Santiago Ron

Scientists are racing to save a rare species of frog before it gets wiped out by a massive volcano.

The thumbnail-sized rocket frog can only be found along a small stream that skirts Ecuador’s mighty Cotopaxi Volcano. But the frogs' last habitat is now at risk of being buried under a thick layer of mud and lava as Cotopaxi rumbles to life. The snow-capped volcano started spewing giant columns of ash in August, and is now showing signs it could erupt for the first time since 1877.

The Cotopaxi volcano began to show signs of life in mid-august

The unexpected development has led to numerous emergency drills in towns surrounding the volcano. It’s also sent biologists from the Catholic University of Ecuador scrambling up the mountain to rescue as many frogs as they can, and bring them to the safety of a nearby lab.

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“A species would usually survive a volcanic explosion, because populations elsewhere would continue to thrive,” said Santiago Ron, an amphibian expert who's leading efforts to rescue the rocket frog. “But in this case we are talking about the frog’s last population group. So if the volcano explodes right now the only thing that will be left are the frogs we have here in our lab.”

The rocket frog was once so common across central Ecuador that it was adopted as a symbol of the capital city of Quito. But the population has been decimated over the past three decades due to human activity, dry weather and disease. Now these tiny frogs can only be found along a 30-foot long stretch of volcanic stream.

The rocket frog's habitat is located more than 6,000 feet above sea level
Santiago Ron

Biologists at the Catholic University of Ecuador say they hope to store 100 tadpoles and 50 adult frogs in the university’s specialized frog lab, so that they can breed the animals in captivity and re-populate another area of the Andes mountains with the rocket frog if Cotopaxi explodes.

But Ron says it’s been nearly impossible to capture the adult frogs.

“These frogs are active during the day, and when you approach them they jump away really quickly, like a rocket,” Ron said. Currently, there are only four adult rocket frogs in the university’s specialized lab, known locally as the Balsa de Sapos or  the “Frog Liferaft.”

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“We’re not sure how many adults are in the wild, but there’s probably not more than 50,” Ron said.

Santiago Ron reaches for a frog at the frog raft. The black hoses spray water on each species

His team has had better luck collecting tadpoles, 35 of which have been brought back to the lab since the Cotopaxi volcano started acting up. The tadpoles are being kept in small glass tanks in the lab, where their development is closely monitored.

“That’s the future of the species,” said Frog Raft director Andres Merino, as we toured the lab.

A rocket frog tadpole relaxes at the lab

Seventy-one species of frogs live in Ecuador, the most in the world after Brazil and Colombia.

The rare 'pacman' frog is another one of the frog raft's guests

But 20 of those species are considered to be at risk of extinction. The Frog Raft is trying to breed some of these endangered species and conduct experiments on how climate change affects different types of frogs.

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The rocket frog is one of the few species of amphibians that takes care of its eggs until they hatch.

Only four adult rocket frogs are living at the lab

Although the chocolate striped species isn't particularly cute, Ron says saving the tiny frog is just as important as saving polar bears or giant pandas.

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“Frogs eat insects and they are eaten by birds, bats and snakes,” Ron said. “These animals are a key link between the lower end of the food chain and the species on the higher end.”

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.