On May 30, 2019 a special issue of the Journal Biological Conservation entitled ‘Amphibian conservation in the Anthropocene: Progress and challenges‘ Edited by Vincent Devictor, Evan Grant, Erin Muths, Benedikt Schmidt, Silviu Petrovan was published. The focus of this issue is on examples of potential solutions to the amphibian crisis that are directly relevant to, and integrated with conservation management actions.
The issue features a case study on Atelopus in Panama, updating the known historical distribution records and modeling potentially suitable habitat (below).
The paper also updates the IUCN conservation status for each Panamanian Atelopus species and the status of each of these species in captive populations, with commentary on the potential use of the captive population in research to find solutions that may be useful in restoring wild populations.
In May 2019, the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project closed its facility at the Nispero Zoo to streamline and consolidate its captive-breeding operations at a single location in Panama. We are very grateful to the owners of the Nispero Zoo for their support of the amphibian conservation efforts for the past12 years. This consolidation effort is part of a long-planned strategic move to reduce the costs associated with running two separate facilities. The living collection of animals is now residing at our expanded breeding facility at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Gamboa.
The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project”s Gamboa Facility
As part of the transition process, STRI transferred custodianship of a portion of the living collection to MiAmbiente who allocated these frogs to the newly formed EVACC foundation. The EVACC foundation will continue to operate independently as a non-profit organization in El Valle de Anton.
An international study led by The Australian National University (ANU) has found that a fungal disease has caused dramatic population declines in at least 501 amphibian species, including 90 extinctions, over the past 50 years. The study involved collaborations with 41 different amphibian and wildlife disease experts from around the world. Smithsonian scientists contributed data from Panama—one of the worst-hit areas of the world by the disease—for the study.
Of the 90 confirmed extinctions of frogs across the globe, eight of those species were from Panama. Another 52 species of frogs in Panama have experienced more than a 90 percent decline.
“This study confirms that we are not dealing with a unique problem in Panama,” said Brian Gratwicke, amphibian biologist, international coordinator of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, and one of the co-authors of the study who provided data. “If we or anyone does find a solution or cure for chytrid, it will likely have global implications.”
Collaborators like Smithsonian scientists allowed the lead researchers from ANU to get a first-hand insight into the conditions on-the-ground in countries around the world.
Chytridiomycosis, which eats away at the skin of amphibians, has completely wiped out some species, while causing more sporadic deaths among other species. Amphibians, which commonly live part of their life in water and the other part on land, mainly consist of frogs, toads and salamanders.
The deadly disease is present in more than 60 countries – the worst affected parts of the world are Australia, Central America and South America. The researchers found that chytridiomycosis is responsible for the greatest loss of biodiversity due to a disease.
The disease is caused by chytrid fungus, which likely originated in Asia where local amphibians appear to have resistance to the disease.
The unprecedented number of declines places chytrid fungus among the most damaging of invasive species worldwide, threatening similar numbers of species as rats and cats.
Lead researcher Ben Scheele, Fenner School of Environment and Society at ANU, said highly virulent wildlife diseases, including chytridiomycosis, were contributing to the Earth’s sixth mass extinction.
“The disease we studied has caused mass amphibian extinctions worldwide. We’ve lost some really amazing species,” said Scheele.
He said more than 40 frog species in Australia had declined due to this disease during the past 30 years, including seven species that had become extinct.
“Globalisation and wildlife trade are the main causes of this global pandemic and are enabling disease spread to continue,” said Scheele. “Humans are moving plants and animals around the world at an increasingly rapid rate, introducing pathogens into new areas.”
Scheele said improved biosecurity and wildlife trade regulation were urgently needed to prevent any more extinctions around the world.
“We’ve got to do everything possible to stop future pandemics, by having better control over wildlife trade around the world.”
Scheele said the team’s work identified that many impacted species were still at high risk of extinction over the next 10–20 years from chytridiomycosis due to ongoing declines.
“Knowing what species are at risk can help target future research to develop conservation actions to prevent extinctions.”
Scheele said conservation programs in Australia had prevented the extinction of frog species and developed new reintroduction techniques to save some amphibian species.
“It’s really hard to remove chytrid fungus from an ecosystem – if it is in an ecosystem, it’s pretty much there to stay unfortunately. This is partly because some species aren’t killed by the disease,” he said.
