Atelopus coynei, an eponymous frog

August 20, 2009 • 1:18 am

After the post about the carnivorous plant named after David Attenborough, an alert reader asked if I’d ever had a species named after me. The answer is yes: the Ecuadorian poison arrow frog Atelopus coynei.

The hundred-odd species of the frog genus Atelopus, found in Central and South America, are called “harlequin” frogs because of their bright, parti-colored pattern, and were often used as a source of poison for the arrows of locals. They’re in the family Bufonidae, so they’re really toads.

I was actually the collector of Atelopus coynei — I grabbed the holotype in a swamp on a frogging trip to western Ecuador in the late 1970s. I was there to see the tropics and help out my best friend Ken Miyata, a fellow grad student at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Ken was a polymath (do read the link): a superb natural historian and biologist, a great writer (he wrote, along with Adrian Forsyth, the volume Tropical Nature that, as Greg Mayer noted, contains my botfly story — and many engrossing tales about the tropics), a fantastic photographer, and a world-class fly fisherman. He was a wonderful friend, always full of new ideas about biology and schemes about how to find a girlfriend and how to fish while getting a Ph.D. at the same time. He had a penchant for greasy food (he taught me to make the quintessential grad-student dinner: roast chicken with rice, the latter mixed with chicken grease and mayonnaise) and was fascinated by the bizarre and outlandish aspects of life.

Ken died in a fishing accident in 1983, the victim of a fast current on Idaho’s Snake River. His life had just taken a dramatic turn for the better: he found a wonderful woman and secured his dream job with a conservation organization. To celebrate, he went out West for one more fishing trip before he started his new life in Washington, D.C. They found his body three days after he went missing, enshrouded in the fishing line that had coiled around him.

During our years at Harvard, I occasionally loaned Ken some dosh to tide him over the lean times, and he promised in return that one day he’d name a species of frog after me. And so it came to pass: my beautiful frog (chocolate brown with bright green splotches) was named Atelopus coynei in 1980*. Like me, the frog (and many species in the genus Atelopus) is on the verge of extinction.

Sadly, there are no color photos of the frog, and the one drawing I have is back in Chicago; but you can read about the frog in Spanish here, and there is a brief Wikispecies entry.


Fig. 1. One of Ken’s many frog photos


Fig. 2. Tropical Nature, by A. Forsyth and K. Miyata. Still in print, and still one of the best introductions to tropical biology


*Miyata, K. 1980. A new species of Atelopus (Anura: Bufonidae) from the cloud forests of northwestern Ecuador. Breviora. 458:1–11.

14 thoughts on “Atelopus coynei, an eponymous frog

  1. But can you get high from that toad?

    Waiting now for the attacks comparing “New Atheists” to poison “frogs,” and suggestions that the former deserve to be on the edge of extinction, slightly before going over that edge.

    Seriously, though, that’s a great little organism to which one might lend a naming hand.

    Glen Davidson

  2. God how awful.

    But poison arrow frogs (and/or toads) rock. Woodland Park Zoo specialized in breeding a particular species of them – I tended the tadpoles for awhile when I did a shift in the Reptile House. (Yeah, they know frogs aren’t reptiles.) Flurescent green spots.

  3. Sounds like a great guy. And having a species named after you is pretty cool too.

    Here’s a quick translation of some of the Spanish for those who might be interested. Forgive any mistakes or translation errors:

    Distribution: Endemic to Ecuador. Distributed in the costal norwestern region, in the provinces of Pichincha, Imbabura and Carchi, on the western slopes of western range of the Andes.

    It’s known from five locatilies between 900 and 1380 meters about sea level, in a range of ~2800 square kilometers.

    The type locality is the river Faisanes (Pheasants?) on the La Palma to Quito road, via Chiriboga, Province of Pichincha, Ecuador 1380.

    Mountainous tropical and western subtropical zone.

    Habitat and natural history: Mountainous humid forest.
    It lives in forests with abundant epiphytes. Specimens were collected in July 1976 on the banks of the river Faisanes, which was 5 meters wide and up to 0.5m depth.
    Active individuals were encountered on rocks during the day.
    Other specimens were encountered resting at aproximately 1 m about the ground on leaves of the abundant vegetation hanging over the water.
    41 individuals were enountered in a 250 m section, with a search effort of 18 hours per person. Other specimens were collected in ravines near the river.
    The majority of specimens (46 of 47) collected on the river Faisanes were male, which could be due to males massing during the reproductive season in hope of females arriving at the site.

    Taxonomy: In the group of Atelopus favescens (Lynch, 1993). See discussion in Cannatella (1981).

    Conservation status: In danger (Ron et al. in revision)
    Last registered: September 1984.

    Listed in danger possibily due to having been affected by quitridomicosis….

  4. Ken’s story reminded me of another (recent) tragic loss; one of the faculty at MTU drowned while kayaking – got flipped and jammed against a rock in a fast current. It’s always so sad to lose people who are just so enthusiastic about what they do; they are invaluable and inspire so many others, and people are left pondering what other great adventures they might have embarked on if they weren’t lost so soon.

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