Diving Expeditions: Lake Titicaca
Expedition Mundo Azul:
Searching for the holy frogs of Lake Titicaca
Location: Lake Titicaca, Peru
Altitude: 3,812 m
Maximum length of the lake: 230 kms
Average width: 50 kms
Total surface area: 8,300 km2
Maximum depth: 281 m
Year of expedition: 1999 + 2004
Participants in Expedition 1 (1999): Stefan Austermühle, Nina Pardo
Participants in Expedition 2 (2004): Stefan Austermühle, Hendrik Wuyts, Yuri Hooker, Dos Winkel
- Find the endemic frogs of Lake Titicaca
- Find the endemic sponge of Lake Titicaca
- photograph and film them in their natural habitat
The holy Kaira frog:
High altitude lakes are habitats with extreme living conditions:
- low temperatures
- low air pressure
- intense evaporation
- strong temperature variations between day and night
- high radiation of ultraviolet and infrared light
The high radiation only allows a few species of amphibians to live in altitudes higher than 3,000 m. Worldwide there are only a few members of the frog family Lepodactylidae that live in high altitudes: Telmatobius and Pleurodema.
Their adaptation to the extreme living conditions resulted in morphologic changes:
reduction of the lungs
organic and structural modification of the skin
changes in their reproduction cycle and larval development
In order to protect themselves, these frogs live under stones, in earth holes and under plants in wetlands, marshes, in rivers with pools and low flow of water as well as in the depth of the lakes, rarely coming up to the surface.
The frog populations live isolated from each other in small habitats that are frequently separated from each other by impassable zones. This causes the development of numerous biological and morphological variations. Therefore many local forms do exist that are hard to differentiate from each other, even for taxonomists.
The biology of these frogs being endemic to Lake Titicaca and being sacred to the local people, is still a mystery. The members of Mundo Azul are some of the very few people in the world that had the chance to dive in lake Titicaca and meet this incredible strange species in their natural habitat.
The local name for the frogs is “Kaira”. According to their belief, the frogs are sacred and therefore do not form part of the regular food supply, like in many other areas of the Andes. They are never mistreated by the people. The frogs still play an important role in the religious practice of people around the lake.
When the weather stays dry, they abandon one or two frogs in small jars on top of a mountain. According to their belief, the frogs then will start “crying”, calling for rain, which soon sets in. That makes the water in the jar flowing over and allows the frogs to return to the lake.
Sometimes frogs are used to cure diseases. During the last years, people from other parts of Peru have started to buy frogs from fishermen and trade them to the coast, where they are killed by putting them alive in a mixer. The resulting fluid is sold as popular medicine.
Other important threats to their survival in Lake Titicaca are:
Climatic changes and higher levels of radiation
So far there does not exist any conservation effort or educational campaign in order to protect these rare animals. There is a great lack of information such as:
Status and development of the populations
Impact of the threats
More funding is urgently needed, as the frogs are important species for the aquatic ecosystem of Lake Titicaca. They are also indicator species for the climatic changes and the impact of contamination.
Due to their cultural importance, the frogs may serve as a flag species for aquatic conservation in Lake Titicaca.
Aquatic sponges – a biological treasure of Lake Titicaca
Balliviaspongia wirrmanni is an animal that has been seen in the wild just by a handful of people and many of them might not even have recognized it as such. It is a sponge, a group of animals commonly known from the worlds coral reefs and being a great attraction for recreational divers. Still, many people are of the opinion that sponges are plants, but actually they do belong to a group of animals that have developed on our planet as one of the first animal species of all.
Balliviaspongia wirrmanni is a real biological treasure. It is one of the few species of aquatic sponges in the world and it is anatomically so different from other sponges, that scientists placed it in its own biological family. It only lives in Lake Titicaca where its presence can be traced back 7,000 years.
Maybe it does not appear to be the most attractive or exciting animal to many but definitely the loss of this species due to contamination and habitat destruction would be a tragic loss for humanity.
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