Amphibians of the Altiplano Peru

Latest update November 14, 2018 Started on August 30, 2018

The expedition focuses on two regions of the Peruvian Andes. One: The Lake Titicaca basin within the focal area of the Lake Titicaca National Reserve. Two: Lake Junin National Reserve. The expedition will explore these unique habitats in search of two species of endangered frogs the Lake Titicaca Frog (Telmatobius culeus) and the Junin Frog (Telmatobius macrostomus). We will explore Lake Titicaca at depth where we believe the larger Lake Titicaca frogs are found and we will explore the shoreline and deeper areas of Lake Junin for the Lake Junin frog.

August 30, 2018
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September 19, 2018
When I arrived in Lima, Peru I payed a visit to my friends and conservation partners at the Huachipa Zoo. Huachipa Zoo is partnering with Denver Zoo and the Junin National Reserve to establishing a rescue and breeding center for the endangered Lake Junin frog. Amphibians are considered the most threatened order of all animal species. Thanks to the S.E.E. (Science Education Exploration) Initiative I received a Trident, a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), and a few days before I left Colorado. I planned on using this unique technology to search for the endemic frog in lagoons, rivers, streams, and channels in and around Lake Junin. Lake Junin or known by locals as Lago Chinchaycocha, is located about 201 kilometers north east of Lima. The lake sits at an elevation of just over 4,000 meters.

I wasn't able to do a complete test flight before taking the Trident into the field, so I asked the Huachipa Zoo's aquarist if I could do a test flight in their Paiche exhibit. The Paiche, sometimes called Pirarucu, or Arapaima, are large torpedo like fish you see in the Trident video. Arapaima are among the world’s largest fresh water, air-breathing, fish. I will post a video soon of the first Trident ROV tested in Lake Junin.

In The Field

Our expedition to find the endangered Lake Junin frog began in the Chacahimpa River, just outside the city of Junin, Peru. Sitting high on a plateau along the Andes mountain range, sits Lake Chinchaycocha (Junin). Known as the Lake of Kings, at an altitude of 4,080 meters, it is the largest lake entirely within Peru. It is also the source of the Mantaro River, which scholars and explorers believe is a distant source of the Amazon River. The lake is home to many migratory birds that find refuge in small inlets and marshy areas. These marshy areas are also where the endangered Lake Junin frog (Telmatobius macrostomus) finds sanctuary. Harvesting of the frog and pollution in the lake are key threats affecting the survival of the Lake Junin frog.
Luis Castillo Roque is Denver Zoo’s Lake Junin project coordinator and President of RANA -an organization to promote research and conservation of biodiversity in Perú. Luis entered the river with fishing waders. He scoured the wetland vegetation with dip net in hand and pushed his way through the undergrowth and sediment. Time after time, with every search of his dip net, Luis came up void of frogs. We decided to use our Trident ROV, provided by the S.E.E. Initiative and OpenROV, to get a unique perspective underwater. The Trident ROV is a low-cost underwater drone with the goal of making underwater exploration and education affordable. In using the Trident, we assumed we could cover more river and catch a glimpse of the rare Lake Junin frog. I piloted the Trident in the lake and it allowed for a unique frog’s- eye view of the aquatic undergrowth dancing in the current (see video). On this cold windy day, we did not come across any frogs. The next day we set out to do some bird watching. We hired a local guide and resident expert, Cesar Donato Zevallos Bashualdo, who works with the Peruvian conservation group ECOAN. Part of our expedition was to do an initial assessment of endangered birds in the reserve. Our focus is on two birds: the Junin Grebe (Podiceps taczanowskii) and the Junin Rail (Laterallus tuerosi). We met Cesar at a designated area and traveled down to the west side of the lake. We stopped at a marshy area and trekked down a hill, following our guide and trying not to step into the deep-set mud. We ended at a small clearing in the tall reeds that split into something like a miniature game trail. There, Cesar asked us to remain quiet and still, as he played a recorded rail call on a small speaker. We soon heard a distant call from a Junin rail roaming in the marsh. It was exciting to hear the bird get closer and closer. We stared at the clearing and got three quick glimpses. None of our cameras were fast enough to snap a picture of this bright- eyed, fast moving bird. Images of the roadrunner cartoon came to mind. I’ve been told that for birders, this feathered creature is the Holy Grail of birds, so I’m extremely grateful to have a quick peek. Next, we visited another area of the lake in a small aluminum boat. This vessel took us into the interior of the lake to find the Junin Grebe. We observed Chilean Flamingos as they waded on the edges of small islands dotted throughout the lake. Once we passed the islands into the open water, Cesar spotted a pair of grebes bobbing at the surface of the water. Like the rail, as soon as we got our cameras out, they vanished from our site. We patiently stood by, waiting for the grebes to resurface. When the grebes broke the surface again they were much further away. I released the Trident into the water hoping to get footage of the grebes. Unfortunately, the Trident tether was not long enough to reach and I was unable to get footage. . Located in the northeast part of Lake Chinchaycocha, within the Junin National Reserve, we set out to meet a frog breeder named Jesus, who – while working full time, dedicates his free time to breeding Lake Junin frog. After driving for an hour, we pulled off the main road and encountered dips and deep depressions on our way to the farmhouse. Eventually our vehicle couldn’t go any further without getting stranded, so we walked the rest of the way. After a good walk, we approached his farmhouse. After quick introductions, Jesus took us on a guided tour of his homestead. At first glance, his parcel of land looked like an area in short supply of water, but we quickly found ourselves surrounded by many streams and ponds hidden behind the tall grass. Jesus shared stories of when he was a child and how he encounter frogs in many of the waterways. He showed us an abandoned frog breeding facility on his brother’s property that he hopes to relocate and renovate. Jesus entered one of the shallow ponds and headed toward a fenced-in area. With a plastic bucket in one hand and a dip net in the other, he returned with a bucket of aquatic vegetation, known as “el sombrero de la rana” or the “frog hat”. Under the “frog hat”, three large Lake Junin tadpoles clung to the plants. Quickly, we all reached for our cameras and started snapping pictures. He talked about the tadpoles and how they hang onto aquatic plants while they find algae to eat and showed us an area where he farms earthworms that he uses to feed the adult frogs. Before we left, Jesus pointed to deeper ponds where adult frogs are found, but informed us they are only visible at night. Sadly, seeing a Lake Junin frog eluded me once again.

