Meet 9 of Panama’s ‘Lost Frogs’

The deadly amphibian chytrid fungus has caused much devastation to Panama’s native frogs, salamanders and caecilians. We have learned a lot about this disease in the last 10 years and we have been able to take stock of its effects. A recent survey of Panamanian frog experts revealed that of Panama’s 214 described amphibian species, about 100 species can still be reliably found even in places where the chytrid fungus is found, and experts consider these species less susceptible to the fungus. Approximately 80 species are very rare, and we simply do not have any idea about their susceptibility to chytridiomycosis, or their current population numbers. 36 species were considered highly susceptible to the chytrid fungus and were once reliably encountered but have experienced, or are predicted to experience, severe chytridiomycosis-related declines.
Unfortunately a number of these species have already completely disappeared in the wild and have not been seen in many years. We call these Panama’s ‘lost frogs’.

1) Atelopus chiriquiensis – Chiriquí harlequin frog
These attractive diurnal frogs were appealing research subjects and occurred in high numbers in highlands on the border of Costa Rica and Panama. There are many scientific papers about this species, and they were primarily studied for their highly toxic tetradotoxins in their skin as well as their unique signaling and aggressive mating behavior. A study by Dr. Karen Lips in the Fortuna reserve of Panama reports that they occurred in high numbers – up to 20 individuals seen in 100m of stream on a single visit, but the frogs experienced a severe chytridiomycosis-related decline over a 5-year period and were last seen in 1996.

A pair of Atelopus chiriquiensis in amplexus. Photo (c) Marcos Guerra, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

A pair of Atelopus chiriquiensis in amplexus. Photo (c) Marcos Guerra, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

2) Atelopus zeteki – Panamanian golden frog
This is Panama’s national amphibian, a charismatic emblem of the environment and conservation. August 14th is a dedicated national day to honor the golden frog as a symbol for Panama’s incredible biodiversity heritage. Recognizing the chytridiomycosis threat, a conservation project called Project Golden Frog established a healthy breeding colony of golden frogs at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, another colony is maintained in Panama at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center. As predicted, Panamanian golden frogs experienced severe chytridiomycosis-related declines starting in 2006, and the last confirmed observation of Panamanian golden frog in the wild was in 2009. Project Atelopus continues to survey known golden frog sites for survivors, and a detailed conservation plan has been developed by stakeholders and facilitated by the IUCN Species Survival Commission for golden frogs in Panama. The plan aims to eventually reintroduce them to the wild.

One of 2,000 captive Panamanian Golden Frogs managed in captivity by the Golden Frog Species Survival Plan and the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore Photo: Brian Gratwicke Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

One of 2,000 captive Panamanian golden frogs managed in captivity by the Golden Frog Species Survival Plan and the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore Photo: (cc) Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

3) Craugastor obesus
This species was found in the spray zone on rocks, boulders in the Atlantic-facing slopes of Western Panama and Costa Rica. The species was last recorded from Costa Rica in 1984 rainforest. This species belongs to the Craugastor rugulosus group and all these closely related species of amphibians have all been have been decimated by the amphibian chytrid fungus.
4) Craugastor punctariolus
This semi aquatic species was found in mountainous streams of Central Panama. Rapid chytridiomycosis-related declines and disappearances were observed in the field in 2004-2008. This species belongs to the Craugastor rugulosus group and all these closely related species of amphibians have been decimated by the amphibian chytrid fungus. Genetic analysis revealed that it is likely a species complex. It has been maintained in captivity, and occasionally deposited eggs that were either infertile or did not develop fully and a viable captive population was not established.

Craugastor punctariolus, Bob's Robber Frog at the El valle Amphibian Conservation Center, photo (c) Kevin Johnson Amph

Craugastor punctariolus, Bob’s Robber Frog at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC) photo (c) Kevin Johnson Amphibian Ark

5) Craugastor rhyacobatrachus
This species is found in premontane and lower montane southern slopes of the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama. Despite extensive searches for this species in both Costa Rica and Panama, there are no recent records of this species. This species belongs to the Craugastor rugulosus group and all these closely related species of amphibians have all been have been decimated by the amphibian chytrid fungus.
6) Incilius majordomus
Males of this species were lemon yellow, and females were brown, the only other known toad of this genus that exhibited similar sexual dimorphism was Incilius peringelis—the famous Monte Verde Golden Toad of Costa Rica that is now extinct. Incilius majordomus is known only from the Pacific slope of Cerro Bollo, on the border between the provinces of Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí. This species was described in 2013 using a series of specimens collected in 1980. It has not been seen in the wild since 1980 despite extensive herpetological surveys in the area.

