As the head of conservation breeding for the K’ayra Center at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny, Sophia Barrón Lavayen is charged with overseeing the care of about 200 frogs and eight species, and ensuring that they have the right conditions to breed. This includes providing care for the K’ayra Center’s celebrity couple, Romeo and Juliet the Sehuencas Water Frogs. We caught up with Barrón Lavayen to ask her about what it’s like to be the personal assistant to RomJules and how their first date went from the perspective of someone close to the couple—Barrón Lavayen was also there when the team found Juliet in the wild.
Fans of the new celebrity couple can support their happy future and the establishment of the conservation breeding center by making a donation toward any of the items on Romeo and Juliet’s “happy future” registry, including a rescue pod for a new biosecure home for the species, a tadpole nursery and a frog college fund to support habitat conservation efforts so that offspring may someday be returned to the wild.
Q. What are Romeo and Juliet like? What do you like most about each of them?
A. Romeo and Juliet are very different. Romeo has a lot of loose skin, dark spots on his back and a very orange belly. He is about 66 millimeters in length, and weighs 46 grams. He’s a shy frog and doesn’t really like being photographed. Romeo is obviously also very patient, as he has been waiting for Juliet for such a long time.
Juliet doesn’t have spots on her back and her belly is not as orange as Romeo’s. Juliet is about 64 millimeters long and she weighs 35 grams. She is an extroverted frog who likes to be photographed.
What I like most about Romeo is his bright orange belly and the fact that it always looks like he is smiling. I bet that is what won Juliet’s heart. He has also been quite the gentleman with her.
What I like most about Juliet are the bright colors of her stunning eyes. But I also like the way she swims. Juliet was very patient waiting for her first date.
Q. Describe Romeo and Juliet’s “first date.” How did you introduce them and how did they react?
A. I think I was more nervous and more excited than Romeo and Juliet themselves! This was the day we had all been waiting for for so long. The first thing we did was to make sure that Romeo’s aquarium was in perfect condition for Juliet to move in. Next, we set up all the cameras to be able to record every detail of the first date. Quite the paparazzi scene! In the meantime, the K’ayra Center’s veterinarian, Ricardo Zurita, prepared Juliet for the big meeting with Romeo.
When all was ready, we introduced Romeo and Juliet first to a brand new aquarium to both of them, and then, after some observation, moved them to the aquarium where Romeo lives. Juliet swam straight to the bottom of the aquarium. But Romeo quickly swam toward her and gave her a loving embrace (amplexus). After so many rainy seasons, Romeo had finally found one of his own kind, and a female nonetheless. It was quite moving to see.
Meanwhile the whole K’ayra Center team held its breath while witnessing what to us is one of the world’s greatest love stories—one that we hope will save an entire species—playing out.
Q. How have they been acting toward one another since?
A. On the first day, Juliet entered the new aquarium and settled into her new home. Teresa Camacho Badani, who is the museum’s chief of herpetology, Ricardo Zurita and I had ensured that all the parameters, like the temperature and water quality, were within the required range for the species, making the transition easy on the frogs.
On the second day, Romeo and Juliet spent all day continuing to get to know each other, swimming and trying to hug each other (amplexus). It was amazing to witness. First we gave them some privacy, but after the second day, our activities also returned to normal. We controlled the temperature, we fed them worms and isopods and we filtered the water to remove any dirt in the tank. All is going very well with the frogs.
The K’ayra Center and all the researchers of the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny are very hopeful that Romeo and Juliet will be able to reproduce.
Q. What does a typical day with Romeo and Juliet look like for you?
A. There’s really no “typical day” in captive breeding—there’s always something different that makes the day special. But we do have daily, weekly and monthly activities. The day always begins by conducting the activities that have to be done each day: temperature control, controlling the filters and, of course, checking the health of the frogs. After these daily activities, we move to the weekly activities: feeding the frogs three times a week and changing their water.
For me, feeding the frogs is the most fun activity. I like to watch the frogs catch their food. Each frog’s reaction to food is different—sometimes they can catch food quickly and other times they miss it completely even though the food is right in front of them. Water changes are less fun, but it’s a crucial part of captive breeding. We clean the filters, remove all the dirt from the tank and replace a certain amount of the water so that the water quality in each aquarium stays within the ideal parameters for the frogs.
Finally, we have our monthly routines: weighing and measuring the frogs, which we do every four months, and providing UV doses on a monthly basis so the frogs don’t have any issues with calcium deficiency.
Now that Romeo and Juliet have been put together, I am always excited to enter the container, knowing they might be in “amplexus” (the mating embrace of some amphibians) or could even find eggs (which I hope will be soon).
Q. What is your favorite part of taking care of Romeo and Juliet and friends?
A. My favorite part is to give them food, because the behavior they exhibit is just fascinating. The frogs catch the worms with their front legs, making a forward movement so that the worms don’t escape. Sometimes the frogs even jump to catch worms or the isopods, the food falls right in front of them but they are not able to catch it. Another thing I love is watching them when they’re all cramped under their shelters together.
I think the most important thing to me is that the daily work we do here in captive breeding contributes to the conservation of the species. We also get to be involved in the efforts in the field to save the Sehuencas Water Frog.
Q. What have you learned about the Sehuencas Water Frog in the course of your care for Romeo and Juliet?
A. Everything we have learned so far and all that we will learn in the future will be part of the first records of the natural history and behavior for the Sehuencas Water Frog (Telmatobius yuracare). Until now, so little has been known about the species.
One of the first things we learned is that these frogs like water with some current. So that’s exactly what we provided them with in their new aquaria, mimicking the conditions in their natural streams. Next, by measuring the temperature in their natural streams during our expeditions, we learned the water temperature for these frogs should optimally be between 13 to 14 degrees Celsius. Because the frogs were found hiding under rocks, on the stream floor, we also added extra refuges in their tank, again trying to re-create their natural habitat as best we could.
We have also been recording the reproductive behavior of the Sehuencas Water Frog since Romeo and Juliet have been put together. This will be the first record of Sehuencas Water Frogs reproducing, and we are set to learn a great deal from them. We have already discovered that the males perform a song before amplexus and do a kind of dance with their hind limbs, perhaps trying to impress the female. This information is the first-ever observation of reproduction for the species and I am sure there is much more to follow. Hopefully we can learn enough to successfully breed Sehuencas froglets and save the species from extinction.
Q. Are you hopeful for the future of this species? Why or why not?
A. Yes, I am hopeful for the conservation of this species. Captive breeding is an essential tool for saving species that are severely threatened and where the threats cannot be mitigated in the natural environment. Then we have no choice but to remove the individuals from their natural habitat to ensure the species’ survival. This was exactly the approach needed for the Sehuencas Water Frog. We are so happy we were able to find a female for Romeo after so many years. The couple definitely gives us a lot of hope for the Sehuencas Water Frog.
The goal of captive breeding is to create a population large enough for reintroduction efforts to repopulate one or more of the areas where this species was once historically abundant—but only once we’ve been able to tackle the threats in the field that have caused the population declines in the first place. Captive breeding also allows us to study the captive individuals intensively and learn about their natural history and the biology of the species.
Thanks to all the support we are getting from all the different institutions and researchers, we here at the K’ayra Center will be able to continue the work we are doing right now and will one day, we hope, be able to repopulate the streams of the Cochabamba mountains with many little Sehuencas Water Frogs.