Plenty of people aspire to work with wild animals for a living, yet very few are willing to go to the lengths required to protect them. Caring for these creatures necessitates more than just an afternoon of casual attention: sometimes, a trip to the bottom of the ocean or to the highest mountain peak is the only way to get the job done. And in some cases, experts are asked to put their lives on the line to keep these animals safe.
When a group of international herpetologists set out in search of a critically endangered reptile, they were forced to traverse some of the Earth’s deadliest terrain in order to reach its habitat. Upon arriving, however, the scientists came across a never-before-seen creature in dire need of help.
Since their discovery in the 16th century, the Galápagos Islands have captivated visitors with their diverse array of flora and fauna. Over 200 species call the archipelago home, most of which can only be found on the islands.
The islands are perhaps best known for their giant tortoises, most of which live well beyond 100 years old. Galápagos finches are also prevalent, the very same that inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution more than 150 years ago.
Our Global Trek
Yet most people don’t realize that the Galápagos Islands are highly volcanic. In fact, on Darwin’s first voyage to the area in 1835, he actually referred to it as “that land of craters.”
Isabela Island — the largest of the Galápagos — is home to five active volcanoes alone, including the imposing Wolf Volcano. The highest peak in the Galápagos, Wolf Volcano also features some of the area’s most treacherous terrain.
This wasn’t enough to deter the American and Ecuadorian herpetologists that set their sights on Isabela in late 2019. Their journey wasn’t going to be one of light walks and tortoise photos, however: they had a species to save.
That species was the Conolophus marthae, more commonly known as the pink land iguana. Critically endangered with only around 200 mature individuals remaining, the pink land iguana can only be found in the areas surrounding Wolf Volcano.
The scientists were seeking to document the remaining iguanas in the hope of better understanding the unique needs of the dwindling population. But the journey from the small entry island of Baltra to the treacherous peaks of Wolf Volcano wasn’t going to be an easy one.
“It takes a long, very expensive expedition, and once you get there you have to climb the slopes of the volcano, which takes a lot of effort, and a big team,” said herpetologist Alejandro Arteaga, director of science for the research and ecotourism group Tropical Herping.
Still, the team wasn’t going to let a few big rocks and some molten magma get in the way of their mission. After arriving at the Seymour Airport on Baltra, the herpetologists chartered a boat and set sail for the port village of Puerto Villamil.
Not Your Average American
The team then embarked on a grueling trek through the mountainous terrain of Isabela Island. Along the way, they traversed several of the island’s most active volcanoes, dodging magma with each step they took.
Finally, after days of hiking, the group arrived at Wolf Volcano. They steadily scaled the steep slopes of the towering mountain, though when they reached the top, there were no pink land iguanas to be found.
Instead, the scientists found themselves face to face with several creatures: They were geckos, this they were certain of, yet something about them made the team feel like they were worth paying a little extra attention to.
Michael Jefferies / Flickr
After tracking down and snapping photos of the pink land iguana population, the team returned to collect tissue samples from the unusual geckos. These samples were then sent to Universidad San Francisco de Quito back in mainland Ecuador, where researchers there confirmed the herpetologists’ inkling…
These geckos were all brand new species — three of them, to be exact. This brought the grand total of gecko species in the Galápagos up to 12, with 11 of them completely native to the islands.
The first new species was dubbed Phyllodactylus andysabini, a.k.a. Sabin’s leaf-toed gecko, after Andrew Sabin, the philanthropist who’d funded the expedition. Along with the pink land iguana and the tortoise species Chelonoidis becki, this gecko is completely endemic to the Wolf Volcano area.
Next came the Simpson’s leaf-toed gecko, Phyllodactylus simpsoni, which was actually discovered on an expedition back in 2014. The original discoverer, Omar Torres-Carvajal, failed to label the species at the time, so Arteaga and company decided to name the gecko after conservationist Nigel Simpson.
The third species Phyllodactylus maresi, or the the Mares leaf-toed gecko, was originally deemed a subspecies of Phyllodactylus galapagensis in 1973. However, advanced genetic testing revealed that the Mares was, in fact, its own unique species and was subsequently labeled as such.
