Smithsonian scientists survey frogs in the Peruvian Andes

Acancocha water frog (Telmatobius jelskii)

Last December two researchers from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute spent two weeks in Peru surveying the Acancocha water frog (Photo by Jessica Deichmann, SCBI)

Imagine measuring the tail of a squirmy, inch-long tadpole. Now imagine doing that where the air is thin enough to make you dizzy, a hail storm is about to start and you just spent 45 minutes up to your elbows in a freezing cold stream.

Last December, Jessica Deichmann, a research scientist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and Ed Smith, a biologist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s Amazonia Exhibit, spent two weeks doing just that to complete a survey of the Acancocha water frog (Telmatobius jelskii). They were participating in a frog surveying trip for SCBI’s Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability’s Peruvian Biodiversity Monitoring and Assessment Program (BMAP). The program lends Smithsonian scientific expertise to gas and oil companies to assess the effects of development projects on local plants and animals. This information is used to improve restoration work, and reduce environmental impacts of future development. This was the third survey along the path of a natural gas pipeline constructed in 2009 that runs from the Amazon over the Andes to the Pacific Ocean—about 250 miles.

The Acancocha water frog is found only in the cold clear streams of the high-elevation Peruvian Andes. The frog is one of about 40 species researchers are surveying around the construction of this particular pipeline. Scientists chose this species because although historically it has been fairly abundant, it lives in a relatively small area with precise habitat requirements. When individuals of a species are clustered together, it’s easier to lose the entire species.

“You always worry about frogs with small geographic ranges—not just frogs, but any species,” Deichmann said.

When you think of the Peruvian Andes, you probably think of Macchu Picchu, a lush green mountainside where, as Smith jokes, “if you sit too long you have orchids growing on you.” Smith and Deichmann, however, were in a very different ecosystem called puna and sometimes nicknamed equatorial tundra. Puna is found high in the Andes, where trees no longer grow, rain is scarce, and nights are freezing. The team spent much of its time about 15,000 feet above sea level, where the air is so thin that breathing is hard until you get used to it. “For us lowland landlubbers, that alone was an exhausting business,” Smith said.

Peruvian Andes

Smith and Deichmann were in a very different ecosystem called puna and sometimes nicknamed equatorial tundra. (Photo by Jessica Deichmann, SCBI)

The team—Deichmann, Smith and two Peruvian biologists—took samples at twelve sites where the pipeline crosses mountain streams. At each site, they spent about 45 minutes upstream, elbow-deep, feeling for frogs and tadpoles. For each tadpole, first, the team swabbed its mouth for a sample for chytrid testing. The team also recorded the tadpole’s body length, tail length, mass, and developmental stage, and photographed each sample before the animal was returned to the stream.  They also took measurements of the stream itself. Then the team repeated the whole process downstream of the pipeline. Any one site could take five or six hours.

But Deichmann is clear that the process was worth it. “Just to find frogs and tadpoles was exciting,” she said. “Especially adults—after hours and hours in freezing cold water and your arms are purple, when you find your first frog it’s just so exciting.”

The team hasn’t processed the data yet, but their initial measurements suggest some good news: so far, they have seen no obvious effects as a result of the pipeline. However, although the team found hundreds of tadpoles, they found only 10 adult frogs in all the sample areas.

Unfortunately, that suggests chytrid is playing a role in shaping the population structure. The skin fungus follows skin keratin proteins, the amphibian equivalents of those found in human skin calluses, hair and nails. Tadpoles usually survive chytrid infection because they have keratin only around their mouths. As they develop their keratin “suit of armor,” frogs are left vulnerable to the disease that has decimated them in less than half a century.

“From metamorphosis, something called the ‘chytrid clock’ starts ticking,” Smith said. In adults, “chytrid interferes with water balance, usually in a lethal way.” Because of this, chytrid-struck populations often consist of many tadpoles and a few adults.

And according to the previous surveys, “at pretty much all the sites where frogs and tadpoles were present, chytrid was present,” Deichmann said.

Mountain stream

At each of 132 sites, the team spent about 45 minutes upstream, elbow-deep, feeling for frogs and tadpoles. (Photo by Jessica Deichmann, SCBI)

But until they have the results from lab tests on the mouth swabs the team took, they won’t have the full picture about how the disease is affecting these populations.  And chytrid isn’t the only danger these frogs face. “In a lot of our streams we were, not surprisingly but disappointingly, finding trout,” an invasive predator, Smith said.

