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Better than a prince

A Richmond professor identified three new species of frogs in a threatened forest in Brazil.

A massive elephant skull hangs from the ceiling of Rafael de Sá’s lab in Gottwald Center for the Sciences. Suspended near it are giant bones from a whale’s jaw. But it was something minuscule that recently landed de Sá in his field’s international spotlight: itty-bitty humming frogs.

De Sá headed up a National Science Foundation project that used DNA techniques and minute observations to identify three new species of frogs in Brazil. Members of a genus called Chiasmocleis, they live most of their lives underground, emerging just a few weeks a year for what scientists call “explosive breeding.” Their “humming frog” colloquial name comes from the telltale sound they make to attract a mate.

This amorous humming was de Sá’s siren song when he was out in the field searching for them, he told the online science publication Mongabay.

“You recognize the call … and we walk until we find the point where they’re calling,” he said. “If it’s a good night, we may end up out until 3 or 4 in the morning.”

Early DNA analysis signaled that some of his specimens were members of three previously undiscovered species. Close anatomical analysis identified distinguishing characteristics.

“It’s not that one is red and one is blue,” he told Mongabay.

The discovery is significant in part because of where it happened, in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. This 330 million-acre area has been subject to massive deforestation — up to 85 percent of it — but still rivals the Amazon for biodiversity, according to the Nature Conservancy.

“With about one-third of frogs listed as endangered, anything we can do to continue to study frogs, especially identifying new species, is paramount in influencing bio-conservation efforts and policies,” he said.