The team’s enthusiasm was short-lived, however, as they quickly realized that, like many other Galápagos species, these geckos were at risk of extinction. With the entire population contained to Isabela Island, one large lava flow could easily wipe them all out.
“When you combine this with the fact that there are still introduced predators in the area, especially cats and black rats,” explained Arteaga, “it definitely qualifies as endangered.”
With these three new species properly identified, herpetologists could devise tailor-made approaches to their conservation and protection. They studied all kinds of preservation efforts, like those on Philip Island, a small community just south of Melbourne, Australia.
Each year, Phillip Island makes a real splash with its Penguin Parade. Visitors eagerly line up to watch the adorable wildlife make trips to and from the shore. But the parades might just end soon — for good.
The aptly named little penguin is the smallest variety of penguin, with a weight of approximately two pounds. In the past, you couldn’t look anywhere in Phillip Island without spotting a couple of them. But recently, their numbers were thinning.
Due to an influx of foxes and other predators, the helpless penguins found themselves hunted down at an extreme rate. On one gruesome day, predators killed 180 of the poor penguins! By 2015, conservationists could only find six penguins on the entire island.
Park Rangers on Phillip Island had a real problem on their hands. Aside from the tourism revenue that kept the reserve going, the near-extinction of the little penguins threatened the entire ecosystem.
Nobody was quite sure what to do. But then a colorful chicken farmer named Swampy Marsh stepped forward. He had a trick he used in his everyday work that he figured might just save the plummeting penguin population.
To keep his flock of chickens safe from any would-be hunters, Swampy invested in a few Maremma sheepdogs to prowl his fields. These born herders chased away predators while also moving the birds to safer locations when needed.
If the Maremmas could shield some chickens, he wondered, could they do the same for penguins? Phillip Island understood they had no other real option. They got to training some dogs as soon as they could.
Before long, Phillip Island set the dogs out on guard patrol. The Maremmas didn’t even have handlers with them. A self-reliant breed, they alone covered the expanse of the island. The park rangers waited with bated breath.
Sure enough, the sheepdogs did the trick! Foxes and other predators fled to the mainland, and the little penguin community started bouncing back.
Soon, in fact, their numbers climbed back into the triple digits! The Maremma experiment was such a success that it inspired a family film called Oddball. However, another species threatened the struggling birds: mankind.
Manmade disasters pose possibly the biggest threat to endangered species all over the world. For the little penguins, recent oil spills off the Australian coast wreaked havoc to their habitat.
Fortunately, conservation groups stepped in to help clean up the animals and their homes. But one quick scrub couldn’t wash away the entire problem. The oil spill can cause longer lasting-problems, like reducing the penguins’ ability to retain body heat.
As luck would have it, a novel solution would come from these halls in Southwest Australia. But make no mistake, this was no laboratory or gifted school. The penguin savior would come from a nursing home.
Alfie Date was already remarkable, as he held the title of Australia’s oldest man. Nevertheless, even at 109 years of age, he still had the energy to make a difference. Moved by the penguins’ story, he pulled out some yarn and his knitting needles.
With no time to lose, Alfie started knitting up a storm. A stack of colorful garments piled up next to his chair. Once Alfie’s hands couldn’t make one more stitch, he called the nurses to ship his hard work off to Phillip Island.
Crazy as it sounds, Alfie knitted sweaters for the penguins — and it worked! The perfectly sized clothing kept the birds warm and improved their buoyancy in the water. Plus, they didn’t look half bad.
Once other Australians got wind of Alfie’s heroic craftsmanship, they began sending their own penguin sweaters to Phillip Island, with some really cool designs to boot. You could almost say that Alfie’s sweater gambit worked a little too well.
Staff on Phillip Island became so overwhelmed with penguin clothing that they had to asked people to stop sending it over! The birds only needed the sweaters for a short while, and yet park rangers had enough to put on a whole fashion show!
However, the sweaters going viral raised a ton of awareness about the little penguins’ plight. People all over the world, not just around Melbourne, took notice of just how important these birds were to the ecosystem.
Twitter / Tatiana Danger
Ever since, the penguins’ numbers have continued their steady growth. Who ever thought a few dogs and some knitting could save an entire population from the brink of extinction?
