Culture

Lake Titicaca Frogs: What's Denver got to do with 'em?

Agnes Rivera

‘Scrotum-like,’ ‘vitality saviors,’ even ‘South American Viagra’ – whatever you want to call these native Peruvian frogs, they’re at a serious risk of extinction. Who’s lending an international hand to preserve these amphibians?

Lake Titicaca Frogs: What's Denver got to do with 'em?

Telmatobius culeus, marked by its loose, hanging skin (Photo: Science Vier Facebook)

In March 2016, The Denver Post reported that 20 frogs from Lake Titicaca had found refuge (or rather, were taken to safety) over 6,000 kilometers north, in the United States. The Denver Zoo, in the western state of Colorado, is currently the only zoo in North America to house and exhibit the Telmatobius culeus, the species of frog native to southern Peru’s Lake Titicaca.

Why would a US zoo have any interest in these large, skin-laden amphibians? The fact that these frogs are critically endangered is just the beginning of it, as we learned when Living in Peru recently spoke with Dina Baker, the zoo’s Outreach Specialist.

Is it correct to say that the housing of the ‘Lake Titicaca Frogs’ at the Denver Zoo was the first time this species had been in North America?

Historically, these frogs had been displayed at the Bronx Zoo from the 1970s to the 1990s. In November 2015, our partner zoo, Huachipa Zoo, gave 20 young adult frogs to Denver Zoo to place on exhibit, all of which are doing well today. We have had great success in that they survived the long journey as well as acclimating to a new environment. We also recently had tadpoles hatch a few weeks ago which are now on exhibit.

How did the case of the increasingly extinct frogs come to the attention of the Denver Zoo?

Denver Zoo has been working on this conservation project since 2007. Threats to the frog species were brought to our attention when Dr. Roberto Elias of Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Lima reached out to Denver Zoo to propose the Lake Titicaca Frog project. Denver Zoo was already working on some smaller projects in Peru at the time and was looking to participate in new projects surrounding a species in critical danger of extinction in Peru.


Dr. Roberto Elias and Robert Weaver at Huachipa Zoo (Photo courtesy of Denver Zoo)

The human overconsumption of the frogs was originally what caught Dr. Roberto Elias and Denver Zoo’s attention. In many parts of Lima it is common practice to smuggle in frogs from Lake Titicaca and turn them into blended “frog milkshakes” with the misconception that they have healing properties ranging from cures for headaches to male virility – none of which have been proven medically. Today, both human consumption and contamination of the lake itself are threats to the frog.

The Denver Post mentioned that prior to taking the frogs, the zoo believed it was important to establish “relationships and conservation efforts.” What steps were taken? Can you extend on this?

Steps were taken by Denver Zoo to reach out to the local government in Puno, the Lake Titicaca Reserve, as well as universities in Lima and Puno for collaboration on the conservation of this species. Getting to know the local communities in Puno and gaining their trust has been our greatest challenge.

Have you been working alongside any local or national organizations here in Peru?

The Denver Zoo, alongside Huachipa Zoo, participates in Frog Day, or Día de La Rana, [held] every year in Puno and Lima to help celebrate and educate local children and adults about this species. We also support a local women’s cooperative, Ccori Ampara, which teaches local women from Puno’s surrounding communities to create knitted handicrafts which they sell locally to help support their families.


(Photo courtesy of Denver Zoo)

What was necessary in order to house the frogs in Denver, where I imagine the climate is different than that of Puno?

Denver is the ‘Mile High City’ of the US, sitting at an altitude of about 5,280 feet (1,609 meters), while Puno is situated at around 12,500 feet (3,810 meters). This means that the frogs have access to more oxygen at Denver’s lower altitude, which has not seemed to have had any adverse effects on them thus far. However, the frogs do need some special accommodation at Denver Zoo. Along with the higher altitude of Lake Titicaca comes colder water temperatures, so a heavy duty chiller is used to keep the frogs at the appropriate temperatures and water quality is monitored twice a day.

Does the zoo constantly have staff on the ground in Puno, or do team members make frequent trips between Peru and Denver?

Denver Zoo has staff members based in Denver who travel to Peru twice per year on average. We also have Peruvian staff members, primarily research scientists, based in Lima and Puno. We also have associates in Puno, Lima, Junín and also in Bolivia who work with us and contribute to our research, conservation and educational efforts for the frogs.

What’s in the future for the Denver Zoo’s efforts towards conserving the Lake Titicaca Frogs?

Our goals are to continue and expand our research, partnerships, conservation and educational capacities in Peru, as well as in Denver…[Currently] we are developing and implementing educational programming at the zoo as well as in the surrounding communities to teach young students about the conservation of these frogs.

Visit the Denver Zoo’s website to see what other conservation programs they are involved with.

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