What comes to mind when you hear that Ecuador is a MEGA-diverse country? You probably conjure up the countless shapes, colors and aromas of plants, animals and fungi that inhabit the country. You probably know several of these beings with whom we share the sea, forests, rivers and páramos of this small and magical nation. However, most of us would admit that we know very little about all the hours, hard work and responsibility that goes into studying and classifying life in all its multifarious forms, the very life which ranks us as one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet. To put our biodiversity into perspective, in Ecuador there are 20% more species of animals and plants than in the United States, in a territory 35 times smaller.
Number of species: Ecuador versus the United States
Today, we’ll share with you a small part of the behind-the-scenes efforts that went into the description of the beautiful and unique Mashpi Glass Frog (Hyalinobatrachium mashpi) where many researchers were involved.
At the end of 2014, Jaime Culebras, a biologist and photographer, together with Carlos Morochz, then Director of Research and Biology at Mashpi Lodge, decided to go on a night walk, ignoring the rain that fell like sheets on the lush forests of the Mashpi Reserve, located to the northwest of Quito, Ecuador’s capital.
After a few hours of tramping through the forest, climbing up and down the steep slopes that flank the reserve’s crystalline streams, the light of Jaime’s flashlight picked out the body of an animal of no more than 2 cm in size. It was a green and see-through frog, a species which they thought they had observed before and that until now no one had been able to identify with certainty. Both Jaime, a lover and specialist of amphibians and reptiles, and Carlos, with many years of experience at Mashpi Lodge to his name, knew these forests and their inhabitants very well. So, for them to see something different, and this particular frog did indeed seem different, sounded biological alarm bells: could this be a new species, they wondered?
The intrigue and emotion of that moment-part of a broader biological monitoring effort – led to several more outings in 2014 and 2015. Their objective was to collect as much data about this elusive frog so as to justify further analysis and ultimately, verify if it was truly a new species for these forests.
“The thing is that it is a very elusive little frog. If it’s not raining, you won’t find it, and it likes to hang out way above the ground. On one of the last outings, I found one at 10 or 11 meters above the ground. I had to climb a slope and from there I saw it very, very high up, there in the canopy”
Finally, in 2019, the researchers managed to record the frog’s call and thus complete the puzzle.
“On my last night, after spending ten-and-a-half years in Mashpi, I told Jaime ‘tonight we are going to find a new species.’ I was convinced that what we needed to do was clarify whether the species of Hyalinobatrachium in the higher part of the reserve was indeed a new species. We decided to search along the San Vicente River. While we were walking, we heard a call and I told Jaime ‘this can’t be a cricket, it is impossible for it to be a cricket […] this is not the behavior of a cricket, it must be a frog.”
With the field data complete by the teams at Mashpi and all clues pointing to it being a new species, genetic analyses were performed. Here, both private and academic institutions joined forces for science. The collaborative work between Mashpi Lodge, Fundación Futuro, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, University of California Berkeley, University of Bern, Photo Wildlife Tours and Tropical Herping contributed yet another species to the great diversity list of the Metropolitan District of Quito and Ecuador’s forests. It’s amazing to think that, at the dawn of the 21st century, the forests near the most populous city in the country continue to surprise us. The forests of the foothills of the Northwest of Pichincha, especially protected ones such as those of Mashpi, encompass truly unique natural heritage and represent a living laboratory of speciation.
Finally, the call, DNA and morphology analyses headed by the lead author of the paper, Juan Manuel Guayasamin, a herpetologist at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, and Becca Brunner, PhD candidate for the University of California at Berkeley corroborated the suspicions. However, what was thought to be a new species distributed in the Mashpi and Manduriacu localities turned out to be two different species closely related: one from la cordillera del Toisán and the other from Mashpi, separated by the Guayllabamba River. This is the wonder of speciation!
To better understand this evolutionary process, let’s imagine a population of frogs that long ago inhabited the same territory. Due to ancient geological processes, they separated. Now we have a population on one side of the river and another on the other. These geological events, in a geography as complex as that of the Andes, cause the two populations to lose contact with each other for many years until they differ, to the point of being two species with different genetics, different behaviors and different calls. Speciation in the Andes, in addition to being intriguing, is significant because it generates endemism. In other words, species live only in very small, very specific localities, making them highly vulnerable to any change in their habitat.
“The Andes are a factory of species! In each ravine you can find something new, unique, unrepeatable. There is no place with so much endemism, diversity, and beauty.”
Juan Manuel Guayasamín
Over nearly eight years of collecting, analyzing and publishing fascinating data in Mashpi, several people joined the research group. One of them is Anderson Medina, who in 2015, started working at Mashpi Lodge at the age of 19, as an assistant to Carlos. With little research experience and a great desire to learn, Anderson became involved in expeditions to monitor this little frog. His work has made him co-author of the description of the Mashpi Glass Frog, alongside Ecuadorian and international scientists. People who have known Anderson from his early days at Mashpi remember him as a restless young man, who accompanied all the researchers at the drop of a hat and without being told to do so, and who gradually acquired knowledge about biology and research. Anderson is now a staff researcher at Mashpi Lodge and an important ally of the Fundación Futuro team.
“I joined Mashpi Lodge as Carlos’s assistant for the Camera Trap Project and now I’m a researcher here. I am from the nearby community of Pachijal, so I know the reserve like the back of my machete”
The discovery of this new species is undoubtedly important for science and for Ecuador. It highlights the importance of the articulated work between academia and local institutions, work that bolsters the notion of the importance of protecting the biodiversity and endemism of the Chocó Andino forests. Research also provides new opportunities for local young people to connect with their lands and make a living through generating knowledge and protecting their homelands. Finally, research inspires and nurtures personal and institutional commitments to biodiversity. For all these reasons, the Fundación Futuro prioritizes work with the academic institutions, fomenting research that will help know, monitor, respect and protect the life of the forests that surround us.
We congratulate all the researchers for their scientific article published in the PeerJ journal: Juan M. Guayasamín, Rebecca M. Brunner, Anyelet Valencia-Aguilar, Daniela Franco-Mena, Eva Ringler, Anderson Medina Armijos, Carlos Morochz, Lucas Bustamante, Ross J Maynard and Jaime Culebras. You can find it here …
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