Constantin Grach was a young undergrad when he discovered an animal species unknown to man. In 1997, Grach, a devotee of amphibians who began keeping pets when he was 3, caught about 20 tree-frog tadpoles in Jerusalem's Mamilla Pool, using a net. "After they became adults, I recognized immediately that they were different from the usual tree frog we have in Israel," Grach related recently. He kept the tree frogs in his apartment in Ma'aleh Adumim, where he fed them insects and bred them, eventually creating a population numbering in the dozens.
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And so, in the heart of Jerusalem, a new species of amphibian was discovered. It was a decade before it was officially recognized. The first new amphibian species discovered in Israel for decades, it joins six existing local amphibian species - toad, frog, salamander, newt and the common tree frog. Unfortunately, the new tree frog's natural habitat was destroyed even before its discovery was officially recognized, and it may already be extinct in nature. The tree frogs that had been in the possession of researchers have also died, apparently falling victim to a disagreement between Grach and the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA).
The tree frog is a tailless amphibian that resembles a small frog. They were once common in Israel, but their numbers have declined drastically in recent years due to the destruction of their natural habitats. In addition, a number of other amphibian species have seen a significant numerical decline in Israel and other countries, for reasons that are not yet clear.
The new species of tree frog is described in a recent issue of the Journal of Natural History, in an article written by Grach, together with Yeshurun Plesser and Prof. Emeritus Dr. Yehudah L. Werner of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The researchers named their find Hyla heinzsteinitzi, in honor of the Hebrew University marine biologist Heinz Steinitz, who died in 1971.
According to Grach, living with the breeding stock of the tree frogs was often difficult. "I provided for those tree frogs for eight years. It's a full-time job," Grach said, "making sure their room was warm and taking care of the insects they eat. It crippled my lifestyle. In the good days I had 120 frogs, and people don't understand what that means. They scream so you can't sleep."
Its distinctive croak, which Grach recorded and documented in detail, was one of the tree frog's characteristics that made it possible to identify it as a new species.
Nearly all of the toads and tree frogs that once thronged Mamilla Pool in their thousands have disappeared over the past several years, presumably due to pest-control efforts and a decline in the area's vegetation. Grach fears the worst for the species. His breeding program ended three years ago, when Aryeh Keller of the INNPPA confiscated his animals. "I searched his place, suspecting that he was keeping wildlife without a license," Keller said. "I take legal steps against anyone keeping animals without authorization. Afterward I returned the tree frogs to him because he said it was a new species."
Keller blames Grach for the deaths of most of his tree frogs, noting that a few weeks after the raid he came to the INNPPA's offices in Jerusalem and threw a box containing 20 tree frogs on the secretary's desk. Grach confirms the incident. "It's inconceivable for me to be supporting out of my own pocket extinct species for which the INNPPA is responsible, and they won't permit me to keep a few exotic birds someone gave me," Grach said.
Keller gave the few remaining live specimen to Shalom Hayat, another amphibian fan, who said he doesn't know whether the tree frogs, which he placed together with his common tree frogs, or their descendants, are still alive. For his part, Grach describes himself as "a broken man" due to his struggles with the INNPPA. He has abandoned amphibians for insects. "Insects are the only things you can still study without being harassed by the INNPPA," Grach says.