Romeo, Meet Juliet. Now Go Save Your Species.
At first the story of Romeo, the last Sehuencas water frog, seemed like an ecological tragedy. Here was an animal in an aquarium destined to live as a bachelor, passing with his kind into extinction.
But then there was Juliet.
After biologists found her leaping from a waterfall at the end of a Bolivian stream, they took her back to Romeo’s home at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny in Bolivia to see if they’d hit it off.
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These lovers’ stars do not appear to be crossed. Their first meeting was a success, and if their mating is productive, it could mean restored hope for their species, and for the conservation of other amphibians threatened by habitat destruction, exotic species, pollution, climate change and chytrid fungus (recently declared far worse than thought).
“This first date is a significant chapter in what we hope will be a long story with a happy future for the Sehuencas water frog,” said Robin Moore, communications director at Global Wildlife Conservation and a photographer who has been following Romeo and other threatened frogs.
Last month Romeo and Juliet met for the first time after both were cleared of a deadly fungal disease that one might have passed to the other.
At their first meeting, on March 1, the two spent a few minutes making introductions in a small tank in the museum. Their date was so successful that the frogs have been living together in Romeo’s aquarium ever since.
In Romeo’s habitat, they were more comfortable. The moment Juliet moved there, Romeo started singing. This surprised researchers, who had worried that Romeo had stopped making his mating calls because he was too old to reproduce. But his croaking meant he was ready to breed.
To mate, frogs embrace in a position called amplexus: The male frog clings to the female until he can fertilize her eggs as she lays them. During this time, the male often won’t eat — for weeks or even months — until the deed is done.
Romeo is giving up his worm meals for Juliet and trying his best to perfect amplexus. But after a decade of solitude, “he needs more practice,” said Teresa Camacho Badani, a herpetologist at the museum who found Juliet.
Romeo embraced Juliet briefly, making a new vocalization his handlers had not previously heard, and wiggling his back toes. These “jazz hands” or “twinkle toes,” as researchers are calling them, have never been observed in water frogs. They may be a signal to impress mates or defend against competition.
By observing and trying to breed four other Sehuencas water frogs the team captured (two males; two females), they hope to learn if these behaviors are unique to Romeo and Juliet or common to the species. And as the researchers gain new insights into the natural history of this rare species, they’re planning to find more frogs and better understand and preserve their habitat.
In the meantime, Simon Clulow, an ecologist at Macquarie University in Australia, will be banking the frogs’ sperm as insurance against extinction (the technology doesn’t exist yet to freeze frog eggs) or for artificial fertilization if natural methods fail. “We have watched so many frogs around the world hop from existence,” he said. “If we can prevent yet another of the world’s frog species from blipping out, I would be ecstatic.”
For now, the couple continue attracting attention to the global threat faced by amphibians. Dr. Camacho Badani said Romeo and Juliet’s fans send letters, and some have even stopped her for pictures. “We try to show the more fun side,” she said. “But we are doing a very serious job trying to save this species.”
Those who are still curious can watch the romance unfold live every Wednesday starting this week.