As I wandered down a dusty dirt road that led to who knows where, under power lines covered with air plants, I had to wonder why this was my idea of a good idea-couldn’t I just be on a normal vacation and relax on the beach-or go on a proper excursion to an actual destination? The dry slopes of the Yunguilla valley are dotted with thorny acacia trees, houses, corn fields, and banana plantations, perhaps one of the last places you’d expect poison dart frogs. But they must be here somewhere.
The Phantasmal poison frog
Epipedobates anthonyi from Santa Isabel(in a terrarium)
Epipedobates anthonyi, the phantasmal poison frog, is a medium sized dart frog found in the Northern departments of Peru, and Southern Ecuador(check Amphibiaweb.org for a more accurate range description). This little frog gained brief fame for its skin toxins…one called epibatidine turned out to be a painkiller more powerful than morphine-the problem was no one could figure out how to make it less toxic-so to my understanding all research on this potential drug has stopped. This frog is very popular among poison dart frog keepers, it is colorful, fairly bold, and has a beautiful call. Indeed, I kept them for a few years. Several different populations are in the hobby, perhaps the most commonly kept are frogs from near the town of Santa Isabel, Azuay Ecuador. Santa Isabel is 2 hours by bus from Cuenca. Now some pictures of the area do exist on the internet, but nevertheless I wanted to go see this frog in its habitat myself.
Arriving in Santa Isabel
After a lengthy bus ride, passing the town of Giron with its popular waterfall hike(which I elected to skip because I felt the elevation would be too high for dart frogs), I arrived in Santa Isabel. The bus ride was breathtaking, as we dropped into the Yunguilla valley, filled with deep gorges and dramatic vistas as one expects in the Ecuadorian Andes. However, their was one worrisome thing and that was how little blank land there was. Even on inclines there were houses, farm fields, and pastures. According to the literature the frogs can survive human altered habitat, and this is lucky because their is little natural left close to the highway. After getting a ride down to the highway from town, my plan was to find a fairly untouched area to snoop about in.
I found a dirt road outside town and walked down it for a ways, and it seemed as far as the eye could see were homes. Discouraged, I managed to hitch a ride back up to the highway and back to the main intersection for town, where I pondered if I should abandon the plan. I considered instead using the day to go look for a certain airplant that grows a ways past Santa Isabel-but that would have required a taxi ride. Discouraged, I walked along the highway past an assortment of shops and noticed a sign for Sulupali desert. It turns out this is a large blank area people ride dirtbikes in. But it meant to me the possibility of an easily accessible town edge. I started walking down this road.
Eventually I reach a fork in the road where visible on one side was a canyon with gentle walls. Their were corn fields, pastures, and I was debating whether to keep going or turn around when my eyes picked up this.
Do you see anything of note here? Notice how dry the surrounding landscape is, too! And this is the rainy season…
Between a banana patch, a plowed field, and some remnant forest was a reed bed! Further off in the valley was another green strip, obviously a moist area. And even from the top of the canyon, I heard something familiar. Cupping my ears I recognized the bubbly, birdlike trill that had woken me up so many times at 5 in the morning. So they ARE down there! I knew these frogs were loud-but I was amazed I could hear them all the way at the bottom of this canyon. I also heard another frog that confirmed the reedbed was not dry (more on that later). I started down the trail.
The slope where no agriculture had occured was lightly forested with thorny acacia trees, no more than a few meters tall. On flat ground grasses and herbs grew under them, on the slopes they were frequently rooted in no more than loose soil.
I scrambled down the sloping trail, skipped across a cornfield, and then picked my way down into the banana patch that bordered the reed bed. While their was running water, all the calling was coming from areas of quiet water. Even a grassy puddle in the open with a few cow patties nearby had at least 3 males calling.
Another reed bed in the valley that also had phantasmal poison frogs in it. The valley’s hydrology is highly altered, it is likely these wet habitats were once much more extensive.
Most of the phantasmal poison frogs called back and forth from within the reed bed. A baritone groan revealed that the dart frogs were not the only ones here.
An American bullfrog. I saw quite a few in the same reed bed as the dart frogs. It would have been interesting to have either killed one and looked at the stomach contents or to see if the bullfrog would eat a phantasmal poison frog. While phantasmal poison frogs are toxic-they do gain the toxins from their diet. It is possible these dart frogs in this altered environment lacked chemical defense from these predators. Juvenile phantasmal poison frogs are also not red in color, taking over a year to fully develop this coloration. So it could also be that juveniles are less toxic and could be edible to the bullfrogs.
Seeing dart frogs tends to be more difficult than hearing them, but eventually peering into thicker areas of the reed bed I was able to spot some. Perhaps they remain in cover to avoid the bullfrogs who are in more open areas.
Epipedobates anthonyi in situ near Santa Isabel.
One visible in the picture on the left, picture on the right shows some sort of Commelinacaeae(possibly Tradescantia?) in an area where the dart frogs were.
I haven’t gotten any great shots of these frogs. I’d also like to see them in a more natural habitat, and locate a calling male. But that is all for another day.
Satisfied for the time being, I prepared for the climb back to the road and the bus ride back to Cuenca.
A few days later, I was again poking around in Santa Isabel, this time staying with a retreat center there, which I arranged to trade a few photos for a place to stay.
To the West of the city the valley dries even more, turning into a fairly barren desert. One plant in particular interested me, the fuzzy airplant(Tillandsia tectorum). To get there, I hopped onto a local bus towards the coastal town of Pasaje and told the confused driver to let me out at a promising spot. Mats of silver grey Tillandsia could be seen from the road. I ended up hitching a ride back a ways to the new gas station and nightclub. Here, even in the canyon behind the nightclub the plants were growing in abundance.
Now poison dart frogs would be the last thing you might expect in this hostile environment. However, some of the slot canyons leading to the Rio Jubones had small wetlands in them. And, stepping around cacti, one could clearly hear the frogs calling! If you look closely at this picture, you can spot both Tillandsia tectorum and lymani on the slopes above the wetland. A few small acacia have rooted in the wash.
However, the most surprising habitat I found was while walking around town, in Yunguilla. I heard a bunch of trilling and it led me to the restaurant with a series of water features-filled with dozens of these frogs!
While many ponds people had put in housed mainly bullfrogs, and many native frogs are very sensitive to disturbance, it is clear that at least this species can be helped by creating habitat in people’s back yards.
Overall a very successful trip!