Hoppy Halloween from the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project!

Most of us who studied “Macbeth” in high school know that the chanting witches in the story used many ingredients in their brew, from “eye of newt” to “toe of frog.” In fact, throughout history, amphibians—mainly frogs and toads—have been superstitiously considered either good luck symbols, or more commonly, signs of evil or the devil. Today, though all of the readers of this blog know how incredible frogs are, there are even phobias associated with the animals:

Batrachophobia: Fear of amphibians (frogs, newts, salamanders, etc.)
Ranidaphobia: Fear of frogs
Bufonophobia: Fear of toads

In honor of the spookiest holiday of the year, we’ve compiled a list of freaky frogs and frog facts that may just creep you out (though we suspect most of you will think, “wow, cool!”).


Luzon fanged frog (Limnonectes macrocephalus)

A number of frog species, like the Luzon fanged frog here, have bony jaw protrusions that resemble fangs. (Image courtesy of Rafe M. Brown)

Most frogs that swallow their prey whole compress their eyeballs down into their heads to push the food down their throats to swallow it! In addition, there are a number of frog species that have bony jaw protrusions that resemble fangs, and they eat anything from rats to snakes to even birds! Scientists believe the “fangs” help the frogs hold onto quickly moving prey.

Speaking of teeth, there is also the vampire flying frog (Rhacophorus vampyrus), native to Vietnam. Adult flying frogs have webbed fingers and toes, which allow them to jump and glide from tree to tree. Though not really vampires, the adults are nocturnal and do like to come out at night. In addition, this species’ tadpole stage is the only one known to have “fangs,” which disappear as they mature.

The paper highlighting the discovery of the “fangs,” explains that they are not true fangs, but rather “keratinized hooks” on the sides of their mouths. It is highly unlikely that the tadpoles actually suck blood, and researchers are currently studying these so-called fangs because their function is unknown. Head researcher, Jodi Rowley, suspects that they may help the tadpoles anchor themselves underwater or somehow aid in eating.

For Whom the Frogs Scream…

Did you know that some species of frogs, like the smoky jungle frog and American bullfrog, scream? When a frog does so, it is considered a distress call, usually a high-pitched noise emitted when a predator snatches them up, or when they are stressed or handled. Nobody knows what the exact purpose of the cry is, but researchers believe it is a defensive mechanism that aims to startle or disorient a predator enough that the frog will be released and it can escape.

Take a listen in this video from the BBC.

Cool Zombie Frogs!

Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica)

This practically frozen solid wood frog can quite literally come back to life. (Image courtesy of Janet Storey)

When it comes to the living dead, you may not believe your eyes when we show you the wood frog. These frogs can quite literally come back to life after being practically frozen solid. Native to cooler North American habitats, they can remain around 70 percent frozen for about four weeks in their burrows thanks to a natural antifreeze chemical in their blood, as well as a fluid balance mechanism within their bodies that moves water to areas less likely to be damaged by ice crystals. Their bodies then completely shut down, suspended in a cryostasis. When the weather gets warmer and the frogs begin to thaw, their organs will slowly begin functioning again—even the heart will begin to slowly beat—and within a day, the frog will be back to normal.

See a frozen wood frog thaw and hop away:

What on Earth is THAT? A Prehistoric Monster?

Indian purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis)

It appears this frog would be a good candidate for the monster mash. (Image courtesy of Sathyabhama Das Biju)

This isn’t a monster, but it may be just as unusual looking as one. The Indian purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis) is found in the Western Ghats in India. Only just discovered in 2003, it is rare and researchers believe it evolved separately from its closest relatives, the Seychelles frogs, for more than 130 million years. These frogs live mostly underground and come up only to breed during the monsoon season.


Turtle frog

The turtle frog appears to be a turtle without a shell, but is actually a frog! (Image courtesy of Evan Pickett)

Is this the Blob? Nope! It is known as the turtle frog (Myobatrachus gouldii), found in southwestern Australia. It is called the turtle frog because it looks like a turtle without its shell! It spends its entire life almost completely underground in burrows in sandy soil, eating termites from within its own colony tunnels. The frogs only emerge to mate during rainy season, but lay eggs that hatch into froglets underground.

