SANTIAGO (Reuters) – When Chilean scientists last year discovered 14 Loa water frogs struggling to survive on an almost dry riverbed in the country's northern desert, the clock started ticking.
They believed that these were among the last of the species.
The tiny dark-spotted amphibians, Telmatobius dankoi, persisted for a long time against all odds in a small stream in the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest in the world. But pollution and habitat destruction on the outskirts of Calama, a rapidly growing mining town with 180,000 inhabitants, has pushed frogs to the edge, scientists say.
The frog's tragic situation has now triggered a new effort in Chile to save them.
Scientists took sick frogs by plane to Santiago, where at the end of last year they sought to recreate their habitat at the Santiago Metropolitan Zoo.
"Our main objective was to save them from extinction," said Felipe Sotomayor, the zoo's deputy director.
Zoo researchers were forced to start from scratch, first adding minerals to distilled water until they reached a chemical composition similar to that of the Loa frog's native habitat.
"There was not much research on how this animal lived in the wild and therefore we had to extrapolate much of the information from its relatives," said Sotomayor.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers the frog to be "in critical danger", but recognizes that more research is needed to understand its habitat and save it from extinction.
The frog's reach is restricted to just 10 km², a small oasis of water and reeds in the middle of a Chilean desert of dry sand and rock.
"The first step was to save the lives of these animals," said Osvaldo Cabeza, herpetology supervisor at the zoo.
Thirteen of the frogs survived in their newly created home in Santiago. One perished.
Now, Cabeza says the scientist's focus has shifted to encourage survivors to feed and breed in captivity, the frog's last chance for survival.
"We are lucky to have these frogs so that we can send a conservation notice," says Sotomayor. "Clearly, we are doing something wrong and we don't have a lot of room for error."
Santiago Bureau and Reuters TV report, written by Dave Sherwood, Franklin Paul edition
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