“On the one hand, it’s lucky that some species are resistant to chytrid fungus; but on the other hand, it means that these species carry the fungus and act as a reservoir for it so there’s a constant source of the fungus in the environment.
Video by Katie Garrett and Jonathan Kolby
Citation to the Paper: Scheele, B.C., Pasmans, F., Skerratt, L.F., Berger, L., Martel, A., Beukema, W., Acevedo, A.A., Burrowes, P.A., Carvalho, T., Catenazzi, A., De la Riva, I., Fisher, M.C., Flechas, S. V, Foster, C.N., Frías-Álvarez, P., Garner, T.W.J., Gratwicke, B., Guayasamin, J.M., Hirschfeld, M., Kolby, J.E., Kosch, T.A., La Marca, E., Lindenmayer, D.B., Lips, K.R., Longo, A. V, Maneyro, R., McDonald, C.A., Mendelson, J., Palacios-Rodriguez, P., Parra-Olea, G., Richards-Zawacki, C.L., Rödel, M.-O., Rovito, S.M., Soto-Azat, C., Toledo, L.F., Voyles, J., Weldon, C., Whitfield, S.M., Wilkinson, M., Zamudio, K.R., Canessa, S., 2019. Amphibian fungal panzootic causes catastrophic and ongoing loss of biodiversity. Science (80-. ). 363, 1459 LP-1463. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aav0379
The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project was created in 2009 as a partnership between Zoo New England, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Houston Zoo, Smithsonian National Zoo, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Defenders of Wildlife to build captive populations of species at risk of extinction from the deadly amphibian chytrid fungus. Together we have built significant capacity for amphibian conservation in Pamama by contributing financial resources, involving zoo staff in field work to collect and care for endangered amphibians, training our Panamanian colleagues in state-of-the art animal care, veterinary care, pedigree management and record-keeping.
Since the project was established, Zoos have provided approximately $300K per year with a total investment of $2.7m in the project that leveraged additional support of $3.9m in grants from Miambiente, First Quantum Minerals (Cobre Panama), USAID, the National Science Foundation, SENACYT, National Geographic, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, the Morris Animal foundation and other private donors. First Quantum Minerals (Cobre Panama) has been our largest corporate contributor, providing approximately $450K per year with a total investment of $2.3m in the project.
Established founding populations of 12 species of Panama’s most endangered frogs, including Panama’s iconic Panamanian Golden Frog. Reproduced all 12 species in captivity most of them bred in captivity for the first-time ever by project staff.
Constructed the Gamboa Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center which is now the largest amphibian conservation breeding center in the world and trained a professional cadre of conservation staff to care for the animals.
Established a world-class research program investigating the frog-killing chytrid fugus and searching for a cure for the disease. Conducting hormone stimulation research to improve captive reproduction. Continued publications of veterinary care, nutrition and husbandry of amphibians to improve knowledge to sustain captive amphibians.
Conducted the first-ever reintroduction trials of amphibians to learn about the limiting factors how captive frogs transition back into the wild. This data will be used to inform future release strategies using adaptive management principles.
Annual coordination of ‘Festival la Rana Dorada’ activities in Panama City, continued operation of fabulous frogs of Panama exhibition and the integrated informal schools’ curriculum.
Vision for the future
We need to continue to grow the captive amphibian populations to about 300 animals per species with even representation of founder animal genes as the primary assurance colony. This core captive population will safeguard against species’ extinction, and biological banking of gametes will help to ensure against unintended genetic bottlenecks in captivity. Surplus-bred animals will be used for further basic reintroduction research, breeding for disease-resistance, finding a cure for the amphibian chytrid fungus, and basic research that will ultimately be used to reestablish viable wild populations of these species.
Spindly leg syndrome is the bane of many captive breeding efforts in amphibians, causing much speculation on husbandry boards. This syndrome results in poorly developed limbs of post-metamorphic froglets. The condition has been observed in most of the species we have reared at the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project and its a priority for us to resolve from an animal welfare and production perspective.
Atelopus certus post-metamorphs, an example of a SLS frog with poorly developed forelimbs (left) compared with a healthy froglet from the same clutch (right).
Many people had speculated that it was related to a nutritional deficiency in tadpoles or parent frogs, but the new study from the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project using Atelopus tadpoles found no connection to diet, but treating the water by reverse osmosis filtration and then reconstituting the minerals was a sure-fire way to reduce the incidence of this syndrome. It is possible that the filtration process removed some factor that caused the syndrome, or that the reconstitution process added minerals such as calcium that were lacking in the original tap water.
