See-through frog discovery underscores Colombia’s biodiversity treasure trove

The wild musicians of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta put on a concert every night with the setting of the sun – the low grunt-like hoots of the howler monkey’s war whoop, the cicada-like call of Walker’s Sierra Frog and the cacophonous chirps of real cicadas harmonizing in a symphony of life unique to this place.

When Colombian biologist José Luis Pérez-González heard the call of an unusual amphibious vocalist in the creek beside his campsite, he suspected that he and his team had inadvertently stumbled across a frog species new to science.

“We had gone out on an expedition to survey a population of harlequin toads and on the way back, decided to sleep by a creek because we were too far from the city to make it by nightfall,” recalls Pérez-González of Fundación Atelopus. “We got bored and went to explore the creek. We soon found a ‘glass frog’ – but the frogs’ calls were markedly different from the call of the species we already knew, the endemic Magdalena Giant Glass Frog. It was a beautiful experience to find an entirely new species just because we were being lazy. It was a real stroke of luck.”

Although that trip was in 2015, Pérez-González and team weren’t able to publish their discovery of the new species, the Guajira Giant Glass Frog, until the May 2019 edition of the scientific journal PLOS ONE. The frogs’ call was certainly distinct, but physically it appeared to be the same as the Magdalena Giant Glass Frog, previously the only known species in this group of Ikakogi glass frogs, so they needed more information to be certain.

It was only by going on a number of additional expeditions through torrential downpours and thick jungle underbrush back to the site that the team could determine that this was truly a new species – finding differences in tadpole morphology, confirming the differences in the frogs’ vocalizations, and finally and conclusively through DNA analysis.

The discovery team included researchers from the University of São Paulo (Brazil), and Colombian universities Universidad del Magdalena, Universidad del Quindío, Universidad de Los Andes and Universidad Nacional.

Because the Magdalena Giant Glass Frog and Guajira Giant Glass Frog are identical in appearance, they are considered “twin” species – a fact that played a key role in the naming of the Guajira Giant Glass Frog. The species’ scientific name, Ikagoi ispacue, comes from the indigenous Kogi people’s words “tshi” and “spákue,” meaning “twin of.”

“Including the indigenous community in the naming of this species, and their care and protection of it, is imperative to the animal’s future,” Valencia says. “For many generations, indigenous communities have lived in and protected these beautiful, yet fragile, ecosystems,” Valencia continues. “They are the guardians and the stewards of these territories, this is their home, and what ultimately threatens biodiversity also threatens them. Their traditional knowledge, practices and culture is intrinsically linked with nature. It is therefore critical that we work with indigenous people to successfully achieve our shared conservation objectives.”
In addition, the four indigenous communities that live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – Arhuaco, Kogi, Wiwa and Kankuamos – have a deeply-rooted relationship with nature, including a tremendous respect for the role that frogs play in the ecosystems that sustain all life on Earth.

For Colombia’s indigenous peoples, frogs are a symbol of fertility and ecosystem health. “Nature is a living organism that produces life. It has its own history, and we as humans were made to live alongside it. To do that, we need to understand nature and its stories,” says Lorenzo Gill an indigenous member of the Wiwa community. “What do we have to do to keep protecting species in La Sierra and newly discovered species like this frog? The most important thing we can do is to identify them and, with our indigenous leaders, create a story around them that helps us understand the role they play in our lives, and how we can live alongside these new frogs.”

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the tallest coastal mountain on Earth, and designated by the United Nations as ‘the most irreplaceable bio-reserve on the planet.’ It’s an especially notable haven for amphibians, with 17 endemic amphibian species that live here and nowhere else in the world. Unfortunately, even as species are discovered and rediscovered in this area, they’re also coming under threat. The peace treaty signed in 2016 with the FARC guerilla group ended a long-standing internal conflict giving conservationists the opportunity to get a stronger handle on the country’s biodiversity – but also increasing the risk for rapid forest loss through development. In addition, the deadly infectious fungal disease chytridiomycosis has wiped out hundreds of frog species worldwide and continues to pose a threat to Colombia’s amphibians.

A recent United Nations report grabbed the world’s attention with the finding that one million species have disappeared from planet Earth. The discovery of even one new species is, in its own way, equally important. “The first step toward the conservation of this newly recognized glass frog will be to assess its extinction risk. Only then can an effective conservation plan be designed and implemented to ensure this population of unique frogs remains healthy in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta for millennia to come.”

“Finding this species is not where the work ends,” Valencia says. “Although the species was found in a pristine area, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a fragile place facing many threats in the wake of climate change. We need to start working alongside local communities to protect this beautiful forest, its incredible biodiversity and the local livelihoods it supports.”

Editor’s note: Lindsay Renick Mayer of Global Wildlife Conservation co-authored this article with John Lundin, environmentalist and author of Journey to the Heart of the World.

Lina Valencia of Global Wildlife Conservation’s Colombia Conservation Officer  supplied value research for the story.