Wooster Biologist Takes Lead Role in Identifying New Frog Species
Rick Lehtinen, associate professor of biology, confirms discovery through DNA and morphological testing
WOOSTER, Ohio — At a time when technology seems to dominate every phase of our lives, the discovery and identification of a new species seems so 19th century, but the process continues in earnest around the world today. In Madagascar, for example, Rick Lehtinen, associate professor of biology at The College of Wooster, and several colleagues recently identified a previously unknown small green frog. They dubbed it Guibemantis tasifotsy or “White-Flanked Malagasy Tree Frog” for the unique patch of white spots on its flanks (“tasy” meaning “spot” and “fotsy” meaning “white” in the Malagasy language).
German biologists Frank Glaw and Miguel Vences actually found the frogs in 2003, but it was only recently that they approached Lehtinen about helping to verify their supposition. “They suspected immediately that they had found something new,” said Lehtinen, “but they reached out to me because I had worked with them previously and because they knew that I had studied this obscure group of frogs.”
Lehtinen, who discovered and identified two other frog species just last year, analyzed DNA samples from tissues of the frogs and conducted morphological measurements. He also had a lead role in writing the manuscript, which was published in the winter issue of Copeia, the journal of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.
“The question we needed to answer was, ‘are these frogs different enough to be classified as a new species?’” said Lehtinen. “After taking physical measurements and analyzing the DNA, we strongly believe that this form of life is one that scientists have not encountered before.”
Unlike the previous species that Lehtinen identified, these frogs were pond breeders rather than plant breeders. What makes this interesting, according to Lehtinen, is that scientists are not certain whether they branched off from the plant breeders or actually reverted back to pond breeding. “We don’t know yet which (scenario) is more likely,” he said. “More research is necessary.”
As for the value of the discovery, Lehtinen points out that this particular frog is not likely to have any economic or medical value, “but the fact that a new species has been discovered takes us one step further in fully describing life on earth.”
Another important aspect of the discovery is its role in the conservation process. “We’re in a race against the clock,” said Lehtinen. “In a country like Madagascar, there is widespread deforestation and very rapid human population growth. Less than 10-percent of Madagascar’s original rainforests remain and at least a quarter of species in Madagascar are still not described. Many different life forms are at risk of extinction before we even know they are there.”
As for the future, there is still much to be done. Lehtinen estimates that there are at least five or six new species in this group yet to be discovered. “As biologists, this is what we do,” he said. “Our job is to ask, ‘What else is out there?’”