Wildlife & Biodiversity

Back from the dead! ‘Extinct’ frog species make a comeback

Researchers confirmed that many harlequin frogs once believed to be extinct are persisting

By Nandita Banerji
Published: Wednesday 09 November 2022
Harlequin frogs are a case study in persistence that could help improve protection and conservation efforts. Photo: Morley Read / MSU__

Biodiversity stories reported from around the world usually do not have a happy ending — there has been an average decline of 69 per cent in species populations since 1970, according to a recent report. However, the discovery of a frog species believed to be extinct has stunned researchers, who are calling it an unprecedented “underfrog” story.

Once a species is classified as extinct, odds are it isn’t coming back. Ecologists at Michigan State University (MSU) and collaborators in Ecuador have found 32 species of an amphibian genus — Atelopus or harlequin frogs — still surviving in the wild

Read more: Sustainable use of wild species can meet needs of billions: IPBES 9 report

“I can’t tell you how special it is to hold something we never thought we’d see again,” said Kyle Jaynes, the lead author of the study published in the journal Biological Conservation. Jaynes is an MSU doctoral student in the Department of Integrative Biology and the Ecology, Evolution and Behavior Program (EEB).

Though the research paints a bright picture for the future of the amphibians and ecology in general, the species is still critically endangered. 

“But rediscovery does not equal recovery,” Jaynes said. “This story isn’t over for these frogs and we’re not where we want to be in terms of conservation and protection. We still have a lot to learn and a lot to do.”

A recent report by international non-governmental organisation World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Living Planet Report 2022 painted a grim picture of the status of wildlife conservation and called for urgent action to reverse nature loss.

The WWF report linked the loss of wildlife populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish with the climate crisis and highlighted the broken relationship of humans with nature. The highest decline (94 per cent) was in the Latin America and the Caribbean region, while the least was in Europe and central Asia (18 per cent). 

But there are other threats to biodiversity as well. Since the 1980s, a fungus called Bd — short for Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis — has been killing off members of more than 500 species of amphibians, according to a 2019 report in the Science journal. Humans had unwittingly spread the fungus around the world. 

Read more: One in three species threatened with extinction, action needed, says study

The harlequin frog genus was hit exceptionally hard by the fungus, according to the MSU research team. Over the past four decades, experts believed that upwards of 80 per cent of its species were driven to extinction.

“In total, 87 species have been missing,” Jaynes said. “To date, 32 of those once-missing species — that’s 37 per cent — have been rediscovered over the last two decades.”

The discovery opens up several questions about conservation and threats to ecology.

“For example, why are these frogs persisting? What we found points to the fact that there probably isn’t a single explanation,” said Sarah Fitzpatrick, an assistant professor in the College of Natural Science and core faculty member of EEB. “And now that we’ve described these frogs, how do we ensure their recovery?”

We want people to walk away from this with a glimmer of hope that we can still address the problems of the biodiversity crisis, Jaynes added. 

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