“Eso si es algo distinto!” The excitement in his voice is unmistakable as HERP.MX’s expedition leader, Chris Grunwald, confirms this wasn’t a frog mating call he’d ever heard before. It’s late summer of 2016, and Chris, Kim Flores and Hector Franz were now on their 8th night deep in the land of jaguars, opium poppies and cartels on the muddy 4x4 tracks of Guerrero’s Sierra Madre del Sur. They were running nocturnal surveys, listening intently along rivers, creeks and seeps with their fingers crossed for a moment just like this one. Among the myriad of frog mating calls, and distant bursts from AK47s, they’ve registered the loud and distinct mating song of an unknown species.
Aimed at the calling frog, they start hiking up the middle of the creek — the only way to quickly cross dense cloud-forest. When the calls abruptly stop — a sign they might have spooked the frog — their flashlight beams go dark to calm the amphibian’s nerves. Though the calls have stopped, it’s anything but silent. Rushing water and the buzz from mosquitos are amplified to a roar by the exhaustion from days in the field.
Another piercing “crehk-crehk-crehk” interrupts and, in a choreographed dance rehearsed thousands of times before, the team’s flashlights burst on in the direction of the call. At the intersection of their beams, and perfectly triangulated, sits a yellowish-brown frog perched on a leafy vine above the fast-flowing water.
Not nearly as surprised as the frog, the team had confirmed what they already knew from the moment the song started: this was a new species.
That same night the HERP.MX Field Team would re-discover the long-lost Spine-fingered Treefrog (Charadrahyla trux), a species that hadn’t been seen in over 30 years, and that many had suspected to be extinct. The same expedition would yield the 2nd and 3rd specimens and paratype of the recently described Rhadinea nuchalis, the rediscovery of the ‘lost’ Guerreran Climbing Salamander (Bolitoglossa hermosa), a new species of peeping frog (Eleutherodactylus sp.), and even a late-night jaguar sighting. Such is Guerrero. The last two decades have revealed the state as a hotspot for undiscovered diversity. Virtually inaccessible terrain and security concerns joined forces to create the perfect atmosphere for neglect from researchers — and it’s a neglect we’ll likely regret sooner rather than later.
It’s no secret that the Sierra Madre del Sur is the epicenter of Mexico’s opium poppy production — and it has the violence-scarred communities to show for it. But while the narco-culture has left its mark on the people, until recently, the environment in poppy-country remained relatively unscathed. Dense forests are good for business when your business is hiding and tending to poppy fields, so farmers had a vested interest in keeping Guerrero untamed. But fate and an industry-disrupting synthetic opiate named fentanyl are poised to turn it all upside down.
The last few years have seen the demand and price for poppy paste crash as fentanyl rises to replace it — and with it a steady stream of farmers have taken up side-gigs as lumberjacks, clearing swaths of remaining primary forest at an alarming pace. Caravans bring the illegal goods — massive pines from the depths of the Sierra Madre — down to mills on the coast. With the logging backed and often operated by the same armed groups that have controlled the region for years, authorities are powerless to throw up even a speed bump, let alone stop it.
Against this backdrop, the herpetological world has seen the discovery and rediscovery of a half dozen species in just the last few years — consolation prizes for researchers who’ve dared to pay their respects to an environment on its death bed. The stakes remain high — just this summer a team of biologists were kidnapped and car-jacked, but the rush is on to see what the world’s about to lose. The tiny treefrog from the creek in 2016 has now been described as Toyota’s Treefrog (Sarcohyla toyota) — a tribute to what’s arguably the most pivotal element in HERP.MX’s discoveries in Mexico’s backcountry: extremely capable and reliable field trucks.
Ironically, some of the field team’s Toyota vehicles will likely be operating long after the pristine stream habitat for Toyota’s Treefrog is gone or uninhabitable.