After a Decade, Scientists Have Found a Mate for the Loneliest Frog on Earth

Last Valentine’s Day, Earther wrote about Romeo, the last known Sehuencas water frog. The poor fella has lived in a tank in Cochabamba City, Bolivia for a decade all by his lonesome and as we tactfully noted at the time, he was among a group of animals that “deserve to bone.”

But lonely Romeo could be in for love (or at least boning) after scientists made a breakthrough discovery. On Tuesday, researchers at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny and Global Wildlife Conservation announced they had found a Juliet in the wild. Now the museum is looking to kickstart a program that could help these star-crossed lovers’ offspring eventually repopulate their native ecosystem.

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Romeo’s sob story starts like a lot do in the era of the sixth mass extinction. Sehuencas water frogs make their home in a thin sliver of Bolivia’s cloud forest, the high elevation, cool cousins of lowland rainforests. They spend their entire lives in the streams that criss-cross the forest amid primordial ferns and towering trees, making them prime indicators of how healthy the ecosystem is. But logging started to constrict their habitat and chytrid—a fungus deadly to frogs—spread from East Asia to other continents due to the wildlife trade. Introduced trout also snapped up some of Romeo’s fellow Sehuencas water frogs. By the time researchers at the museum rescued Romeo a decade ago, the frogs were basically on a path to extinction.

Despite being the last known Sehuencan water frog, researchers believed Romeo might not be the last one. In an effort to ensure the survival of the species, they put up a profile on match.com last year to raise funds for a trip to the cloud forest in search of a mate.

“We had hopes we would find a match but we knew we had a difficult job,” Teresa Camacho Badani, the museum’s chief of herpetology who has taken care of Romeo for years, told Earther. “I haven’t looked for a frog with so much passion in my life.”

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Camacho Badani along with her fellow researchers compiled a list of all historical sitings of the diminutive amphibians and mapped them out. It turned out the ideal spot to find Romeo a partner led was where they found him a decade ago, in a largely untouched tract of Bolivia’s yungas. After securing the support of communities living in the area, researchers tromped along streams, navigating the dark understory and rocks and roots made slick by the near-constant fog. There, they found not just a Juliet but four other Sehuencas water frogs, any of which could technically get nasty but this is a love story, okay?

The researchers carefully transported all five frogs back to the museum where they’ll begin a nascent breeding program. As part of that, they’ll check the frogs for chytrid and perform genetic sequencing to determine if any of them are immune to the disease. They’ll also work to create just the right vibe for the frogs to do the deed. Chris Jordan, Global Wildlife Conservation’s regional coordinator, told Earther that experience with other endangered frogs in captivity has provided valuable clues for how to set the mood, including ensuring water temperatures fluctuate to simulate when breeding season begins.

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The search for more of Romeo’s long lost, distant cousins will continue in the wild until March, and the museum will continue to work with local communities to understand the frog’s habitat needs and how the breeding effort in the lab is going.

“The team is committed to helping education within the community [about conservation],” Camacho Badani said. “And [the communities] have been really excited about this whole process.”

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It will likely take a few generations to have a viable breeding population to reintroduce to the wild. But the researchers are still hopeful Romeo and Juliet’s story is less Shakespearian tragedy and more Shakespearian romance, and as Jordan put it, an “emblem” for conservation efforts around the world.

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