​Toughie, the ‘loneliest frog on Earth’, croaks

Another day, another species wiped out. This time it’s Toughie, called the “loneliest frog on Earth” by a variety of groups all the way up to the United Nations.

The Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog was taken from Panama in 2005 by an expedition tasked with rescuing species from the ravages of a fungus. By the time he was removed from the country, about 30 other species of frog had died as a result of the fungus. Research at the time linked the fungus to the instability created in ecosystems by climate change in central America.

Toughie spent the next 11 years in a climate-controlled pond in the Atlanta Botanical Garden, United States. The “frog pond” ensured that he didn’t face contamination from visitors.

His sole companion was a female frog and the two had tadpoles, but these did not survive. That companion died, and when the only other male Rabbs’ frog was euthanised in 2012, Toughie was the last of his species left on Earth.

He did not like being handled, and pinched anyone who tried to pick him up, the Atlanta garden said.

His handler, Leslie Phillips, is quoted by the garden as saying: “He is just really cool. No other frog I have seen is quite like him … He is a very handsome frog.”

That image, and his status as a sole-survivor, made him a symbol of global species extinction. In 2014, the UN illuminated its New York headquarters with images of Toughie, and other endangered species, in a warning that the world was entering its sixth mass extinction event.

Frogs are particularly vulnerable to extinction because they evolve to live in very specific circumstances. When they do migrate, it is to somewhere close by. That means they need the conditions to stay the same. They are also cold-blooded and cannot handle changes in temperature over short periods of time. But the luxury of time is not granted by a warming planet and the changing global climate.

The plight of frogs is much like putting them in a warming bucket of water, where they do not sense the danger until it is too late and they die.

A study published in the journal Science in 2015 said that one in six of the planet’s species face extinction as a result of climate change. This would represent the worst species die-off since the dinosaurs went extinct 65-million years ago.

The problem is worst for species that cannot easily migrate, including those living on small islands. The 2015 study, Accelerating Extinction Risk from Climate Change, concluded: “We urgently need to adopt strategies that limit further climate change if we are to avoid an acceleration of global extinctions.”

Those strategies are starting to come into existence, thanks to the Paris Agreement coming into force in November. This gets countries on the same page to lower carbon emissions and ensure climate change does not overwhelm ecosystems.

But it will be too late for many species. It is already too late for Toughie.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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