Frog with tapir-like nose found in Amazon rainforest

The people of Peru’s Comunidad Nativa Tres Esquinas have long known about a tiny, burrowing frog with a characteristically long snout. Yet, until now, this species has remained elusive to biologists.

The people of Peru’s ​​Comunidad Nativa Tres Esquinas have long known about a tiny, burrowing frog with a long snout; one local name for it is rana danta, “tapir frog” for its resemblance to the large-nosed Amazonian mammal. But until now, this frog has remained elusive to biologists. Thanks to the help of local guides, an international team of researchers was able to find the frog and give it an official scientific name and description.

It’s an example of the Amazon’s hidden diversity, and it’s important to document it to understand how important the ecosystem functions.

Michelle Thompson, researcher in the Keller Science Action Center at Chicago’s Field Museum

“These frogs are really hard to find, and that leads to them being understudied,” says Michelle Thompson, a researcher in the Keller Science Action Center at Chicago’s Field Museum and one of the authors of a study describing the frog in Evolutionary Systematics. “It’s an example of the Amazon’s hidden diversity, and it’s important to document it to understand how important the ecosystem functions.”

“Frogs of this genus are spread throughout the Amazon, but since they live underground and can’t get very far by digging, the ranges each species is distributed in are fairly small. Since we found this new species in Amazon peatland, it wouldn’t be strange for it to be restricted to this environment. Its body shape and general look seems to be adapted to the soft soil of the peatland, rather than the robust and wider shape of species in other environments,”says Germán Chávez, a researcher at Peru’s Instituto Peruano de Herpetología and the study’s first author.

Synapturanus danta. Photo provided by Field Museum

The tapir frog’s appearance is striking. “It looks like a caricature of a tapir, because it has a big blobby body with this tiny little pointy head,” says Thompson. But despite its goofy appearance, it was very difficult to find. “The frogs are tiny, about the size of a quarter, they’re like brown, they’re underground, and they’re quick,” she says. “You know these little frogs are somewhere underground, but you just don’t see them hopping around.”

But while the frogs are hard to see, they’re not hard to hear. “We just kept hearing this beep-beep-beep coming from underground, and we suspected it could be a new species of burrowing frog because there had recently been other species in its genus described,” says Thompson. “But how do we get to it?”

Local guides who were familiar with the frogs led the researchers to peatland areas– wetlands carpeted with nutrient-rich turf made of decaying plant matter. The team searched by night, when the frogs were most active. 

“After 15 to 20 minutes of digging and looking for them, I heard Michelle screaming, and to me that could only mean that she and David had found the first adult,” says Chavez.

“We could hear them underground, going beep-beep-beep, and we’d stop, turn off our lights, and dig around, and then listen for it again,” says Thompson. “After a few hours, one hopped out of his little burrow, and we were screaming, ‘Somebody grab it!’”

Synapturanus danta. Photo by Germán Chávez

In addition to finally finding adult specimens of the frogs, the team recorded their calls. “I am obsessed with recording frog calls, so I decided to record the call first and then continue digging,” says Chávez.

The researchers used the physical specimens of the frogs, along with the recordings of their calls and an analysis of the frogs’ DNA, to confirm that they were a new species. They named them Synapturanus danta– Synapturanus is the name of the genus they belong to, and danta is the local word for “tapir.”

The frogs’ burrowing behavior that made them hard to find likely makes them an important part of their peatland home. “They’re part of the underground ecosystem,” says Thompson. “They’re moving down there, they’re eating down there, they’re laying their eggs down there. They contribute to nutrient cycling and changing the soil structure.”

“Beside the important role of this new species in the food chain of its habitat, we believe that it could be an indicator of healthy peatlands,” says Chávez. “First, we have to confirm whether it’s restricted to this habitat, but its body adaptations seem to point in that direction. For instance, if the habitat is too dry, the soil would become too hard for a non-robust frog like this one to dig. This would leave our frog with far fewer chances to find a shelter and eventually, it would be hunted by a bigger predator. So I think possibilities that this frog would be a wetlands specialist are high, but still need to go further in this research to confirm it.”

Panoramic view of the type locality. Photo by Alvaro del Campo

And the study’s implications go beyond the description of one little frog. S. danta was found during a rapid inventory led by Field Museum scientists, a program in which biologists and social scientists spend a few weeks in a patch of the Amazon to learn what species live there, how the people in the area manage the land, and how they can help make a case for the area to be protected. “Even though it’s called a rapid inventory, it could take a year or more to plan these things, and then it could take a year or a decade to do the conservation follow-up,” says Thompson. “The rapid part is where you spend a month in the field. And it’s a total whirlwind.”

