Coquí fossil from Puerto Rico takes title of oldest Caribbean frog

April 07, 2020

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- The bright chirp of the coquí frog, the national symbol of Puerto Rico, has likely resounded through Caribbean forests for at least 29 million years.

A new study published in Biology Letters describes a fragmented arm bone from a frog in the genus Eleutherodactylus, also known as rain frogs or coquís. The fossil is the oldest record of frogs in the Caribbean and, fittingly, was discovered on the island where coquís are most beloved.

"It's a national treasure," said David Blackburn, Florida Museum curator of herpetology and the study's lead author. "Not only is this the oldest evidence for a frog in the Caribbean, it also happens to be one of the frogs that are the pride of Puerto Rico and related to the large family Eleutherodactylidae, which includes Florida's invasive greenhouse frogs."

Jorge Velez-Juarbe, associate curator of marine mammals at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, found the fossil on a river outcrop in the municipality of San Sebastian in northwestern Puerto Rico. Velez-Juarbe and his collaborators' previous collecting efforts at the site uncovered fossil seeds, sea cows, side-necked turtles and the oldest remains of gharials and rodents in the Caribbean, dating to the early Oligocene Epoch, about 29 million years ago.

Still, "there have been many visits from which I have come out empty-handed over the last 14 years," he said. "I've always kept my expectations not too high for this series of outcrops."

On this trip in 2012, he combed the deposits for half a day without much luck when a small bone, partially exposed in the sediment, caught his eye. He examined it with his hand lens.

"At the moment, I couldn't wrap my mind as to what it was," Velez-Juarbe said. "Then once I got back home, cleaned around it with a needle to see it better and checked some references, I knew I had found the oldest frog in the Caribbean."

The ancient coquí displaces an amber frog fossil discovered in the Dominican Republic in 1987 for the title of oldest Caribbean frog. While the amber fossil was originally estimated to be 40 million years old, scientists now date Dominican amber to about 20 million to 15 million years ago, Blackburn said.

Based on genetic data and family trees, scientists had hypothesized rain frogs lived in the Caribbean during the Oligocene, but lacked any fossil evidence. The small, lightweight bones of frogs often do not preserve well, especially when combined with the hot, humid climate of the tropics.

Matching a single bone fragment to a genus or species "is not always an easy process," Velez-Juarbe said. It can also depend on finding the right expert. His quest for help identifying the fossil turned up empty until a 2017 visit to the Florida Museum where he had once been a postdoctoral researcher.

"I got to talk with Dave about projects, and the rest is now history," he said.

Possibly first arriving in the Caribbean by rafting from South America, frogs in the genus Eleutherodactylus, which encompasses some 200 species, dominate the region today.

"This is the most diverse group by two orders of magnitude in the Caribbean," Blackburn said. "They've diversified into all these different specialists with various forms and body sizes. Several invasive species also happen to be from this genus. All this raises the question of how they got to be this way."

One partial arm bone may not tell the whole story of coquí evolution - but it's a start.

"I am thrilled that, little by little, we are learning about the wildlife that lived in Puerto Rico 29-27 million years ago," Velez-Juarbe said. "Finds like this help us unravel the origins of the animals we see in the Caribbean today."
The Florida Museum's Rachel Keeffe and María Vallejo-Pareja also co-authored the study.

Florida Museum of Natural History

Related Fossil Articles from Brightsurf:

Fossil shark turns in to mystery pterosaur
Lead author of the project, University of Portsmouth PhD student Roy Smith, discovered the mystery creature amongst fossil collections housed in the Sedgwick Museum of Cambridge and the Booth Museum at Brighton that were assembled when phosphate mining was at its peak in the English Fens between 1851 and 1900.

New fossil seal species rewrites history
An international team of biologists, led by Monash University, has discovered a new species of extinct monk seal from the Southern Hemisphere -- describing it as the biggest breakthrough in seal evolution in 70 years.

How to fix the movement for fossil fuel divestment
Bankers and environmentalists alike are increasingly calling for capital markets to play a bigger role in the war on carbon.

New fossil ape is discovered in India
A 13-million-year-old fossil unearthed in northern India comes from a newly discovered ape, the earliest known ancestor of the modern-day gibbon.

Fossil growth reveals insights into the climate
Panthasaurus maleriensis is an ancestor of today's amphibians and has been considered the most puzzling representative of the Metoposauridae.

Australian fossil reveals new plant species
Fresh examination of an Australian fossil -- believed to be among the earliest plants on Earth -- has revealed evidence of a new plant species that existed in Australia more than 359 Million years ago.

Tracking fossil fuel emissions with carbon-14
Researchers from NOAA and the University of Colorado have devised a breakthrough method for estimating national emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels using ambient air samples and a well-known isotope of carbon that scientists have relied on for decades to date archaeological sites.

Rare lizard fossil preserved in amber
The tiny forefoot of a lizard of the genus Anolis was trapped in amber about 15 to 20 million years ago.

Reconstructing the diet of fossil vertebrates
Paleodietary studies of the fossil record are impeded by a lack of reliable and unequivocal tracers.

Fossil is the oldest-known scorpion
Scientists studying fossils collected 35 years ago have identified them as the oldest-known scorpion species, a prehistoric animal from about 437 million years ago.

Read More: Fossil News and Fossil Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to