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Volcanic wrath

Ruxandra Guidi, Cotopaxi, EcuadorMarch 29, 2016

The Quito rocket frog, once thought to be extinct, hangs on to survival in a patch of forest beneath an active volcano. As Cotopaxi threatens to erupt, three scientists set out to rescue the tiny amphibian from oblivion.

Quito Rocket Frog (c)Santiago Ron
Image: cc-by-Santiago Ron

It's a sunny morning as three scientists drive out from the Ecuadorian capital of Quito to Molinuco, a hiking spot on the Pita River. Armed with nets, headlamps, and high rubber boots, they head to a stream flowing through the forest.

This small team from the Balsa de los Sapos amphibian conservation facility are on a mission to save the Quito rocket frog - a species that, not long ago, was believed to have been lost forever.

Within minutes of arriving at their spot on the stream, Pol Pintanel, a PhD biology student, has caught his first tadpole.

Half an inch long, its tail flailing, this tiny creature could help secure the future of its species.

A species on the edge

The Quito rocket frog was once common across the Ecuadorian Andes. But a combination of disease and the impacts of climate change hit the species hard, and by the 1990s it was believed to be extinct.

Then, in 2008 scientists discovered the rocket frog, alive and well, at a spot on the Pita River, ten miles from the Cotopaxi volcano.

Andrés Merino-Viteri , director of the Balsa de los Sapos amphibian Research facility in Qito, Ecuador (c) Ruxandra Guidi
Andrés Merino-Viteri searches for rocket frogs by the Pita RiverImage: Ruxandra Guidi

But last year, news that Cotopaxi might erupt put the future of the little brown frog in jeopardy once more.

Scientists warned that a flow of lava down the Pita River could destroy the rocket frog's last remaining habitat - wiping the species off the face of the planet once and for all.

Crowdsourcing for conservation

With Cotopaxi belching steam and ash, scientists at Balsa de los Sapos knew they had to act fast.

They launched a crowdfunding campaign asking the public to "adopt a tadpole" to help towards the costs of their rescue mission.

Andrés Merino-Viteri, director of Balsa de los Sapos, says the operation is an important opportunity to learn more about a species teetering on the brink of extinction.

"Practically no one has studied the rocket frog, it is full of potential," he told DW. "Research in Ecuador hasn't been very advanced, and especially not in the 80s, when this frog disappeared for a while. So we're very hopeful."

Terraria at the Balsa de los Sapos amphibian Research facility in Qito, Ecuador (c) Ruxandra Guidi
The terrarium room in Balsa de los Sapos, where rocket frogs are being held in case of a Cotopaxi eruptionImage: Ruxandra Guidi

Fishing for tadpoles

As Merino-Viteri's team peer into the water in search of tadpoles, he ponders what is special about this peaceful stretch of river that gave the frog the chance of a future.

"Everyone asks us why the rocket frog has survived in this specific spot," says Merino-Viteri. "The answer is, we really don't know. But it's possible that it's because there's fresh and clean water here without too much sun."

Pintanel - the first of the team to bag a tadpole - is an expert frog catcher. In less than an hour, he has caught six more.

"The frogs, I've heard, are always hiding underneath the rocks above us somewhere. I haven't been able to get to them. But the tadpoles are easy," he explains, sharing his technique with the rest of the team.

"They are in the quieter parts of the river, avoiding the current. So I go looking for them one by one, in the corners and under the rocks."

Merino-Viteri has a trick up his sleeve to entice the elusive adult frogs out of hiding. Suddenly, the quiet of the forest clearing is broken by the noise of rocket frogs. They are actually coming from a recorder in his pocket.

Perhaps the frogs aren't fooled by the pre-recorded calls. In any case, nothing happens.

The first adult frog

But after a couple more hours fishing for tadpoles, Pintanel suddenly lets out a whoop of delight. In his hand, the first adult rocket frog they have caught since 2011.

Pintanel pops the frightened amphibian into a recycled plastic bottle, which the three biologists pass around admiringly.

Quito rocket frog (c) Ruxandra Guidi
The first adult rocket frog caught by the team of biologists near the Cotopaxi volcanoImage: Ruxandra Guidi

The team head back to the Balsa de los Sapos facility, in the basement of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, where the adult frog will be given his own terrarium, alongside those containing dozens of other rare and endangered amphibians.

"We give them the best conditions," says facility manager Freddy Almeida. "These frogs are sitting in glass boxes with about two centimeters of water and some dirt, a plant, and a piece of a coconut shell where they can hide, as well as plenty of filtered water."

It will take a few weeks for the adult rocket frog to get used to its new home. If Cotopaxi erupts, he will stay there indefinitely. If not, Merino-Viteri and the others hope he can be returned to the idyllic spot where his species has made its last bid for survival.