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Meet the 'zombie frog,' a new species found in the Amazon

05.07.2021

The spooky-looking amphibian is less scary than it appears to be. But it might already be endangered, as deforestation rates continue to go up.

Everything is dark. There's no one around. The raindrops fall heavily. Suddenly, the call ― it's time to dig. The man digs with his bare hands until he is covered in mud. But he keeps going. His goal is to find the enigmatic creature making that unique call ― a sound that has never been heard before.

At first sight, this scene could be part of a horror or a thriller movie. But it has nothing to do with the zombie apocalypse. This is how German herpetologist (an expert on amphibians and reptiles) Raffael Ernst described his experience trying to identify frogs in the Amazon. And the effort paid off.

Ernst was part of the discovery of a new species, which has been dubbed the "zombie frog." Although its orange-spotted appearance is indeed quite peculiar, the 40-millimeter (1.5 inches) amphibian is no undead monster.

"Actually, we chose this name because the researchers are the ones that look like zombies when they dig out the frogs from the ground," recounts Ernst. The animals are usually active at night and make species-specific sounds.

German herpetologist Raffael Ernst found the frog while doing field work in Guyana

"So once you hear a new call, you can be pretty sure that you actually have new species," he says. "And then you have to dig them up and you're muddy all over, because they are hidden underground, and they usually come out only when it's raining."

Discovering a new species

Ernst spent two years in the Amazon rainforest in Guyana, South America, mostly alone, doing field work for his PhD studies. His original goal was to investigate the impacts of human-caused loss of biodiversity by looking at amphibians as an example. That was when he found the frog. He describes the moment as "a mixture of knowing what to do, where to look, and a lot of luck."

Since then, Ernst has joined efforts with a group of international researchers to find out more about the animal. They ended up describing three different species, all from the same genus, called Synapturanus. The amphibians were identified across the so-called Guiana Shield, which encompasses tropical rainforest areas across Guyana, French Guiana and Brazil. Little is known about the frogs since they are found in such remote places.

"It's not so easy to find them or actually collect them because they have really short activity times," Ernst explains. Based on their research, the scientists estimate that there may be six times more species belonging to the same genus, which have not yet been spotted.

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200 million years

Frogs have been around for some 200 million years, during which time they have shown an ability to adapt to changing habitats. Today there are almost 5,000 species of frogs. Human activities, habitat destruction, disease, pollution, climate change, invasive species and overuse for food and pets all contribute to declining frog numbers.

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Poison dart frog

The poison frog is common in parts of Central America and South America. More than 15 color variations have been recorded. The frog gets its toxicity from the insects it eats.

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Masked tree frog

The masked tree frog is found in Central and South America. Similar to many frog species, it is able to change colors. The masked tree frog is usually tan colored during the day and green at night.

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Red-eyed tree frog

The red-eyed tree frog is one of the most iconic species. It lives in tropical lowlands and montane forests of Central America. The red eyes are a defense mechanism known as startle coloration. When the frog sleeps during the day its eyelids are green to match with foliage. But if approached, its eyes will flash red to scare or shock a predator.

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Grass frog

The common frog or grass frog (Rana temporaria) is found in much of Europe. The grass frog is believed to return to the pond where it was born to breed by following scents. During breeding, a male attaches himself on the back of a female for days or weeks until she releases 1,000-2,000 eggs, or frogspawn. The male then sprays sperm on the eggs, which about two weeks later become tadpoles.

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Waiting for the moment

A male common grass frog attaches to the back of a female in the snow in Germany.

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Tadpole

Once the eggs turn into tadpoles, the larvae transform over several weeks until they become frogs.

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Tomato frog

The tomato frog is native to Madagascar. It sits waiting for prey without moving until using its tongue to capture it. In order to swallow the frog must close its eyes and push them out of the sockets. They secrete an unpleasant slimy substance from the skin when attacked that helps it avoid getting eaten by predators.

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Graffiti

In Bavaria, Germany, frogs are even graffitied on the wall. In German, frogs make the noise "Quak, quak," not "Ribbit, ribbit" as in English.

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Ernst's passion for amphibians and reptiles goes way back. "I got my first snake when I was seven or so," he says. For someone so emotionally connected to the profession, it was naturally exciting to discover a new frog. However, he clarifies that in the case of amphibians, it is not uncommon to come across new species: "The amount of newly discovered species is pretty big for vertebrates, and most of the people who do fieldwork will eventually probably come across new taxa."

But the discovery brings mixed emotions, since amphibians are among the most endangered vertebrate groups. "Whenever we discover new species, we always have in mind that we are losing species at the same time, probably more than we discover, and before we even have the chance to describe them," Ernst says.

It is in fact possible that the zombie frog is endangered, even though it was just recently discovered.

Amphibians such as the zombie frog are among the most endangered animals in the world, even in pristine environments such as the Guiana Shield in the Amazon

'The threats are multiple'

The Amazon rainforest is the world's biggest biodiversity hot spot, especially for amphibians. Most amphibian species known in the world come from the region, which is home to more than a thousand types of frogs. Because they breathe through their skin, amphibians are highly sensitive to water quality and environmental degradation, including toxic chemicals, habitat destruction, pollution, and diseases, to name a few examples. The so-called global amphibian decline, a term used by experts to designate systematic decreases in amphibian populations, indicates that around 70% of amphibian species are threatened with extinction. This phenomenon is a warning that ecosystems, even remote ones, may be out of balance. 

In the case of the Amazon, Ernst affirms that there is increasing pressure, caused by numerous human activities ― most of them illegal ― such as mining, timber extraction, logging, poaching and large-scale infrastructure projects, particularly in northern Brazil. "The threats are multiple and on top of that, we have climate change problems as well," he says.

Humble lodgings in the Iwokrama forest in the Guiana Shield, where the researchers spent about two weeks doing field work

Unprecedented destruction

The Amazon's dry season, which runs from May to September, is the time of the year when deforestation peaks. Fires spread easily, as forest areas succumb to illegal activities such as logging, land-grabbing and land clearing ― mostly to turn the jungle into cattle pastures for agrobusiness.

According to Brazil's national space research institute (INPE), May 2021 was the third consecutive month to break deforestation records: 1,180 square kilometers (455 square miles) were lost in May alone (40% more than over the same period in 2020). And the trend looks worrying for the months to come.

"We are losing biodiversity at an unprecedented rate, and the current administration in Brazil has unfortunately been a disaster for that," says Ernst.

Ernst reportedly found the zombie frog just a couple hundred meters from this creek in Mabura Hill

Environmentalists from Brazil ― the country that is home to more than two-thirds of the Amazon rainforest ― continuously denounce the purposeful weakening of official environmental protection agencies and enforcement rules under the Bolsonaro administration. Brazil's former environment minister Ricardo Salles quit in June 2021 amid a criminal investigation of his involvement in an illegal logging scheme in the Amazon.

Environmental destruction affects all aspects of life in the Amazon, including amphibians and possibly the zombie frog. Should its habitat conditions be altered, the species ― despite its name ― will not come back from the dead.

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