“In my 37 years of working as a park ranger in Tenorio Volcano National Park, I had never heard such exciting and interesting news”

- Celso Alvarado, , manager of Wild Protected Areas, SINAC

Costa Rica officially has a new species of amphibian, the Tapir Valley Tree Frog (Tlalocohyla celeste). Discovered by local naturalist Donald Varela-Soto and described by a scientific team led by the Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation. Officially the article has been published in Zootaxa and has received worldwide attention. 

This discovery is a celebration of science, forest restoration, community conservation, and human-wildlife coexistence! It is a reward for the hard work restoring the forest and conserving biodiversity that Donald has done for most of his life. Sixteen years ago Donald decided to get rid of all the cows and horses from what was a cattle grassland with a wetland and some forest, and even if it meant paying a fee to the property co-owners, he did it without thinking about anything other than protecting what he called Tapir Valley. Today this private reserve is home to more than 400 species of birds, 37 species of amphibians, 43 species of reptiles, and at least 29 species of large and medium-sized mammals. And much remains to be discovered, as this little frog taught us.

The story of Tlalocohyla celeste began more than four years ago when Donald noticed the song of a frog that he had never heard before, moved by what he heard, he dedicated long nights to search for it, when he found it he went to inform some scientists through the iNaturalist application, but he was ignored and even corrected. Some herpetologists told him that the frog was a juvenile Canal Zone Tree Frog (Boana rufitela), very common in the area. Although Donald knew that juveniles didn’t sing, the academic arrogance he faced at the time, made him go on without giving that amphibian much thought.

In 2020, on a casual walk in Tapir Valley to talk about life, Donald told me the story of that little frog and we went looking for it. We heard it, we saw it, and Donald wondered again what that frog’s name was. My response was: “Oh Donald, I don’t know anything about amphibians, but I believe you. And in any case, I have good friends who know about frogs.” That same night I called Dr. Andy Whitworth.

Andy was the first herpetologist who visited (from the Osa Peninsula), he listened to Donald and believed him. After his visit, he spent time going through books, articles, and guides to find out what it was. Unable to identify it, he put us in contact with Twan Leenders, an expert amphibian taxonomist, who recommended we bring local herpetologist Juan Gabriel Abarca to the team and the geneticist Alex Shephak. For anyone who wanted to join the research process, the rules were clear: “Everything that comes out of here will have Donald’s name as the first author.” It has already happened many times that the true discoverer is ignored by science, especially if it is a local who does not belong to the academic world. Fortunately, we all agreed, and little by little we formed a Dream Team.

There was something missing in the team, we needed someone to bring new ideas and coordinate all the extensive fieldwork that implies the description of a new species. At that moment I decided to give greater responsibility to Valeria Aspinall, who at the moment was an intern willing to learn about everything, and although, as she said she didn’t know anything or have any experience with frogs, she had the attitude and passion to learn. And so she did, Vale learned from excellent mentors like Donald, Juan, Alex, and Twan. Today Vale coordinates the amphibian conservation program (TLALOC) within CRWF and can identify frogs by song and sight, and more importantly, is developing conservation strategies and actions for this new species and others.

With the coordination of Vale and Juan, accompanied by a dedicated scientific team, we were able to determine that it was indeed something “different” from any other species in the country or region. As the scientific process moved on,  the evidence on bioacoustics, morphology, and genetics was impeccable: that little frog that Donald heard was something new to science. The taxonomy determined that it was a species inside the genus Tlalocohyla, only the fifth species of this genus in the world and the second in Costa Rica. That’s where a new challenge began: choosing a name that represented the whole story and identified it well.

For Kira and Ellie, Donald’s daughters who are scientists and naturalists by birth, the challenge was very easy: “celeste, Tlalocohyla celeste!”. It was too obvious for them, that the frog had the same light-blue coloration in its armpits as that of Río Celeste in Volcán Tenorio National Park, the biggest tourist attraction in the area where Donald and the girls were born and raised, and where the frog was also discovered. So Tlalocohyla celeste was named, it sounds poetic as if it had been an act of evolution to place it next to this light-blue river that today is a symbol of a community that wants to develop hand in hand with biodiversity.

Although Vale and Donald have searched extensively for the frog in other wetlands with similar habitats, unfortunately, they have only found it at specific sites within the 8-hectare wetland in Tapir Valley. Perhaps we were a little late to prevent the other wetlands from being drained to expand cattle-ranching. Today due to its small distribution range, the threats it faces, and its small population, we consider it to be Critically Endangered (we are yet to define this with IUCN’s Amphibian Specialist Group). Fortunately, we arrived just in time to motivate other farmers to follow in Donald’s footsteps, we arrived in time to show and communicate that nature finds its way if we give it a chance. And that’s when we all win.

This scientific discovery is just the beginning of a long path full of challenges and opportunities. We do not want to publish and celebrate the discovery of a new species to be in a few years reporting its extinction. We have identified the threats and we have been working to mitigate them, even before publication, but the challenge is great and we need everyone’s support. 

Tlalocohyla celeste’s conservation started the moment Donald decided to take action and restore that cattle pasture into a forest and a healthy wetland. This little frog discovered in the middle of two volcanoes is a huge reminder that with the right actions we can change course and save even what is unknown to humans. This story is an example of the impact the knowledge and actions of a passionate individual like Donald can have. Tlalocohyla celeste was discovered in a rural community that loves nature but is a gift to the whole world.


Bijagua de Upala.

Miércoles 31 de agosto, 2022.