One other factor that aggravated SLS was overfeeding of tadpoles, so our future work will manipulate dissolved mineral ratios in future experimental setups. We have been awarded a grant from the Morris Animal Foundation to continue our work on this. Further isolating the factor(s) responsible for causing this syndrome, will help us to improve captive amphibian welfare and allow managers to better control production of amphibians in captive breeding efforts.
Julio working on the second experiment manipulating food quantity, water composition and diet type. Each tank contained 20 full sibling Atelopus glyphus.
Citation: Camperio Ciani JF, Guerrel J, Baitchman E, Diaz R, Evans M, Ibáñez R, et al. (2018) The relationship between spindly leg syndrome incidence and water composition, overfeeding, and diet in newly metamorphosed harlequin frogs (Atelopus spp.). PLoS ONE 13(10): e0204314. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0204314
Blake Klocke, a student at George Mason University is studying where frogs go once we release them, how long it takes them to contract the chytrid fungus, if there are any effects of releasing chytrid susceptible frogs on the existing frog community & what other non chytrid fungus sources of mortality might affect reintroduction work.
In addition to our primary project partners the Houston Zoo, Zoo New England and the Cheyenne Mountain zoo we thanks the National Geographic Society, Mohammed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, and the Smithsonian Women’s Committee for their support of these release trials.
In 2004, as the amphibian chytrid fungus was sweeping through Panama, a group of conservationists established the Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Coalition (ARCC). At that time, there was insufficient capacity in Panama to care for captive assurance colonies in country and the goal of this project was to establish U.S. captive assurance colonies of multiple Panamanian species. Frogs were collected from the wild and exported in 2005 to the Atlanta Zoo and Atlanta Botanical Gardens who cared for the animals.
Dr. Brad Wilson and Chelsea Thomas inside the amphibian rescue pod at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, packing genetically representative frogs from the collection for their flight.
Of the multiple species in the collection, the crowned treefrog (Anotheca spinosa) and the lemur leaf frog (Agalychnis lemur) bred well in captivity. The collection at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens was held in complete quarantine isolation for the last 8 years. While in Panama, two amphibian conservation-breeding facilities were built to care for endangered frogs. However, on the Panama side, we had too few founder animals to assure the long-term genetic integrity of these species. After careful health screening for amphibian chytrid fungus, parasites and examination of pathology records for the collection it was determined to be in good health, and a total of 47 genetically representative individuals of known lineage were identified for repatriation to Panama.
A Crowned treefrog Anotheca spinosa This species lives in the rainforest canopy and breeds in treeholes where the mother lays unfertilized eggs to feed her tadpoles.
The lemur leaf frog Agalychnis lemur. Wild populations have been decimated in the wild due to the amphibian chytrid fungus.
After obtaining permits from the Panamanian Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment, and well as the US Department of Agriculture and the Fish and Wildlife Service, the frogs were flown back to Panama on May 16, 2018. The frogs were packed to IATA specifications (In delicups with damp moss, artificial leaves and packed in a cooler with Phase 22 thermal regulating packs). The frogs all made the trip in good health and are now being held in a quarantined shipping container at the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project in Gamboa. After a quarantine period, we will breed these animals with the captive-breeding stock already in Panama.
Elliott Lassiter, Jorge Guerrel (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) and Chelsea Thomas (Atlanta Botanical Gardens) unpack frogs inside a quarantined shipping container in Gamboa.
Visitors to the center can see frogs through a display window as part of a miniature exhibition.
The 14 years of investment, and dedicated conservation efforts at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens will significantly improve the genetic population management goals for both of these species in Panama, bringing the original ARCC project full circle.
Many infectious diseases can fade away after initial outbreaks. Bubonic plague, cholera, and influenza are examples from recent human history. The same phenomenon occurs for wildlife diseases as well. How does this happen? One popular explanation is that the pathogen evolves to become less deadly, so that it doesn’t completely wipe out its hosts, ensuring pathogen survival. While this scenario does sometimes play out, we know that there are other reasons why the severity of diseases can change over time.
Cori Richards and Jamie Voyles
For amphibians, we’ve known about a highly lethal disease called “chytridiomycosis” since the 1990s. This disease was especially devastating in Central America, where it may have wiped out entire species. In this study, we made the exciting discovery that some amphibian species – frogs that were thought to be extinct – are persisting, and even recovering, after lethal disease outbreaks. We wanted to understand how it was happening. Was it a change in the pathogen, the frogs, or both?
To answer these questions, we did two things. To begin with, we surveyed frogs in Panama before and after the disease outbreak. In addition, we collected samples of the pathogen at multiple time points: during initial outbreaks and ~10 years later. We found that nearly a decade after the outbreak, the pathogen was just as deadly. However, the frogs are surviving and have better defenses against it. Panama’s frogs are fighting back! Understanding how amphibian communities are recovering after this disease outbreak is important multiple reasons. First, resolving how this works will help us develop more informed conservation strategies to protect amphibians from disease-induced extinctions. Second, clarifying how disease outbreaks subside will help us predict, and respond to, other emerging pathogens in plants, wildlife, and in humans. These goals are increasingly important in a time when rapid globalization has increased the introduction of pathogens to naïve host populations.
Atelopus varius is one species that appears to have evolved antifungal skin secretions
Once common along highland streams from western Costa Rica to western Panama, the variable harlequin frog is endangered throughout its range, decimated by a disease caused by the amphibian chytrid fungus. On Jan. 17, Smithsonian researchers released approximately 500 frogs at Cobre Panama concession site in Panama’s Colon province as a first step toward a potential full-scale reintroduction of this species. This release trial is included in Cobre Panama’s biodiversity conservation plan as an important part of their environmental commitments.
Composite image showing variation in coloration within this population of frogs
The variable harlequin frog, Atelopus varius, takes its name from the variety of neon colors—green, yellow, orange or pink—juxtaposed with black on its skin. In order to monitor the released frogs over time, 30 are wearing miniature radio transmitters. The scientific team also gave each frog an elastomer toe marking that glows under UV light to mark individuals as part of a population monitoring study.
“Before we reintroduce frogs into remote areas, we need to learn how they fare in the wild and what we need to do to increase their chances of survival in places where we can monitor them closely,” said Brian Gratwicke, international coordinator of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation project (PARC) at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “Release trials may or may not succeed but the lessons we learn will help us to understand the challenges faced by a frog as it transitions from captivity into the wild.”
Heidi Ross and her team at our facilities in the Nispero Zoo successfully bred and reared these animals for the release trial
Variable harlequin frogs are especially sensitive to the amphibian chytrid fungus, which has pushed frog species to the brink of extinction in Central America. PARC brought a number of individuals into the breeding center between 2013 and 2016 as chytrid continued to impact wild populations.
The field team all assembled with frogs ready for the release trial
“The variable harlequin frog is one of the closest relatives of Atelopus zeteki, Panama’s iconic golden frog, another target species in our captive breeding program,” said Roberto Ibañez, PARC project director at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “We’ll be monitoring the surrounding amphibian community and the climate at this site, and comparing this to the amphibian community at another, control site. This kind of intensive monitoring will help us to understand disease dynamics in relation to the release trials”
One of our Atelopus varius wearing a mini radio-transmitter
PARC hopes to secure the future for this and other endangered amphibians by reintroducing animals bred in captivity according to an action plan developed with Panama’s Ministry of the Environment and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and other stakeholders. “It took us several years to learn how to successfully breed these frogs in captivity,” said Ibañez. “As the number of individuals we have continues to increase, it provides new research opportunities to understand factors influencing survival that will ultimately inform long-term reintroduction strategies.”
The PARC project thanks Cobre Panama, National Geographic Society, Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and The WoodTiger Fund for their generous support.
SCBI plays a leading role in the Smithsonian’s global efforts to save wildlife species from extinction and train future generations of conservationists. SCBI spearheads research programs at its headquarters in Front Royal, Va., the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and at field research stations and training sites worldwide. SCBI scientists tackle some of today’s most complex conservation challenges by applying and sharing what they learn about animal behavior and reproduction, ecology, genetics, migration and conservation sustainability.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, headquartered in Panama City, Panama, is a unit of the Smithsonian Institution. The Institute furthers the understanding of tropical biodiversity and its importance to human welfare, trains students to conduct research in the tropics and promotes conservation by increasing public awareness of the beauty and importance of tropical ecosystems.