The Sambas Stream Toad also known as the Bornean Rainbow Toad makes its amazing reappearing act after eluding scientists for 87 years
ONE of the world’s most elusive amphibians has made a surprising reappearance recently in Malaysia’s Sarawak state on Borneo Island. This discovery provides science with the first-ever photographs of the endangered spindly-legged species and gives new hope for the region’s biodiversity, the Conservation International (CI) announced on July 14, 2011.
Inspired by CI’s global search for lost amphibians, scientists with support from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) found three individuals of the missing toad, up a tree during a night time search after months of scouring remote forests.
The Sambas Stream Toad (Ansonia latidisca) or Bornean Rainbow Toad as it’s also called was previously known from only three individuals, and was last seen in 1924.
Prior to the rediscovery, only illustrations of the mysterious and long-legged toad existed (right) of collection by European explorers in the 1920s.
Because of this, scientists with CI and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) SSC Amphibian Specialist Group believed that chances of finding the species alive were slimmer than the toad’s unusually slender limbs.
They listed it as one of the ‘World’s Top 10 Most Wanted Lost Frogs’, in a global campaign to seek out amphibians that had not been seen in a decade or longer.
They hoped that the campaign would inspire researchers around the world to employ local expertise to mobilize targeted searches.
Dr. Indraneil Das of Unimas (right) was one of those inspired researchers. After announcing his new discovery of a tiny pea-sized frog in Borneo last year, the Old World’s smallest, Das and his team targeted the missing Sambas Stream Toad species for rediscovery in August, 2010.
Initial searches by Dr. Das and team took place during evenings after dark along the 1,329 m. high rugged ridges of the Gunung Penrissen range of western Sarawak, a natural boundary between Sarawak and the West Kalimantan Province of Indonesia.
The team’s first expeditions proved fruitless in their first several months, but the team did not give up.
The area had barely been explored in the past century, with no concerted efforts to determine whether the species was still alive.
So Das changed his team’s strategy to include higher elevations and they resumed the search.
And then one night, Pui Yong Min, one of Dr Das’s graduate students found a small toad 2m up a tree. When he realized it was the long-lost toad, Dr. Das expressed relief and near disbelief at the discovery before his eyes.
“Thrilling discoveries like this beautiful toad, and the critical importance of amphibians to healthy ecosystems, are what fuel us to keep searching for lost species,” said Dr. Das.
“They remind us that nature still holds precious secrets that we are still uncovering, which is why targeted protection and conservation is so important.
“Amphibians are indicators of environmental health, with direct implications for human health. Their benefits to people should not be underestimated.”
Three individuals of the missing toad were documented up three different mature trees in an unspecified area of Penrissen, a region outside the protected area system of Sarawak that is listed among the Important Bird Areas of the world by BirdLife International, and is threatened by resort development, poaching and habitat fragmentation.
They include: an adult female, an adult male, and a juvenile, ranging in size from 51 mm. to 30 mm, respectively.
All three exhibited elongated limbs and bright dorsal pigmentation. The species is listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List, and may warrant protection under the Sarawak Wildlife Ordinance 1998.
Amphibian specialist Dr. Robin Moore of Conservation International, who launched the Global Search for Lost Amphibians to raise awareness of the serious plight of the world’s declining amphibian populations, expressed incredulous disbelief when Das shared the good news.
“When I saw an email with the subject ‘Ansonia latidisca found’ pop into my inbox I could barely believe my eyes.
“Attached was an image – proof in the form of the first ever photograph of the colorful and gangly tree-dwelling toad. The species was transformed in my mind from a black and white illustration to a living, colorful creature.”
Moore added, “To see the first ever pictures of a species is a special kind of privilege. To see the first pictures of a species that has been lost for almost 90 years defies belief.
“It is good to know that nature can surprise us when we are close to giving up hope, especially amidst our planet’s escalating extinction crisis.
“Amphibians are at the forefront of this tragedy, so I hope that these unique species serve as flagships for conservation, inspiring pride and hope by Malaysians and people everywhere.”
The Global Search for Lost Amphibians, launched in August 2010 by Conservation International (CI) and the IUCN Amphibian Specialist Group (ASG), with support from Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), sought to document the survival status and whereabouts of threatened species of amphibians which they had hoped were holding on in a few remote places.
Dr. Das has said he will refrain from divulging the exact site of rediscovery at this time, owing to the intense demand for brightly-colored amphibians by collectors who supply the pet trade.
His team has a two-year project on the altitudinal distribution of amphibians on Mount Penrissen, and work on the ecology of Ansonia latidisca will continue.