Friday, 27 June 2014

Amphibian declines in Bale, Ethiopia

Posted by Michele Menegon

The creation of a new road in the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia, in the 1980s gave herpetologists a rare opportunity to study amphibians in the area. Michele, a PhD student in the research group, was part of a team which recently repeated Amphibian surveys first done in 1986. The team found some potentially very serious declines in amphibians from the area. Results have recently been published in the journal Oryx.

The Bale Mountains

The Bale Mountains lie in southern Ethiopia, east of the Rift Valley. The Mountains rise to nearly 4,400 m, and the extensive massif has a rich flora and fauna, including many unique, rare, spectacular and threatened taxa. Hillman (1986) considered the Mountains ‘a centre of faunal endemicity, probably with the highest rate of animal endemicity for a terrestrial habitat anywhere in the world’.

Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) one of the many endemics of the Bale Mountains (Photo: Paul Donald)

The highest part of the region, the Sanetti Plateau and associated peaks, comprises Afroalpine grasslands but to the south is the Harenna escarpment that drops from 3,200 to 2,000 m in just 8 km. A substantial area (c. 2,200 sq km) of the region is covered by the Bale Mountains National Park, established in 1971 but not yet formally gazetted by the Ethiopian government.

Forest alteration in Harenna Forest (Photo: M. Menegon)

Bale’s frogs and toads

Despite a long history of human habitation in the area, the Bale Mountains remained largely unexplored scientifically until the middle of the 20th century. W.H. Osgood, from the Chicago Field Museum,  collected some amphibians and reptiles in 1926–1927, and M.J. Largen and colleagues carried out extensive collections between 1971 and 1975. Early collecting expeditions were centred around Dinshu and the northern slopes below the Sanetti Plateau.

Around 15 amphibian species (all anurans) have been reported from the Bale Mountains, including 10 endemics (Largen, 2001; Largen & Spawls, 2010). The Bale Mountains National Park is an ‘Alliance for Zero Extinction’ site (, partly because of its threatened amphibians (Alliance for Zero Extinction, 2010). Given the Park’s importance for their conservation, we focus here on four monotypic frog genera: all endemic to Ethiopia and three endemic to the Bale Mountains.

Bale mountains moss frog (Balebreviceps hillmani (Photo: M. Menegon)

The survey and re-survey

In 1983, when a new road was constructed through the forest, it became possible to reach the Harenna Forest, on the southern side of the massif. Conscious of the conservation threat posed by the new road, the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Organization arranged an expedition with Addis Ababa University to conduct a preliminary survey of the Harenna Forest in August 1986. During a meeting in London a few years ago, Dr. Largen said that all the species discovered during the 1986 expedition were abundant, or very abundant, and that they often were seen, directly from the car, moving around the vegetation right by the side of the road.

In 2009, I was part of a team of five researchers, David Gower from the NHML, U.K. Simon Loader and Abebe Mengistu from University of Basel, Switzerland, and Rafael de Sa from University of Richmond, U.S.A. We spent around one month surveying frogs both in Bale Mountains and some of the western forests around the town of Bonga. This survey gave us the opportunity to re-survey frogs in the areas first surveyed in 1986. At that time, frogs were easy to find along the newly cut road – the surveyors could simply stop their car and collect many species of frogs right by the side of the road.

Altiphrynoides malcolmi:  a genus endemic to Bale Mountains (Photo: M. Menegon)

The results of our re-survey are presented in an Oryx paper. We present long-term quantitative data (individuals encountered per person hour of searching) for four monotypic frog genera endemic to an Afromontane region of exceptional importance, but growing conservation concern. These include one endemic to the Ethiopian highlands Altiphrynoides osgoodi and three endemic to the Bale Mountains: Altiphrynoides malcolmi; Balebreviceps hillmani; and Ericabatrachus baleensis; all collected during 15 field trips to the Bale Mountains between 1971 and 2009.

Only a single confirmed sighting of S. osgoodi has been made since 1995. The other three species have also declined, at least locally. E. baleensis appears to have been extirpated at its type locality and at the same site B. hillmani has declined. These declines may be associated with substantial habitat degradation caused by a growing local human population. Chytrid fungus was also found on several frog species in Bale, although no dead or moribund frogs have yet been encountered. These results mean there is an urgent need for more amphibian surveys in the Bale Mountains. Additionally, we argue that detrimental human exploitation must be halted immediately in at least some parts of the Harenna Forest if a local, and hence global, conservation crisis is to be averted.

Balebreviceps hillmani  (Photo: M. Menegon)


Alliance for Zero Extinction (2010) 2010 AZE Update. 

Gower, D.J., Aberra, R.K., Schwaller, S., Largen, M.J., Collen, B., Spawls, S., Menegon, M.,
Zimkus, B.M., De Sá, R., Mengistu, A., Gebresenbeta, F., Moore, R.D., Saber, S.A.  and Loader, S.P. (2013) Long-term data for endemic frog genera reveal potential conservation crisis in the Bale Mountains. Ethiopia. Oryx 47(1):56–59

Hillman, J. (1986) Bale Mountains National Park. Management Plan. Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Organization, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Largen, M.J. (2001) Catalogue of the amphibians of Ethiopia, including a key for their identification.Tropical Zoology, 14:307–402.