Incilius majordomus type specimen © Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Amphibians & Reptiles

Incilius majordomus type specimen © Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Amphibians & Reptiles

7) Isthmohyla calypsa
A  treefrog frog covered with spiny tubercles found in a small mountainous area on the border of Costa Rica and Panama where is used to be locally common. At las Tablas in Costa Rica, the species experienced severe chytridiomycosis-related declines between 1993 and 1998. Despite extensive recent survey efforts in Costa Rica and Panama, the species has not been seen recently and is possibly extinct. Many other stream breeding species in this genus have also experienced dramatic declines and are now extremely rare frogs.

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Isthmohyla calypsa in the wild at the Fortuna Biological Station, Photo (c) Marcos Guerra, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

8) Ecnomiohyla rabborum – Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog
Rabbs’ treefrog is thought to be endemic to the vicinity of El Valle de Anton, where it was always a rare frog difficult to find as they live high in trees and breed in tree holes. Experienced herpetologists could hear their calls reliably at some places, but the last individual was heard in El Valle de Anton in 2008. A few individuals of this species were collected for captive breeding efforts at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center and at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, but captive breeding efforts were unsuccessful. As of 2015 only a single individual persists in captivity at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

Ecnomiohyla rabborum - Rabb's Fringe-Limbed Frog at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. Photo (c) Brad Wilson

Ecnomiohyla rabborum, Rabb’s fringe-limbed  tree frog at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. Photo (c) Brad Wilson

9) Oophaga speciosa – Splendid poison frog
This large, unmistakable bright red dart frog lives only in the mountains of Western Panama. It was once collected for the pet trade, and was exported as recently as 1987. This species has not been seen in the wild in many years, despite intensive searches. It is not known whether it still lives in captivity, but has probably disappeared from the wild.

Oophaga speciosa, the Splendid poison dart frog. Photo (c) Marcos Guerra, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Oophaga speciosa, the Splendid poison dart frog. Photo (c) Marcos Guerra, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

If you have any recent records of these missing species please let us know, and consider uploading your record to the global amphibian bioblitz on inaturalist.

by Brian Gratwicke

*WE ARE SEEKING VOLUNTEERS TO HELP TRANSLATE OCCASIONAL AMPHIBIANRESCUE.ORG WEB PAGES INTO SPANISH, IF YOU ARE WILLING TO HELP US OUT OCCASIONALLY, PLEASE EMAIL Gratwickeb[AT]si.edu FOR MORE INFORMATION.

Surveying amphibian skin bacteria in Panamá

Amphibians are dying all over the world due to chytridiomycosis. This disease, caused by Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), is responsible for dramatic amphibian declines and extinctions in the Neotropics, including Panamanian tropical forests.

We are a research team that is part of an NSF project investigating microbial diversity on frog skin in Panama. This team includes three principal investigators (Lisa Belden, Reid Harris and Kevin Minbiole), three postdoctoral fellows (Eria Rebollar, Myra Hughey and Tom Umile) and several graduate and undergraduate students from James Madison University, Virginia Tech, Villanova University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. We are interested in understanding how microbial communities from amphibian skin might contribute to the survival of amphibian species that have persisted in the wild despite the presence of Bd. Since 2012, we have collected samples from multiple sites in lowland tropical forests to describe the factors that shape skin microbial communities in tropical amphibians, including the presence of the pathogen Bd.

The author in Panama, 2013

The author in Panama, 2013

We  recently published a study on the skin microbiota of five species of tropical amphibians from one of the few sites in Panamá where amphibians have not been infected with Bd, called Serranía del Sapo, in the Darién Province. In the summer of 2012, Myra Hughey, Roberto Ibáñez and Daniel Medina collected skin swab samples from this lowland site of highly susceptible and less-susceptible species, including two highly threatened species: Atelopus certus and Strabomantis bufoniformis. When we analyzed the bacterial species present on the skin of these five amphibian species we found that amphibians had a unique microbiota on the skin that was very distinct from the bacterial communities in the environment. These symbiotic bacteria were not only different from the environment, but were also different among the amphibian species. Interestingly we found that the three less Bd-susceptible species that we studied (Craugastor fitzingeri, Espadarana prosoblepon and Colosthetus panamansis) had a common set of bacteria that was not present on the two highly susceptible species (A. certus and S. bufoniformis).

