Private reserve safeguards newly discovered frogs in Ecuadorian cloud forest

Now I would like to draw the attention to an interview that appeared on Mongabay with Jane Lyons, the owner of a private reserve in Ecuador, Reserva Las Gralarias home to a wide array of species, including a large number of amphibian species. This year two new species of frogs have been discovered within this reserve, including one glass frog new to science, Nymphargus lasgralarias, and the tree frog Hyloscirtus criptico. The latter species had been coincidentally found around the same time at another site and has been described together with Hyloscirtus princecharlesi  in a research paper in Zootaxa. Six more frog species have been found within the small reserve that appear to be new to science, although they haven’t been formally described yet. Suffices to say that there is an impressive number of amphibians present in Las Gralarias, a reserve of Chocó cloud forest in Ecuador, characterized by a high degree of endemism. In this interview Dr. Lyons emphasizes the importance of preserving this little-known ecosystem and the interconnectedness between this ecosystem, the global water cycle and our well-being. These people with so much passion for and knowledge of nature and willing to make personal sacrifices for the cause of conservation, are to be applauded.

The Las Gralarias glass frog is the world’s newest glass frog. Credit: Jaime Garcia

Now follows an adapted version of the original article

Although it covers only 430 hectares (1,063 acres) of the little-known Chocó forest in Ecuador, the private reserve of las Gralarias in Ecuador is home to an incredible explosion of life. Long known as a birder’s paradise, the Reserva las Gralarias is now making a name for itself as a hotspot for new and endangered amphibians, as well as hundreds of stunning species of butterfly and moth. This is because the reserve is set in the perfect place for evolution to run wild: cloud forest spanning vast elevational shifts.


Mongabay: What makes Reserva las Gralarias special?

Jane Lyons: Las Gralarias sits just south of the equator at 00°00’03″ and at the westernmost edge of Ecuador’s northern Andes. It is thus one of the first points of mountainous land to receive the Pacific Ocean’s moisture-laden clouds. In addition it covers almost 2,000 feet of elevational range (approximately 5,200 feet to 7,200 feet). Within this area there are 4 major watersheds: one runs northwest, one runs southwest, one runs from south to north and one runs from north to south. This immense topographic diversity coupled with a year-round temperate climate provides many niches and micro-niches for frogs and all the other plants and animals found at the reserve. Reserva las Gralarias is a microcosm of the Chocó biogeographic zone.

Mongabay: Are there any endangered species in the reserve?

Jane Lyons: We currently know of two Critically Endangered species of frogs as well as two new species described to science only this year, and 10 additional frog species that are considered Endangered, Near Threatened or Vulnerable, all found on the reserve. In addition, Reserva las Gralarias is home to a number of rare and even unknown species and perhaps genera of butterflies (still under review), a number of rare species of plants, mammals considered Endangered, Near Threatened or Data Deficient, and numerous Chocó endemics as well as species of birds listed as Near Threatened or Endangered. Unfortunately the habitat for these species is shrinking throughout their very limited ranges.

Mongabay: Will you tell us about some of the new species of amphibians that have been discovered in the reserve?

Jane Lyons: There have been a number of unidentified frog species found on the reserve in the past few years. Some of those species are so rare that we cannot locate many of them. We have a conservation-oriented research program and through that biologist Carl Hutter, now at Stony Brook University, discovered two new species of frog. One species is the newest glassfrog known. There are now 151 species of glassfrog and the newest one is Nymphargus lasgralarias or the Las Gralarias glass frog. Carl and his supervisor Dr. Juan Guayasamin of the Universidad Tecnológica Indoamérica published the description of this new glass frog in April 2012. In addition, Carl discovered a new species of treefrog at las Gralarias which had coincidentally been found at a distant second site about the same time. That species, Hyloscirtus criptico, was described to science in July 2012 along with the new Hyloscirtus princecharlesi named for England’s Prince Charles. The latter has not yet been discovered at las Gralarias but we think it should also be on the reserve. We also know of about six additional species of frog found at las Gralarias that appear to be new to science. Research on these species is underway.

Pristimantis appendiculatus frog in las Gralarias. Credit: Carl Hutter.

Mongabay: You’ve long been well-known for birds and birders. Is that changing given your findings of the incredibly diversity of frogs and other animals?

Jane Lyons: I cannot say it is really changing as we still have many birding tourists who visit the reserve and practically no frog or other taxa-type tourists. However, we received a grant from the Save Our Species Program of the IUCN, World Bank, and Global Environment Facility (GEF) to conduct field research on our frogs and also to enhance habitat for them and for a Critically Endangered bird species. Once we have a better idea of what our frogs need for their conservation then we should be able to design a tourism program that will allow people to enjoy looking for frogs without causing harm either to the rare species or to their habitats.

