New experiment may offer hope for frogs facing chytrid

Probiotics bath

The golden frogs were given a bath in one of four probiotic solutions. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

We usually think of bacteria as bad for us, but that isn’t always the case. For us humans, the most common examples of helpful bacteria, or probiotics, live in yogurt. Now, scientists believe amphibian probiotics may be the key to fighting chytridiomycosis, the fungal disease devastating frogs around the world.

A few years ago, Reid Harris, a biology professor at James Madison University, discovered that local salamanders that could survive chytrid played host to bacteria in their skin. Now, Brian Gratwicke, a research biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, is collaborating with a team from Virginia Tech, James Madison, Villanova and Vanderbilt Universities in an experiment to see if similar bacteria can protect the Panamanian golden frog, which he calls “the poster-child for amphibian conservation.”

The first step is to find a probiotic that will stick to the golden frogs. In early December, the team began giving golden frogs baths using four different types of bacteria. Researchers gathered the potential probiotics from frogs in Panama in 2009. The finalists were chosen based on their ability to prevent chytrid growth in lab tests, with a preference for bacteria that are common in close relatives of Panamanian golden frogs.

Every two weeks, each frog is swabbed to check whether its probiotic has made itself at home. The tests take some time, so a month and a half in, the team is still waiting for results to see which probiotics are sticking. But they do have some good news already.

“The bacteria haven’t been causing any problems with the frogs and they all look healthy,” said Gratwicke, who emphasizes how important it is to use only beneficial bacteria. In addition to tracking weight gain and other visible characteristics, Shawna Cikanek, a student at Kansas State College of Veterinary Medicine is using frog poop to study stress hormones to get a better picture of the animals’ overall health and whether the bacteria are causing any stress.

The probiotics that stick to the frogs for a full three months will move on to the next round of tests, when bacteria-shielded frogs will be infected with chytrid to check for any adverse effects.

“Hopefully, the bacteria are going to do their thing and protect these little guys,” said Matt Becker, a PhD candidate from Virginia Tech who is conducting the experiment. Whatever probiotics make the cut will be tested again on golden frogs bred in Panama before scientists develop a final plan.

So far, chytrid has defied attempts to stop it. Scientists may be able to selectively breed frogs resistant to chytrid, but there has been very little work done so far in that direction. But there are high hopes for probiotics’ potential to protect frogs. “It’s a long shot, but it’s our best shot,” said Gratwicke.

Becker hopes that one day, probiotics will allow Panamanian golden frogs to return to their homes. “These guys are really neat and it’s so sad not to see them in the wild,” he said. “We have a moral obligation since indicators are pointing to humans as major spreaders of the disease through the frog trade.”

Meghan Bartels, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Life is a leaf pile.

Striped rocket frog (Colostethus talamancae)

Striped rocket frog (Colostethus talamancae)

Cute Frog of the Week: May 28, 2012

Remember playing in piles of fall leaves as a kid? Leaf litter is where the striped rocket frog (Allobates talamancae) spends much of its time. That’s also where it lays its eggs; after hatching parents carry the tadpoles to streams to finish growing. Rocket frogs get their name from the quick reflexes they use to leap into the water when startled. This particular rocket frog is brown and white with a bumpy back. Males have black throats, while females have cream-colored throats. These frogs are found in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador, although scientists suspect the population in Ecuador may actually be a slightly different species.

Photo by Jake Kirkland via Flickr.

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.

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Volunteering for Save the Frogs Day

April 28 was Save the Frogs Day. (Photo courtesy of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project)

Volunteering for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project reached a whole new level of awesomeness when we organized an event for the 4th Annual Save the Frogs Day. Being able to spread the word about global amphibian declines and the status of Panama’s amphibian population was a rewarding way to spend the day at the Summit Municipal Park where the project is located. More than 200 events in 39 countries took place in this year’s Save the Frogs Day.