Atelopus certus, thought to be a species susceptible to Bd. Photo (c) Joel Sartore

Atelopus certus, thought to be a species susceptible to Bd. Photo (c) Joel Sartore

We think that the bacteria present in the less-susceptible species might be playing a defensive role against pathogens like Bd. If these bacteria indeed have antifungal properties, what are the factors determining the presence of these antifungal bacteria on the skin of less susceptible species? To pursue this idea, we compared the microbial communities of C. fitzingeri in the Darién region with skin communities from regions where the frogs were infected with Bd, in Colón and Panamá provinces (Mamoní, Soberanía and Gamboa). We found that the skin bacterial communities in the infected regions had an increased proportion of bacterial species like Pseudomonas and members of the Actinomycetes. Interestingly, these bacteria are known for their antifungal activities in other amphibians, and therefore it is possible that they might be playing an important role in Bd resistance. Since other factors could be influencing these communities, we are currently analyzing experimental data to determine if Bd infection is driving these changes in the skin microbiota.

How can we use the information we have gathered to protect amphibians that do not have high proportions of Pseudomonas and Actinomycetes on their skins? Can we culture these bacteria and study their antifungal properties? We are currently analyzing cultured microbes from less susceptible species to determine if they have anti-Bd properties in vitro. If these microbes are indeed effective against Bd, can we use them as skin probiotics for the highly susceptible species? Probiotics are a very promising avenue towards conservation of susceptible amphibians since the skin microbiota has already been manipulated in some species to protect them from Bd. However a lot of additional studies still need to be done to implement this approach successfully.

Publications

Belden LK, Hughey MC, Rebollar EA, Umile TP, Loftus SC, Burzynski EA, Minbiole KPC, House LL, Jensen RV, Becker MH, Walke JB, Medina D, Ibáñez R and Harris RN (2015) Panamanian frog species host unique skin bacterial communities. Front. Microbiol. 6:1171. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2015.01171

Rebollar EA, Hughey MZ, Medina D, Harris RN,  Ibáñez R and Belden LK (2015) Skin bacterial diversity of Panamanian frogs is associated with host susceptibility and presence of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. ISME Journal. doi:10.1038/ismej.2015.234

by Eria Rebollar

New Amphibian Study Helps Smithsonian Scientists Prioritize Frogs at Risk of Extinction

graphical abstractScientists at the Smithsonian Institution and partners have published a paper that will help them save Panamanian frog species from extinction due to a deadly fungal disease called Chytridiomycosis (chytrid). The study, which was published Jan. 4 in Animal Conservation, draws on the expertise of amphibian biologists and scientists the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project to mathematically determine which frog species have the best probability of escaping extinction with the rescue project’s help.
“We don’t want to arbitrarily decide which species lives and which species don’t, nor do we want to waste our time on species that don’t need our help,” said Brian Gratwicke, co-author on the paper and international coordinator of the rescue project out of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “This study took into account the differences in opinions among amphibian experts in Panama and found consensus in a systematic away. This has allowed us to focus on the species where we have the best chance of making a difference.”

The study also found that eight Panamanian species are likely now extinct in the wild due to disease-related declines. About 80 of Panama’s frog species were too rare for conservationists to prioritize their need for help or the likelihood of successful rescue. The new prioritization scheme, however, will allow the scientists to adapt to new information as it becomes available.

“Over the years, several frog populations—and even species—have vanished or nearly vanished from Panama,” said Roberto Ibáñez, the in-country director of the rescue project at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, “Unfortunately, it is impossible to save them all through conservation programs. With this study, we can focus our limited resources on those species that we are more likely to find in the wild and breed in captivity, while we simultaneously look for a way to manage chytrid.”

Since 2009, the rescue project has been building and maintaining insurance populations of frog species susceptible to chytrid, bringing small groups into captivity to breed as the species crashes in the wild. For each of Panama’s 214 known frog species, the paper’s authors asked amphibian experts to determine the probability that: 1) the rescue project could locate an adequate founding population (20 males and 20 females), 2) the rescue project could successfully breed the species and 3) without the rescue project’s help, the species would go extinct.