Creepiness Continued

Surinam toad (Pipa pipa)

Tadpoles grow within pockets on the back of female Surinam toads, then eventually emerge as toadlets. (Image courtesy of Peter Janzen)

The Surinam toad is another one of the creepier amphibians you will see—it is also one of the flattest, resembling road kill or plant debris. They live in the Amazon River Basin of South America in moist lowland forests, swamps and freshwater marshes.

Perhaps the most amazingly creepy thing about this animal is the way it reproduces. The female will lay eggs that the male attaches to her back. The eggs embed themselves into her skin, which grows to form a type of pocket around each one. The tadpoles grow within these pockets, then eventually emerge as toadlets, as in the photo shown.

Check out this video:

Another creepy reproduction method was unique to the two species of now-extinct gastric-brooding frogs (Rheobatrachus family), native to eastern Australia. Female frogs incubated their eggs and babies developed within their stomachs. When ready, the babies would crawl out her mouth.

These Frogs Eat Almost Anything!

Ornate Horned Frog (Ceratophrys ornata)

These big-mouthed frogs have been known to eat all kinds of prey, ranging from rats to other frogs. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Perhaps some of the most frightening yet fascinating types of frogs are within the Ceratophrys genus. These are ‘horned’ frogs, possessing an elongated flap of skin that resembles a little horn on the upper eyelids. Also called Pac-man frogs, these large, aggressive, roundish frogs have insatiable appetites and will try to eat almost anything, even if it is bigger than they are. Examples of prey include insects, mice, rats, fish, other frogs, reptiles, etc. These frogs have even been known to eat their mates and go after smaller livestock!

In fact, one of the largest frog fossils ever discovered, a species that scientists call “Beelzebufo ampinga” or “devil frog,” was a close relative to these guys. Beelzebufo may be the biggest frog fossil ever found, dating to around 70 million years old, and grew to about 16 inches in length. It may have even gone after newly hatched baby dinosaurs.

Other well-known frogs that have quite an appetite are bullfrogs and green tree frogs. These have also been seen eating anything from rats to snakes to other frogs.

For images of frogs dining, click here… if you dare…

Talk About a Mad Science Lab!

Glass frog

Glass frogs have such transparent skin that you can see their organs. (Photo by Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Glass frogs are not scary, but they are a little creepy. These adorable frogs lack pigment on the skin of their abdomens, which allow their organs to be perfectly visible through the skin!

In addition to glass frogs, you may have heard of ghost frogs. These frogs are obviously not spirits, but members of the Heleophrynidae family. Native to South Africa, these frogs live in streams and their name probably stems from the fact that many are found in a place called “Skeleton Gorge.”

Lastly, and this is TRULY scary:

Epomis beetle

The Epomis beetle eats its prey, including frogs, from the inside out. (Image courtesy of Gil Wizen)

Imagine going to take a bite of a nice delicious hotdog, only to find that as you open your mouth, it springs a set of pincers, clamps onto the inside of your mouth, and begins to eat you instead!

The Epomis beetle does just this, and may be the last thing a frog will ever try to eat—since the frog will almost always become a meal itself. The Middle Eastern beetles specialize in preying on amphibians—mainly frogs—in a most unique and horrifying way.

The larvae of these beetles lure a frog by waving its antennae and then wait for the frog to try to snatch it up. When it does, the larvae will latch onto the attacker’s mouth with its double-hooked jaws, and, turning the tables, it will eat its prey alive. The larvae have become very adept at this, as frogs are all they eat, though the adults will eat a variety of amphibians by biting the victim’s back, paralyzing the prey, and eating it at its leisure.

