Mysterious “Jabba the Hutt” frog spotted in Ecuador

Articles | News

By Alejandro Arteaga and Lucas Bustamante . July 2020.

An extremely rare and huge slimy-looking frog resembling the famous fictional character Jabba the Hutt is seen again after being thought “lost” for almost 70 years. It was spotted by a team of biologists of the research initiative Tropical Herping (TH) in the newly-created Vida-ROSERO conservation area, located in northwestern Ecuador and managed by Fundación Jocotoco.

Image of a mysterious frog that resembles Jabba the Hutt

Portrait of an actual living Phantasmal Fringe-limbed Frog (Ecnomiohyla phantasmagoria), fourth one seen in over seven decades. Photo by Jose Vieira.

The frog, provisionally identified as the Phantasmal Fringe-limbed Frog (Ecnomiohyla phantasmagoria), has now only been spotted by scientists four times (three of those by members of TH) since its discovery in Colombia in the 1940s. It has remained elusive for over 70 years probably because it only lives in the most pristine and untouched rainforests and no-one knew how to look for it.

The mysterious amphibian resembles George Lucas’ fictional character in the Star Wars franchise: it has a bulbous body and slug-like features.

Screenshot of Jabba the Hutt, as seen in Return of the Jedi

Screenshot of Jabba the Hutt as seen in the Return of the Jedi.

Although it was presumed to live only on tree-tops, almost nothing was known for certain about the mysterious “Jabba the Hutt” frog. This began to change in 2008, when one juvenile frog, (potentially a true Ecnomiohyla phantasmagoria, but too young to confirm) showed up on a leaf close to the ground at Bilsa Biological Reserve. This news did not reach beyond the scientific community, but it did inspire Jose Vieira and Frank Pichardo of Tropical Herping (TH) to carry out a scientific expedition to the same locality in search for a fully-grown individual.

During the TH expedition in 2017, Jose and Frank discovered a frog-shaped silhouette perched more than seven meters above the forest floor. Jose climbed, thinking it would be one of the common treefrogs of the Chocó rainforest, but when he had the amphibian in his hands he knew immediately that he was staring at the mythical Phantasmal Fringe-limbed Frog. The frog looked almost identical to the illustration of the original specimen found in Colombia in the 1940s.

Illustration of the holotype of Ecnomiohyla phantasmagoria

Illustration of the original specimen on which the description of Ecnomiohyla phantasmagoria was based. Taken from Dunn's 1943 original publication.

In 2019, TH’s researchers Jose and Amanda Quezada visited one of the last truly pristine remnants of Chocó rainforest: a place called Vida-ROSERO conservation area, which is part of the Canandé Reserve managed by Fundación Jocotoco, a conservation NGO that protects the Chocó in Ecuador. After walking for about three hours, at around 2:00 am Jose saw an eye-shine coming from the inside of a hollow tree about five meters above the forest floor. Intrigued about what these eyes might belong to, he climbed the tree and discovered a water-filled hole 40 cm deep. When he reached inside it, he immediately felt a giant drop-shaped frog, but there was also something else within the same hole: a tadpole.

It turned out that both the frog and the tadpole belonged to the species known as Phantasmal Fringe-limbed Frog (Ecnomiohyla phantasmagoria). This is the fourth adult ever reported and the first time a tadpole of this species is found. This incredible finding confirms that the species lives and also breeds in tree holes the canopy. The frog was a male, and it could have been protecting its offspring or just hiding in the same hole as the tadpole by chance.

Figure showing the difference in size and coloration between an adult and a tadpole of Ecnomiohyla phantasmagoria

Difference in size and coloration between the adult and the tadpole of the Phantasmal Fringe-limbed Frog (Ecnomiohyla phantasmagoria), found at the Vida-ROSERO conservation area of Fundación Jocotoco. Photos by Jose Vieira.

“The first thing that came to my mind when I saw this incredible frog is that Emmet Reid Dunn was right to name it phantasmagoria when he described the species in 1943” says Jose. “The name translates as: something you can't believe or a dream out of reality. Dunn explicitly mentioned that the frog was so extraordinary that he could scarcely believe his eyes.”

Figure showing the difference in size and coloration between an adult and a tadpole of Ecnomiohyla phantasmagoria

Dorsal view of the same individuals of the previous picture. Photos by Jose Vieira.

“Upon first seeing the frog, I knew it was a member of the tree-frog family,” says Matthew Perez, one of the members of the expedition, “but it wasn’t until Jose’s reaction that I began to realize the magnitude of the find. It is a unique kind of excitement, like having some fantastic dream and waking up to find it as reality.”

