Nature and Parks Authority warden Yoram Malka set out Tuesday for a routine patrol to monitor the birds in the Hula Nature Reserve, but he was also keeping his sharp eyes peeled for a specific type of frog.

Malka had previously promised the scientists researching the reserve that he would once again locate the Hula painted frog, a species of frog that was unique to Israel and was thought to have become extinct more than 50 years ago. This week he kept his promise.

"I saw something jump that didn't look familiar," said Malka. "I rushed over and caught a frog, and when I turned it over I saw that it had a black belly with white spots, the identifying mark of the painted frog. I immediately returned [with it] to the reserve's office and took out the animal handbook, and I saw that what I had found look exactly like the painted frog that appears in the handbook."

Malka's discovery shocked conservationists and scientists who deal with this field in Israel. The Hula painted frog had been one of the primary symbols of natural extinction in Israel after it had disappeared following the drying of Lake Hula in the 1950s.

Dr. Sarig Gafni of Ruppin Academic Center's School of Marine Sciences, an expert in amphibians, was immediately summoned to the reserve, and he arrived with the original scientific paper from 1940 in which the Hula painted frog was described.

"We went through the article, sign by sign, and checked all the indicators, including the distance between the eyes, and it is indeed a Hula Painted Frog," said Gafni. "It's very exciting; to me it's like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls of nature conservation in Israel. We must remember that in the past, only three adult samples of this species had ever been found."

According to Dr. Dana Milstein, an ecologist with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the rare frog got its Hebrew name - agulashon shehor-gahon - from its black belly and round tongue, which, unlike that of other frogs, is not used to catch prey.

For years Israeli researchers have been trying to locate the frog, searching in and around every spring and streambed in the area where the Hula marshes were dried up, but without success. Thus it was assumed that the act of drying up the Hula and the destruction of other natural habitats through pollution and development had sealed the fate of this unique species.

Milstein believes that the frog's discovery is linked to environmental improvements in the Hula reserve.

"In recent years, the water quality has improved, after they started to pour water from fish ponds and nearby springs into the reserve," she said.

The IPNA's next mission is to determine whether there are more frogs aside from the one discovered, which is apparently female.

The fate of the captured frog has yet to be determined. Gafni hopes to be able to return it to the wild as quickly as possible.