Sara Bloom Leeds, Smithsonian’s National Zoo


Forest rain frog (Breviceps sylvestris taeniatus)

Forest rain frog (Breviceps sylvestris taeniatus)

Cute Frog of the Week: Oct. 31, 2011

If you were to go poking around the forest of Limpopo Province in South Africa on Halloween, you may get spooked by one of its amphibian residents. The forest rain frog (Breviceps sylvestris taeniatus) looks like it is always ready for trick-or-treating with its bright orange and black skin, and dark eyes. Luckily, there is no reason to be afraid of this rotund frog. It sticks strictly to haunting forests, or areas very close to forests, where it breeds in chambers underground.

Females can give the illusion of being buried alive, guarding their eggs in underground nests. The nests are sometimes hidden beneath rocks, making them sound more like graves. However, they are actually dens of life. Eggs laid in them skip the tadpole stage and develop directly into miniature orange and black froglets—which is the best trick of all for this frog. In fact, the life-cycle of the rain frog is so divorced from water that these strange creatures cannot even swim, and their hind legs are so poorly developed that they cannot jump like other frogs. Their dependence on humus-rich soils means that they are probably vulnerable to habitat degradation, but they spend so little time on the surface that their population status often remains a mystery.

Happy Halloween!

Photo by Sebastian Kirchhof via Arkive.

Every week the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project posts a new photo of a cute frog from anywhere in the world with an interesting, fun and unique story to tell. Be sure to check back every Monday for the latest addition.

Send us your own cute frogs by uploading your photos here: http://www.flickr.com/groups/cutefrogoftheweek/

October 29 is National Take Back Your Drugs Day

Do you have unused or expired medications in your medicine cabinet? Don’t flush them, rush them to a collection site near you this Saturday, October 29! The Drug Enforcement Administration is working with local law enforcement agencies around the country to set up community drug collection sites. Not only does properly disposing of drugs help reduce prescription drug poisonings, misuse, abuse and theft, it’s better for frogs, too. Past national collection days have kept more than 309 tons of medication out of waterways.

Find a collection site near you.

Amphibians are super sensitive to water contamination. They show evidence of harm at pollution levels scientific tests can’t detect. While research on the long-term effects of pharmaceuticals in the environment is ongoing, there’s no question properly disposing of unused prescription and over-the-counter medications, instead of flushing them or pouring them down the drain, means you’re keeping our water sources clean–for frogs and for people.

If you can’t make it to a drug collection site this weekend, check out these recommendations from SMARXT DISPOSAL for safely disposing of medicines in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.

  • Pour medication into a sealable plastic bag. If medication is a solid (pill, liquid capsule, etc.), add a small amount of water to dissolve it.
  • Add kitty litter, sawdust or coffee grounds to make it less appealing for pets and children to eat.
  • Seal the plastic bag and put it in the trash.

Help spread the word about this simple step everyone can take to protect our environment and frogs!

–Katie Borremans, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Through the looking glass…

Cricket glass frog (Hyalinobatrachium colymbiphyllum)

Cricket glass frog (Hyalinobatrachium colymbiphyllum)

Cute Frog of the Week: Oct. 24, 2011

People often see the glass as half empty or half full, but this adorable little frog is clearly full…of cuteness! Living up to their name, adult cricket glass frogs chirp like crickets and have a lack of pigment in their skin that makes their abdomen appear as transparent as a window. Yes, by looking at them from the bottom, you can see their organs as if peering through a pane of glass. The rest of their bodies are more opaque, and lime-green in color with small yellowish dots, while the undersides of their arms and legs are white. These frogs also have prominent snouts and golden eyes that protrude from their faces.

Only the male frogs chirp, which sounds like the similar “brrrreeet” of a cricket, as they call to females. The males are very territorial, often wrestling with an intruder who threatens their turf, and whoever pins the other down is the victor and gains control of the spot. They are especially territorial during the entire duration of the breeding season from May to November, when they perch on the undersides of leaves in the same spots day after day, mainly along streams. The males often breed with multiple females but he will guard the eggs that they lay on his perch, although only at night. During the day, many get carried away by wasps and other predators, until he returns in the evening.

Cricket glass frogs have only been found in Costa Rica, Panama and Columbia. Although their habitats are threatened by deforestation, etc. this species is generally common and they are not considered endangered.