Image of the Chocó rainforest, habitat of the Phantasmal Fringe-limbed Frog

Chocó rainforest, habitat of the Phantasmal Fringe-limbed Frog. Photo by Lucas Bustamante.

Sometimes, however, reality can be as weird as fiction. In the Star Wars franchise, “Jabba the Hutt” is the biggest, meanest crime lord in the galaxy, and is known for speaking a language that almost no-one understands. Similarly, the Phantasmal Fringe-limbed Frog is the biggest canopy-dwelling amphibian predator in the Chocó rainforest and its vocalizations have never been heard, although some field biologists have heard loud eerie screams that could belong to this species.

Citlalli Morelos, director at Tesoro Escondido Reserve, part of Fundación Jocotoco, tells the story of another instance in which this extremely rare species appeared on the radar. “In 2016, an adult Ecnomiohyla phantasmagoria mysteriously fell from the rainforest canopy at the Tesoro Escondido Reserve during an expedition led by herpetologist Diego Almeida of PUCE. This finding took place in an area of old-growth pristine rainforest, which confirms that the species depends on unspoiled ecosystems.”

Finding four individuals of Ecnomiohyla phantasmagoria after seven decades tells us that there still are some oases of untouched forests in the critically endangered Chocó. This finding stands out among other recent rediscoveries of frogs and toads in that “Jabba the frog” rules exclusively in the canopy of completely pristine forests, so there is still primeval nature to fight for in the Chocó. This is a real hope for biologists and conservationists who are trying to preserve one of the the most threatened rainforest ecosystems on Earth.

Image of a Phantasmal Fringe-limbed Frog coming out of a tree hole

This is the first adult individual of the Phantasmal Fringe-limbed Frog (Ecnomiohyla phantasmagoria) collected since 1943. It was found in 2017 by Jose Vieira and Frank Pichardo in Bilsa Biological Reserve.

Certainly, more expeditions are needed to discover the habits and population status of this mysterious Jabba frog. “We need true adventurers like Jose who are willing to climb trees at night.” says Martin Schaefer, CEO of Fundación Jocotoco. “Explorers create the knowledge needed for our foundation to gather funds for conservation and use them in an effective way.”

Portrait of Jose focusing his headlamp's light on a sampled frog

Biologist Jose Vieira spends the majority of his life exploring remote areas in search for rare amphibians and reptiles. Photo by Lucas Bustamante.

Michaël Moens, Director of Conservation at Jocotoco says that “the discovery of the frog raises awareness about the importance of the Chocó rainforest in terms of its biodiversity and endemism, and it inspires us to gather more funds to protect the few remaining patches left of this unique ecosystem.”

Jorge Rosero, CEO of Constructora Rosero, the construction company that funded the creation of the Vida-ROSERO conservation area, where the frog was found, explains that this type of discovery made him realize the importance of protecting life, giving back to nature, and simply appreciating its amazing forms and colors. Constructora Rosero is the first Ecuadorian business that seeks to become carbon-neutral by supporting the protection of the Chocó rainforest and is seeking to inspire other companies to do the same. Thanks to their financial support, Fundación Jocotoco was able to save key habitat for the stunning Phantasmal Fringe-limbed Frog.

The finding of Jabba the frog reminds us one more time that we need to focus the eyes of science and conservation in the canopy. Our knowledge of the canopy is as scarce as that about the life in the deepest oceans. Sadly, the canopy is the first to disappear when a rainforest starts to be destroyed.

Image of a Phantasmal Fringe-limbed Frog hanging out in the canopy

The Phantasmal Fringe-limbed Frog (Ecnomiohyla phantasmagoria) lives in the canopy of the Chocó rainforest. Photo by Jose Vieira.

Jabba may be immortalized as a character in the Star Wars saga, but his amphibian counterpart is in real danger of disappearing forever. Every day, 55 hectares (equivalent to 110 soccer fields) of rainforest are destroyed, and overall, more than 80% of the Ecuadorian Chocó has already been lost. If we do not act now, soon, there simply will be no trees for Jabba the frog to live.

Image of deforestation taking place in the Chocó rainforest

Every day, an area of Chocó rainforest equivalent to 110 soccer fields is destroyed. Photo by Lucas Bustamante.

Image of deforestation taking place in the Chocó rainforest

Forest destruction caused by encroaching human activities such as cattle ranching and the creation of African palm oil fields are the main threats to the long-term survival of the Phantasmal Fringe-limbed Frog. Photo by Lucas Bustamante.

By donating to protect the Chocó rainforest, where each dollar you give is matched by Jocotoco, you can help keep the Phantasmal Fringe-limbed Frog alive, as well as many hundreds of critically endangered species that have found their last refuge in the only large remaining Chocó rainforest in Ecuador.