Posted 15 July 2011, by Thomas Lin, The New York Times, green.blogs.nytimes.com
The Borneo rainbow toad, with its long spindly legs, looks a bit like an Abstract Expressionist canvas splattered in bright green, purple and red. But when this amphibian was last seen, in 1924, the painter Jackson Pollock was just 12, and the only image of the mysterious creature was a black-and-white sketch.
That changed this summer when the toad was rediscovered high in the ridges of the Gunung Penrissen range of Western Sarawak, between Sarawak State in Malaysia and Kalimantan Barat Province in Indonesia.
Because of market demand for bright-colored amphibians, which are sold as pets, Indraneil Das, a herpetologist at the University of Malaysia at Sarawak who led the research team that found the toad, declined to be more specific about the location, saying only that it was spotted about six feet up a tree in that region on the night of June 12 by one of his graduate students, Pui Yong Min. Dr. Das answered a few questions about the find by e-mail.
The Borneo rainbow toad has not been seen in 87 years. How did your team go about trying to find it?
We started searching at the locality it was found in the last century [Gunung Penrissen], using standard search techniques appropriate for amphibians in rain forest habitats, drawing inspiration from Conservation International’s Search for Lost Frogs, an international campaign to discover amphibians not seen for a decade, initiated by Dr. Robin Moore. I had to read the published journals of explorers at the time of the expedition to determine what route they took.
Why has it been so long since the last sighting?
Few herpetologists have worked in these remote mountains that straddle the Indonesia-Malaysia border. It’s only now that the site is accessible, thanks to a resort featuring an 18-hole golf course.
Describe some of the challenges of the months-long search.
Team members, of course, had to be fit to climb the mountains. And lug along heavy gear for measurements and documentation. Permits had to be received for accessing the area, and it turned out to be expensive field work, as we had to stay at a high-end golf resort. Of course, there were dangers and annoyances, such as getting lost along poorly marked trails (necessitating rescue operations), leeches, encounters with gun-wielding poachers, getting drenched in the rain at over 1,000 meters elevation at night, etc, etc.
What are some of the special characteristics of this species? Have you learned anything new about these toads?
We still know little about this species, apart from its arboreal (tree-dwelling) habits. It apparently inhabits high elevations, and the moss-like colors of its dorsum may be adaptive for camouflage on moss-covered tree bark. A two-year grant from the University of Malaysia at Sarawak will permit us to answer these and other questions.
How many do you think are left? What are the biggest threats to the remaining population of Borneo rainbow toads?
No data on population size are available, and the greatest threat to the species is habitat loss (the area is not under a national park or a nature reserve) and especially, fragmentation. Additionally, the resort is also visited by collectors from a certain country that shall go unnamed who illegally collect beetles and butterflies. The bright colors of the Borneo rainbow toad may also tempt suppliers of the pet trade locally and internationally.