On April 28, we arrived at the park during the tranquility of the early morning to set up our tables and chairs amidst the chattering of the capuchin monkeys, while the parrots never tired of greeting us with their cheerful “hola.” Meanwhile in another part of the park, our star attractions were enjoying their climate-controlled habitat, as their likeness was depicted in coloring sheets for kids to learn about the importance of our endangered amphibian friends. Once the families started arriving, kids and parents alike were welcomed under our tent to color, paint, make frog masks, and get their questions answered about amphibian conservation. In the span of just a few hours, we had an impressive wall of frog art paintings hanging out to dry, which the kids took home as a reminder about saving the frogs and their environment. They will perhaps become the next generation of amphibian conservationists.

Erica Wrona, volunteer for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project

Cute in grayscale.

Gray tree frog (Chiromantis xerampelina)

Gray tree frog (Chiromantis xerampelina)

Cute Frog of the Week: May 21, 2012

The gray tree frog (Chiromantis xerampelina) may not be the flashiest frog around, but don’t let appearances fool you. It accessorizes with its rating as a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a status symbol among so many relatives in trouble. This rating is based on its large population, wide distribution, and broad range of habitats, including savannah, forests, and suburban areas in Kenya, South Africa, Botswana, Angola, and Tanzania. But it is during breeding season that the gray tree frog proves you shouldn’t judge a frog by its color. That’s when female frogs spend as long as seven hours building a foam nest for their eggs. During this time, their eggs are fertilized by multiple males, and sometimes females will build a nest together.

Photo by Justin Graves, Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

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:

Now Hear This

Is your volume turned up? Hear what this horned marsupial frog (Gastrotheca cornuta) has to say to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Dr. Della Garelle during an exam at an Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project breeding center in Panama. He sounds more like a baby than a frog! This uniquely vocal species is on the verge of extinction due to the chytrid fungus.

The female horned marsupial frog carries fertilized eggs in a pouch on her back and the eggs hatch as fully developed frogs! This particular species produces the largest known amphibian eggs.

Katie Borremans, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Rocket frog.

Panama poison dart frog (Colostethus panamensis)

Panama poison dart frog (Colostethus panamensis)

Cute Frog of the Week: May 14, 2012

The Panama poison dart frog, also called the common rocket frog, lives in Columbia and Panama. They prefer to live in humid forested environments along rocky streams in lowland areas and are members of a poisonous family of amphibians.

Like the green poison dart frog, these guys monitor their eggs after they lay them on piles of leaves, and females carry the newly hatched tadpoles on their backs for up to nine days where they continue to grow, before eventually being released into a fast-flowing stream to complete their development. This tends to be a behavioral trend among poison dart frogs, though depending on the species, either the male or female will care for the young and move them. In addition, different species of poison dart frogs will carry their young to different kinds of water sources, whether it is a pool, lake, stream, etc.

These frogs are diurnal, meaning that they are most active during the day. Although not endangered, their numbers are decreasing, most likely due to deforestation, illegal planting, pesticides, logging and human settlement. When its habitat is altered, these frogs do not adapt well, so in order to preserve the Panama poison dart frog population, there have been some protected areas established throughout Central America.

Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

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, Medicine and the Rainforest

The phantasmal poison frog produces a very strong toxin called epibatidine, which works as a pain reliever. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Despite the perception that many of our pharmaceuticals come from a scientist randomly mixing chemicals in a lab, many of our medicines are derived from wild plants and animals.

It’s a fiercely competitive world out there and nature resorted to chemical warfare long ago. Organisms evolved to produce these costly molecules to protect themselves from predators. From plants to butterflies to frogs, everything is in on the act.

Think back to the last time you took some aspirin. Did you ever think about where this widely used medicine originated? The active ingredient in aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid, is derived from a compound found in willow bark. Going back as far as Hippocrates (~400 B.C.E), people have used willow bark to ease pain and fever. The new compound is only slightly tweaked from the original to make it lighter on the stomach.

One of the most famous examples of frog poisons comes from the poison dart frogs of Central and South America. Some of the most toxic of them carry enough poison to kill several adult people!

I want to focus on one of them, the phantasmal poison frog (Epipedobates tricolor) of Ecuador. This little frog produces a very strong toxin called epibatidine. Epibatidine, as a toxin, targets the nervous system, causing paralysis and death with even small doses.