While most of the rescue project’s original priority species ranked high based on the new prioritization scheme, the conservationists have already started making some changes. They have determined that the likelihood of successfully breeding La Loma tree frogs (Hyloscirtus colymba) is low and they are instead shifting resources to the recently discovered Craugastor evanesco and the Rusty robber frog (Strabomantis bufoniformis), both of which came up as high priorities.

The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project is a project partnership between the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the Houston Zoo, Zoo New England and Smithsonian Institution.

Fifth Annual Golden Frog Day Calendar of Activities (2015)

Golden frog festival calendar of events

FRIDAY 14 August
GAMBOA AMPHIBIAN RESCUE CENTER OPEN HOUSE
Corner of Morrow and Jadwin, Gamboa.
Time: 1-4pm
Get a behind the scenes tour of the Gamboa Amphibian Rescue Center

SATURDAY 15 August
Golden EL VALLE DE ANTON, PASEO EL VALLE
Times: Saturday: 11:00am-3:00pm
Educational activities refreshments and games hosted by the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center and the Golden Frog Mascott.

SUNDAY 16 August
PUNTA CULEBRA NATURE CENTER, AMADOR
#RANATICOS day
Time: 11 am – 4pm
Meet the golden frog mascott, tour an exhibition of Panama’s most beautiful frogs, games activities and refreshments.

WEDNESSDAY AUG 19
NIGHT FROGS at the BIOMUSEO, AMADOR
Time: 7-10PM
Frog raffle, photo booth, exhibition and talk with frog experts.

SATURDAY AUGUST 22
MULTIPLAZA PACIFIC MALL, PANAMA CITY
Time: 11AM- 5PM
Face painting, frog jumping, photobooth and acrobatics by La Tribu.

SUNDAY AUGUST 30
GOLDEN FROG RUN, EL VALLE DE ANTON
Time: 7AM, starting at Hotel Campestre
Register for a race for golden frogs hosted by Caminando Panama.

Presented by: Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Fundacion Smithsonian, El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, La Rana Dorada Pub, SENACYT, USAID, National Science Foundation, APRADAP, Uber, Biomuseo, Oferta simple, Live animals, Stratego , Multiplaza Pacifico, North Face, Caminando Panama.

La Dorada 5/10/15K trail run 2015

dorada_race

To celebrate the Golden Frog Festival and the conservation of amphibians in Panama you are invited to join us for ‘la Dorada’ 5K /10K /15K run in the beautiful mountains of El Valle de Anton.

The race will be on Sunday August 30 in El Valle de Anton. This annual event is in its second year, organized and hosted by Caminando Panama the North Face and the Smithsonian. Some of the routes have changed, so stay tuned and visit the event facebook page for updates.

Register from July 26 at The North Face – Multiplaza Mall or Hushpuppies Soho – Albrook Mall in Panama City.

New Rescue Lab for Endangered Amphibians Opens in Panama

Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) scientists working together as part of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project (PARC) opened a new safe haven for endangered amphibians today, April 8. The state-of-the-art, $1.2 million amphibian center at STRI’s Gamboa field station  expands on the capacity of the El Valle amphibian conservation center to implement a national strategy to conserve Panama’s amphibian biodiversity by creating captive assurance populations. Together these form the largest dedicated facility for amphibian conservation in Latin America.

Gamboa Amphibian Research and Conservation CenterPanama is a biodiversity hotspot for amphibians with more than 200 species of frogs, salamanders and caecilians. For the past 20 years, however, many of Panama’s unique and endemic amphibian species have declined or disappeared as a result of the deadly chytrid fungus that has spread throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. In fact, a third of amphibian species in Panama are considered threatened or endangered. Amphibian conservationists around the world have been working to establish captive populations of the world’s most vulnerable amphibian species to safeguard them from extinction.

Side view of facility“Our biggest challenge in the race to save tropical amphibians has been the lack of capacity,” said Brian Gratwicke, amphibian scientist at SCBI and international coordinator of PARC. “This facility will allow us to do so much more. We now have the space needed to safeguard some of Panama’s most vulnerable and beautiful amphibians and to conduct the research needed to reintroduce them back to the wild.”

