“Amphibian declines are seen as an indicator of the onset of a sixth mass extinction of life on earth,” reads the first line in a paper recently published in Nature Communications—lucky then, that this same paper goes on to describe the rediscovery of a frog that was presumed extinct.
The Hula painted frog, which bears bright white spots decorating its belly and throat, was discovered sometime in the 1940s, but 1955 was the last time that anybody caught a glimpse of it, just after the frog’s wetland habitat in Israel's Hula Valley was drained. Decades later after many a fruitless search, the amphibian became the first on the globe to be labeled extinct, in 1996.
Now that status is being reversed, as researchers publish their paper showing that since 2011, when a park ranger in the Hula Valley named Yoram Malka stumbled across the first one, researchers have found 14 Hula painted frogs.
“Scientists tend to err on the side of caution before declaring something extinct, so we were pretty sure this frog was gone,” said Robin Moore, from the Amphibian Survival Alliance, to National Geographic.
With their renewed faith, the researchers estimate that there may be between 100 and 200 of the frogs alive and well in the valley today. The way to buoy that population is to take steps to protect the frogs so that they don’t once again disappear from view, the study authors say. Efforts also need to be made to figure out more about the frog. “We know nothing about its life history…we don't know if it’s active at night. We don't know when it breeds, or how it breeds, or what its tadpoles look like,” said lead study author Sarig Gafny to National Geographic. Answering those questions appears to be the next step. “I hope it will be a conservation success story,” Gafny said to Nature News. “We don’t know anything about their natural history and we have to study them. The more we know, the more we can protect them.”
What makes the discovery even more impressive is that the frogs are the only survivors of their genus Latonia, meaning that they have no living relations. Previously, scientists had believed that the last remnants of that genus died out 10,000 years ago, but this discovery shows that up to be untrue.
As it exists now, the Hula painted frog has also remained relatively unchanged across the millennia—turning it into something known colloquially as a ‘living fossil’. It’s a rare trait, and one that belongs to only a few other animals on the planet, like the coelacanth for instance, National Geographic reports.
Together with the tangible threats to their habitat, all of the above makes Hula painted frogs seem delicate, untouchable—perhaps even doomed. But Moore said, “It’s a dangerous message to send that we’re too late to do anything to save these species…because then people won’t do anything.” Rather, people feel should feel optimistic about the fact that the frog has survived this long. “It’s a real testament to the resilience of nature if given the chance,” said Moore.