Ex-situ breeding program seeks to rescue Andean poison dart frog population from extinction in Ecuador

hyloxalus_anthracinus The endangered Andean poison dart frog, Hyloxalus anthracinus

Cuenca, Ecuador (15 April 2010)– Fundación Cordillera Tropical reports that in January of 2010 an ongoing research project by Alejandro Arteaga, a biology student at the Catholic University in Quito, identified two additional individuals of a critically endangered Andean poison dart frog, Hyloxalus anthracinus, in the montane forests of southern Sangay National Park. This represents only the second sighting of the species since Arteaga first discovered an individual in the same area in June of 2009; until then the frog was thought to be extinct, having last been recorded in 1995 in the Mazan Protected Forest near Cuenca.

The Andean poison dart frog was rare even before scientists believed it extinct; until now the species has been reported in only six areas of Ecuador, in evergreen montane forests at altitudes between 2710 and 3500 meters. Arteaga’s are the only registered sightings of the frog in the southern zone of Sangay National Park, a protected area of more than 502,000 hectares located in the provinces of Tungurahua, Chimborazo, Cañar, and Morona Santiago. According to the Red List of Amphibians of Ecuador, the Andean poison dart frog is considered "critically endangered", and without extensive conservation efforts could go extinct in as little as five to ten years.

This frog species may be particularly vulnerable to extinction because of its life cycle: its larvae are aquatic and must develop in permanent cold water streams. A 2005 study by Martin Bustamante, an Ecuadorian amphibian expert, found that of 33 frog species with aquatic larvae in Ecuador examined, 73% are suffering population declines.

Bustamante proposes that chytridiomycosis, a high-mortality amphibian disease caused by the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, may be a principal factor in these losses. The chytrid fungus has become more prevalent in the Andes in the last decade, for unknown reasons; some scientists believe that its spread has accelerated naturally, while others postulate that rising temperatures have provided ideal conditions for chytrid growth, and predict that future climate change will exacerbate declines. Habitat loss is another major concern for the survival of amphibian populations, and its prevention will be critical to efforts to protect species like the Andean poison dart frog. 

stream_Colepato The stream where the Andean poison dart frogs were discovered

Currently, scientists are attempting to maximize the Andean poison dart frog’s chance of survival on an ex situ, or off-site conservation program, with the goal of providing species-level recovery to support simultaneous habitat restoration efforts. The two individuals recently found by Arteaga, a male and a female, were brought to the Catholic University in Quito to begin a healthy, protected population wherein sexually mature frogs can be bred with the goal of possible reintroduction into the wild. The Catholic University scientists also plan to use this program to educate the public about amphibian conservation.

The dramatic population decline of the Andean poison dart frog makes ex situ conservation strategies such as the Catholic University’s breeding program imperative for long-term species survival. However, the establishment of a healthy ex situ population must be accompanied by efforts to protect remaining habitat. Fundación Cordillera Tropical’s commitment to develop science-based conservation strategies that assist local communities in their stewardship of southern Sangay National Park will be essential in ensuring the long-term protection of amphibians and other species in this region. While more individuals are required to achieve a healthy population for reintroduction, these two frogs provide hope for a rapidly disappearing species.

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