The center features a working lab for scientists, a quarantine space for frogs collected from the wild and amphibian rescue pods capable of holding up to 10 species of frogs. In the working lab, SCBI scientists will continue research focusing on things like a cure for chytrid. Seven amphibianrescue pods house the amphibian collection and colonies of insects needed to feed them. Amphibian rescue pods are constructed from recycled shipping containers that were once used to move frozen goods around the world and through the Panama Canal; they have been retrofitted to become mini-ecosystems with customized terrariums for each frog species.

Gamboa Amphibian Research and Conservation Center“Our project is helping implement the action plan for amphibian conservation in Panama, authored by Panama’s National Environmental Authority—now Environment Ministry—in 2011,” said Roberto Ibañez, STRI project director for PARC. “This is only possible thanks to the interest in conservation of amphibian biodiversity by the government of Panama and the support we have received from businesses in Panama.”

The new rescue lab will be crucial to ongoing breeding efforts and breakthroughs, such as the successful hatching of an Andinobates geminisae froglet. SCBI and STRI scientists hatched the first A. geminisae froglet in human care in one of the amphibian rescue pods at the existing Gamboa amphibian conservation center. The tiny poison frog species, smaller than a dime, was discovered and described for the first time in Panama in 2014. They simulated breeding conditions in a rescue pod. The new facility will provide much-needed space to grow and expand, allowing them to build assurance populations for many more species. A small exhibition niche provides a window directly into an active rescue pod, where visitors can see rescued frogs and scientists as they work to conserve these endangered frogs.Exhibition niche where visitors can glimpse inside a pod

PARC is a partnership between the Houston Zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Zoo New England, SCBI and STRI. Funding for the new facilities was provided by Defenders of Wildlife, Frank and Susan Mars, Minera Panama, the National Science Foundation and USAID.

As a research facility, PARC is not open to the public. However, there are interpretive panels and a window into the research pod where visitors can get a glimpse of the project in action. To learn more, the public is welcome to visit the new Fabulous Frogs of Panama exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Punta Culebra Nature Center, located on the Amador Causeway.

Golden frogs with unique communities of skin bacteria survive exposure to frog-killing fungus  

Chytridiomycosis is an amphibian disease that has wiped out populations of many frog species around the world, including the charismatic Panamanian golden frog, which now exists only in captivity in the United States and Panama.

Research published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society found unique communities of skin bacteria on golden frogs that survived chytridiomycosis. The original experiment was designed to test the idea that antifungal probiotic bacteria may be used to prevent chytridiomycosis in captive golden frogs. Approximately 25 percent of the golden frogs eventually cleared infection, but their survival was not associated with the probiotic treatment, rather it was associated with bacteria that were present on their skin prior to the start of the experiment. In fact, the probiotic antifungal bacteria did not appear to establish on the golden frog skin at all.

Study authors Matt Becker and Shawna Cikanek work to inoculate frogs with beneficial bacteriaMatthew Becker, a fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute who conducted the experiment as part of his PhD research at Virginia Tech University, says it is unclear why the microbes did not linger on the skin, but he thinks that the way he treated the frogs – with a high dose of bacteria for a short duration – may be part of the reason.

“I think identifying alternative probiotic treatment methods that optimize dosages and exposure times will be key for moving forward with the use of probiotics to mitigate chytridiomycosis,” Becker said.

Brian Gratwicke, amphibian conservation biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute where the experiment was conducted, says that he was disappointed that they did not find a ‘silver bullet’ to cure chytridiomycosis in this species, but noted that the results do advance our understanding of this disease.

“Previous experiments found that golden frogs are highly susceptible to chytridiomycosis, so any survival is cause for hope,” said Reid Harris, director of disease mitigation at the Amphibian Survival Alliance. “The tricky piece is figuring out the survival mechanism, and this exciting research gives some new insights in that direction.”

This research also provides additional support for the importance of symbiotic microbes, or the ‘microbiome,’ for the health of their hosts, ranging from sponges and corals to humans.

“In all multi-cellular organisms, we have suites of microbes performing critical functions for their hosts, and the same appears to be true for golden frogs,” said Lisa Belden, who supervised the study at Virginia Tech University.

The team, led by Becker, now plans to determine if this study is repeatable by investigating whether the golden frog’s skin microbiota can predict the susceptibility to chytridiomycosis. They will also investigate whether the bacteria associated with the surviving frogs from this study can be used as a probiotic treatment to prevent infections of golden frogs without a ‘protective’ microbiota.