Photo by Brian Kubicki, Costa Rican Amphibian Research Center.

Banded horned tree frog (Hemiphractus fasciatus) ALL-NEW frog ringtones: Download the cricket glass frog‘s call!

Every week the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project posts a new photo of a cute frog from anywhere in the world with an interesting, fun and unique story to tell. Be sure to check back every Monday for the latest addition.

Send us your own cute frogs by uploading your photos here: http://www.flickr.com/groups/cutefrogoftheweek/

Q&A with Dr. Eric Baitchman: Through a vet’s eyes

Dr. Eric Baitchman

Dr. Eric Baitchman of Zoo New England treats a frog for the deadly chytrid fungus. (Photo courtesy of Zoo New England)

Dr. Eric Baitchman, Zoo New England director of Veterinary Services, is the lead veterinarian for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. We spent some time talking to Dr. Baitchman about his interest in amphibians and what he has learned from his participation in this vital conservation project. Here’s what he told us:

When did you first develop an interest in amphibians? What sparked this interest?

I can’t really say when or what it was that sparked my interest in amphibians. I’ve always been drawn to their diversity of shape, colors and habits, as well as to the types of environments that amphibians usually occupy. Amphibian life histories are fascinating as well, spending the first part of their lives in the water as tadpoles, undergoing metamorphosis, and then growing in to terrestrial adults–no other vertebrate undergoes such dramatic changes in their life cycle.

What has been the most rewarding aspect about your participation in the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project?

The work with the rescue project is truthfully a culmination of every reason I became a veterinarian in the first place. It is most rewarding to me to apply my skills as a veterinarian to make a meaningful impact on the conservation of entire species. The individual animals we care for in the rescue project represent what may amount to the last survivors for each of their species, entrusted in our care to assure their continued existence on this planet. I can’t imagine how anyone could find more reward from their work than that!

Has your work in Panama affected your veterinary approach at Zoo New England?

I have learned a great deal about amphibian medicine and their normal physiology through my work in Panama. Virtually everything I’ve learned there, I’ve been able to apply at home when caring for the amphibians in our own collection at Zoo New England, as well as advising other zoos on amphibian medicine through my role as an amphibian veterinary advisor for institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

If there is one thing that people should know about amphibians, what is it?

Unfortunately, people should know the danger amphibians are in all over the world. Amphibians everywhere are declining at alarming rates–so much so, that not since the extinction of the dinosaurs has there been this great a loss of species from a single taxon of animals.

What are simple things that people can do to help improve the lives of amphibians in the wild, including those in their own backyard?

There are many ways that you can make a difference and help improve the lives of amphibians. Here are some simple ways that everyone can help: recycle to keep waterways clean; use biodegradable and other “green” cleaning products to keep phosphates and other chemicals out of the water; keep chemicals out of water run-off by not fertilizing your grass or using pesticides; be mindful of your water use, especially in the summer when there is a higher risk of droughts (shallow water is more concentrated in pollutants than free-running water); and don’t put anything down a storm drain as it usually drains directly to a river or pond.

Brooke Wardrop, Zoo New England

Unlike Pinocchio, I don’t lie.

Cuban long-nosed toad (Peltophryne longinasus)--Ariel Rodriguez
Cuban long-nosed toad (Peltophryne longinasus)

Cute Frog of the Week: Oct. 17, 2011

Cuban long-nosed toads (Bufo longinasus) are hard to come by. They are confined to three disparate areas of Cuba— Pinar del Province on the west end of Cuba, Sierra de Trinidad in the center and Sierra del Guaso in the east end. Nobody has actually seen a Cuban long-nosed toad in Sierra del Guaso, however, since the early 1900s.

Unfortunately, Cuban long-nosed toads have only ever been observed in forests, and always close to streams, placing them directly in the way of Cuba’s clear-cutting of forests, charcoaling, fires and agricultural expansion. They are considered endangered by the IUCN.

