Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Big News from the Ridgetop

Written on 12 August 2011
We knew that something was going on with the herpetologists when the sun set on Wednesday and they still hadn’t gotten back to base camp. Pablo and Alessandro had started up the long, steep trail to the ridgetop at camp two on Tuesday afternoon, carrying their snake hooks and headlamps, with the plan of spending that night collecting and coming back down the next day. When they failed to show up, our first instinct was to worry. It was Lucía, who had overlapped with them up on the peak, who explained what had happened. 

“They didn’t come down because they’ve gone totally bananas,” she said. “They don’t ever want to come down – they say they’re finding incredible stuff up there….”
We had to wait 24 hours to find out how incredible that stuff really was. You have to wait one paragraph.
Herpetologist Pablo Venegas surveying reptile and amphibian communities on the high ridge above camp two.
Photo: A. del Campo

Alessandro Catenazzi and Pablo Venegas are part of a new generation of Peruvian herpetologists who’ve crisscrossed their country surveying amphibian and reptile communities, which are among the most diverse in the world – and vast stretches of which, like Kampankis, have never before been visited by biologists. Alessandro is a research associate at San Francisco State University and a lecturer at Gonzaga University – he’s squeezing this inventory between the summer and fall trimesters – and he’s working on the chytrid fungal infection that’s decimating amphibian communities in Peru and around the world. Pablo is a researcher at the Center for Ornithology and Biodiversity in Lima (, and is an expert on snakes and lizards – famous in our group for a photograph from a previous inventory that shows him holding by the tail a bushmaster longer than he is tall. Both Pablo and Alessandro have been on two or three earlier inventories, and in the field they’re all business. This morning the people camped out next to Alessandro were complaining because he finished his day at three in the morning to hike out and retrieve the automated frog song recorders from the trail system. You’ll recall that Alessandro is on vacation….
Los herpetólogos finally got back down to camp on Thursday afternoon – our last day at camp two. What had kept them so busy up on the ridge were 16 amphibians and four reptiles. Those numbers are not especially impressive for a two-day survey of an Amazonian site, until you take a look at the fine print. Of those 20 species, Pablo and Alessandro think that as many as 13 may be new to science, new to Peru, or significant extensions from their previous known ranges in Peru – and that’s two thirds of the ridge’s herpetofauna.
A snake in the genus Tropidophis, collected on the ridgetop above camp two.
Photo: A. Catenazzi

The reptilian novelties include a small yellow and black boa in a very rarely collected genus; the lizard Enyalioides rubrigularis, previously known only from southern Ecuador; and a fountain pen-sized lizard with a startling white throat and a tail that wraps around anything within reach, which the herpetologists say is like nothing they’ve ever seen. Turning up just one of these finds in an inventory would make any herpetologist’s day. Turning up three in the space of a few hours makes even a seasoned herpetologist’s head spin – and we haven’t even gotten to the amphibians yet.
The lizard Enyalioides rubrigularis, a new record for Peru.
Photo: A. del Campo

This apparently undescribed lizard was collected on the ridgetop at camp two.
Photo: A. Catenazzi

The amphibian news includes three apparently new species of Pristimantis, a genus of frogs whose juveniles skip the tadpole stage, emerging instead as tiny immature frogs from eggs that are cared for by their parents in the leaf litter; another frog species that’s never been seen before in Peru (possibly two of those); and three frog species that have never been seen before in this region of Peru.
And it just kept getting better – because what they were most excited about of all was something I haven’t even mentioned yet. Just below the ridgetop ran a stream that you could cross in one jump, and at night they found that stream dripping with glass frogs. They told me that there were so many glass frogs singing along the banks of that stream that after a while they gave up counting them, because the number showed no sign of tailing off. Glass frogs, or centrolenids, are the ones whose skin is typically so transparent that you can see right through to their internal organs. They’re one of the groups of frogs that are most sensitive to direct human impacts like deforestation, but they have also been vanishing from apparently pristine montane streams across the Neotropics due to the chytrid fungus. In recent years centrolenids have been disappearing so fast in the tropics that you hear herpetologists who are just out of college reminiscing about them like old men – telling stories about streams they know that used to be full of glass frogs but that are silent today.
This unidentified glassfrog was extremely common along the ridgetop above camp two
Photo: A. Catenazzi

On the day they got back from the ridge, both Pablo and Alessandro said the same thing about the glass frogs up there: “I’ve never seen so many of them in the same place before….” All the glass frogs they saw belonged to the same species, and the population was so dense that they’d sometimes find half a dozen frogs on a single shrub in the understory. That suggests that the things that are hammering amphibians in the rest of the world have yet to reach the isolated populations in the Kampankis.
The herpetologists could spend the rest of the trip kicked back and doing crossword puzzles in their tents, and they’d still have had a historic inventory – and have shown how special the Kampankis herpetofauna is. Every night after dinner, though, they suit up with backpacks and headlamps and snake hooks and slog off to work on the night shift, until midnight or one in the morning. As they’re leaving someone back at camp hums the song and someone else calls after them: “Frogbusters!!”

An aerial view of camp two and the ridgetop above it.
Photo: A. Catenazzi
 Post by Nigel Pitman, Conservation Botanist


  1. I think that glass frog is Chimerella mariaelenae. Nice find! New for Peru.

    -Evan Twomey

  2. Bonjour, ayant vu ce lézard à Paracas je n'ai pas trouvé son nom, pourriez-vous me renseigner. Sincèrement, Yvan Puntous, France.