A recent study by researchers in California provides evidence that a population of Leopard Frogs living in New York City is actually a new species, undescribed by science! It is astounding that in the heart of one of the largest cities in the United States, a new amphibian species could be found, here in the year 2012. Too often we assume that all that is to be known of the natural world has already been found, or that the discovery of new species has no ecological implications that will affect us personally. However, if this leopard frog population in New York is classified and described as a new species, this would impact conservation efforts for the leopard frogs of the region, which are already facing declines in population. With classification, the population of New York City could be conserved as a separate species rather than part of the already described Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens) or Southern Leopard Frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus) populations. With the discovery of a new species in the heart of New York City, I am reminded of the possibility that there may still be Panamanian Golden Frogs (Atelopus zeteki) living their lives undiscovered in the wild, somewhere in Panama. Frogs are notoriously cryptic and secretive, and for this reason it is often difficult to find and classify them in areas like the Central and South American rainforest, where new species are continuously being discovered.
It is estimated that 33% of all amphibians and 3% of all land mammals in the world remain undiscovered and undescribed by science. Using a technique known as “DNA barcoding”, researchers have been attempting to quantify the number of unknown species lost through disease or habitat destruction. DNA barcoding involves using short sequences of DNA that vary by species (such as a specific gene on the mitochondrial DNA of eukaryotes) in order to determine the species identity of an organism. The unique genetic sequence isolated from the specimen is compared to a vast database of DNA sequences from different species, and if it does not come up with a match, the organism may be a new species. DNA barcoding has revealed that at least five frog species out of thirty total species wiped out in one area of Panama by the chytrid fungus may have been unknown to science. This study helps to quantify the amount of damage that has been done by the amphibian chytrid fungus in such ecologically sensitive regions as the Omar Torrijos National Park in the highlands of Panama. As the chytrid fungus continues to spread south through Central America and towards the Northern part of South America, it is important that new frog species are classified and described so that conservation efforts and research into their natural history can be implemented before these species also disappear.