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Conservation Update – The Bizarre, Skin-Breathing Lake Titicaca Frog

The huge, aquatic, baggy-skinned Lake Titicaca Frog (Telmatobius culeus) has fascinated me since childhood, when I first came upon a group at the Bronx Zoo.  I returned again and again to stare as the unusual beasts – largest of the world’s aquatic frogs – did “push-ups” at the bottom of their cold aquarium (they breathe largely through their loose skin, and rock back and forth in order to increase the area exposed to the water).  Because the frogs lived for so long – nearly 30 years in one case – I was able to work with same individuals I had earlier observed once I began my zoo-keeping career.

Captive Breeding Attempts

The Bronx Zoo’s frogs were the only ones of their kind in captivity.  They fared well on infrequent feedings (their metabolisms are incredibly slow) of minnows and earthworms, and eggs were produced a few times.  One or two clutches hatched, but the tadpoles always expired quickly.  Captive breeding was a priority, as they are found only in Lake Titicaca, 12,000 feet above sea level on the Peru-Bolivia border (please see photo), and were being eaten and polluted put-of-existence.

I learned that, as Lake Titicaca has little water outflow, salts and minerals accumulate.  I therefore experimented with pH and salinity, but to no avail – the last specimen died in the early 1990’s.

A New Breeding and Field Research Project

I’m happy to report that the Denver Zoo has recently teamed up with a Peruvian University (Universidad Peruana Cayetano) to study the Lake Titicaca Frog in its Andean home and to breed it in captivity.

The effort is timely – although classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, the frogs continue to be harvested, and are now the source of a trendy drink that requires their being skinned alive and tossed into a blender!  They are unprotected on the Bolivian side of the lake, but Peruvian officials recently confiscated and released 4,500 individuals destined for table or blender.

First Breeding of a Rare Relative

Titicaca in BoliviaFourteen relatives of the Lake Titicaca Frog, most native to isolated, montane habitats, are threatened with extinction.  So it was gratifying to hear that a museum in Bolivia (Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny) has recently succeeded in breeding the Water Frog (Telmatobius hintoni), and that the tadpoles are nearing maturity.

In addition to assisting in the conservation of the endangered Water Frog, lessons learned concerning its captive care will hopefully be applicable to the Lake Titicaca frog and related species.

Further Reading

Video with rarely-seen images of Lake Titicaca, the frog and its tadpoles.

T. culeus Rescue Effort



Lake Titicaca Water Frog image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by KH Jungfer (2003)

Lake Titicaca in Bolivia image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Skykid 123ve

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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