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How a toad can turn you into a prince

Do not, I repeat not, kiss frogs, toads, or anything similar. It’s after midnight. The forest is warm, damp, smells of rotting foliage, noisy with strange calls, and filled with creatures on the move. I’m with a madman. Bill Magnusson, an Australian ecologist, who has spent much of his life in the Amazon, is wearing...

Do not, I repeat not, kiss frogs, toads, or anything similar.

It’s after midnight. The forest is warm, damp, smells of rotting foliage, noisy with strange calls, and filled with creatures on the move.

I’m with a madman. Bill Magnusson, an Australian ecologist, who has spent much of his life in the Amazon, is wearing nothing more than a pair of swimming trunks. He turns over logs with his bare feet, exasperated: “there’s a bloody fer de lance here somewhere.” I feign disappointment at missing this highly aggressive and venomous snake, so far from any medical help.

Bill runs, then dives into the jungle, emerging with a frog in hand. It’s brightly coloured, just gorgeous, bright-eyed in the glare of our headlamps.

“Lick it,” Bill urges.

“You have to be @#$%&!! kidding! It’s aposematically coloured.” I reply.

Many species have aposematic colours — bright colours and markings that make them easy for predators to find, but nearly always mean that they are poisonous. “Don’t dare eat me!” they scream. Some are just harmless mimics.


Kissing this granular dart frog is a very bad idea. Like many similar species, it’s skin is highly toxic. Indeed, the group gets it name from the use by indigenous peoples to tip their arrows in poison from the skin secretions.   Photo:  Brian Gratwicke, of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project.


Unless you know for certain: kissing frogs is only for princesses in fairytales.

“It won’t kill you.” Bill replies. Why would I believe him?

I lick the frog.

Within seconds, my mouth feels that I’ve been chewing Bhut Jolokia peppers. I grab for my water bottle, curse Bill, and curse myself more for being trusting. It takes an hour for the intense burning to go away.

Another forest, another year, and another adventure and one I’ve told before for National Geographic. I have just updated it with a postscript. Briefly, I accompanied NGS grantee Professor Maria Alice dos Santos Alves on an expedition to remote mountain valleys in the coastal forests of Brazil looking for one of the world’s rarest birds. We went in with our equipment by helicopter.

We did not come out that way — the pilot discovered he didn’t like flying in mountains and so never came back to take us out. Just in time — we were down to our last cup of tea — we got out, with some help to carry out our equipment.

We did so by climbing down a remote and thickly forested valley, one surely that had never been explored by scientists. I write in my diary, that evening:

“I see a bright orange frog on the ground. It’s about the size of a dime and, as I admire it, others see another, then more. There’s a colony of about a dozen of them within a few yards. Bright and conspicuous, they are advertising that it’s not a good idea to touch them. When our companions do, we warn them not to touch their eyes or lips with their fingers.”


A tiny frog of the genus Brachycephalus. Photo:  Stuart Pimm

“What are they?” we ask. “Does anyone know?” While we don’t, Maria Alice’s colleague at the university — Fred Rocha has the necessary expertise.

His answer is that they belong to a small family of tiny frogs Brachycephalidae that is restricted to the forests of southeastern Brazil. Fred told me that a lot of the species are unknown to science.

The genus Brachycephalus contains the smallest frog in the southern hemisphere. The most common species is Brachycephalus ephippium. It’s the only relatively widespread one.

Of the 11 species that are now known to science, half were described after my encounter with them in 2003. And all but one of them is known from one or at best a few locations.

So the one I saw could be another species, perhaps even a new species. It’s redder than any of the photos on the web, Ted Kahn of the Neotropical Conservation Foundation told me.

We need to know where these and other species live, map out their geographical ranges, have some sense of where they are and are not. And not just to identify the species. Amphibians are in desperate straights. Many have tiny ranges and live in places — such as the coastal forests of Brazil— that are rapidly being destroyed.

Even where the forest is intact, amphibians are dying of a fungal disease. We need to know which species are OK, which are not, and how everything is changing, if we have any hope to save many species.

Enter the Global Amphibian Bioblitz. Launched just a few days ago, by Dr. Scott Loarie of iNaturalist it has a simple, but ambitious goal.

“A world-wide census of every amphibian species.”

And who is going to do this. You are!

iNaturalist is easy — see my recent blog — and all you need is a facebook, twitter, google or yahoo account.

The Global Amphibian Bioblitz comes with instructions.  And this video

Narrator:  Jessica Yarnall

So, I went there and uploaded the photo of my tiny orange frog. It’s the first of this genus to be listed there.  Indeed, it’s the first of this entire family to be put onto the Amphibian Bioblitz.

That means I have serious bragging rights.

Scott skyped me last night. “Will you blog about this — we’ve reached 200 species already!” So, I started a few hours ago. When I finished — it was up to 248 and going up by the hour.

What will this tell us? A lot about where the species are. How quickly we find them will be a measure of how common they are.

Some will be missing in action, of course. For those, we may need to send out search parties. Some we may never see again. But the more we learn, the faster we can act.

And that “we” means “you.”  Global Amphibian Bioblitz needs your photos, your records, from anywhere and everywhere.

You, too, can be a prince of biodiversity.


A Memorial Day Postscript

One more observation from the Global Amphibian Bioblitz, for this US Memorial Day: Jonathan Trouern-Trend posted this photo of a lemon-yellow tree frog. Its location: “in a latrine on Join Base Balad, near Al Bakr, Iraq” — and the first iNaturalist observation from that country.


A lemon-yellow tree frog:  photo Jonathan Trouern-Trend

I’ve had adventures finding species, but nobody was out there trying to kill me as I did so.

As he put it in his birding blog from Iraq, his second tour of duty in Iraq was much better for birding than the first: fewer mortar and rocket attacks. His e-mail to me when I asked permission to use these photos was self-effacing:

“The people doing the real conservation work in Iraq are my friends at Nature Iraq ( To me, these guys are truly heroic. They have been working on Iraqi conservation since 2003, even through the worst fighting. Truly inspiring people with a vision for the future.”

Photo of Jonathan Trouern-Trend; source, Jonathan Trouern-Trend



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Meet the Author

Author Photo Stuart Pimm
Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He is a world leader in the study of present day extinctions and what we can do to prevent them. Pimm received his BSc degree from Oxford University in 1971 and his Ph.D from New Mexico State University in 1974. Pimm is the author of nearly 300 scientific papers and four books. He is one of the most highly cited environmental scientists. Pimm wrote the highly acclaimed assessment of the human impact to the planet: The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth in 2001. His commitment to the interface between science and policy has led to his testimony to both House and Senate Committees on the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act. He has served on National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration and currently works with their Big Cats Initiative. In addition to his studies in Africa, Pimm has worked in the wet forests of Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil for decades and is a long-term collaborator of the forest fragmentation project north of Manaus, Brazil. Pimm directs SavingSpecies, a 501c3 non-profit that uses funds for carbon emissions offsets to fund local conservation groups to restore degraded lands in areas of exceptional tropical biodiversity. His international honours include the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (2010), the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006).