The international team from Vietnam, the UK and Australia set off on a mission to find Critically Endangered frog species in the Hoang Lien Range in northern Vietnam – and on the way, they found a species new to science!
The tops of mountains are really important places. Like islands in the sky, mountains have a very unique climate compared to their surrounds. Due to their height, they are typically cool and wet, and, over time, animals that have adapted to these conditions often become isolated to particular mountain ranges, or even to one or a few peaks. In 2017, a collaborative research team joined forces to climb Mount Ky Quan San, one of the highest peaks in the Hoang Lien Range of Vietnam. Whilst our mission was to search for a Critically Endangered frog species, the Botsford’s Leaf-litter Frog (Leptobrachella botsfordi), in the process we also discovered a frog species previously unknown to science. Owing to the habitat of this new species, we named it the Mount Ky Quan San Horned Frog (Megophrys frigida).
Most people climb mountains for the personal challenge, fitness or maybe the views, but the Frogs of Fansipan team climb mountains to better understand and conserve the unique amphibians of the Hoang Lien Range in northern Vietnam. We’re an international team from Vietnam, the UK and Australia and we’ve been working together in Vietnam since 2015. Our focus is the Hoang Lien Range, as the region is home to still poorly known frog fauna, many species of which are only known from a few high-elevation areas and are at great threat of extinction. So far, we have discovered and named four frog species new to science in these mountains.
In 2017, we set our sights on Mount Ky Quan San, Vietnam’s third highest peak, at just over 3000m elevation and only 20km from Vietnam’s highest and more famous mountain, Mount Fansipan. We wanted to find out if one of Vietnam’s most threatened frogs, the Botsford’s Leaf-litter Frog (Leptobrachella botsfordi), might also occur there.
We started our expedition in the foothills of the mountain, with impressive peaks looming over terraced rice-paddies. It was picture perfect, but the beautiful view from the base was soon forgotten as we ascended the mountain. The hike was far from easy – the mud and rock paths were steep and slippery, and hours of climbing such steep slopes was nerve-wracking, especially for those of us who were scared of heights. Our high-elevation campsite at about 2800m above sea level was also not the kind of campsite you’d pick on a holiday. Waterlogged and with cloud at ground-level, a bitter chill cut through our makeshift camp, and our jackets.
Although most of the forest had been cut down, at night we found a single moss-laden stream flanked by small twisted trees to survey and thankfully came across many frogs. We suspected that some were species that we’d seen on Mount Fansipan, but many of the frogs were so similar in appearance to each other that we just weren’t sure. We were excited to descend the peak, not just to get out of the rather miserable conditions, but also to find out what frog species we had encountered.
Back in our offices and labs, we continued our collaboration, working together to examine the appearance of the frogs, and analysing their DNA and advertisement calls. We gradually identified each species with more certainty than we were able to on the mountain. We discovered that one of the tiny Horned Frogs (Megophrys) that we had encountered on that mossy stream on Mount Ky Quan San was actually unknown to science, and we have now named it the Mount Ky Quan San Horned Frog (Megophrys frigida).
The Mount Ky Quan San Horned Frog is just one of many new frog species discovered in the Hoang Lien Ranges in recent years. Unfortunately, this new species like many of the others, is likely to only occur in a small area that is being impacted by habitat loss and is already threatened with extinction. Therefore, giving this tiny frog a name is just the first step in helping ensure it remains on Mount Ky Quan San for generations to come.
Dr Jodi Rowley, Curator of Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Biology at the Australian Museum and UNSW
Luan Thanh Nguyen, Botsford’s leaf-litter frog EDGE Fellow, Asian Turtle Program / Indo Myanmar Conservation
Benjamin Tapley, Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians, Zoological Society of London
This work is the result of a collaboration between the Zoological Society of London, Hoang Lien National Park and the Australian Museum.
We are extremely grateful to the staff at Hoang Lien National Park and Bat Xat Nature Reserve for their assistance and collaboration. We are also grateful for the assistance of Stephen Mahony in the description of this new species. This work was supported by the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong, an AMF/AMRI Visiting Fellowship (2017/2018) " Discovering the diversity and conservation status of the Horned Frogs of the Hoang Lien Range, Vietnam" and by The EDGE of Existence Programme.
Tapley, B., Cutajar, T., Nguyen. L.T., Portway, C., Mahony, S., Nguyen, C.T., Harding, L., Luong, H.V., Rowley, J.J.L. (2021). A new potentially Endangered species of Megophrys from Mount Ky Quan San, northwest Vietnam. Journal of Natural History. 54: 2543-2575.