“The ultimate goal of this research is to identify a method to establish healthy populations of golden frogs in their native habitat, despite the presence of chytridiomycosis in the environment,” Becker said.

Citation: Matthew H. Becker, Jenifer B. Walke, Shawna Cikanek, Anna E. Savage, Nichole Mattheus, Celina N. Santiago, Kevin P. C. Minbiole, Reid N. Harris, Lisa K. Belden, Brian Gratwicke (2015) Composition of symbiotic bacteria predicts survival in Panamanian golden frogs infected with a lethal fungus. Proc. R. Soc. B: 2015 282 20142881; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.2881. Published 18 March 2015

Newly Described Poison Dart Frog Hatched for the First Time in Captivity

The first captive-bred Andinobates geminisae at the Gamboa Amphibian Research and Conservation Center at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

The first captive-bred Andinobates geminisae at the Gamboa Amphibian Research and Conservation Center. Photo by Jorge Guerrel, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) scientists working as part of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project hatched the first Andinobates geminisae froglet born in captivity. The tiny dart frog species only grows to 14 millimeters and was first collected and described last year from a small area in central Panama. Scientists collected two adults to evaluate the potential for maintaining the species in captivity as an insurance population.

“There is a real art to learning about the natural history of an animal and finding the right set of environmental cues to stimulate successful captive breeding,” said Brian Gratwicke, amphibian conservation biologist at SCBI and director of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. “Not all amphibians are easy to breed in captivity, so when we do breed a species for the first time in captivity it is a real milestone for our project and a cause for celebration.”

Scientists simulated breeding conditions for the adult frogs in a small tank. The frogs laid an egg on a bromeliad leaf, which scientists transferred to a moist petri dish. After 14 days, the tadpole hatched. Scientists believe adult A. geminisae frogs may provide their eggs and tadpoles with parental care, which is not uncommon for dart frogs, but they have not been able to determine if that is the case. In the wild, one of the parents likely transports the tadpole on his or her back to a little pool of water, usually inside a tree or on a bromeliad leaf.

Andinobates geminisae egg

After the tadpole hatched, scientists moved it from the petri dish to a small cup of water, mimicking the small pools available in nature. On a diet of fish food, the tadpole successfully metamorphosed into a froglet after 75 days and is now the size of a mature adult.

Andinobates geminisae tadpole

Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project scientists are unsure if A. geminisae is susceptible to the amphibian-killing chytrid fungus. However, since it is only found in a small area of Panama and is dependent on primary rain forests, which are under pressure from agricultural conversion, they have identified it as a conservation-priority species.

The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project breeds endangered species of frogs in Gamboa, Panama and El Valle, Panama. The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project is a partnership between the Houston Zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Zoo New England, SCBI and STRI. This study was supported by Minera Panama.

The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation (PARC) project receives IX BBVA Foundation’s Biodiversity Conservation Award for Latin America

25 November, 2014, Madrid. The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation (PARC) project was awarded the IX BBVA Foundation’s Biodiversity Conservation Award for Latin America, which recognizes projects, policies or actions that have had significant impact on the protection of habitats, species and ecosystems in Latin America.  Our project was chosen among approximately 30 nominations for its achievements in saving critically endangered amphibians in Panama and globally through research, rescue and outreach.

Roberto Ibanez BBVA Award

The award, made on Nov 25th at the Palacio del Marqués de Salamanca in Madrid, Spain includes a prize of 250,000 Euros (approx. $323,000).  The award was made to STRI’s Roberto Ibáñez, director of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project,  Heidi Ross, director and co-founder of the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, Sharon Ryan, STRI’s director of public programs and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Brian Gratwicke who is the international coordinator of the amphibian rescue project.

Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project LogoPARC was created in 2009 as a partnership of eight institutions, in response to the massive loss of Panama’s amphibian biodiversity due mainly to the chytrid fungus, and has several key goals: prevent species extinctions by establishing ex-situ assurance colonies of endangered amphibians threatened with extinction from a deadly fungus decimating amphibians worldwide; develop tools to mitigate the disease and lead to reintroductions in the wild; and, engage constituents to support conservation of amphibians and habitats.

