Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Oldest Caribbean frog: an Oligocene Coquí from Puerto Rico!

Greater Caribbean land frogs (aka robber frogs; genus Eleutherodactylus) are the most numerous group of amphibians in the region with over 240 known species. Of these, possibly the most well known species is the common coquí (Eleutherodactylus coqui), considered as a symbol of national pride in Puerto Rico, but a nuisance in other places where they have been introduced, like Hawaii and California. With so many different species spread across the Caribbean it makes one wonder, how long did they arrive to the region? Well, today (April 8, 2020) we published a new discovery that can help answer that question.

Today my colleagues David Blackburn, Rachel Keeffe and Maria Camila Vallejo-Pareja from the Florida Museum of Natural History and I described a fossil that represents the oldest fossil frog from the Caribbean region! In this work, published in the scientific journal Biology Letters, we describe in great detail a small bone that represents the oldest record of a frog belonging to the genus Eleutherodactylus or coquí frog, as they are known in Puerto Rico. The fossil was discovered in a locality in northwestern Puerto Rico, in sediments that were deposited between 31-29 million years ago. This new locality is very close to the one that yielded the oldest Caribbean rodents, which was published last February. Prior to our discovery, the oldest record of a fossil Eleutherodactylus was from the early Miocene of the Dominican Republic (~20-15 Ma), thus our find extends the record of this group by about an additional 10 million years.
Top: map of Puerto Rico showing the distribution of Oligocene-Miocene deposits.
Center: the fossil site (left) and the fossil humerus (right) described in our paper.
Bottom: interpretive illustration of the fossil coqui from Puerto Rico.
The fossil consists of the distal end of a humerus (arm bone) which shows diagnostic characteristics that allowed us to identify it as a frog, and more specifically as a member of the genus Eleutherodactylus. This species-rich group of frogs share common ancestors with other groups of frogs from South America, where there are other species of Eleutherodactylus as well. With few exceptions, this is consistent with a South American origin for the majority of terrestrial vertebrates in the Antilles. One of those rare exceptions is the presence of the salamander Palaeoplethodon hispaniolae a group that is completely absent in the region and whose closest relatives are in North America.

Part of the process to identify our fossil coquí was to compare it with representatives of other Caribbean amphibians. This included: 11 out of the 17 species of coquí known from the Puerto Rico bank, other subgenera of Eleutherodactylus, the Puerto Rican toad (Peltophryne lemur), Hispaniolan green treefrog (Boana heilprini), Cuban treefrog (Osteopilus septentrionalis) and the Antillean white-lipped frog (Leptodactylus albilabris). This way we made sure we had as broad sample as possible.
Comparison of the fossil coquí from Puerto Rico with other species of Eleutherodactylus (top) and other related subgenera (bottom). (Modified from Figure S1 of our work).
Comparison of the fossil coquí from Puerto Rico with representatives of other Eleutherodactylus subgenera and with other Caribbean anurans. (Modified from Figure 2 of our work).
Based on the morphological information from the fossil coquí as well as a number of extant species, we were also able to estimate a body size for this species (see reconstruction in the first image) of about 36 mm (1.4 inches; snout-urostyle length).

Finding the oldest coquí frog sure is exciting, as it represents a unique record that extends the presence of this group to the early Oligocene. Based on this discovery, in combination with some molecular divergence estimates, we can hypothesize that the initial colonization of Eleutherodactylus in the Caribbean likely took place under the same conditions which facilitated the arrival of other terrestrial vertebrates, like sloths and rodents, during the late Eocene-early Oligocene, as discussed in this previous post.
A male common coquí (Eleutherodactylus coqui) guarding its egg clutch.
This discovery is the latest addition to the growing knowledge on the origins of the Greater Antillean terrestrial fauna. Currently, based on fossils from the early Oligocene of Puerto Rico, there were gharials, side-necked turtles, coquí frogs, ground sloths and large caviomorph rodents. However, as always, there is still a lot more work to do, sediments to sort, and fossils to prepare and describe, so stay tuned for more updates, hopefully in the not so distant future.

Recommended Literature

Blackburn, D. C., R. M. Keeffe, M. C. Vallejo-Pareja, and J. Velez-Juarbe. 2020. The earliest record of Caribbean frogs: a fossil coquí from Puerto Rico. Biology Letters 16:20190947.

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Hollick, A. 1928. Paleobotany of Porto Rico. New York Academy of Sciences, Scientific Survey of Porto Rico and the Virgin Islands 7(3):177–393.

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MacPhee, R. D. E., and M. A. Iturralde-Vinent. 1995. Origin of the Greater Antillean land mammal fauna, 1: new Tertiary fossils from Cuba and Puerto Rico. American Museum Novitates 3141:1–30.

Marivaux, L., J. Velez-Juarbe, G. Merzeraud, F. Pujos, L. W. Viñola Lopez, M. Boivin, H. Santos-Mercado, E. J. Cruz, A. Grajales, J. Padilla, K. I. Velez-Rosado, M. Philippon, J.-L. Léticée, P. Münch, and P.-O. Antoine. 2020. Early Oligocene chinchilloid caviomorphs from Puerto Rico and the initial colonization of the West Indies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 287:2019806.

Ortega-Ariza, D., E. K. Franseen, H. Santos-Mercado, W. R. Ramírez-Martínez, E. E. Core-Suárez. 2015. Strontium isotope stratigraphy for Oligocene-Miocene carbonate systems in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic: Implications for Caribbean processes affecting depositional history. Journal of Geology 123:539–560.

Poinar, G. O., Jr., and D. C. Cannatella. 1987. An upper Eocene frog from the Dominican Republic and its implication for Caribbean biogeography. Science 237:1215–1216.

Poinar, G., Jr., and D. B. Wake. 2015. Palaeoplethodon hispaniolae gen. n., sp. n. (Amphibia: Caudata), a fossil salamander from the Caribbean. Palaeodiversity 8:21–29.

Presslee, S., G. J. Slater, F. Pujos, A. M. Forasiepi, R. Fischer, K. Molloy, M. Mackie, J. L. Lanata, J. Southon, R. Feranec, J. Bloch, A. Hajduk, F. M. Martin, R. Salas Gismondi, M. Reguero, C. de Muizon, A. Greenwood, B. T. Chait, K. Penkman, M. Collins, and R. D. E. MacPhee. 2019. Paleoproteomics resolve sloth relationships. Nature Ecology and Evolution 3:1121–1130.

Velez-Juarbe, J., and D. P. Domning. 2014. Fossil Sirenia of the West Atlantic and Caribbean region: X. Priscosiren atlantica, gen. et sp. nov. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 34:951–964.

Velez-Juarbe, J., C. A. Brochu, and H. Santos. 2007. A gharial from the Oligocene of Puerto Rico: transoceanic dispersal in the history of a non-marine reptile. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 274:1245–1254.

Velez-Juarbe, J., T. Martin, R. D. E. MacPhee, and D. Ortega-Ariza. 2014. The earliest Caribbean rodents: Oligocene caviomorphs from Puerto Rico. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 34:157–163.

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