Dart frogs, from the rainforests of Central and South America, make their powerful poison by eating toxic bugs. Their bold colors warn predators: “Do not eat me or you will regret it.”
Orange, yellow, and blue hues on deep black or light-brown frogs form patterns similar to those of wasps and bumblebees. These designs vary greatly, and frogs found in different parts of the jungle, sometimes only a few kilometers apart, do not look alike.
For many years, the scientists studying these frogs didn’t know if their different colors meant they were different species or variations of the same one. If they were different species, how likely was it that each would remain alive in the near future? And once the species were named, did we even have the legal instruments to protect them?
With wild populations of poison frogs quickly declining, we have been trying to answer these questions to help protect these captivating animals.
New Name, New Trophy
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), adopted in March 1973, regulates the worldwide trade of wildlife, and its goal is to ensure that international commerce does not threaten the survival of plants and animals.
However, only scientifically recognized species can be fully protected by this treaty.
Officials estimate that more than 59,000 wild animals are illegally smuggled each year from Colombia. Some of the newly identified Harlequin poison frogs are considered the “holy grail” for frog aficionados because of their striking appearance.
Because, as a whole, Colombian Harlequin poison frogs are still abundant, they are labeled as a “least concern species” in both CITES and the government’s conservation list. But our new study reveals that within this mixed bag of frogs, the newly discovered species are already in trouble as smugglers drive populations to extinction to meet the demands of the pet market.
Identifying and naming new species is a double-edged sword.