High up, in Brazil’s tropical cloud forests, scientists have made a remarkable discovery.
A new species of toad, no bigger than a bumblebee.
Hunting High and Low
Marcio Pie, an evolutionary biologist at Brazil’s University of Paraná, made the discovery this month on his latest trek into the wilderness.
Brazil’s cloud forests – remote, tree-lined peaks on the country’s Atlantic coast – are fertile ground for toads, and the intrepid Dr. Pie has braved these heights before. Several years ago, he led another expedition deep into the mountains, uncovering seven more of these elusive creatures.
And Pie isn’t done yet; as he explains: “there are still many species to be discovered.”
So how have these plucky micro toads managed to flourish in some of the harshest places on Earth?
The trick, it seems, is being small.
Across millennia, this amphibious innovator has shrunk down to the size of a walnut, an evolutionary masterstroke, allowing these warty wunderkinds to hop out of their eggs fully-formed. A neat trick when you consider that only about one per cent of tadpoles ever make it to adulthood.
And unlike their larger cousins, these tiny tetrapods aren’t pond-dwellers either, absorbing all the water they need through special skin on their bellies – a handy survival skill when you’re a thousand feet above sea level.
Islands in the Sky
What’s even more remarkable is that while Dr. Pie found examples of these miniature toads scattered throughout the region, they almost certainly evolved in isolation, cut off from one another (and the rest of the world) on their lonely mountaintops.
Is the Toad About to Croak its Last?
Pie’s discovery comes at a critical time for our horny friends.
Thanks to shrinking habitats and disruption to migration routes, global numbers have been in freefall for years. Add to that a recent outbreak of a particularly virulent strain of killer fungus, and the outlook is bleak.
Shoots of Recovery
But there is hope. After a six year battle, scientists at Spain’s Natural History Museum in Madrid may have finally found the key to eradicating the deadly fungus. While closer to home, Britain’s rarest toad, the Natterjack, is enjoying somewhat of a baby boom.
Sites in Scotland and Bedfordshire have seen populations more than triple in just a couple of years, and as far as researchers can tell, it’s all down to habitat.
At the Mersehead reserve near Dumfries, a team of biologists created five new ponds in various locations across the countryside, and the Natterjacks flourished.
Toad in the Home
And you can do the same (on a slightly smaller scale) in your own backyard.
A few upturned flowerpots provide adequate shelter from the sun, and some old saucers filled with water will give the toads somewhere to hydrate.
It’s also a great way to keep the pests off your petunias. A solitary toad will gorge on up to ten thousand bugs in a single summer.
Toads Under Threat
While things seem to be improving at home, in the developing world it’s a different story.
And Pie’s Brazilian toads are not immune.
Human encroachment, logging and climate change all mean that these unique creatures are being slowly driven from their homes.
And so accustomed are these little mountain-dwellers to their lofty climes, they may be unable to exist anywhere else.
As arch toad-finder Pie explains: “Conservation efforts are more important than ever to ensure the long-term preservation of these species.”
Because, sadly, once the cloud forests disappear, so too will the toads.