Tomorrow I leave for Ecuador to do a research project on poison dart frogs for two and a half weeks as part of a Study Abroad program. Ecuador is considered to be a “megadiverse” country, meaning that most of the world’s species can be found there. Besides containing a phenomenal number of magnificent native birds for a country of its size, Ecuador is also the country with the third largest number of threatened amphibian species. It is estimated that at least 14 species of frogs in Ecuador may already be extinct, and close to 150 are thought to be at risk of extinction. Bleak as these estimates may be, there is still hope. The Rio Pescado Stubfoot Toad (Atelopus balios), which was thought to be extinct in Ecuador due to the chytrid fungus, was rediscovered by the “Search for Lost Frogs” campaign in 2010, meaning that this species still has a chance to bounce back. Many other species of amphibians are not so lucky, and will probably never be found again, such as the Golden Toad (Bufo periglenes) of Costa Rica.
In Ecuador, there are many threats to amphibian species, but perhaps the greatest problem is habitat loss. There has been a lot of controversy in Ecuador over the extensive oil drilling that has occurred in, and is planned for, pristine rainforests. Lawsuits are still being lodged against oil companies that have previously damaged the environment, such as Texaco (now bought by Chevron), which is said to have dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste and crude oil into the rivers and surrounding Amazon rainforest. In an attempt to prevent oil drilling in the biodiverse Yasuni National Park of Amazonian Ecuador, a United Nations fund raised $116.9 million to “buy” protection of the rainforest from the oil companies. Unfortunately, this may not be enough money for the developing country, and it is likely that the Yasuni forest is still not out of danger.
Besides habitat loss and pollution, the amphibians of Ecuador also face overexploitation, diseases (including the amphibian chytrid fungus), and climate change. During my coming journey to Ecuador, I may observe firsthand some of the problems that amphibians in the neotropics face. My project, while not directly related to amphibian conservation, involves determining the natural predators of poison dart frogs and the factors in coloration that go into predator avoidance of these species. When I return in two and a half weeks, I hope to be able to post an update from my trip, including (hopefully) some fabulous frog pictures.