The Lake Titicaca giant frog, more affectionately known as the “scrotum frog”, is in trouble. Traditional medicines such as “frog juice” and habitat contamination are threatening their survival, but help is on the way as a massive conservation initiative sees five international scientific institutions and the governments of Bolivia and Peru join forces to save this endangered, wrinkly anuran.
As one of the world’s biggest exclusively aquatic frogs, the scrotum frog is indeed a giant. In the late 1960s, an expedition led by Jacques Cousteau reported Titicaca water frogs up to 60 centimeters (2 feet) in length when stretched, but most modern-day individuals are closer to 7.5 to 17 centimeters (3.0–6.7 inches) from snout-to-vent. They are pale green to grey in color and have characteristically loose, saggy skin which has earned them their slightly risqué street name. It’s thought the excess flesh is an adaptation to living in high altitudes helping them to absorb as much oxygen from the water as possible.
Once abundant in the waters of Lake Titicaca, which straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia, these frogs have come under attack in recent years from pollution caused by local mining. They suffered a mass dying event in 2016 when over 10,000 dead frogs were found on the shores of a tributary to Lake Titicaca, most likely triggered by pollution from agriculture and plastics.
Unfortunately scrotum frogs are popular in traditional medicine, featuring in a tonic known as “frog juice” which is consumed for its "aphrodisiac" properties. At local markets you can find their legs served grilled or roasted, and even buy amulets and bags made from the frogs’ bodies.
The new project seeks to save the scrotum frog by studying their habitat and carrying out genetic analyses to inform which steps will best protect this vulnerable species. With researchers from Bolivia's Science Museum and Natural History Museum, Cayetano Heredia University in Peru, Pontifical Catholic University in Ecuador, Denver Zoo in the US, and the NGO NaturalWay, the rescue mission is backed by both the Peruvian and Bolivian governments as well as the United Nations Development Programme.
"The investigations aim to characterize the main habitats used by the Titicaca Giant Frog and diagnose the threats to these habitats to prioritize conservation areas, in the same way they seek to assess the population status through the method of transects with snorkeling, to finally establish the taxonomic identity of the species by means of genetic analysis," said the region's Integrated Water Resources Management project heading up the research in a statement on their website. "All the results will be used in decision making by the key actors to guarantee their future conservation."
Fear not, wrinkly dudes. Help is on the way.