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Conserving amphibians in Icaco and Hormiga Valleys in Patillas, Puerto Rico

DSC_0305The area of Icaco Valley, Hormiga Valley and the mountain ridge separating them have never been systematically surveyed for amphibians, and have not been accessed by humans in nearly 60 years. Previous scouting confirmed the presence of Eleutherodactylus cooki (IUCN: Vulnerable; US Endangered Species List: Threatened), E. wightmanae (IUCN: Endangered), and E. richmondi (IUCN: Critically-endangered); however, the range of these species and the presence of other threatened species of amphibians were unknown. The survey site also fell within or near the historical range of three species of endemic frogs that are listed as IUCN critically-endangered: E. jasperi, E. karlschmidti, and E. eneidae. None of the three species have been observed by researchers for at least 30 years and may be extinct. The completion of a systematic survey aimed to provide the range extent of amphibians in the region, an opportunity to test for chytridiomycosis (a fungal infection that may be contributing to amphibian population declines worldwide), and held the possibility of “rediscovery” of amphibians currently believed to be extinct.

In August 2014, nine undergraduate students from Puerto Rico and the mainland United States assisted with a baseline amphibian survey of two remote forest valleys at Las Casas de la Selva, a 1,000-acre sustainable forestry project located in the mountains of Patillas, Puerto Rico.  Additionally, the team conducted swab tests for the presence of chytridiomycosis. At various locations within the survey area, HOBO data loggers were deployed, allowing for long-term climate data to be gathered from the remote valleys.

The survey confirmed the presence and documented the distribution of the following amphibians within the two valleys: Eleutherodactylus coqui, E. cooki, E. wightmanae, E. richmondi, E. hedricki, E. brittoni, and Leptodactylus albilabris. To date, the three species currently feared to be extinct have not been observed. The survey team also observed two malformations in E. cooki; these observations have been submitted for publication in Herpetology Notes. Chytridiomycosis was not prevalent in the valley. This baseline survey provided each student volunteer approximately 200 hours of field experience, and attracted the attention of, and collaboration with, professors at Universidad de Puerto Rico; as of the time of this report, a pilot acoustic monitoring program is underway in Icaco valley in an attempt to use timed recorders to catch the mating calls of cryptic species that may have been missed during the visual encounter surveys. ($7,430)