Rescuing the Mucuchies Frog: A Lab Mission in Venezuela – Science et Avenir

The Mucuchies frog, a little-known species from the remote Andean region, is endangered, but a project in Venezuela aims to save it with an ingenious method: artificial reproduction in a laboratory.

Little is known about the habits of the Mucuchies frog, which averages two centimeters in length and is distinguished by thin light spots that dot its skin. It was only discovered in… 1985 by Enrique La Marca, now the head of the breeding project, which is part of the program of the Center for the Conservation of Venezuelan Amphibian Species (REVA).

Aromobates zippeli, by its scientific name, named after the American explorer Kevin Zippel, known for his protection of amphibians, is an endemic species of the Andean forest, biotope +paramo+, dry and mountainous environment, characteristic of the Mucuchies region (Merida State, West).

Mr. La Marca, together with Reinhold Martinez and Janina Puente, is leading a program launched in 2018 that includes field research, ex situ reproduction and reintroduction into the wild.

“The main problem affecting the last frog populations in the region is the over-extraction of water from the paramo lagoons, which is depleting aquifers (areas of water,” says La Marca.

“The streams have dried up and the amount of water produced by the springs has significantly decreased. All this negatively affects the organisms that are directly related to water,” he adds.

Mr. La Marca notes that the Mucuchies frog “is an integral part of a very complex ecosystem that has existed since this forest appeared.”

“They are predators of insects and invertebrates that are harmful to humans, such as mosquitoes and other disease vectors. They are also a food source for other species,” he adds.

The decline in their population is a sign of “disturbance of the forest ecosystem due to human intervention,” laments the scientist, who is concerned about the widespread deforestation of the area.

To avoid their extinction, the trio of researchers sought to breed them in captivity. Challenge: “We didn’t know what they eat, how they reproduce, we improvised and learned as we went,” emphasizes Mr. La Marca.

Reproduction takes place in disinfected containers, where the habitat of the Mucuchies frog is recreated, which lays eggs on dry leaves.

Place plants such as bromeliads, such as rocks, dry leaves, and a container of water that mimics a stream. Frogs are fed insects and larvae.

“We have succeeded in reproducing this endangered species in captivity and, therefore, in implementing a repopulation program,” says Mr. La Marca, for whom this program is an important step forward in the conservation of all endangered amphibians.

– Croaks, a sign of success –

“When we managed to breed the Mucuchies frog, it was very interesting because it was the first time that a species from this forest had bred in captivity,” he explains.

Biologist Enrique La Marca examining a Mucuchies frog on April 28, 2022 in Mérida, Venezuela (AFP – Miguel ZAMBRANO)

In order to fertilize the eggs, “both sexes must be involved. The male climbs and clings to the female’s back to fertilize the eggs she has laid, releasing the sperm that will fertilize them.”

The male is responsible for taking care of the eggs.

Because of the “high probability of extinction of the species in its natural environment”, the aim is to keep its assisted reproduction as long as possible, because “most of the populations disappeared throughout the region already fifteen to twenty-five”.

“The release of individuals into their natural environment occurs about a year after the completion of their transformation from a tadpole to a four-legged frog,” says Mr. La Marca.

Once released, “the biggest challenge is to enable them to survive in the new environment they will face,” he says.

Therefore, “we are proud to note (…) that the croaking on the site is more numerous, which indicates the re-breeding of frogs, but … in their “natural” environment.

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