozen donors, including the Jeniam Foundation, and Lynn and Stuart White. "These rediscoveries are particularly important as they represent species of frogs that are very sensitive to the disease and which were thought to possibly be extinct," said Paul Salaman of ABC. "Their rediscovery shows that there is hope to find healthy populations and protect them."

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the highest coastal mountain range in the world, rising from the shores of the Caribbean Sea to almost 19,000 feet. It contains extraordinary numbers of species found nowhere else across a multitude of isolated ecosystems. Protecting the new El Dorado Nature Reserve prevents destruction of valuable and rare biodiversity, and also ensures a clean water source for coastal towns that depend on two watersheds that have their sources at the site.

Paula Alvarado | EurekAlert!
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