June 16, 2011
Guibemantis wattersoni, pictured here in a screw pine leaf axil in the Sainte Luce rainforest of Madagascar, is one of two new species of frogs identified by Richard Lehtinen, associate professor of biology at The College of Wooster, and two of his colleagues.
WOOSTER, Ohio — Madagascar’s reputation as a haven for biodiversity has been further enhanced by a biologist from The College of Wooster, who, along with a pair of colleagues, has discovered two new species of frogs.
Richard Lehtinen, associate professor of biology and environmental studies at Wooster, and German scientists Frank Glaw and Miguel Vences, confirmed that two plant-breeding frogs, originally thought to be members of another species, are actually separate species unto themselves.
“The frogs’ DNA sequence differed by nearly 10 percent, which is really significant,” says Lehtinen. “That finding caused me to go back and collect additional morphological data, which revealed noteworthy physical differences. This led us to conclude that we were dealing with two new species.”
Lehtinen’s research dates back more than a decade, and really even further than that when, as a child, he would collect tiger salamanders from the window wells of his home in Lily Lake, Ill., and load them into his water-filled red wagon for further observation before releasing them back to their natural habitat. Years later, as a graduate student at the University of Michigan conducting research for his dissertation, Lehtinen traveled to Madagascar to study the ecology of frogs, particularly a species that reproduced in leaf axils (leaves that meet at the base of the plant and collect rain water) in the rain forest.
“I did not go there in search of a new species,” says Lehtinen. “I just wanted to learn more about how these frogs bred in these tiny water bodies and how they evolved over time.”
It wasn’t until several years later while collaborating with Vences during a research leave that Lehtinen realized the frogs he had studied in Madagascar might well be a unique species. “I was trained as a field biologist, and Miguel is an expert on DNA analysis,” says Lehtinen. “He helped me identify the significant differences in the DNA sequences.”
That revelation led Lehtinen to contact Glaw, the curator of a major museum in Munich, so he could conduct a more in-depth study of the frog specimens. Last spring, Lehtinen slaved over a microscope — sometimes until 3 o’clock in the morning — taking meticulous measurements of the specimens and attempting to identify unique physical characteristics.
The conclusions, which are published in the most recent edition of The Herpetological Journal, confirmed the discovery of two new species. The first, Guibemantis annulatus, was similar to another (Guibemantis punctatus), but differed in several key areas, including a lighter background color and smaller round spots on its back as well as light rings near each toe or finger disc. It also had longer legs and feet, a wider head and several other significant differences. The second, Guibemantis wattersoni, was also similar to another species (Guibemantis bicalcaratus), but differed in that it had a larger body and tympanum (ear), as well as conspicuous light rings near each fingertip.
As the one who discovered the new species, Lehtinen had the honor of naming them. The first, G. annulatus, means “ring-wearer,” which reflects the rings present on the frog’s fingers and toes. The second, G. wattersoni, is in honor of Bill Watterson, creator of the famous “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip. “I have always respected him as a person and an artist,” says Lehtinen. “The strip always struck a chord with me. I was also impressed that he never licensed his characters to make a quick buck.” Lehtinen hopes to contact the reclusive Watterson, who graduated from Kenyon, to apprise him of the honor.
Unfortunately, the excitement surrounding Lehtinen’s discovery is tempered by the fact that both species are threatened with extinction, but he hopes this will help people to realize and embrace the value of biodiversity. “It becomes a matter of ethics,” he says. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘what right do we have to cause any species not to exist?’”
And that might be the most important discovery of all.
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