Introducing one of the world’s most beautiful frogs – finally

By Jodi Rowley 9 November 2021
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Are two spectacular tree frogs remarkably similar species or one and the same? Dr Jodi Rowley goes in search of the answer.

A variety of truly stunning frogs inhabit the rugged mountains straddling the Vietnamese/Chinese border. None are more beautiful than the splendid torrent frog (Amolops splendissimus) from Vietnam and adjacent China and the sky-night torrent frog (Amolops caelumnoctis) from China. However, these species are remarkable not only in their beauty but also their similarity. For more than a decade, questions have been raised around whether or not they are really two distinct species. Through fieldwork in Vietnam and China, our team has demonstrated that these frogs belong to a single species, and the correct name for it is the splendid torrent frog (Amolops splendissimus). An apt name for such a spectacular frog!

Dark, rich chocolate brown frogs with florescent green spots and bright yellow webbing between their toes, the splendid torrent frog (Amolops splendissimus) and the sky-night torrent frog (Amolops caelumnoctis) are truly a sight to behold. Both species were scientifically discovered and named as new to science in 2007. Inhabiting the steep mountains on either side of the border of Vietnam and China, these species have adapted to swift-flowing streams, with huge toe-pads to grip rocks in torrents and on waterfalls, and webbing between their toes to navigate the currents.

The Splendid Torrent Frog
The splendid torrent frog (Amolops splendissimus), Vietnam.
Image: Jodi Rowley © Australian Museum

Discovered and named almost simultaneously, these frog species were remarkable in both their beauty and their similarity. They are also shrouded in mystery – since their formal description over a decade ago, no additional information, including any molecular data, has been published on either mysterious species and there has been much uncertainty as to whether they really do represent two, similar-looking species. It was clear that a more detailed look at these species, including examining genetic data, was needed.

The Splendid Torrent Frog (Amolops splendissimus)
The splendid torrent frog (Amolops splendissimus), China. Frogs from this locality were previously named the sky-night torrent frog (Amolops caelumnoctis). Image: Yinpeng Zhang © Yinpeng Zhang

Recent fieldwork in both Vietnam and China, combined with cross-border collaboration has recently solved this mystery. Their similarity in appearance and in their genetics has finally been confirmed. Instead of one species on either side of the border, there is only one. The name for this species is the splendid torrent frog (Amolops splendissimus), as the scientific paper describing this species was published first.

The splendid torrent frog (Amolops splendissimus), Vietnam
The Splendid Torrent Frog (Amolops splendissimus), Vietnam.
Image: Jodi Rowley © Australian Museum

While it may seem a simple matter of names, it is essential that we better understand our biodiversity, so that we can better conserve it. Basic information on how many species exist and where they are distributed is hard to come by but is vital for prioritising scarce conservation resources. Our international collaboration finally solves the more than decade-long mystery surrounding this particular species, but we hope that it is the start of many more collaborative discoveries in this rugged, biodiverse and important region.

Yinpeng Zhang, Undergraduate, Michigan State University (USA) & Key Laboratory of Freshwater Fish Reproduction and Development, Ministry of Education, Southwest University (China).

Dr Jodi Rowley, Curator, Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Biology, Australian Museum & UNSW Sydney.