Nov 5, 2006
THE BLOB The frog that bit Richards was found in the Kikori River area, in Southern P.N.G.
EVIL EYE Officially named in August after the Lord of the Rings character Sauron, this frog was found in Kikori .
HATCHERY In Kikori's rainforest, an unnamed male frog tends eggs laid in hollowed-out vines
It was just after midnight when frog researcher Steve Richards heard a strange melodious whistle amid the patter of rain in the Papua New Guinea cloud forest. The sound swept away the Australian zoologist's exhaustion as he struggled through the thorny vines and stinging nettles covering the remote mountain slope in the Southern Highlands. "When I heard this, I knew it was going to be fantastic," he says. Switching on his tape recorder and headlamp, he moved carefully toward the sound, trying not to blunder into one of the limestone sinkholes that dot the area.
After an hour's searching, Richards and his companion, a local hunter, found the source: a "warty brown blob" squatting on moss in a patch of nettles. When he reached over and gently took hold of the blob, it twisted viciously in a very unfroglike manner and bit him on the hand. "I was shocked," he says. "Frogs don't normally bite you. There's only one other frog in P.N.G. that does that." The animal's bite, coupled with its unique cry and strange appearance, told Richards he had snared a place in the zoological textbooks with the discovery of a new species. It was an exhilarating moment for the 44-year-old—but such discoveries aren't new to him.
In 15 years of scouring P.N.G., Richards, who's attached to the South Australian Museum, believes he has discovered almost 100 new frogs. Of these, he has managed to "describe," or scientifically classify and name, 30; he still has about 70 whose features must be studied carefully before they can be classified as a new species. "We are really only scratching the surface," he says. "Every time anybody goes searching in P.N.G. anywhere, they find new things." Richards estimates that 350 species of frog have been identified on the island of New Guinea, but predicts the number will eventually pass 600. With frog populations worldwide under threat from habitat destruction, fungus infections and introduced predators, Richards, whose research is funded by Conservation International, believes recording the amphibians is of vital importance. "New Guinea, outside of the Amazon and some areas of central Africa, has the largest areas of rainforest left," he says. "Nobody is working there, and what's there is so spectacular."
Late last year Richards was a member of a scientific expedition to the neighboring Indonesian province of West Papua that found dozens of new animal and insect species in the remote Foja Mountains. As for the warty blob he discovered in the Southern Highlands, he has yet to finish the classification process. But it's likely to have a name associated with its snappy temperament. "I like a frog with attitude," he says.