The Argoni flows down the cliffs of Mount Olympos in northern Karpathos. Accessible only on foot, it is a small stream that never runs dry, even on hot summer days, something rare on this arid island in the southeastern Aegean. This small river has been home for thousands of years to a small frog, a creature that most are probably indifferent to, yet which is extremely important to scientists, who consider it an important link in the chain of life.
Pelophylax cerigensis, also known as the Karpathos frog, is endemic to the island and has been listed as critically endangered because of its small population and extremely specific geographical location. Up until the mid-1990s, when Swiss biologists first studied it, the scientific community was unaware of its rarity. In 2002, however, an agency was formed to manage the protected area, leading to the first efforts to study the animal.
In January, with the support of the management body, a small team of scientists from the universities of Athens and Ioannina and the Museum of Natural History on Crete launched a program to study this rare species in order to add to the rather small sum of knowledge and raise awareness among the local community as to the importance of keeping the Karpathos frog alive.
The team is coordinated by Panayiotis Pafilis, assistant professor of animal diversity at Athens University’s Department of Zoology. “The Karpathos frog is doubly isolated: It lives on an island and reproduces in fresh water. This means that all it would take for it to become extinct is two consecutive years of low rainfall,” he says.
The project, however, is underfunded and the team has sought help from the international community. One of these initiatives was to submit a proposal to the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, headed by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, which was later approved.
“Because knowledge of this rare species was fragmented, we basically started from scratch. We had to learn some basic facts: where it lives, what it eats and where it moves around. The contribution of the people from the management agency was valuable in this respect because they directed us to the more remote habitats. We recorded their calls and made a sonogram. Every species of frog has an entirely different call by which we can recognize it, something like a human fingerprint. Finally, we took samples of the frogs’ saliva to analyse their genetic diversity,” explains Pafilis.
The scientists are trying to determine whether the Karpathos frog can breed outside of its current habitat, though still within the boundaries of the island, so that the species can be saved in the case of an extended drought. They are also trying out various theories to expand the habitat.
“The residents of Olympos have told us that up until a few years ago, frogs could be found at a small lake called Votsis tou Perati near the village,” says Pafilis. “With the help of Dinos Protopapas from the management agency, we revived the lake and will allow it to develop over the winter before trying to introduce the frogs.”
The scientific team was warmly welcomed by the local management agency, which has just seven members of staff, making it the smallest body in charge of a natural resource in Greece.
“There have been cases of scientists being hired and quitting after just a few months because wintertime on Karpathos is very tough,” says the head of the agency, Harikleia Kargiolaki, who is also director of Forests in Rethymno on Crete. “But this is a very special place, culturally as well as environmentally. It hosts a number of endemic species, is one of the homes of the Mediterranean monk seal and is also on the migratory route of a number of birds.”