Deichmann and Smith agree that the data they collected will be useful for conservation efforts. “Monitoring populations now gives us a baseline without which we can never know what’s changed,” Smith said. The team has a tentative follow-up survey scheduled for the dry season of 2012, during the northern hemisphere’s summer. Deichmann hopes that the data from this December’s trip will allow the program to modify the survey protocol to make sure future trips are gathering the most helpful data possible.

And of this expedition? “It was an amazing trip,” Deichmann said. “The habitats are stunning, the scenery is stunning. You’re at the top of the world.”

Meghan Bartels

Twenty-one is my lucky number.

White Madagascar Frog (Gephyromantis luteus)

White Madagascar Frog (Gephyromantis luteus)

Cute Frog of the Week: March 26, 2012

The white Madagascar frog lives along the eastern coast of the island in lowland rainforests. Often found during the day on the forest floor, it blends in with leaf litter and can jump far, if necessary. Males will climb at night to about 1-2 meters above the ground where they will call for females during mating season. Calls consist of up to 21 short, melodious notes, and the frogs do not sing together.

Perhaps one of their most distinguishing characteristics is the double blackish subgular sacs that the males have under their throats. Their skin is smooth, but they do have inner and outer ridges that run down the spine. Their coloration is usually light brown or reddish brown, uniform or with a few smaller black markings.

This species is fairly common, though overall numbers are slowly decreasing, most likely due to general habitat alteration and loss, habitat modification from deforestation, logging, intensified agriculture and livestock grazing, urbanization.

Photo by Gonçalo M. Rosa 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:

Frogs and Painted Dogs – A Unique Partnership

The rain frogs live most of their lives hibernating under the sand in Southern Africa and also creep rather than hop. Only after heavy rains will they emerge from the earth to eat and to breed. The males are so much smaller than the females they must actually secrete a glue from their abdomen to stick on to the females back and hitch a ride to where she will dig her underground burrow to deposit her eggs! (Photo courtesy of the Houston Zoo)

Frogs and Painted Dogs.  It’s got a nice ring to it.

It might seem unlikely that a conservation organization focused on a large charismatic carnivore would be interested in using frogs and toads to teach students about research, biology and conservation. But amphibians are an indicator species in a habitat in which the painted dog depends on survival and a model organism for teaching taxonomy, biology, adaptations, ecological concepts, environmental threats and how students can implement conservation action.

During a 2010 lecture stop at the Houston Zoo, Dr. Gregory Rasmussen, the director of Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) in Dete, Zimbabwe heard about Toad Trackers, a conservation education program implemented by the Houston Zoo Department of Conservation and Science.

Through specialized classroom training and field experiences, Toad Trackers teaches students the methods wildlife biologists use to study wild animal populations.

Dr. Rasmussen saw the concept as a great fit for PDC’s Iganyana Bush Camp, which teaches local children conservation concepts, ecological relationships and the value of biodiversity.

On November 22, 2011, Houston Zoo Conservation Programs Manager Rachel Rommel and Dr. Cullen Geiselman, a Houston Zoo board member with experience teaching bat workshops and field programs, arrived at Painted Dog Conservation headquarters and began scouting study sites for a new conservation education program – Kids for Science, a pilot program for 14-year-old students.

A teacher holds a bocage

After scouting out potential study sites, Rachel conducted nightly visual and audio searches and documented 16 species of amphibians. Cullen identified the bat species that would be observed with the children during the program. They visited local villages and schools accompanied by PDC education staff creating conservation action plans that would be implemented by teachers and students .

With ideas for community conservation programs and a familiarity with the local fauna, Rachel and Cullen welcomed 11 exceptional and gracious pupils from Nechilibi High School to pilot the first PDC Kids for Science program, an intensive two-day course including class presentations, classroom training activities, field exercises and interactive discoveries.

After learning how biologists detect and monitor animal activity and how scientific information is collected, students spent two evenings in the field, at Hwange National Park and Granda Lodge making observations and assisting teachers, conservation coordinators and a National Park staff member in the capture and data collection of amphibians and bats.