Researchers in other parts of the world saw dwindling populations of another species. In the deep dark corners of the Bolivian rainforest, for instance, there live this frog with a wide brown body, big green eyes, and an orange chest holding an empty heart. He was alone. He had been for a very, very long time.
There, from the tropical freshwater marsh, he was captured by scientists who had never laid eyes on one of his kind before. To further study him, they brought the fat-bellied frog back to their labs.
Ever since that day, the frog had been living at the Cochabamba Natural History Museum where he was given the name “Romeo.” The question for the lonely frog was this: would he find his one true love? Or would “love be a smoke made with the fume of sighs?”
See, at first, researchers and frog experts assumed that Romeo was the very last Sehuencas water frog remaining on Earth. After all, his habitat has been greatly affected by deforestation and climate change…
But both the researchers and Romeo refused to give up hope. Their new goal for the next decade was to find him a Juliet. If the two got along, he would no longer be lonely, and if they really got along, they might be able to repopulate the Sehuencas species.
For the scientists, boosting the frog population was a beneficial goal in more ways than one: they’d save another species from extinction, further study these little guys, and restore balance in the delicate ecosystem of the Amazon rainforest.
Thus, the biologists got to work; they searched endlessly throughout the forest and even created a profile for Romeo on Match.com. Still, for an entire decade, “one” remained the loneliest number.
Zoologist Teresa Camacho then led a frog-search expedition in December of 2018. She and her team would stick their hands in creeks and feel for water frogs since the creatures can’t easily be spotted underwater.
“We were tired, wet and disappointed,” said Camacho, who believes that contaminated waterways on top of all the other habitat changes have driven the Sehuencas water frog close to extinction. “Then I said, ‘Let’s do one more creek.'”
Suddenly, Camacho and her team heard a tiny splash and noticed some movement in the water. They reached for the creature right away but alas: it was an entirely different species of frog.
However, not all hope was lost. That frog jumped away, leading the team to a tiny waterfall. There, underneath the stream of a little crashing wave, researchers saw a brown frog with big green eyes and an orange belly.
Unfortunately, this frog would not be Romeo’s partner in repopulating the species. While this little fella could’ve been great company to the museum loner, he was a male! Still, this meant there were more Sehuencas out there. There was hope to finding Romeo a Juliet.
The next day, the crew returned to the creek one more time and… bingo! They managed to catch four more frogs: two males and two females. While three of them were too young to reproduce, one female was exactly the right age. Now all they needed was some chemistry…
Although Romeo found no luck in online dating, this adult female could very well be the one. Could his life of isolation finally be over? It was a tough call because she had a completely opposite personality from Romeo’s!
“Romeo is really calm and relaxed and doesn’t move a whole lot,” Camacho Badini told BBC. Juliet, she said, was “really energetic, she swims a lot and she eats a lot and sometimes she tries to escape.”
On Valentine’s Day of 2019, the two love frogs would be set up on their very first “date” in the hopes of procreating and saving their entire species. No pressure, though, right?
If their personalities weren’t compatible, the looks could be all they needed. “She has beautiful eyes,” Alcide d’Orbigny Museum Director Ricardo Céspedes said about Juliet, who was quarantined until lab tests come back.
Scientists needed to make sure she was free of the dangerous chytrid fungus — known to have killed entire frog populations — before she met Romeo. Otherwise, she could’ve done much more harm than good!
Romeo was actually quite shy, didn’t swim much, and was “a little overweight” but that could change! “We’ll have to provide some sort of current to get him a little more exercise,” Camacho said.
If Romeo didn’t get kissed and turned into a prince, there were always a few other solutions: the biologists could attempt in-vitro-fertilization or rely on the younger frogs to breed when they were ready.
The Bolivian Museum of Natural History has previously succeeded in preserving the rare Titicaca frog, so if anyone is up to saving the Sehuencas, it’s these well-trained experts.
Now all there was left to do was wait for Valentine’s Day and see whether the Montague-Capulet romance would bloom. At least for now, Romeo no longer has to live in solitude, and there’s gonna be one less lonely frog.