An Undiscovered Country: TWI and Amphibian Conservation in Chile

By Tim Paine

Amphibian conservation is obviously a global issue. We here at TWI recognize this and, despite our extremely modest budget, strive to fund worthy projects that have impact beyond our regional reach and local support. For a few years now, TWI has been assisting with funding an ongoing project with species of critically endangered frogs in Chile. Dr. Dante Fenolio–first with the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and now as Manager of Conservation and Research at the San Antonio Zoo–has been coordinating this project.  Dante has established a partnership with The National Zoo of Chile in developing a captive breeding and education facility in Santiago that is part of a larger study program. The first part of the captive breeding project involved Darwin’s frogs.  This diminutive cryptic leaf litter frog is known for its curious breeding habit.  Male frogs gobble up hatching tadpoles and carry them in their vocal pouch. They will brood them safely within until the little frogs develop and the father spits them out to hop away on their own. The genus Rhinoderma contains just two species: Rhinoderma rufum (which is now considered Extinct) and R. darwinii, which is IUCN listed as Vulnerable.  So, really now, just one species exists.  The project initially collected some adult R. darwinii and brought them back to the zoo where a new FrogPod had been built.  Breeding was quickly successful and the program created quite a bit of local and international publicity.  But Dante, and the conservation efforts, are not done.

Chile is home to some 45+ species of frogs. Many are endemic and quite rare.  In fact, several are exceedingly rare and threatened with extinction.  Chile is a unique country in many ways.  Firstly, the country is well over 2,500 miles long running north to south and a scant 100 miles wide.  It is constrained by the world’s driest desert–the Atacama–to the north, the frigid Antarctic to the south, and the volcano-studded Andes mountains to the east. It is a coastal country with a Mediterranean climate that shares much of its native natural history with Australia, the result of their Gondwanaland separation. Much can be written about its unique flora and fauna, but there is neither space nor time to cover that in this post.  For all intents and purposes, it is an virtually unknown country to me.  Despite many trips to South America, Chile has yet to impress my passport, so when I had a chance to join Dante as part of another phase of his work, I packed.

I had heard about the botany of the country.  I had heard about its fjords, glaciers and rugged coast.  I have longed to see the Atacama, but I also realized I knew literally nothing about its frogs (well, I had heard of the frigidly aquatic frogs in the genus Telmatobius, but that is thanks to my visits to Bolivia).  I had never heard of Eupsophus,  Alsodes, Telmatobufo and Insuetophrynus.

As part of my personal homework, I Iearned that Dante and crew had moved on to working with the genus Telmatobufo. These toad-looking frogs spend their time under logs, loam and boulders in forests adjacent to fast flowing streams where the tadpoles grow. There are three species in the genus (technically there is a newly described 4th species but it is not yet fully accepted).  Dante’s project had recently caught specimens of Telmatobufo venustus and T. bullocki which had also been added to the frog lab at the National Zoo. This is amazing because these frogs are known from only a handful of localities.  Even more, in the hundred plus years that T. venustus has been described, and 60 years for T. bullocki, very few individuals have ever been seen.  In fact, numbers of the third species, T. australis (described in 1972), combined with the others caught amounts to less than a couple dozen animals.  in addition to this, their ranges are becoming severely restricted, such that all three species are in danger of going extinct.  The focus of this trip was to search for specimens of T. australis…as well as another frog I’ll mention a little later.

On arriving late at night in Santiago I noted that Chile was nothing like any of the other big Latin American cities I’ve seen before–I could tell this was going to be a new experience.  After handling some administrative duties at the zoo, our crew (Dante, myself, and Bill Lamar) got our car and headed approx. 1000 km south to our base in Valdivia.  During the long drive down I marveled at the Chilean forest which was so unlike the forests that make up the Amazon.  But it didn’t take long to notice a couple problems as well.