A view of the landscape in the Amazonian Peatlands inhabited by Synapturanus danta. Photo by Luis Montenegro

Peru’s Putumayo Basin, where this rapid inventory took place, is part of a larger conservation scheme by the Keller Science Action Center and its partners. “The Putumayo Corridor spans from Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and down to Brazil, following the Putumayo River,” says Thompson. “There’s very little deforestation, and it’s also one of the last free flowing rivers that has no current dams. There’s like a huge conservation opportunity to conserve the whole corridor, watershed and surrounding areas. This tapir frog is another piece of evidence of why scientists and local people need to work together to protect this region.”

Research article:

Chávez G, Thompson ME, Sánchez DA, Chávez-Arribasplata JC, Catenazzi A (2022) 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 6(1): 9-20. https://doi.org/10.3897/evolsyst.6.80281

Learning more about vampire fish: first report of candiru attached to an Amazonian thorny catfish

For the first time, scientists report a vampire fish attached to the body of an Amazonian thorny catfish. Very unusually, the candirus were attached close to the lateral bone plates, rather than the gills, where they are normally found. Since the hosts were not badly harmed, and the candirus apparently derived no food benefit, scientists believe this association is commensalistic rather than parasitic. The research is published in the open-access journal Acta Ichthyologica et Piscatoria.

Guest blog post by Chiara C. F. Lubich, André R. Martins, Carlos E. C. Freitas, Lawrence E. Hurd and Flávia K. Siqueira-Souza

The Amazon River Basin is home to about 15% of all freshwater fish species known to science, and an estimated 40% yet to be named. These include some of the most bizarre fishes: the vampire fishes, locally known as candiru, members of the catfish subfamily Vandelliinae.). They survive by attaching themselves to the bodies of other fish and sucking on their blood, hence their common name. Yet, it was only recently that we found out that one candiru species, belonging to the genus Paracanthopoma, seems to be making use of its host in quite a different way.

During a sampling study of freshwater fish fauna in a lake of the Demeni River Basin, a left bank tributary of the Negro River, we found candirus attached to the surface of the body of an Amazonian species of a thorny catfish. By the end of the survey, we had observed a total of twenty candirus attached to the outside of the bodies of nine larger Doras phlyzakion, one or two per host. Very unusually, the candirus were attached close to the lateral bone plates, rather than the gills, where these fish are normally found.

Location of the study: Demeni River, left bank tributary of Negro River, Amazonas State, Brazil.

As a result of these observations, we recently published the first record of a candiru attached to the body surface of an Amazonian thorny catfish in an article in the open-access scholarly journal Acta Ichthyologica et Piscatoria.

Vampire fish have long and robust snouts, with strong dentary teeth that help them stay attached to the epidermis of their host and feed on its blood. However, when we performed a macroscopic analysis of the stomach contents of the preserved Paracanthopoma specimens, we were surprised to find no coagulated blood, nor flesh, skin or mucus. This might indicate an interaction between parasite and host that is more benign than usually attributed to vampire fish. 

Doras phlyzakion with vampire fish (Paracanthopoma sp.)  fixed into its epidermis close to the bony plates of the lateral line. Arrows: areas with reddish wounds.

We believe the association between candiru and host in this case might be commensalistic (where one organism benefits from another without harming it), rather than parasitic, because the hosts were not badly harmed, and the candiru apparently derived no food benefit. 

But what else would they seek on the back of Amazonian thorny catfish? One explanation could be that, since candirus are tiny and nearly transparent, they might be avoiding getting noticed by visual predators by riding on larger fish. Another hypothesis is that they could be using their big cousins to transport them over longer distances that they wouldn’t be able to cover themselves, eventually making it to safety or new food sources.

Research article:

Lubich CCF, Martins AR, Freitas CEC, Hurd LE, Siqueira-Souza FK (2021) A candiru, Paracanthopoma sp. (Siluriformes: Trichomycteridae), associated with a thorny catfish, Doras phlyzakion (Siluriformes: Doradidae), in a tributary of the middle Rio Negro, Brazilian Amazon. Acta Ichthyologica et Piscatoria 51(3): 241-244. https://doi.org/10.3897/aiep.51.e64324

Online sales of threatened cacti point to the Internet as an open door for illegal trade

International trade of wildlife on the Internet is highly unregulated and has become a threat for species survival. Threatened cacti are available on websites and shipped across countries without any legal documents to certify their trade is not a menace to population viability in the wild. Is this ignorance or unwillingness to comply with regulations? Study published in the open access journal Nature Conservation reports on the activity and discusses assessment methods and solutions.

