Saggy-skinned frog

Friday 2 February: 20.00–21.00

Continuing this evening is the fascinating wildlife documentary series in which naturalist Nick Baker scours the world for the strangest creatures in the animal kingdom. In this programme, Nick embarks on an expedition to the roof of the world to find the giant saggy-skinned frog of Lake Titicaca.

Nick begins his research at London’s Natural History Museum, where director of science Richard Lane looks after a veritable “treasure trove of oddity”. Among the huge range of animals in the museum are some 80,000 amphibians. It is to these creatures that Nick looks today, hoping to find one that can breathe in high-altitude conditions. But while locating this animal in the museum is relatively easy, spotting one in its natural habitat will be more of a challenge. Lake Titicaca, the setting for the real adventure, is situated some 7,500 miles away from London, two miles high in the Bolivian Andes.

Following in the footsteps of explorer and ecologist Jacques Cousteau, who visited the area in the early 1960s, Nick and his crew travel to La Paz in South America. Here the air is so thin that just walking proves exhausting for Nick. With the whole crew seemingly suffering from altitude sickness, Nick suspects that this may be something of a ‘go-slow’ mission. As the team head out onto the water for the first time, the true extent of their suffering becomes apparent and they are forced to abandon their search early and return to the hotel.

On day two, Nick and the crew seem to be adjusting to the conditions and set off with renewed enthusiasm. Armed with a large cast-iron net and some expert help in the form of Don Ramon, a local Aymaran Indian who served as a guide to Cousteau 40 years ago, Nick heads for the shallow waters between two islands. The water here is crystal clear, but a thick carpet of weeds makes it very difficult to spot any frogs. Nick also finds that because of the lack of oxygen in the air, even the smallest of manoeuvres takes a great effort and operating a simple net becomes a real struggle. But eventually, Nick has some success and nets a small male frog.

Dragging it into the boat with some difficulty, Nick examines the animal and explains that everything about it is geared towards high-altitude life – including its saggy skin, designed to create as big a surface area as possible for the absorption of oxygen. So unusual is the frog’s appearance that when the species was discovered by Garman and Agassiz during an expedition in 1876, it was given the name Telmatobius culeus – ‘aquatic scrotum’ in Latin. But this animal is only a baby. What Nick really wants to find is a giant female which, according to Cousteau, can grow up to two feet in length and weigh two pounds. For this, Nick must get into the water.

After a mammoth struggle to put on his wetsuit, Nick plunges into the freezing water and begins his search in earnest. Unlike the teeming waters described by Cousteau, life in the lake seems surprisingly sparse: in fact, the first frogs Nick spots are dead. One reason for the scarcity of life could be the increased levels of UV radiation resulting from the depletion of the ozone layer; another may be over-fishing of the area by locals keen to exploit demand for rare creatures in popular folk medicines.

Either way, Nick realises that the only hope he has to find a true giant saggy-skinned frog is to become a frogman himself and swim to the murky depths of one of the highest lakes in the world. But since diving in such high altitude is so difficult and with succumbing to ‘the bends’ a very serious danger, will Nick find the monster before both his air and energy run out?

About the author

  • Emma

    Hi there

    I would very much like to get in touch with the author of this article. I am trying to track down image of the Saggy-skinned frog for a book.

    Cheers

    Emma

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