Elusive Big-Nosed Blobby Frog Found in Peru

It's been nicknamed the 'tapir frog' for its long snout.

tapir frog

Germán Chávez

There’s a tiny frog with a long snout that has long been recognized by the residents who live near it in Peru. The people of Comunidad Nativa Tres Esquinas dubbed it rana danta, meaning “tapir frog,” because its nose makes it resemble the long-trunked mammal.

But, until recently, the tiny, blobby frog has managed to avoid the reach of biologists who wished to study it. Now, an international team of researchers was able to study the frog and officially give it a scientific name and description, with the help of local guides who helped them find it.

“Local community members recognized the frog and the call from the peatlands,” Michelle Thompson, a researcher in the Keller Science Action Center at Chicago’s Field Museum and one of the study’s authors, tells Treehugger.

“When we first heard the call, we suspected that we might be able to find what was making the noise but working together with community members solidified our confidence that we were in the right spot at the right moment and that putting in the effort to dig around was worth it!”

The frog belongs to a group that has adapted to live a burrowing life. It is part of a genus known as Synapturanus. But the other members of the genus in the Amazon are mostly robust with wide heads and strong noses and arms. The very tip of the nose is what they use to dig and burrow into the soil.

“Our frog has a slender body and head instead. I mean, I know that if you see our ‘tapir frog’ it looks curvy and a bit fat, but it looks skinny if you compare it with the other species of the genus,” Germán Chávez a researcher at Peru’s Instituto Peruano de Herpetología and the study’s first author, tells Treehugger.

The newly described frog also has longer eyes than other species, which could mean they don’t live too deep into the soil, Chávez says.

“Indeed, all those features seem to lead us to think about the habitat where it lives: The Amazon peatlands, where the soil is wet, loose and soft (a soil very easy to dig isn't it?)” he says. “It seems this frog is perfectly adapted to this sort of soil, but we are not sure if it's restricted to peatlands, wetlands or otherwise we are completely wrong and is able to dig into harder soils.”

The frog also has a very unusual color and no pattern.

“Many people are keeping the focus on the ‘chocolate’ colour of this frog, and that is interesting actually, not about the chocolate itself, but because other species in this group used to have spots, blotches, flecks or something else on dorsum,” Chávez says. “Instead our frog seems to like looking tasty.”

Looking and Listening

When researchers went looking for the frog, it took them hours to find it. They searched at night and they listened as much as they looked because with burrowing frogs, the males call from underground.

“This means that you have to forget everything about what your eyes see and start to hear, sometimes turn your torchlight off, and keep hearing to locate the right spot, moveless to avoid vibrations on the ground and once you locate it, go for it!” Chávez says.

“This also means that you have to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right moment because they don't call all night and not every night. After rainy days is always better to hear them, but you can't predict the weather, so it is all about choosing when and where to improve your chances, you have to know about Amazon seasonality and other climate stuff.”

Thompson found the first adult, after a long search.

“We spent hours triangulating and digging and didn't have success right away. We found the frog in one of the most unique habitats I have experienced working in the Amazon - stunted pole forests growing on peatlands. It was a patchwork of inundated and non-inundated soils,” she says.

“The ground was also full of roots—which made it pretty complicated to dig around to try to find the frogs that we heard calling. Once we triangulated the sound, we had to be patient as we closed in on where to dig because they would go silent when we got near them. So then we would have to turn off our lights, be still and wait until they called again.”

In addition to finding the frog, the team members were able to record their beeping calls. They used the actual frogs, their calls, and DNA analysis to confirm that the frogs were a new species. They named the frog Synapturanus dantaSynapturanus for the genus and danta, which is Spanish for “tapir.”

The results were published in the journal Evolutionary Systematics.

Helping Science and Conservation

When an animal is so secretive, it makes it difficult for researchers to study them and to understand their place in the ecosystem.

“A major hurdle for conservation and management decisions is to successfully incorporate recommendations based on knowledge of the ecology of species,” Thompson says. “If we don’t know a lot about a species, its needs are less likely to be explicitly accounted for in conservation decisions. Data deficient species are also less well incorporated in analysis on global patterns of extinction risk and this can distort our understanding of global drivers of species decline.”

Uncovering and learning more about a little-known species helps researchers understand more about the diversity in the Amazon and could aid in conservation.

“This site we found this frog in was located in unclassified federal land (tierras del Estado de libre disponibilidad—just south of titled indigenous community territory and north of Yaguas National Park),” says Thompson. 

“This ‘undesignated' landscape is a proposed conservation area and the fact that this newly described species and peatland habitat was found in this landscape along with all the additional amazing diversity documented during the inventory further supports the importance to declare these lands under some form of conservation and sustainable-use.”

View Article Sources
  1. Chávez, Germán, et al. "A Needle in a Haystack: Integrative Taxonomy Reveals the Existence of a New Small Species of Fossorial Frog (Anura, Microhylidae, Synapturanus) from the Vast Lower Putumayo Basin, Peru." Evolutionary Systematics, vol. 6, no. 1, 2022, pp. 9-20., doi:10.3897/evolsyst.6.80281

  2. Germán Chávez a researcher at Peru’s Instituto Peruano de Herpetología and the study’s first author

  3. Michelle Thompson, a researcher in the Keller Science Action Center at Chicago’s Field Museum and one of the study’s authors