David Attenborough’s frog: New Andean species first amphibian named after the British naturalist

Broadcaster, who kept a ‘beautiful’ European tree frog as a child, says he is ‘thrilled’ after species found high in the Peruvian mountains is named in his honour

Ian Johnston
Science Correspondent
Tuesday 07 March 2017 17:44 GMT
The frog was discovered in the mountains of central Peru living at altitudes of up to nearly 4,000 metres
The frog was discovered in the mountains of central Peru living at altitudes of up to nearly 4,000 metres

A newly discovered species of frog – which lives high in the Andes Mountains of South America – has been named after the British broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough. Attenborough’s rubber frog, Pristimantis attenboroughi, is the first amphibian to bear his name but one of numerous different species – from beautiful flowers to a flightless weevil – to do so.

The frog, which grows to just 2.3cm long, less than an inch, was discovered by US-based scientists Dr Edgar Lehr and Dr Rudolf von May while they surveyed the mountains of central Peru between 2012 and 2014. They initially thought it was a different kind of frog, until genetic analysis showed it was a new kind of rubber frog. It was found living at altitudes of up to nearly 4,000 metres (more than 13,000 feet) and, unlike most frogs, does not produce tadpoles.

A female Attenborough’s rubber frog guards a clutch of eggs from insect predators 

Instead the female lays eggs in moss and then guards them from potential insect predators until they hatch as fully formed baby frogs. This is thought to be an adaptation to the high altitude, where tadpoles would struggle in ponds that often freeze. Dr Lehr, of Illinois Wesleyan University, said he had not really heard of Sir David, but that all changed when he moved from Germany to the United States in 2009.

“I frequently use Attenborough material in my classes and my students love him,” he told The Independent. “This is one of the very few people I can say I deeply honour – he’s a hero for me. “What he is doing is working to create awareness of animals and nature and the need to protect it, which is very important.”

He said he had been involved in discovering 89 new species and decided to name one after Sir David after watching a TV programme in which the broadcaster celebrated his 90th birthday. “I probably should have done it much earlier,” he said. In December, Dr Lehr wrote a letter about his plans to Sir David, who responded saying he would be “thrilled”. He also revealed he had kept a European tree frog as a pet when he was a child.

The upper Tarhuish valley at Laguna Udrecocha, Puna, in Peru, where the rubber frogs were found is 3,936 metres above sea level

Speaking to The Independent, the broadcaster said: “One of the nicest compliments one biologist can pay another is to name a new species after him. This is a very great compliment from this scientist, who I don’t in fact know personally.” He said of his childhood pet tree frog that it was “very beautiful” and he had been “delighted to have one”.

The scientists who discovered Attenborough’s rubber frog believe the species to be “near threatened” by extinction because of climate change, pollution, fires set by humans and fungal infections.

A problem shared by many species adapted for life at high altitudes is that as the temperature warms, they are not able to climb higher to remain in the conditions to which they have evolved to live in. They can also face competition from similar animals that are able to move into their territory. For example, a leopard was recently caught on camera in snow leopard territory high on the Tibetan plateau.

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