I'm in Lima, Peru where in a couple of hours I'm meant to be catching a plane to Bogota. But instead of heading for the airport, I'm speeding recklessly in the opposite direction on a wild frog chase. Lima's traffic is notoriously bad and I really shouldn't be taking such a risk, but this frog and its story are so extraordinary I cannot miss it. Ladies and gentlemen allow me to introduce Telmatobius culeus, Latin for aquatic scrotum and the key ingredient for Peruvian backstreet viagra.
I first heard about this frog back in Uruguay. A well-connected conservationist I was staying with told me that a friend of his, Ramon "Kuki" Avellaneda, had seen frogs the size of VW's whilst diving for lost Inka gold with Jacques Cousteau at the bottom of Lake Titicaca.
I was excited about the prospect of a giant crypto toad living at the bottom of a remote Andean lake. Pre-historic amphibians were monsters, several meters long that ate baby dinosaurs for breakfast. Perhaps Cousteau had discovered a relic beast - an amphibian Nessie at the bottom of this ancient lake.
I contacted Kuki, who now basks amongst the beautiful near the swish sixties seaside resort of Buzios in Brazil. On account of being deaf as a post from his years underwater, we communicated via his son who relayed the somewhat disenchanting information that his father's aquatic scrotum were merely the size of dinner plates and not cars. I could barely hide my disappointment. But the story does not end there.
Telmatobius Culeus it turns out may not be the behemoth ball bag of the deep but he is still an awesome beast. His laughable Latin name refers to his wrinkly appearance which has enabled him to pull the kind of trick that Houdini could only dream of.
Lake Titicaca is an unforgiving home, at nearly 4000 metres above sea level, the sun is brutal, the air is thin and freezing cold. This is no place for an amphibian. But this frog survives by living permanently at the bottom of the lake, never surfacing and breathing only through his skin, which has evolved in copious folds that drape around his scrawny frame to maximise its surface area. When necessary, he does press ups to circulate more oxygenated water around his body. He may not be pretty, but it's an amazing evolutionary adaptation by anyone's standards.
I spot my first Titicaca frog not in a lake, but in the markets of Cuzco in the Peruvian Andes. He's languishing in a bucket with other Telmatobius species waiting to become part of a soup that the locals believe is good for your brain, amongst other things. I'm thinking I've never heard anything so dumb but the locals have a long history of using this frog in traditional medicine so I'm probably not going to win this argument. Especially as I only know a few words in Spanish and shouting "bad frog" at the woman repeatedly will probably just get me arrested and forced to drink frog soup in a bid to cure my madness.
I've heard that the Titcaca frogs, along with other Telmatobius species, are also the key ingredient of "frog juice" - an aphrodisiac sold in the food markets of the Peruvian capital. This traditional recipe sees the frogs placed in a blender along with a bunch of herbs and honey and drunk as a shake. How anything involving a Moulinex mixer can be described as traditional I don't know, but I do know I have to investigate. So during my change in flights at Lima I jump in a cab and head downtown in search of thisamphibian elixir. I made this short video about my frog juice drinking experience.
On the journey back to airport I explain to the cab driver that the frog in his favourite shake is now critically endangered, its numbers having declined by a whopping 80% in the last few generations. This ancient frog, a massive part of Andean culture, is on the brink of extinction thanks to people like him. I give him an extra big tip and tell him to go buy some Viagra.
Conservationists on the Bolivian side of the lake are working hard to protect the frog, doing much needed outreach to educate local communities and working to uphold the law against it being sold in markets. But worryingly, recent dives have uncovered dozens of dead frogs - a sign that the dreaded Chytrid fungus may also have arrived at the frog's home. This frog needs all the help it can get.
You wouldn't like your balls put in a blender, so to help save the amazing aquatic scrotum and other endangered amphibians like them - please go here and donate some cash.