- A new species of frog has been described from the tropical Andes of Ecuador and named after J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of famous works of fantasy literature.
- Only one individual of the species has been found, within the bounds of Río Negro-Sopladora National Park.
- Río Negro-Sopladora was declared a protected area in 2018 and serves as a critical link in the highly diverse Sangay-Podocarpus Corridor, home to many rare and endemic plants and animals.
- The scientists who described the frog say research and monitoring are urgently needed to better understand this unique species and assess potential threats to its survival such as invasive species, emerging diseases, or climate change
Up in the pure water streams of the tropical Andes dwells a fantastic little creature painted with patches of color. This small wonder, the Rio Negro stream tree frog (Hyloscirtus tolkieni), is new to science and named in honor of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of famous works of fantasy literature including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
“The new species of frog has amazing colors and it would seem that it inhabits a universe of fantasies, like those created by Tolkien,” Diego F. Cisneros-Heredia, director of the Museum of Zoology at San Francisco de Quito University and co-author of a study describing the species, said in a statement.
“The truth is that the tropical Andes are true magical ecosystems where some of the most wonderful species of flora, fungi and fauna in the world are present,” Cisneros-Heredia said.
For several weeks in 2020, the researchers explored different areas of Río Negro-Sopladora National Park in southern Ecuador, from the forests at an elevation of 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) to the páramo grasslands at 3,100 m (10,200 ft). They found just one of these unfamiliar frogs.
“We found a single individual of this new species of frog, which we found impressive due to its coloration and large size,” said Juan Carlos Sánchez Nivicela, associate researcher at the Museum of Zoology of the San Francisco de Quito University and co-author of the study, which was published in the international journal ZooKeys.
The Rio Negro stream tree frog is rather large for a tree frog, measuring 65 millimeters (2.5 inches) in length, meaning it would fit snugly on top of a soda can.
Because only one individual frog has been found in one location, scientists don’t have enough information to determine the conservation status or risk of extinction for the species. But the authors of the study say “urgent research and monitoring actions should be established to study its life history and ecology, population size and trends, survey new sites where additional populations may exist and evaluate if threats are impacting its long-term conservation, such as invasive species, emerging diseases, or climate changes.”
The good news is that the frog’s habitat is already protected. Río Negro-Sopladora National Park was declared a protected area in 2018 and covers 30,616 hectares (75,654 acres) of healthy páramo and cloud forest ecosystems, an area about the size of Dublin, Ireland.
This new park also serves as a critical link in the highly diverse Sangay-Podocarpus Corridor. This 160-kilometer (100-mile) stretch of protected ecosystems in the Andes is home to at least 450 bird species and 100 mammal species, including the endangered Andean tapir (Tapirus pinchaque) and Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), as well as many other plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth.
Several other new-to-science species have been described from Río Negro-Sopladora National Park. A single-day survey yielded three new species of amphibians: a frog, a salamander and a caecilian (a limbless amphibian resembling a snake). Researchers say this short survey, done in poor weather conditions, only scratches the surface of what they may find in the hills of Río Negro-Sopladora.