SURO STREAM FROG
• Photographed: At Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador
• Size: Up to 2.5 inches
• Location: South America
• Status: Endangered
He grips his mate, front legs clasped tight around her torso. Splayed beneath him like an open hand, she lies with her egg-heavy belly soaking in the shallow stream. They are harlequin frogs of a rare Atelopus species, still unnamed and known only in a thin wedge of the Andean foothills and adjacent Amazonian lowlands. The female appears freshly painted—a black motif on yellow, her underside shocking red. She is also dead.
Above this tableau, at the lip of the ravine, a bulldozer idles. Road construction here, near the town of Limón in southeastern Ecuador, has sent an avalanche of rocks, broken branches, and dirt down the hillside, choking part of the forest-lined stream. Luis Coloma steps gingerly over the loose rocks, inspecting the damage to the waterway. The 47-year-old herpetologist is bespectacled and compact in a yellow shirt dotted with tiny embroidered frogs. He hasn't bothered to roll up his khaki pants, which are soaked to the knees. Poking a stick into the debris, he says, "They have destroyed the house of the frog."
Frogs and toads, salamanders and newts, wormlike (and little-known) caecilians—these are the class Amphibia: cold-blooded, creeping, hopping, burrowing creatures of fairy tale, biblical plague, proverb, and witchcraft. Medieval Europe saw frogs as the devil; for ancient Egyptians they symbolized life and fertility; and for children through the ages they have been a slippery introduction to the natural world. To scientists they represent an order that has weathered over 300 million years to evolve into more than 6,000 singular species, as beautiful, diverse—and imperiled—as anything that walks, or hops, the Earth.