The life and times of a formerly extinct frog
Every three months Dr. Sarig Gafni strings nets hoping to find signs of life from the painted frog, which disappeared when the Hula swamp was drained in the mid 1950s.
When Dr. Sarig Gafni was serving as a reserve officer during the first Lebanon War, he would go out on foot patrols with a small net in his flak jacket. When the soldiers on his patrol would stop for a brief rest or a food break, Dr. Gafni would pull out the net and attack every nearby puddle and pool of water with it.
"I was looking mainly for tadpoles of the common spadefoot toad (Pelobates fuscus ), on which I was doing my master's thesis at the time," he relates, immediately adding: "The big dream was always to find a Hula painted frog (Discoglossus nigriventer )."
Since then Dr. Gafni, a freshwater ecologist, has looked for the rare frog hundreds of times. Every three months he strings nets in the Hula Reserve and freshwater pools in the area in the hope of finding signs of life from the painted frog, which had disappeared since the Hula swamp was drained in the mid 1950s. Like him, many other zoologists and nature lovers from around the world have done the same, eager to rediscover the frog that had been declared an extinct species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in the mid-1990s.
Two weeks ago Israel Nature and Parks Authority warden Yoram Malka found the frog again and according to Dr. Gafni the discovery has led to "tremendous international interest. German researchers have come to Israel especially. A large number of research institutes and universities have made contact and asked for details."
On Tuesday, Malka found another painted frog in the same area. "Up until two weeks ago we knew nothing about them," says Gafni. "We didn't know where to look and when. We didn't know what it eats, when it is active and in what conditions," he says, explaining the reasons for the inability to find the frog for so many years. "It was just chance and Malka's alertness that led to the finding of the first frog. Once we knew it was there, it was just a matter of time before the second one would be found."
The frog that was found on Tuesday near the freshwater channel in the Hula Reserve is smaller than the one found two weeks ago. It is 4.9 centimeters long and it weighs only 13 grams. Malka relates that when the first frog was released back into nature, he identified the signs that led to finding it. "The moment it left the aquarium I saw it was trying to dig into the grass, exactly the way toads behave," he said. "Since then I've been searching in the grass with my hands and I try to find it beneath the surface."
Like the first painted frog that was found, this one too will be released back into the nature reserve after DNA samples are taken from it. "Now the challenge is not to harm the population that is apparently in danger of extinction," explains Malka. "Every individual could be critical for the survival of this rare species and we absolutely must not harm it."
Dr. Gafni takes a similar view. "As a scientist, I am tempted to keep the specimen that was found and study it in captivity," he says, "but nature has given us another chance. We were sure it was extinct and now we have a bigger responsibility than in the past to preserve it and to prevent its final disappearance."