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From the left: the new anchicayensis, andresi and solanensis frog species. (Photo Credit: Andrés Posso-Terranova.)

USask researchers discover three new species of poisonous Colombian frogs

The discovery may help the Colombian government develop conservation strategies to save the endangered frogs.

SASKATOON — University of Saskatchewan researchers José Andrés and Andrés Posso-Terranova have discovered three new species of poisonous dart frogs — tiny and incredibly colourful animals that live deep in the Colombian jungle and appear to be already at risk of extinction.

By studying more than 300 dart frogs, the researchers have found that two existing Oophaga frog species actually “hid” three additional groups, and that there are now a total of five species.

The results, just published in the Molecular Ecology journal, will allow the researchers to provide local policy makers with evidence that can inform targeted conservation strategies for these endangered frogs.

“Our finding is crucial to study life diversity,” said Andrés, biology professor in the College of Arts and Science. “Some species may disappear even before we have the chance to study them.”

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Oophaga anchicayensis.(Photo Credit: Andrés Posso-Terranova.)

The three new Oophaga frog species that the researchers have named anchicayensis, andresi and solanensis stand on their own because of their genetic differences from existing groups. They also show unique color patterns and size, and live only in certain areas of the northern and north-western Colombian jungle.

Colombia is a hotspot for frog populations in general, with around 800 species living in the country — a staggering 17 per cent of around 4,600 known frog species in the world. Canada doesn’t even reach one per cent.

The researchers’ modern approach, which integrates the study of genetics, colour patterns (morphology), and ecological information, has helped them debunk a previous 1976 study that reported the existence of two dart frogs species only — Oophaga histrionica and Oophaga lehmanni.

Because it was considered a large group, histrionica frogs were labelled at the time as a “least concern species” in the Colombian government’s conservation list, while the less numerous lehmanni frogs were listed as “critically endangered.”

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Oophaga andresi.(Photo Credit: Andrés Posso-Terranova.)

“The government has worked hard on developing conservation programs that have actually helped lehmanni frogs escape extinction,” said Posso-Terranova. “This means conservation strategies work.”

He notes that naming new species is the only way for the Colombian government to include animals in the list of endangered species.

“If we don’t know new species exist, how can we protect them? Naming and identifying new species is like currency for conservation policies,” he said.

Andrés and Posso-Terranova’s discovery might also help put the brakes on the illegal pet trade that threatens the survival of dart frogs.

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Oophaga solanensis.(Photo Credit: Andrés Posso-Terranova.)

The animals are often sold for more than $2,000 on the international black market because of their beautiful bright colors that mix black with a variation of yellow, orange or red, along with their “dangerous” appeal. The frogs are traditionally used by Colombian Indigenous hunters for poisoning blowgun darts. The poison, which the frogs produce because they eat toxic bugs, is harmful to humans only if it enters their bloodstream.

“With new policies in place, the government could help poor local populations, who make a living off illegal frog trade, start alternative business such as cultivating flowers or cocoa beans,” said Posso-Terranova.

The research is funded by the federal agency NSERC and by a Colciencias grant from the Colombian government.

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Andrés Posso-Terranova in the Colombian jungle.
Federica Giannelli is a student intern in the U of S research profile and impact office.
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