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Expedition Background

In 2010, together with amphibian experts, biologists and people dedicated to wildlife conservation, I was chosen to join Denver Zoo's Lake Titicaca Frog project. I learned that in 1969, Jacques Cousteau explored Lake Titicaca with small submarines. Cousteau was looking for the lost city of gold, said to be in the depths of Lake Titicaca. The lost city was never found, but what Cousteau did find were hundreds of thousands of these unique giant frogs - the Lake Titicaca frog! Cousteau was the first person to discover the frog. I too wanted to see these frogs in the lake.

While in Puno, Peru - I took part in an expedition to the area known as Charcas. Charcas had a beautiful coastline surrounded by red rocks and the lake was clear and vast. We donned wet suits and entered the lake. Once in the water, my body shook and I had a hard time catching my breath in the frigid water. After about 15 minutes my body acclimated and I floated along the coastline looking for frogs. I caught a quick glimpse of a trout swimming by. Trout were introduced in the lake in the 1930s and have decimated the native fish population and possibly the frog population. As I made my way along the shallows, I reached under rocks hoping to find a frog. The first rock I flipped, I spotted a greenish brown frog blending into the lake bottom and I saw my first Lake Titicaca Frog in the wild, what a rush! That day we found four frogs in the shallows, but not any were the giant frogs we had set out to find. I was told that maybe the giant frogs were found deeper in the lake. Cousteau found giant frogs at depth using submarines, but to duplicate that expedition today would be too expensive.

I thought about the challenge of finding frogs at depth for a few years and when I was at a girl in STEM conference, I had an epiphany. Why not have students build a robot to dive deep into the lake? I took that idea and collaborated with a group of high school students and had them construct an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) purchased from OpenROV. I felt that including students in our conservation work would allow them to be active contributors in solving real-world problems. The first ROV had mechanical problems in Peru, but the students involved in the process used their engineer skills to help save an endangered species.

We are committed in the conservation of high altitude amphibians. With many contributors such as students, biologist, environmentalist, community members, local governments, I hope to bring awareness to the plight of these amphibians. It’s going to take all of us to secure a better world for wildlife.

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Photo of the Lake Titicaca Frog was taken at Denver Zoo. The large tadpole was taken in the Junin. The tadpole is a Junin Frog tadpole. The bottom picture was taken at Lake Titicaca. The picture is showing the OpenRov that was built by high school students in Longmont Colorado.

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