In 1974, Dr. John Daly at the National Institutes of Health discovered that secretions from E. tricolor worked as powerful pain-relievers at super low doses. How powerful? Try 200 times stronger than morphine, but without the addictive side effects.

The discovery hasn’t led to a drug on the shelf yet, but since the 1990s, a method of synthesizing epibatidine has provided researchers with all the test substance they need to find similar but safer compounds with the same effects, just like the discovery of aspirin. Even today, papers are still being published about new, promising molecules inspired by the epibatidine from this tiny frog.

The cautionary tale in this story is that not all E. tricolors produce epibatidine. Many species of poison dart frogs do not produce their deadly toxins in captivity because they eat a different diet than they do in the wild. In the wild, E. tricolor is losing its old rainforest habitat and moving down the mountain to banana plantations where they eat a different diet of insects than they used to. These individuals do not produce epibatidine.

In the end, it is not just a single species of frog or plant that matters. It is the rainforest ecosystem as a whole. I think it’s worth saving if not for its beauty, then for the promise of easing pain around the world.

Andrew Franks, Zoo New England

Puerto Rico calling.

Cricket coqui (Eleutherodactylus gryllus)

Cricket coqui (Eleutherodactylus gryllus)

Cute Frog of the Week: May 7, 2012

If you visit Puerto Rico and hear a high chirp at dawn, you may be near a cricket coqui (Eleutherodactylus gryllus). These little guys—and that’s no exaggeration, they are typically less than an inch long—spend their days in bromeliads or tucked under mossy rocks. They live in forests in the upper elevations of the island, which means they are at serious risk of being affected by habitat fragmentation. Other threats include deforestation, climate change and invasive predators. However, scientists hope that because the species lives in well-managed protected areas, it will be able to withstand these threats.

Photo by Alejandro Sanchez  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:

Start Spreading the Word

Paul Crump

Houston Zoo Amphibian Program Manager Paul Crump meets a family attending the Milam County Nature Fest. The aquarium on the table holds Houston toad ‘ambassadors.’ More than 600 people attended the one day Nature Fest in Rockdale, Texas. (Photo courtesy of the Houston Zoo)

Learning about endangered species is the first step in helping to protect them.

In 1968, a small amphibian landed a spot on the list of “Rare and Endangered Fish and Wildlife of the United States.” Five years later, the Houston toad was included in the passing of the Endangered Species Act and became one of the first amphibian species in the United States, and maybe even the world, to be recognized as declining.

Today the Houston toad is no longer found in its namesake city, and fewer than 300 individuals remain in the wild, largely due to habitat loss.  The Houston Zoo is working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas State University and the Environmental Defense Fund to ensure the toad’s survival. The Zoo also works with private landowners to restore habitat and monitor populations in Houston toad counties. But before we can involve a landowner in the project we have to find them–and that’s where the Zoo’s education and outreach programs come in.

Mainstream media of course plays a major role in the effort.  A recent front-page story in the Houston Chronicle highlighted the need for private landowners to participate in the restoration project. The article generated a dozen responses from interested landowners and raised the profile of the effort. But grassroots efforts also play an important role.

Through our collaboration with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Zoo has developed opportunities for the presentation of education and outreach programs in counties northwest of Houston, the Houston toad’s current range. In late February, a landowner workshop sponsored by Texas AgriLife Extension and the Texas Forest Service brought 200 landowners together to learn about woodland and pond management and how to get involved in the Houston toad recovery project. Recently, three members of the Houston Zoo Conservation Department participated in the Milam County Nature Fest 2012. Supported by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the festival drew more than 600 participants from surrounding communities in prime Houston toad range for a day of nature exhibits and demonstrations, crafts and games for children and an opportunity to meet Houston toads and hear from those who are directly involved in the toad’s recovery.

It’s one thing to tell the world about the importance of amphibians to the balance of nature. It’s another thing entirely when you see the smile on a child’s face when they have an up-close encounter with an endangered species. Then you know you’ve connected.

-Brian Hill, Houston Zoo