Largen, M.J. & Spawls, L. (2010) The Amphibians and Reptiles of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Chimaira, Frankfurt Am Main, Germany.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Has Worthen's Sparrow had its chips?

Posted by Irene Ruvalcaba Ortega, Ricardo Canales, José I. González and Stuart Marsden

Stu has recently been in Mexico working with research groups from three universities along with a team from Pronatura (the BirdLife partner) on research into some of the country’s most threatened birds. These included the northern population of the Sierra Madre Sparrow Xenospiza baileyi, the Baja endemic Belding’s Yellowthroat Geothlypis beldingi and the pine-loving Thick-billed Parrot Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha (all Endangered).

But first up was the Worthen’s Sparrow Spizella wortheni, a charming but Endangered bird of the shrub-grasslands of the northern states of Coahuila and Nuevo León. A major threat to the sparrow is the expansion of potato-growing in the region. Here, Irene Ruvalcaba Ortega, Ricardo Canales, and José I. González from Laboratorio de Biología de la Conservación y Desarrollo Sustentables (UANL) and I talk about the conservation biology of the species, and a project that we hope to initiate that will help secure its near future. 

The Endangered Mexican endemic Worthen's Sparrow Spizella wortheni (Photo: Ricardo Canales)

Worthen’s sparrow, a relative of the semi-migratory Field Sparrow Spizella pusilla, was first described from New Mexico, USA, in the 1880s – this remains the only record of Worthen’s from outside ‘old’ Mexico. The last 100 years or so has seen its range contract so much that it known now from just a few sites in two of Mexico’s northern states. BirdLife’s assessment is that there may be as few as 100 mature individuals - although they point out that there is scope to find new populations in this vast landscape.

Following discussions at the Universidad Autonóma de Nuevo Leon, where much of the recent research on the species has been carried out, we headed out into the field, joined by Hugo Elizondo, a research assistant who has seen more Worthen’s in the wild than anyone. Work by the group has found several new sites for the species and important new breeding areas (Canales-del Castillo et al. 2010). There may be more undiscovered populations – some areas cannot be visited due to security problems associated with Mexico’s cartels.

The main areas where Worthen's Sparrow are known to occur. New sites are being found, but search efforts are hampered by security issues.
The main habitat of the sparrow is centred around large flat basins, very shallow valleys surrounded by higher ground with Juniper bushes holding Bushtits, and Black-chinned and Black-throated Sparrows. On the flat ground are extensive colonies of the Endangered Mexican Prairie Dog Cynomys mexicanus. Also eating grass are cows, sheep, Black-tailed Jackrabbit and Eastern Cottontails. This is one of those landscapes where everywhere looks the same or every hectare of it looks different – depending on how closely you look. Reconstructing the history of human use of these areas, and identifying the main natural and anthropogenic gradients within the area may be one of the keys to understanding the sparrow’s past, present and future. 

Worthen's sparrow in typical nesting habitat (Photo: Ricardo Canales)
We visited some areas of grassland which are used by flocks of Worthen’s in the non-breeding season. They are nomadic and seem to appear in different areas in different years – this may serve them well as the landscape is constantly changing (e.g. Canales-Delgadillo et al. 2012). Areas are ploughed for growing potatoes, some areas we visited were lush after the rain, others inexplicably dry. Next, we saw 10-15 breeding pairs in a small area of great habitat in La Soledad. Nests were relatively easy to locate, placed 5-30 cm above the ground in the centre of Tarbushes Flourensia cernua and Creosotebushes Larrea tridentata, sometimes with Opuntia sp. Research by UANL suggests that nesting success can be low, perhaps due to predation by snakes, birds etc – intensive study of the factors which affect recruitment should clearly be a key component of further study.
Worthen's nesting habitat at Museo de las Aves de Mexico's La India reserve (Photo: Stu)
Over the two days, we also visited some small reserves, and an area of abandoned crops, which still held a pair of sparrows in a tiny remnant patch of habitat. A collaborator on our planned project will be Museo de las Aves de Mexico, a museum in the historical city of Saltillo, dedicated to birds. We visited their extensive protected area and research site at La India, where several pairs of Worthen’s were found breeding in a bush-grassland habitat subtly different from that in La Soledad. A comparison of ecology and breeding success in the two differently managed areas would be invaluable.

Our immediate aim is to get a Mexican PhD student, supported by Masters and Undergraduate students working on Worthen’s and its habitat.


Canales-Delgadillo, J.C., Scott-Morales, L. & Korb, J. (2012). The influence of habitat fragmentation on genetic diversity of a rare bird species that commonly faces environmental fluctuations. Journal of Avian Biology 43: 168-176.

Canales-del Castillo, R., Gonzalez-Rojas, J.I., Ruvalcaba-Ortega, I. & Garcia-Ramirez, A. (2010). New breeding localities of Worthen's Sparrows in northeastern Mexico. Journal of Field Ornithology 81: 5-12.