A final project, an amphibian field guide, was assembled by the group to present to their classmates and headmaster.  The students, now community ambassadors for amphibians and bats, are now tasked with creating specific ways their school and club can help in the conservation of insectivores and will report back to PDC this spring.

Resources donated to PDC (bat detectors, spring scales, calipers, calculators, headlamps, field guides and more) will be used to incorporate Kids for Science into the existing education program.

Frogs and Painted Dogs–a unique collaboration advancing conservation efforts of amphibians and bats in Zimbabwe.

–Brian Hill, Houston Zoo

Dog? No, frog!

Dumeril’s bright-eyed frog (Boophis tephraeomystax)

Dumeril’s bright-eyed frog (Boophis tephraeomystax)

Cute Frog of the Week: March 19, 2012

If you ever visit Madagascar and hear a little dog yelping during the night, think again—you may be listening to a Dumeril’s bright-eyed frog (Boophis tephraeomystax) (named for the first person to describe it). These frogs can be found in open areas of the island’s coasts and are known to hang out on banana plants near villages. Males spend the night singing near shallow pools, which are also where tadpoles grow up. When droughts come, these frogs tuck themselves into the leaf buds of plants to hide. Because these frogs can adapt easily to a variety of homes and is fairly common, they are not considered endangered.

Photo by Gonçalo M. Rosa 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:

A United Front in Panama

The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project implementation team met in Panama in February. From left: Pete Riger, Alan Pessier, Eric Baitchman, Paul Crump, William, Heidi Ross-Griffth, Angie Estrada, Jorge Guerrel, Della Garelle, Roberto Ibanez (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Amphibian conservationists convened in El Valle, Panama, last month to plan the future of our fight to save amphibians. We didn’t do any collecting this trip, as frogs are much harder to find during the dry season. Parts of the country, including past collection sites in the Darien region, are also currently too dangerous. Instead, members of the project’s implementation team met with the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC). We are joining forces and looking at ways we can work together as one organization with two campuses.

Dr. Alan Pessier of San Diego Zoo Global facilitated the two-and-a-half day strategic planning session where a SWOT analysis was used to identify the organizations’ combined Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Participants included Heidi Ross, director of EVACC; Roberto Ibañez project director in country; Brian Gratwicke, project coordinator; Angie Estrada and Jorge Guerrel, project staff; Peter Riger and Paul Crump, Houston Zoo; Eric Baitchman, Zoo New England; Della Garelle, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

The outcome was an ambitious and detailed action plan to achieve our mutual goals of creating assurance colonies of Panama’s most vulnerable amphibian species, and ultimately re-establishing their healthy wild populations. We plan to expand our ability to house more priority species and breed them reliably, better communicate progress on our work to interested parties, continue to improve husbandry and increase efficiency, identify staffing and equipment needs, prioritize research projects, and develop re-introduction criteria.

Dr. Della Garelle, Director of Conservation, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Heard, not seen.

Volcan barba tree frog (Isthmohyla picadoi)

Volcan barba tree frog (Isthmohyla picadoi)

Cute Frog of the Week: March 12, 2012

If you’re very lucky visiting the mountain forests of Panama or Costa Rica, you may hear the call of a Volcan barba treefrog (Isthmohyla picadoi), but you almost certainly will not catch sight of it. This frog has reason to be shy—while it is relatively safe in Costa Rica, deforestation for farming and timber is destroying its home. Because of this, the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers them near threatened. Scientists are hoping that because these frogs are found in a variety of types of forest, they may have a leg up in coping with habitat degradation.

Photo by Andreas Hertz 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:

A leap of faith?

Misfit leaf frog (Agalychnis saltator)

Misfit leaf frog (Agalychnis saltator)

Cute Frog of the Week: March 5, 2012

Just like you get dressed in the morning, the parachuting red-eyed leaf frog or misfit leaf frog (Agalychnis saltator) changes from its nighttime tan or brown to its daytime bright green. But that isn’t the only trick this little guy has up its sleeve. These frogs have lots of webbing between their fingers and toes, and during breeding season males make large leaps with this webbing splayed wide to act as small parachutes.

These little misfits, who live in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, lay their eggs on the moss that covers tree vines during the rainy season. Unfortunately, this makes the eggs particularly vulnerable to becoming a snack for ants and snakes. The frogs that do make it to adulthood, however, are plentiful enough to make this species not at risk of extinction.

Photo by Joe Milmoe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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: