Since 1980 more than 120 species of amphibians have gone extinct, compared to 5 bird species and no mammals. One of threats responsible for these enigmatic declines is a disease called chytridiomycosis, caused by the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd for short), that was described in 1999 by researchers at the University of Maine and the National Zoo in Washington DC. Scientists think that the disease was spread around the world on the skin of African Clawed frogs that were being used in the 1940’s for human pregnancy testing. When this novel disease arrived in a new country, it spread rapidly in the water, often leading to amphibian declines as it spread. Gastric brooding frogs in Australia, Golden Coqui frogs from Puerto Rico, Monte Verde Golden toads from Costa Rica, Panamanian Golden Frogs from Panama and Wyoming toads from the USA are all extinct in the wild because of Bd.
In mountainous parts of Central and South America, Bd was associated with drastic mortality events. Within the first 5 months of arriving at a site, Bd would wipe out half of the species and reduce the abundance of surviving species to about 20% of what they are normally. Bd has been sweeping southwards through Central America and throughout the Northern Andes of South America. The last remaining place in Central America that has not been hit yet is Eastern Panama. In 2008, however, we had official news that the fungus hopped the canal and 25-50 species in Eastern Panama are thought to be in grave risk of extinction as the fungus spreads at a rate of about 30km per year.
The only way we will be able to mitigate the loss of so many species is by capturing some representatives of each endangered species and breeding them in captive locations where the animals can be protected from the disease. Hopefully this will buy us some time to develop a cure for the fungus that can be used in wild situations. Researchers at James Madison University have recently discovered a kind of bacteria that produces anti-fungal chemicals that inhibit Bd. Our hope is that one day we might be able to treat vulnerable frogs with these probiotic bacteria and release them into the wild. In the mean time much more research needs to be done.
Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project
Recognizing that Panama’s rich diversity of amphibians is an important natural treasure with significant direct, cultural, biomedical, ecological and existence values that warrants protection from extinction, a group of organizations came together to respond to the crisis. Africam Safari Park (Mexico), Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (Colorado), Defenders of Wildlife (Washington DC), the Smithsonian National Zoological Park (Washington DC), the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (Panama), Zoo New England (Massachusetts) and Houston Zoo (Texas) have pooled their energy and resources, collectively pledging more than $750,000 in cash and in kind over the next three years to the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project.
The Project will consist of three distinct and complementary parts: 1) the ongoing operation of El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC) in Western Panama,run by the Houston Zoo; 2) the amphibian chytrid cure research program to be initiated at the National Zoo in collaboration with Reid Harris at James Madison and Louise Rollins Smith from VanderBilt University; and 3) the construction and operation of the new Summit Park Amphibian Rescue Center in Panama. One “amphibian rescue pod” which is a biosecure, modified shipping container that will house the first rescued species from Eastern Panama has already been established.