The largest species of aquatic frog, the Titcaca water frog (Telmatobius culeus) isn’t winning any awards for beauty, but its unfortunate appearance is an excellent adaptation to living in water. Critically endangered, this large amphibian is only found in Lake Titcaca and its tributaries high in the Andean mountains of South America. Their distinctive and excessive skin folds have earned them the flattering nickname, the Titcaca scrotum water frog.
These skin folds aren’t just for show, they play a vital role in the survival of this amphibian. The lungs of Titcaca water frogs are very small, so these skin folds provide them with a larger surface area for the absorption of oxygen for aerobic respiration. They spend most of their life at the bottom of the lake, in oxygen-rich waters, which means they don’t even have to come up to the surface to breathe. Their diet consists of amphipods, insects, snails, tadpoles and fish.
The Titcaca water frog is perfectly adapted to its habitat which, paradoxically, makes it exceptionally vulnerable. It is the most endangered amphibian in Bolivia and is at a real threat of extinction. Threats include over-collecting for consumption and traditional remedies (they are considered an aphrodisiac); introduction of trout to Titcaca Lake which consume tadpoles; and pollution.
It is estimated that their population has declined by over 80% in the past 15 years. Another major threat to this frog is chytridiomycosis – a fungal disease that is causing the rapid loss and even extinction of countless amphibian species. It is especially destructive in the Americas. It has been suggested that climate change is the reason for the increased proliferation of chytridiomycosis.
Thankfully, conservation measures have been put in place to protect the Titcaca water frog, especially after multiple mass deaths in the last few years in which thousands of dead Titcaca water frogs have been washed up around the lake. Captive breeding programmes around the world have been trying to revive the species. International trade of Titcaca water frogs is now prohibited by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). There is still a chance for this unique, water-dwelling creature to bounce back.
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