As climate change leads to a less habitable planet, the amphibians of Venezuela’s fabled ‘lost world’ have nowhere to go
By Lindsay Renick Mayer on October 18, 2023
Millions of years of evolution have culminated in the careful balance of life atop Venezuela’s vertical steep-edged tepuis, or table-top mountains, named for their flat, horizontal peaks. At least such is the case for the amphibians that live here and nowhere else in the world, feeding from carnivorous plants, skipping the tadpole phase, and curling into balls to roll off cliff sides to escape predators.
“Going to a tepui is like going to the moon,” says Dr. Margarita Lampo, a researcher with the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research, who is one of only a handful of people who has been to the top of a tepui and experienced its harsh environment. “It’s like going somewhere off this planet. The rocks are different, the shapes are strange, and everything is just so dark.”
In fact, biodiversity on the tepuis is “living proof of nature’s ability to diversify and survive in ways we never even imagined,” Lampo explains in the 2001 short documentary Lost Worlds: Life In The Balance narrated by actor and environmentalist Harrison Ford.
Today climate change is putting to test the evolutionary balance of Venezuela’s Lost World, which inspired the name of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of the same name. Forty-four of 49 of Venezuela’s amphibian species that are at greater risk of extinction as the result of the effects of climate change live at the top of these tepuis, according to the second Global Amphibian Assessment.
This underscores one of the major findings of the second Global Amphibian Assessment: that climate change is emerging as a major driver of amphibian declines globally. The second Global Amphibian Assessment was coordinated by the Amphibian Red List Authority, which is a branch of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission’s Amphibian Specialist Group, hosted and managed by Re:wild.
“We know that climate change is a major driver of amphibian declines globally,” says Kelsey Neam, Re:wild species priorities and metrics coordinator. “It’s hard to find a more obvious example of this threat than Venezuela’s tepuis, where there is quite literally nowhere for the frogs—and the plants they depend on—to go to escape the effects of climate change.”
Venezuela’s tepuis, which belong to the Pantepui system, include ecosystems found between 4,000 and 5,000 feet above sea level (1,200 and 1,500 meters above sea level). The size of the tepuis’ flat tops varies. The largest tepui, Auyantepui, has a surface area of 270 square miles (700 km2), while the smallest, Tereke-yurén-tepui is .24 square miles (.63 km2).
Getting to the top of a tepui is no simple task. For Lampo and her colleague Celsi Señaris, a Venezuelan herpetologist who also studies the amphibians of the Pantepui, their 2001 trip to the top of Mt. Roraima, the highest tepui, required a more than 4-hour canoe ride, at least a 3-hour hike, and then a 30-minute helicopter ride. And that was just the start of the adventure.
“It was like being left alone on another planet, surrounded by images from the dawn of time,” Lampo says.
Although it rains every day on the top of the tepuis, the landscape is primarily black rock—rather than soil—and the water runs right off. No soil means that plants must grow in peat mosses and find their nutrients elsewhere. To solve this dilemma, many of the plants have become carnivorous. Frogs and fishes, left without water, have also adapted to these harsh circumstances: they live in the plants, stealing the insects the plants catch and using the water the plants store.
“Everything in the Pantepui is special to me, from the nervousness of the helicopter flights to get to the top, to the splendid views of the infinite forest that surrounds these colossal mountains, to the rocks sculpted by wind and water millions of years ago, and the tiny gardens of orchids and bromeliads growing between the crevices,” says Señaris. “These ecosystems are ‘magical’ and immensely beautiful, and everything seems new to the eye.”
More than half of the 44 species of frogs that live in the Venezuelan Pantepui are found nowhere else in the world, and often one species will live only on one tepui and is completely different from the species living on the next tepui. There’s the Roraima Bush Toad (Oreophrynella quelchii), which is jet black with small bumps, and lives primarily on Mount Roraima. Señaris says it looks like a “small piece of living stone.” There’s the big-eyed, yellow-speckled Muchimuk Rain Frog (Pristimantis muchimuk), which lives only on Abakapá-tepui and was only discovered in 2013.
Researchers believe the Pantepui frogs may include the species with the most limited geographic distribution in the world. With such a small range, any single threat could result in the extinction of any of these species. Fifty-nine percent of the Pantepui amphibians in Venezuela that have been pushed closer to extinction because of climate change are now considered Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and 36% are considered Vulnerable. Two species—Pristimantis imthurni and the Apradatepui Rain Frog (Pristimantis jamescameron)—are both now Critically Endangered and each live only on a single tepui (Ptari-tepui and Aprada tepui, respectively).
Part of what also makes these amphibians so vulnerable is the outlook for the plants they rely on for their survival. Researchers project that as climate change pushes the global temperature toward 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, at least 74% of the Pantepui plants will disappear in the next 80 years.
“Climate change tends to force plants to migrate upwards, but there is no ‘up’ for these plants to go,” Lampo says. “And even if there was, the temperature is increasing so fast that the plants would have to migrate upwards something like 140 times faster than they have done in the past. The reality is that when the plants disappear, the frogs will, too.”
Climate change is not the only emerging threat. Although the main clusters of the Venezuelan Pantepui system are found in Canaima National Park—a World Heritage site—illegal open-pit gold mining and mining for other materials at the base of the tepuis puts the biodiversity at risk.
“The tepui summits have remained virtually pristine because of how remote they are and how difficult it is to access them,” Señaris says. “But these conditions no longer seem to be a guarantee against the potential effects of climate change and changes in regional economic, social and political outlooks that have allowed for illegal mining to run rampant.”
The future of the frogs living in Venezuela’s Pantepui system is going to depend on the will not only of conservationists, but of lawmakers, funders and even the global public, Lampo and Señaris say.
“If we lose this group of amphibians and the plants they rely on, we’ll be losing something very unique,” Lampo says. “These are very distinct fauna, fauna that you cannot see anywhere else in the world, that evolved to survive. That is what we risk losing.”
In addition to putting an immediate stop to the illegal mining projects, conservationists are calling on the Venezuelan government to ensure that protected areas like Canaima National Park are genuinely protected, not just on paper. Researchers are also trying to figure out the most effective way to protect the amphibians from climate change, whether that is by moving them to artificial gardens or botanical gardens, or relocating some of them to tepuis with more abundance of flora.
A big part of the challenge, they say, is that so little is known about the ecology, reproductive physiology, and behavior of each individual species. Some of the species could even fare better than others in a warming climate. Señaris calls for national and international institutions to support surveys and research to identify the most effective and realistic conservation strategies and for an overhaul of Venezuela’s process for obtaining scientific permits. She also calls on the rest of the world to celebrate our natural heritage.
“I would like the world to empathize with the wonderful diversity of living beings with whom we coexist, including the amphibians of the Pantepui,” she says. “I would like us to be more aware that our well-being is directly related to keeping the web of life in balance. That nothing is surplus and nothing is lacking, and therefore we must commit ourselves to the preservation of our planet.”
Lindsay Renick Mayer
Lindsay is the Director of Media Relations for Re:wild and has a particular interest in leveraging communications to inspire conservation action. Lindsay is passionate about species-based conservation and finding compelling ways to tell stories that demonstrate the value of all of the planet’s critters, big and microscopic.