Denver Zoo Helps Peruvian and Bolivian People Save the Lake Titicaca Frog
By Matt Herbert, Denver Zoo Director of Conservation Education
When you “spring forward” for Daylight Savings time on March 9 we want you to think about frogs!
Did you know Denver Zoo works with scientists, educators and conservationists in Peru and Bolivia to save the critically endangered Lake Titicaca frog, Telmatobius culeus?
The frog is a unique amphibian. It is the largest entirely aquatic amphibian in the world and can weigh over two pounds! It gets all the oxygen it needs by absorbing it through its wrinkled skin without coming to surface to breathe.
Even the frog’s habitat is special. The frog’s only home is Lake Titicaca in South America. This high alpine lake is larger than the state of Delaware and is shared between the countries of Peru and Bolivia. Lake Titicaca is over 12,500 feet high. That’s higher than Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park or the Eisenhower tunnel on I-70!
The frog is biologically important to Lake Titicaca. In the egg or tadpole stages, it is a source of food for other animals, including the fish upon which the local people depend. As an adult, the frog is a top aquatic predator in the lake. Also, amphibians are important indicator species. Studying their health gives us insight into the health of their habitat and other species living in Lake Titicaca. Frogs are the aquatic version of the proverbial canary in the coalmine.
The Lake Titicaca frog is in danger. Poachers catch the frogs and sell them to vendors in the capital city of Lima and other population centers where the frogs are blended with other ingredients to make “frog smoothies” consumed for a variety of supposed health benefits. Pollution, habitat loss, disease and the introduction of non-native trout and kingfish into Lake Titicaca are other reasons why this amphibian is critically endangered.
Denver Zoo works with partners in Peru and Bolivia to make sure this unique frog does not go extinct. Dr. Roberto Elias is a Denver Zoo staff member based in Peru. He helps biologists monitor frog population trends in Lake Titicaca National Reserve, study the frog to see if a disease called chytrid poses a danger, determine the genetic makeup of the species and breed the frog in captivity. Denver Zoo helped one of our partners, the Huachipa Zoo in Lima, Peru, build the only zoo exhibit in the world featuring the species. Denver Zoo Research Associate Arturo Muñoz is the leading Bolivian expert on the frog in the wild and in captivity. Educators teach school children about the importance of the species, and support local communities in their efforts to earn a living from the frog through handicraft sales and tourism. As a result of our work, the Peruvian government recently issued an ordinance declaring the frog a tourist attraction in the Lake Titicaca region.
You can help Denver Zoo conserve the Lake Titicaca frog! Ask about our Peruvian handicrafts in Denver Zoo’s Kibongi Market giftshop. Your purchase supports local women in earning a living from the Lake Titicaca frog. Together, we can ensure a future for this critically endangered amphibian.