Cuban long-nosed toads are found in upland pinewoods and broadleaf forests of moderate moisture.  These toads are terrestrial by day, but researchers believe they move up into the trees after the sun sets, perhaps to escape predators. While the toad here is posing on a rock, males have also been observed calling while floating on the surface of the water of streams!

Photo by Ariel Rodriguez via ARKive.

Every week the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project posts a new photo of a cute frog from anywhere in the world with an interesting, fun and unique story to tell. Be sure to check back every Monday for the latest addition.

Send us your own cute frogs by uploading your photos here: http://www.flickr.com/groups/cutefrogoftheweek/

Damage Control

Brian Gratwicke

Dr. Brian Gratwicke swabs a frog in the field to test it for chytrid. (Courtesy of Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Today, conservation biologists from around the world remain locked in a race against amphibian extinction. In Panama, researchers who care about conserving the country’s abundant biodiversity are re-evaluating the cards they were handed, recognizing just how high the deck is stacked against their efforts.

The primary cause of amphibian decline, a fungal disease called Bd continues to run its insidious course. Scarily, it has reached Eastern Panama sooner than expected.

The outlook is grim. Nearly a third of the 6,000 amphibian species worldwide could be gone within decades. Gone. And in many instances, the fungus will take the blame. Rare species seem to disappear first, leaving the more common species, which may make amphibians even more susceptible to other diseases.

Still, there is some hope. At the Smithsonian in Panama, researchers continue to discuss the possibilities of undercutting the disease and its effects in the wild.

Captive breeding projects in Panama insure the genetic lineages of Panama’s most endangered species. Volunteers and dedicated personnel pour their energy into rescue missions and husbandry projects despite tight budgets.

Smithsonian researcher Doug Woodhams and colleagues published a comprehensive article in the journal Frontiers of Ecology about “mitigating amphibian disease with strategies to maintain wild populations and control chytriodiomycosis.” The study finds that mitigation does not necessarily involve wiping out the fungal pathogen in the wild, nor does it necessarily mean preventing disease (neither of which are realistic approaches, anyway).

Their approach is to use information about species that don’t seem to succumb to the disease but do act as hosts that transmit the fungus along with information about the virulence of the disease under different environmental conditions to manage populations in the wild. They call their approach “an ecologically-oriented damage response network.”

If anything, recent news and research efforts indicate that perseverance in the difficult tasks of captive breeding and active disease management is the key, rather than spending precious time searching for an elusive silver bullet.

–Charlie Hruska, Columbia University and Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project volunteer

Strength and honor!

Gladitator frog (Hypsiboas rosenbergi)

Gladitator frog (Hypsiboas rosenbergi)

Cute Frog of the Week: Oct. 10, 2011

This incredible image is the winner of our Golden Frog Day photo contest. Congratulations to Harold Henry, who took this great photo of the gladiator frog. Nice work!

Gladiator frogs are aptly named. Males are known for their aggressive behavior toward one another both during mating season and while guarding clutches of eggs. In fact, males even have a small, sharp spike on each hand that grows out of their wrist by the base of their thumbs. They use this as tiny daggers while fighting, and they have been seen tearing at each other with them, often causing significant damage or death. The eyes and face are the easiest, most common targets, and many individuals bear battle scars.

The male frogs are nest-builders, either digging out small clay or sand basins on the edges of streams or ponds, or utilizing natural ones, such as footprints, where the female will lay her eggs. Some researchers believe this is the cause of the aggression—they compete to this extent because of the small size of available breeding areas. Males will even return to nest sites and guard the eggs until tadpoles have hatched. Interestingly, biologists have noticed that this fighting behavior was only prevalent in populations in Panama, but was not seen in Costa Rica, where there were larger areas for nest-building and egg-laying available. These frogs are most commonly found in Costa Rica and Panama, where their populations are decreasing, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Photo by Harold Henry.

Every week the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project posts a new photo of a cute frog from anywhere in the world with an interesting, fun and unique story to tell. Be sure to check back every Monday for the latest addition.