First, eucalyptus was growing everywhere. I know this is not native.  Second was the abundant pine forests, which I recognized to actually be plantations. These were managed forests,and as such were monocultures, which is never good for diversity. I would soon learn that the forestry industry plays a huge role in habitat loss/degradation and that Chile’s frogs cannot withstand the loss of their already tiny and restrictive habitats.

Our first stop would be at the Universidad Austral de Chile to meet one of our hosts, Dr. Jose Nuñez. He is one of the foremost authorities on Chile’s frogs and we were looking to build future collaborations with him. Our first day trip took us to a local forest fragment where logging was omnipresent. The walk was punctuated by downed, cut and stacked logs. The toxic leaves from the eucalyptus poisons the native vegetation and likely has a negative affect on the stream water quality.   Of course, sedimentation and siltation issues that always accompany logging and watersheds are also a huge problem for tadpole development.  I did find, however, that the endless stumps and log fragments seemed to provide cover for many frogs, the first of which was the relatively common Eupsophus vertebralis. This frog, like many in the genus, is highly variable and seeing something so new was quite exciting. We continued on, marveling at the numerous–and mite infested–opilionids. These spider-like arachnids, commonly known as daddy long-legs at home, were huge here.   Not only that, but they were brilliantly colored and quite sinister looking.  Tarantulas crawled about during the day.  Everything seemed strange to me.

In time we made our way down to a stream in search of Telmatobufo australis. Our odds of seeing them were low. This rare frog stays hidden throughout much of the year.  This was not their breeding season.  Adults would be hidden in the forest or deep out of sight.  The tadpoles, however were not.  At dusk we began searching the frigid water and located more than a dozen of these thumb-sized tadpoles.  We collected some for the zoo and released the others.

Our other target species was the critically endangered Insuetophrynus acarpicus, a strange and monotypic frog that seem to be most closely related to Rhinoderma….but they are nothing like frogs from that genus. It is a fairly large frog which can be found under rocks in small, fast flowing streams.  And by streams I mean only one or two.  That’s right: this frog is known from only or or two localities.  Period.

With Dr. Nuñez’s help we found the hidden stream tucked into the coastal range which is currently somewhat protected by an extremely mindful private landowner. In short order we located a good number of adult and juvenile frogs that were then tested for chytrid.  The animals were surprisingly ungainly. I noted that all of the Chilean frogs we found were not good jumpers.  They hopped but often seemed to spasmodically crawl. Maybe this was a physiological adaptation to the cold, but it surely wouldn’t win them any jumping contests and it definitely made catching them easier (posing them for photos was another matter entirely). Tadpoles in the stream showed that recruitment and breeding is occurring, which was good news.  A few of the adults were saved for the zoo project as well.

We later took a long trip to find some T. bullocki, but unfortunately we found no adults or tadpoles. We were likely too low in the watershed as we remained in a harvested region of pine and eucalyptus. Hopefully areas higher up in the watershed still contained intact forest and suitable habitat for the the frogs. This remains their best hope for survival.

There was much more to this visit. Hopefully, some of you will make it to MICROCOSM 2014 in March where I’ll likely share more details of this trip, including some exciting scientific news. You can read more about these projects in a couple recent papers written by Dante and others. The December, 2011 and the December, 2013 issues of Herpetological Review contain articles on Telmatobufo venustus and T. bullocki, respectively.

For now, we here at TWI want you know that your donations are being used for some exceedingly important work. Not only are you helping fund work that will enable a better understanding these very rare animals, but you are also helping build some captive breeding facilities for ex-situ management.  From my perspective the most important component of your donations comes in the form of education. Me, you and everyone who is touched by these projects, including Chileans, are now more aware of this precious resource and this is ultimately how they maybe saved.

You can read a little more about these projects here: with updates and additional info at

Note from the Director: all costs associated with this trip were generously covered by the author in order to ensure that the maximum number of dollars available went toward the project and conservation of the species involved.  All images and expenses incurred were a donation to/investment in conservation.


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