Mongabay: What are the threats to biodiversity on your reserve?

Jane Lyons: The main threat that we see is habitat loss and fragmentation all around the reserve and throughout this general western slope area. General development, agriculture, timber extraction, new roads and infrastructure, etc. are all having a huge direct impact and are also drawing more people to the area and then that just feeds the need for more development and natural resource destruction.

So far we have seen no obvious threats from climate change, but there have been some concerns due to serious storms and rainfall amounts that people think may be different than in years past. However, no studies have been done in this area. We do have a weather station on the reserve and have monitored our weather continuously for the past 4 years but of course that is a very short time period. No dramatic climatic changes have been noted so far.

Mongabay: What makes cloud forests in general important?

Jane Lyons: Cloud forests are the rain forests of the mountains. The forests of high elevation zones catch the prevailing winds and accompanying clouds, and the clouds then drop their rain onto the mountains. This cloud mist and rain eventually make their way downslope to creeks and rivers and then back to the oceans. Just as flat lowland rain forests are critical to the survival of innumerable species and to the overall health of the planet, so mountainous cloud forests are critical for providing the unique habitat for many endemic montane species and for helping maintain the global water cycle. The rain water brought inland in the clouds is channeled downslope and back into the oceans while the cloud forest vegetation provides habitat and protects the underlying soil thus slowing mountainous erosion.

Mongabay: What are some unique attributes of Ecuador’s cloud forests?

Jane Lyons: The pacific slope cloud forests of the western hemisphere are among the most endangered habitats in the world. These forests are found in a few zones in North, central and South America. They survive in a very narrow elevational strip of land wedged between the north-south mountain chains and the Pacific Ocean. In South America this western sliver of land was separated from eastern lowland Amazonia when the Andes were uplifted. The tall mountains formed a long and fairly impenetrable barrier between the Pacific Ocean weather systems and the eastern Amazonian lowlands. And when the panama land bridge was formed the northern pacific zone of South America became separated from the Atlantic. All of these barriers and separations led to extensive speciation as entire new ecosystems were born.

Ecuador’s pacific slope cloud forest lies within the Chocó Biogeographic zone. This small zone of land holds the highest number of restricted-range bird species in the Americas and is home to correspondingly high levels of endemism in other taxa as well. It is also one of the world’s wettest regions with an average of 2-3 meters of rain per year which comes from the Pacific Ocean in the form of clouds and rain and goes back to the Pacific Ocean in a perfect recycling process. If these forests are destroyed not only will there be a huge loss of biodiversity but regional weather patterns could be seriously disrupted.

Ecuador sits along the equator at the point where the intertropical convergence zone oscillates north and south, bringing with it either cold southern currents or warmer northern currents. These currents are key to fisheries and ocean diversity along most of the South American Pacific coast. The inland cloud forests are a critical link in the chain of events that keeps the Pacific coast a healthy ecosystem.

Mongabay: Cloud forests have often taken a back seat in terms of research and conservation as opposed to other rainforest ecosystems. Why do you think this is?

Jane Lyons: As with the larger more charismatic animals, larger more charismatic ecosystems have long caught the public’s eye. I think this is simply the way humans think and judge—we are attracted to and awed by blingy, big and beautiful things! Smaller and more subtle things—from jewelry to architecture to animals to ecosystems—just get lost in the shuffle. This is not to say that the larger and more charismatic ecosystems are not important, because of course they are. But we are one planet and by now we should understand that our ecosystems are all interconnected. If we destroy one part of our planet, it will affect the rest. For example, if we destroy the overwintering habitat of northern migrant bird species, then we are dooming those species to eventual extinction on their breeding grounds as well. We hope we will not find out the consequences of destroying an entire ecosystem such as the cloud forests.


Typical forest in las Gralarias. Credit: Tim Krynak.

Mongabay: The Chocó ecosystem is little known around the world. Why should it be better known?

Jane Lyons: It needs to be better known because it is a key component of the Pacific coastal and therefore the Pacific Ocean systems. The eastern Pacific Ocean brings us such important phenomena as El Niño and La Niña, the intertropical convergence zone and related ocean and weather conditions which affect the entire world. The Chocó which is located along the northern pacific coast is in the middle of all of this activity.

When asked how to replicate her success, she says, “Be prepared to work 24-7 to achieve your dream. The good news is that it is all definitely worth the effort. To be able to help save some part of the planet’s biodiversity is immensely difficult but also immensely rewarding and even fun. You go to bed exhausted but happy that maybe you have helped save a frog species from extinction.”

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