The founding organizations include Africam Safari, Houston Zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, New England Zoo, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Defenders of Wildlife and  the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

To date, we have invested $1.5 million to build two ex-situ facilities in Panama, bred more than 10 endangered amphibian species, including the Panamanian Golden Frog, a conservation flagship species now extinct in the wild. Our scientists actively monitor disease and frog populations in the wild, use the latest molecular tools to find beneficial skin bacteria to help frogs fight chytridiomycosis infections, research genetic mechanisms of chytrid resistance in Panamanian Golden Frogs, and develop assisted reproduction technologies to breed frogs in captivity and cryopreserve their gametes for future use.

Kids on a float in the Golden Frog Day Parade

The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project’s education campaign generates extensive coverage in local and international press, raising awareness and support for this crisis, including: award-winning documentary aired on Smithsonian Channel in the USA, and coverage in major media outlets. Our annual Panamanian Golden Frog Festival drew 6,280 people in 2013 and had a media reach of nearly 500,000. Two exhibits, the Fabulous Frogs of Panama in Panama City and another at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center are visited by 200,000 Panamanians annually. More than 35,000 schoolchildren and 300 teachers participate annually in amphibian-related education programs.  Nearly 300 volunteers have supported the project since 2009.

The Recently Discovered Salamander-Devouring Fungus and Reasons for Concern for the Future the Salamander Biodiversity in the United States

appalachian salamandersEnigmatic Fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra) declines in the Netherlands have been attributed to the recently described fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (Bs). Since 2010, the S. salamandra population at Bunderbos, Netherlands has decreased by 96%. An Martel et al’s recent Science paper showed that some US salamander species are highly susceptible to Bs, confirmed its occurrence in the pet trade, and noted that it has not yet been detected in the US. Large numbers of live salamanders are legally imported into the US each year for the pet trade. In the first 6 months of 2014, for example, 3,445 fire salamanders imported into the US, mostly from Slovenia.

The genus Batrachochytrium, which before the discovery of Bs solely included Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), has gained an infamous reputation for global amphibian declines. Biologists believe that we are witnessing the sixth mass extinction in part because of the virulence and global spread of Bd among the world’s amphibians. The discovery of this new pathogen and our improved understanding of the ravaging effects of emerging wildlife disease raise concerns that US salamanders could share the same fate.

The US is a biodiversity hotspot for salamanders

Appalachia is a global salamander biodiversity hotspot (Source: http://www.biodiversitymapping.org/amphibians.htm)

Appalachia is a global salamander biodiversity hotspot (Source: http://www.biodiversitymapping.org/amphibians.htm)

The Appalachian Mountains are a renowned biodiversity hotspot for salamanders. The potential threat of this emerging pathogen in the US is therefore magnified, and it is imperative that we keep this disease out of the US. Salamander genetic diversity in the Appalachians is the highest in the world with 72 salamander species that are mostly endemic. The United States is home to nine out of ten salamander families and four of the ten extant salamander families are endemic to the United States including amphiumas, Pacific giant salamanders, torrent salamanders and sirens. Mole salamanders are also found in Canada and Mexico, but nearly all of their biodiversity is contained with U.S. borders. Giant salamanders are a primitive lineage of giant salamanders with three extant species, located in the U.S., Japan, and China. The hellbender is one of the giants and has found refuge in the Appalachian Mountains since amphibians originated, some 360 million years ago.

The ecological role of salamanders, the smaller majority, can often go unnoticed, but consider this biomass assessment of salamanders in Appalachia. One classic mark-recapture study in the eastern US noted “The biomass of salamanders is about twice that of birds during the bird’s peak breeding season and is about equal to the biomass of small mammals” (Burton and Likens 1975). With densities this high, a novel salamander-specific pathogen to which these animals have never been exposed have the potential be able to spread like wildfire, much like Bd spread through naïve Neotropical amphibian populations.

Immediate action is needed

We should immediately halt the importation of salamanders from any overseas sources, unless they can be certified free from Bs and Bd. In May 2008 the OIE, which is the organization created to mitigate zoonotic diseases (i.e., anthrax, mad cow disease, etc.), recognized Bd as a notifiable disease. Stricter trade regulations recommended by OIE would substantially reduce the spread of both Bs and Bd, however the OIE changes have not been adopted by the US Department of Agriculture and Interior and until doing so there are no legal means to reject infected shipments. A joint statement from the Amphibian Specialist Group and Amphibian Survival Alliance calls for immediate policy actions to stop the further spread of devastating wildlife diseases, and this time it is not too late to do something about it.

by Blake Klocke