Send us your own cute frogs by uploading your photos here: http://www.flickr.com/groups/cutefrogoftheweek/

Mission Critical: Amphibian Rescue

Toad Mountain harlequin frog (Atelopus certus)

The Smithsonian Channel documentary follows as three rescue project scientists search for the vanishing Toad Mountain harlequin frog. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

We’re excited to announce that next week “Mission Critical: Amphibian Rescue” will be airing for the first time on the Smithsonian Channel! The documentary follows three of the project’s frog rescuers, Brian Gratwicke, Edgardo Griffith and Bob Chastain, into the Panamanian rain forest to collect the vanishing Toad mountain harlequin frog (Atelopus certus). Their adventure—including their triumphs and challenges—are captured on film, in addition to the promising recent developments in finding a cure for the deadly chytrid fungus.

The documentary will air on Smithsonian Channel at 8 pm (eastern) on Wednesday, Oct. 12. For information and a preview, check out the Smithsonian Channel’s website.

In addition, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo will be hosting a premiere for the documentary in its Visitors’ Center on Tuesday, Oct. 11. The reception starts at 6 p.m. and the movie will air at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a lively panel discussion with the stars of the documentary! Attendees will also have a chance to participate in an auction that includes frog artwork, books and more! If you live in the D.C. area and are interested in attending, please email Lindsay Renick Mayer at renickmayerl@si.edu.

And a big thanks to Black Dinah Chocolaters for supplying delicious treats!

Continuing drought and Texas wildfires pose new hurdles for an endangered toad species

Paul Crump

Houston Zoo Amphibian Conservation Manager Paul Crump prepares to release Houston toads in the area of Bastrop State Park. The park was devastated by recent wildfires. (Photo courtsey of the Houston Zoo)

Sixty years ago John Wottring, an amateur herpetologist, and Ottys Sanders described Bufo houstonensis, the Wottring Toad, what is now popularly known as the Houston toad.

In the 1960s the toad disappeared from the Houston area as its historic range was taken over by tract housing and commercial development and an extended drought.

In 1973 it was included in the passing of the Endangered Species Act, likely one of the first amphibian species in the United States, maybe even in the world, to be recognized as declining.

Fast forward to the summer of 2011 and we find that the Houston toad is again threatened by an extended drought and a devastating wildfire that consumed thousands of acres in the toad’s primary habitat, a state park near Austin, the state capitol.

The partners in the Houston toad recovery project, the Houston Zoo, Texas State University, the Environmental Defense Fund, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, are working to assess the impact from a wildfire in early September that incinerated almost 55 square miles near Austin, destroying more than 1,500 homes and taking two lives.

The level of destruction was shocking and stunning. Major wildfires had been seen in the area in the early 1900s. But none approached the scale of the fires in September.

The fires incinerated a major remaining habitat for the Houston toad, the 6,000-acre Bastrop State Park. The Houston toad is found in isolated populations across nine counties between Austin and Houston. But Bastrop State Park was the toad’s primary habitat.

It will be weeks before the recovery team has an estimate of the impact of the wildfire on the habitat and the toads.

As the wildlife impact is assessed this fall, the Houston Zoo Houston Zoo toad team will develop “assisted reproduction” techniques to get Houston toads to breed reliably and in large numbers. These procedures will then be used to keep the captive assurance colony alive and genetically healthy, and when the time comes, to produce hundreds of thousands of toads for reintroduction.

While the future of the Houston toad in the wild may have dimmed due to the wildfire impact, there is hope. Always hope.  Segments of habitat remain and could be used to bolster the area’s toad population. As Texas State University biologist Dr. Michael Forstner told Houston Chronicle reporter Shannon Tompkins: “They’re pretty tough little guys. As a species, they’ve lived here a long time. This kind of thing has happened before and they’ve recovered. But it’ll be decades before we know all the impacts of this fire.”

(Editors note: To read Houston Chronicle reporter Shannon Tompkins’ September 18, 2011 story about the impact of the Bastrop wildfires visit http://preview.tinyurl.com/6ht82bu)

Brian Hill, Houston Zoo