Romeo and Juliet. This match gives hope to a species that was on the brink of extinction due to destruction of its habitat and the deadly disease chytrid fungus. (Photo: Courtesy of the K’ayra Center for Research)
Sehuencas water frogs, like other amphibians, have been devastated by the chytrid fungus, and a frog that scientists named “Romeo” was the last known of his kind and had stopped singing for a mate. But recently scientists discovered “Juliet” and four other Sehuencas water frogs hiding in the Bolivian cloud forest – and Romeo’s song is back. Sofia Barrón Lavayen, the manager of captive breeding at the K'ayra Center at the Museum of Natural History in Cochabamba, Bolivia, talks with Living on Earth’s Aynsley O’Neill about how the matchmaking is coming along.
CURWOOD: The deadly chytrid fungus is responsible for dramatic declines in more than 500 species of frogs and other amphibians, according to recent study published in Science. And as many as 20% of those amphibians now are assumed to be extinct. Until recently, sehuencas water frogs were among those on the brink of extinction. Just one male, named Romeo, was living in a lab in Bolivia, assumed to be the last of his species. But researchers recently found 5 more of these frogs in a cloud forest in the mountains of Bolivia. They took one of the females, named her Juliet, and brought her to meet Romeo. Hoping they won’t be star-crossed lovers, the researchers are now breeding Romeo and Juliet in an attempt to save the species. Sofia Barrón Lavayen is the head of conservation breeding for the K’ayra Center at the natural history museum in Cochabamba, Bolivia. She spoke with Living on Earth’s Aynsley O’Neill about how the matchmaking is coming along.
O’NEILL: Tell us a little bit of the backstory. How did Romeo and Juliet meet?
BARRÓN: First, Romeo was in Center K'ayra since 2009. So that means ten years he was alone, and we thought he was the last species. So we created this project to go to look for a mate. That's how we found Juliet on December 2018. And that's how they are together now.
O’NEILL: And so they had their first date. How do you set up the first date for a frog? Is there mood music, are there low lights?
BARRÓN: Yeah, first it's really important for amphibians that the water quality has to be perfect. All the parameters has to be perfect for the species. Why? Because exactly this species, Sehuencas water frog, is an aquatic frog. So they breathe and exchange all the ions through the skin, so that's why the water is so important. So first we need to check that the water has to be perfect and then the temperature as well. And then it's really interesting because all amphibians around the world, they reproduce, they know that it's breeding season because of the rain. So we install like a rain system in the water that helps to, helps to realize for the frogs to be in the breeding season. So first we did all these things, we prepare, and then we put it together. The day was really amazing for me, was super exciting. All the team was really excited, because when we put Romeo together with Juliet, we record the first call. So Romeo called for the first time with a mate.
The last call we recorded was in 2017, so two years ago, but now we register the this call. They are looking for a mate. So it's the courtship call. It was really amazing. It's super loud and it's the first record for this species.
O’NEILL: I'm glad to hear that the date was going well. And since the first-time Romeo has been with another of his species in such a long time in 10 years, how was he acting on the date? Was he romantic? Was he nervous?
BARRÓN: Yeah, he looked a little bit nervous in the beginning, but then he looked at Juliet and he swam directly to her to do the amplexus. Amplexus is the mating embrace position for frogs. He swam really fast into her, and he started doing also a really funny dance we called twinkly toes. He moved his toes, like in a dance dance, like he was shaking his toes while he was in amplexus. So that was also something new for us. So he was a little bit shy and then he directly went with Juliet, so he was super happy and Juliet as well.
O’NEILL: What is your favorite part about taking care of these frogs?
BARRÓN: For me it's really funny to give them food because their behavior is really fascinating. The frogs catch the worms with their front legs, making a forward movement, and sometimes the worms escape or the frogs cannot catch. It's like, a little bit silly for me because they don't catch it immediately, super funny to watch. But when Romeo was alone in the aquarium he ate immediately the worm of the isopod. But now since Juliet is with him, he leaves the worms and the isopods for her. It's really interesting. That's also new for us. We've never seen it before. So it's something interesting.
O’NEILL: And how of Romeo and Juliet been in the days after their first date?
BARRÓN: Well, they were trying amplexus a lot of times. The longest amplexus was 15 minutes. I hope they are gonna lay eggs soon. I'm really excited to see the eggs, because we don't know how many eggs they put. We don't know where they put it, where they lay the eggs under the rocks, or between rocks, or just in the surface of the aquarium. We don't know, it's something new for us. We are also really excited to see it.
O’NEILL: What would happen if Romeo and Juliet don't get along romantically?
BARRÓN: Oh, we have a lot of options. Juliet and Romeo are not the only individuals of these species. We have four more individuals. That means two more couples. So our option B is to try with the other couples, mix Romeo with the other frog, with the other two females. Or the other male, mix with Juliet and yeah, we have a lot of options. Yeah, I'm really happy for the conservation of this species, I'm pretty sure they are going to reproduce.
O’NEILL: Sophia, thank you so much for taking the time.
BARRÓN: Oh, thank you everybody and keep in touch for the news from Romeo and Juliet.
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