“O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?”
Why in a Bolivian aquarium, of course, passing his days as a lonely bachelor in want of a Juliet. Dubbed the “the last of the Sehuencas water frogs”, Romeo has spent the last decade in isolation, his species believed to be on the brink of extinction.
Then there was a croak in the tale. Biologists found Juliet leaping from a waterfall at the end of a river in a remote Bolivian cloud forest. They took her back to the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny, made sure she was clear of an infectious disease called chytridiomycosis, and then let some froggy romance transpire.
“When the fate of an entire species is on the line, there’s really no time for taking it slow before committing to moving in together,” said Teresa Camacho Badani, the museum’s chief of herpetology, in a statement. “Romeo has been really sweet to Juliet, following her around the aquarium and sacrificing his worm meals for her. After he’s been alone for so long, it’s wonderful to see him with a mate finally.”
Romeo took to Juliet as quickly as in the tale and began singing his desire for her. Prior to this, his calls had stopped and researchers were worried he had become too old to reproduce. Not so, it seems, looks like he just needed some inspiration... and, as it turns out, some practice.
Romeo hasn’t quite figured out how to get all his body parts aligned well enough to all her body parts. He needs some more practice to achieve amplexus, the mating position where a male holds on to the female until he can fertilize her eggs as she lays them. This can take weeks or even months, with the males sometimes losing weight from lack of food during the constant embrace.
“We don’t know much about the reproductive behavior of this species, so we’re not sure how long amplexus lasts, how long it takes tadpoles to hatch, or how many eggs Juliet might lay,” said Chris Jordan, Global Wildlife Conservation’s Central America and Tropical Andes coordinator. “For now we’re keeping them together, and observing them, which as simple as it sounds, is already revealing previously unknown behaviors.”
One of these behaviors includes Romeo rapidly wiggling his toes either in excitement, to woo Juliet, or perhaps to ward off those pesky competitors. The researchers have taken to calling it "twinkle toes".
“We don’t know if they lay their eggs on plants, on rocks, or how it works, so we need to give them different options and learn how it happens so that we can improve things and better replicate natural conditions moving forward," said Jordan.
If the natural way proves too much for Romeo and Juliet, the team at Global Wildlife Conservation will look into assisted reproductive technologies. They will also bank the frog’s sperm to help protect against species extinction.
Juliet may be the most well known, but two male and two female Sehuencas water frogs were also brought into the museum. They are the first to be found in the wild in decades, despite persistent search expeditions for them. The frogs have been kept in a separate aquarium from Romeo and Juliet, only recently showing signs they are ready to breed.
Time for Romeo and Juliet to have some fun and save their species. If you want to watch all the action, the museum is live-streaming the romance every Wednesday at 11am ET here.