Discovering New Frog Species
by AMNH on
As a young boy in Brasilia, Brazil, herpetologist and fourth-year graduate student Pedro Peloso often ranged outside that modernist city to explore the outdoors beyond its borders. “I was passionate about lizards,” he remembered. “I would try to catch them as much as I could.”
This early interest eventually led him to college to study reptiles including snakes and lizards, as well as amphibians including frogs—the animal groups often included under the umbrella term herpetology. Today, he continues this work as a Ph.D. candidate at the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History, where Peloso has described one new genus of lizard and eight previously unknown species of frogs.
He’s not unusual among his peers at the Museum. Since it was founded in 2008, students at the Richard Gilder Graduate School have described more than 30 new species, some from the Museum’s extensive collections, others from field expeditions that are an integral part of their graduate school experience.
Peloso has conducted several field expeditions in the Brazilian Amazon and in Vietnam, discovering new species during both of those trips. “Finding new species of large mammals isn’t that common these days,” notes Peloso, “but for frogs, it is a little more so—and that’s our job.”
In 2013 Peloso flew from New York to São Paulo and then to Rio Branco, in Acre; joining colleagues, he drove for a day in a car to the town of Cruzeiro do Sul; and then travelled in a small wooden canoe upriver for another 15 hours on a tributary to the Juruá River, finally setting their camp for the next four weeks. There, Peloso and other colleagues discovered material that would prove integral to Peloso’s PhD thesis.
Waiting until dusk, when most frogs emerge to feed or to mate, the researchers would head out into the dark forest wearing headlamps to gather information about the frogs: their differing calls, their colors in life, and more. Collecting specimens allows scientists to bring back samples from which to sequence the animals’ DNA, which, along with morphological and behavioral data, helps determine whether they’ve found a new species.
“Discovering a new species, living or fossil, is fascinating and important in its own right,” notes John Flynn, dean of the Richard Gilder Graduate School. “But the greatest significance lies in the unique information that each new species provides about another branch of the tree of life, the distribution of life across time and geography, relationships between biological diversification and earth history, and ultimately the causes and consequences of species origins and extinctions.”