I posted recently on the difficulties of spotting Oophaga lehmanni in the wild, and its threatened status here: (https://www.facebook.com/paul.bertner/posts/1954323497983506). After deliberating for a week, while cooped up with the flu and a sprained finger, and rummaging online for records of O. lehmanni, I was struck not only by the overall dearth, but by the almost complete lack of 'in situ' images, with not a single one illustrating behaviour or a decent representation of the environment. For a critically threatened species, one whose risk of extinction is quite high, this to me represented a tremendous oversight. Though I'd already tried and failed to capture some behaviour shots on a short previous expedition, I decided to dedicate a week to the endeavour, if for no other reason than to have a record befitting such an elegant species.
Travelling to the same site as before, I settled in to photograph calling behaviours. Setting aside a week to get this rather modest shot was giving myself quite a lot of latitude I thought...I was wrong. Three days in and I had little to show for my efforts, resorting to shooting at 300mm + 1.4X TC, I was still struggling to surprise this elusive gem. Though I could hear the frogs calling, and could even see them doing so, creeping up on them and getting a respectable photo was proving an altogether different kind of a problem.
I tried remote shooting (however they rarely returned to the same perch, causing the framing to be off), I tried hides (though after waiting 2-3hrs in mosquito infested areas with the slightest movement causing the frogs to go diving back into root tangles proved frustrating to say the least). Nothing seemed to work, and I was beginning to despair.
This begged the question, "Why would a poisonous species which supposedly has no known predators be so timid?" The answer somewhat surprised me, "researchers". Apparently the frequent capture-release monitoring of the local populations has resulted in a rather poignant behavioural change. A species which would otherwise be fearlessly hopping the rainforest understory has had its buzzing call muted. It was a potent reminder of our influence on the natural world, whether it represents a kind of Schroedinger's cat problem, in which our very observation and monitoring of a species ultimately impacts its natural behaviours, or whether it's something more intrusive or sinister like manipulation for an aesthetic image or poaching, respectively.
We have to go further in I told the guide. And so we walked, and we walked and still the frogs fell silent at the sound of our approaching footfalls. 6 hours later, 2 of which we left the already weedy trail completely to bushwhack, and we came to a spot where we crept up upon a calling frog. It continued its buzzing call despite undoubtedly having already seen us. I made sure to shoot without flash and with a long lens to prevent any kind of potential habituation/aversion. Moments later a second male appeared from behind a leaf and they immediately began to wrestle. They flipped one another repeatedly, interspersed with calls. Rather evenly matched, this went on for almost 15 minutes. Finally the victor held his ground, whilst the vanquished retreated from the hallowed ground.
Upon reviewing the photos and videos, I felt privileged to have witnessed such a behaviour from a vanishing species. This is perhaps even truer than I'd originally thought, the two males despite their verisimilitude actually appear to be different species/sub-species. While one has all the characteristics befitting O. lehmanni, the other whose white fingertips, slightly broadened head and differing banding patterns indicates some degree of hybridization with the very closely related Oophaga histrionica. Perhaps extinction will not come in the form of habitat loss or extinction (though harbour no illusions that this undoubtedly plays its role), but through hybridization, and its absorption into a larger more robust population. To purists and hobbyists this would still represent a tragedy, though perhaps it's a gentler swan song, a muting of a call rather than its abrupt silencing.
Photos from the Cauca Valley, Colombia.
🄷-Health injury/stress levels (scale 1-10-->☠)
⏳-time in captivity
📷 -in situ
🖐- Manipulated subject
🎨 -Use of cloning or extensive post processing
↺ -Image rotation