How does it feel to discover a new species?

Rhombophryne nilevina. Photos by Shea M. Lambert and Carl Hutter.

When we think of discovering a species, our imagination may take us to some far off jungle, slashing away at hanging lianas to find some bizarre, unheard of little creature. A eureka moment ensues, and we rush back to the scientific community (or trudge if we are still in the jungle), brandishing said critter like a shiny new lapel badge.

But what is it actually like to discover a new species? To find out I asked herpetologist, taxonomist and species finder, Mark Scherz about the discovery of a new fat frog in Madagascar. 

“Things are a little more tedious than the swashbuckling, romanticized image many might have in their heads. In many cases like this one, we first identify frogs by hearing them. If you hear a call you’ve not heard before, you can go in search of the caller.” Scherz says, and stresses that’s only if you can find it. Searching for a tiny frog in a rainforest isn’t exactly like finding your car keys in the morning.

After finding the critter it’s then a case of checking if this is something only you haven’t heard before, or something that no other scientist has heard. “That is not an easy step, even for the people who spend their whole lives working on the reptiles and amphibians of Madagascar.”

If the listening test proves inconclusive, “you start to get your hopes up,” says Scherz. After that scientists usually consult either genetics or morphology. “If something has passed all of these thresholds, we know it is new and can give it a name.”

So, not exactly swashbuckling indeed. But regardless, Scherz says it’s always elating to discover something new. “It gives you a chance to be on the front line of species conservation, because only species that have names can effectively be monitored and protected.”

That amphibians are in need of conservation there is no doubt. Habitat loss and climate change have played havoc with amphibian species, while Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or chytrid fungus, has already claimed several frog species worldwide. The situation on Madagascar is no better, Scherz sums it up as “dire”.

“The deforestation crisis in Madagascar, born predominantly from the extreme poverty of the country, has driven the forest down to less than a tenth of what it was a few hundred years ago,” he says. There is no evidence that this has resulted in extinctions, but Schwarz believes it is possible that some have disappeared before scientists found them, “wiped away as their forest was cleared.” 

On top of the deforestation, there is competition from two invasive frog species whose range is expanding and a network of poorly protected ‘paper parks’, which are protected in name only.

“The outlook is not good,” Scherz sums up. But despite this, he says, there is reason to hope, and that hope lies with the committed work of scientists and conservationists who are working to protect the country’s frogs. “There is still reason for hope,” he affirms.

Take the fat frog that Schwarz and his team found. It’s larger than any other member of its genus, and Scherz says its location is odd too; no other members of the genus have been found in Ranomafana National Park as of yet.

What may be needed to save the amphibians of world is more people like Scherz, those who fall for a place and its critters, the beautiful and the, well, fat. He traces his own love story with Madagascar back to when he was nine years old, when he fell in love with the idea of the island. “By the time I was fourteen I had worn my parents’ patience so thin that there was nothing for it, my father had to take me to visit the island.” 

This visit, he says, sealed his fate. “Since then I have focussed all my efforts on studying the island’s reptiles and amphibians.”

While discovering a species is not quite like living the life of Indiana Jones, it’s a life that is essential to understanding and conserving our world’s many creatures whether they are beautiful, weird or a little overweight. Hats off to those out there prying in the bushes in search of these creatures, and here’s hoping that many more people follow in their footsteps.

Sean Mowbray
About Sean Mowbray 2 Articles
Sean writes about the weird and lesser known things in nature. He's a Scot living in Geneva, Switzerland.

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