In present days, trade of species is possible without any real human interaction, and distance is no longer an obstacle. Although conventional trade routes are maintained through shipping of goods, the widespread use and the unregulated nature of the Internet make e-commerce a great concern to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

This convention regulates international trade through issuing and control of permits, which aim to guarantee that the trade of individuals is not a threat to the survival of a species in the wild. Due to the magnitude of the international trade, the entire cacti family is under CITES.

In their study, scientists Vania Olmos-Lau and Dr María C. Mandujano, both affiliated with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), México, present a quick and easy method to assess the online availability of a highly collectible Mexican threatened cactus, commonly known as disc cactus. The method can be readily used to assess other species.

Because of its threatened status, no commercial trade of wild specimens is allowed and a collection permit is needed for harvest of seeds and individuals. Plants and seeds were found available in major online markets like eBay and Amazon, and were also offered via online stores based in the USA, France, Germany, Australia, the Czech Republic, the UK, and others. Researchers point out that the Asian market was underestimated due to language constraints.

Only a minority of these online stores openly stated that they would provide CITES documentation, or that plants were obtained from nurseries that grew cacti themselves. Results also indicate that the country home to this species, Mexico, plays no important role in the legal international trade of the species.

“This method is easily transferable to estimate the illegal market for any species and offers an understanding of the real magnitude and main targets of this new form of threat,” note the authors. “Compliance or other regulation mechanisms are needed in order to promote species conservation.”

For major online stores like eBay, Mercado Libre and Amazon, the researchers propose a policy based on filtering the publications which contain the name of CITES species.

For example, there could be downloadable forms for the sellers to sign and prove that they assume responsibility for the legal origin of the product. Also, a pop up window could let buyers know what a CITES species is and what its acquisition involves. After all, most times the lack of compliance with regulations for wildlife trade is a matter of ignorance rather than disobedience.

“We need to open our eyes to the demand for wildlife and how it can be satisfied through fair trade schemes that benefit local landowners,” point out the researchers.

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Original source:

Olmos-Lau VR, Mandujano MC (2016) An open door for illegal trade: online sale of Strombocactus disciformis (Cactaceae). Nature Conservation 15: 1-9. doi: 10.3897/natureconservation.15.8259

Rare Amazonian butterfly named after British national treasure Sir David Attenborough

A beautiful new Black-eyed Satyr species has become the first butterfly named in honour of the popular naturalist and TV presenter Sir David Attenborough. Although not the first animal to be named after the British national treasure, the butterfly is so rare that it is known only from lowland tropical forests of the upper Amazon basin in Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil. The study, conducted by an international team of researchers, led by Andrew F. E. Neild, Natural History Museum, London, and Shinichi Nakahara, McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity and Entomology & Nematology Department, University of Florida, is published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

The presently described Attenborough’s Black-eyed Satyr, scientifically called Euptychia attenboroughi, has such a restricted distribution that all of its known sites lie within 500 kilometres from each other in the north-west of the upper Amazon basin.

Best known for scripting and presenting the BBC Natural History’s ‘Life’ series, Sir David Attenborough is also a multiple winner of the BAFTA award and a president of Butterfly Conservation.

“Other animals and plants have previously been dedicated to Sir David, but it makes us happy and proud to be the first to dedicate a butterfly species in his name,” says Andrew Neild. “Although we are a large team from several countries from across four continents and speaking different languages, we have all been deeply influenced and inspired by Sir David’s fascinating and informative documentaries.”

The butterfly’s atypical wings in comparison to its relatives, have been the reason the scientists took to plenty of diagnostic characters to define its taxonomic placement. The peculiar patterns and morphology initially led the researchers to think the species could be even a new genus.

“It was a surprise for us that DNA data supported inclusion of this new species in the existing genus Euptychia, since this species lacked a distinctive structural character which was considered to be shared by all members of the genus” explains Shinichi Nakahara.

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Original Source:

Neild AFE, Nakahara S, Zacca T, Fratello S, Lamas G, Le Crom J-F, Dolibaina DR, Dias FMS, Casagrande MM, Mielke OHH, Espeland M (2015) Two new species of Euptychia Hübner, 1818 from the upper Amazon basin (Lepidoptera, Nymphalidae, Satyrinae). ZooKeys 541: 87-108. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.541.6297