Nearly all of the 162 land-breeding frog species on Caribbean islands, including the coqui frogs of Puerto Rico, originated from a single frog species that rafted on a sea voyage from South America about 30-to-50-million years ago, according to DNA-sequence analyses led by a research group at Penn State, which will be published in the 12 June 2007 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and posted in the journal's online early edition this week. Similarly, the scientists found that the Central American relatives of these Caribbean amphibians also arose from a single species that arrived by raft from South America.
"This discovery is surprising because no previous theories of how the frogs arrived had predicted a single origin for Caribbean terrestrial frogs and because groups of close relatives rarely dominate the fauna of an entire continent or major geographic region," explained Penn State's Blair Hedges, the evolutionary biologist and professor of biology who directed the research. "Because land connections among continents have allowed land-dwelling animals to disperse freely over millions of years, the fauna of any one continent is usually a composite of many types of animals."
The field work for the study required nearly three decades to complete because many of the species are restricted to remote and isolated mountain tops or other inaccessible areas. Some species included in the study now are believed to be extinct because of habitat degradation and possibly other causes such as climate change. A recent global assessment of amphibians found that the Caribbean Islands have the highest proportion of amphibian species threatened with extinction. Hedges and coauthor William Duellman, a professor emeritus of the University of Kansas, were involved in much of the field work. A third co-author of the study is Penn State graduate student Matthew Heinicke, who performed DNA sequencing and analysis.