Variable Harlequin Frog release trials begin in Panama

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.

PARC is a partnership between the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the Houston Zoo, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and Zoo New England. It has two facilities in Panama: the Gamboa Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center at STRI and the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center at El Nispero. Combined, these facilities have a full-time staff caring for a collection of 12 endangered species.

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.

Update on Golden Frog Conservation Plan Implementation

I am pleased to distribute the Reporte del Taller de Conservación de las Ranas Doradas de Panamá in its official version in Spanish.

golden frog report

The Panamanian golden frog conservation group met in El Valle de Anton in November 2013 to identify and address critical issues necessary to preserve the golden frogs of Panama, foster collaboration and exchange of information, and develop an action plan to expand conservation efforts with a future view.

With the mission of “saving a national treasure, returning the golden frog back to nature”, the group has made significant progress in the management of captive populations, disease, habitat, population viability analysis (PVA) and communication and collaboration.

These are some of the most important achievements:
1. The management of captive populations of golden frogs in Panama and the United States has combined efforts to improve husbandry and increase breeding of their most valuable individuals. EVACC has had a substantial reproduction success in recent years. And the use of technologies of cryopreservation and hormonal treatment is being developed by our partners to improve breeding success.

2. Approximately ten research groups and disease management work in a wide range of projects that generate valuable information about the characteristics and epidemiology of Bd; virulence and transmission; natural defenses and immune response; and frog’s heritability of resistance and/or tolerance to disease, among many others.

3. Rescue missions and diseases monitoring in the wild continue at historic distribution sites of golden frogs. The Project Atelopus found four populations of Atelopus varius in nature and continue the search for other survivor populations.

4. The first PVA is being developed by members of the group under the same name. Leading scientists in natural history, behavior, habitat requirements, captive breeding, and disease modeling participated in a workshop for prioritizing research projects that will provide feedback to these programs.

5. For three consecutive years the group has had regular meetings where progress is reviewed, challenges are identified and solutions are discussed within each working group. They have produced documents published and distributed in scientific journals, major conservation websites such as the red list of endangered species of the IUCN, zoos and aquariums, decision-making organizations and outreach materials for schools and environmental education programs.

6. A strong education component has generated attention and awareness of the general public through activities such as The Golden Frog Festival and its many venues.

Amphibian conservation efforts in Panama are mainly led by Panamanians supported by international funding agencies and donors. One of the project aims is to get more Panamanian investment for conservation while continuing in-country capacity building and support for the reinforcement of conservation laws.

Angie Estrada, Coordinator of the Golden Frog Conservation Plan

New Amphibian Study Helps Smithsonian Scientists Prioritize Frogs at Risk of Extinction

graphical abstractScientists at the Smithsonian Institution and partners have published a paper that will help them save Panamanian frog species from extinction due to a deadly fungal disease called Chytridiomycosis (chytrid). The study, which was published Jan. 4 in Animal Conservation, draws on the expertise of amphibian biologists and scientists the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project to mathematically determine which frog species have the best probability of escaping extinction with the rescue project’s help.
“We don’t want to arbitrarily decide which species lives and which species don’t, nor do we want to waste our time on species that don’t need our help,” said Brian Gratwicke, co-author on the paper and international coordinator of the rescue project out of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “This study took into account the differences in opinions among amphibian experts in Panama and found consensus in a systematic away. This has allowed us to focus on the species where we have the best chance of making a difference.”

The study also found that eight Panamanian species are likely now extinct in the wild due to disease-related declines. About 80 of Panama’s frog species were too rare for conservationists to prioritize their need for help or the likelihood of successful rescue. The new prioritization scheme, however, will allow the scientists to adapt to new information as it becomes available.

“Over the years, several frog populations—and even species—have vanished or nearly vanished from Panama,” said Roberto Ibáñez, the in-country director of the rescue project at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, “Unfortunately, it is impossible to save them all through conservation programs. With this study, we can focus our limited resources on those species that we are more likely to find in the wild and breed in captivity, while we simultaneously look for a way to manage chytrid.”

Since 2009, the rescue project has been building and maintaining insurance populations of frog species susceptible to chytrid, bringing small groups into captivity to breed as the species crashes in the wild. For each of Panama’s 214 known frog species, the paper’s authors asked amphibian experts to determine the probability that: 1) the rescue project could locate an adequate founding population (20 males and 20 females), 2) the rescue project could successfully breed the species and 3) without the rescue project’s help, the species would go extinct.

While most of the rescue project’s original priority species ranked high based on the new prioritization scheme, the conservationists have already started making some changes. They have determined that the likelihood of successfully breeding La Loma tree frogs (Hyloscirtus colymba) is low and they are instead shifting resources to the recently discovered Craugastor evanesco and the Rusty robber frog (Strabomantis bufoniformis), both of which came up as high priorities.

The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project is a project partnership between the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the Houston Zoo, Zoo New England and Smithsonian Institution.

Meeting on the Conservation of Golden Frogs

Meeting Participants from the golden frog PHVA workshop

Meeting Participants from the golden frog PHVA workshop

From Nov. 19 to 22 a group of scientists from as far as Australia met at the Hotel Campestre for The Golden Frog Population Habitat Viability Analysis workshop. The participants from around the world met to share information on the current status of Panamanian golden frogs in captivity and in the wild. They began an open dialog about concerns regarding Panamanian golden frog conservation, education and community engagement, as well as how to create a framework to coordinate and guide the work of those dedicated to the golden frog recovery. 

The meeting was convened by the Project Golden Frog and the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project  and facilitated by the IUCN Conservation Breeding Specialist Group with support form the Anela Kolohe Foundation and the Shared Earth Foundation.

Panama’s National Amphibian Conservation Action Plan

Panama City, March 29, 2012.

The National Environmental Authority of Panama (ANAM) and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute today presented the “Action Plan for the Conservation of Amphibians in Panama,” the first step in a series of actions to address the alarming decline of amphibians in Panama.

Atelopus certus, an endangered Panamanian amphibian

Amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders and caecilians) were the first vertebrates to populate the land environment. They present biological and ecological characteristics that make them extremely sensitive to changes in their environment. They are an important part of the ecological balance, as they feed on large quantities of insects and in turn are food for other animals. For this reason, they are widely used as indicators and as a warning system to alert to factors that influence health or environmental quality.

In 1989, scientists sounded the alarm because amphibian populations worldwide were declining. A few years later, they discovered that frogs, toads, salamanders and caecilians were disappearing due to a fungus that causes a disease known as chytridiomycosis, and that this decline in populations and disappearance of species was more evident in Panama than anywhere else in the world.

It has been confirmed that in Panama this disease is responsible for the progressive and sustained decline of the greater part of the country’s frog and toad populations. According to the IUCN Red List, of the 197 species of amphibians recorded in Panama, around 25% – about 50 species – are listed as threatened. The disease has devastated frogs from the highlands of western and central Panama and is spreading eastward across the country.

The speed and lethality of this fungal pathogen highlights the need to respond quickly, as scientists predict that before long the disease will spread throughout the entire country, reaching areas of high amphibian richness such as the Darien. This situation is aggravated by the imminent disappearance of species which might contain medicinal compounds (analgesics, antifungals) in their skin, or which may not yet have been described by science.

For this reason, the Action Plan for the Conservation of Amphibians in Panama seeks close collaboration with various stakeholders to carry out participatory planning, integrate initiatives, optimize resources and identify potential funding sources. The Plan details specific research, conservation and education components for the short and medium term to ensure future populations.

The Research component seeks to propose and promote specific actions that will generate scientific information for understanding the problem and implementing conservation strategies. The Conservation component includes the ex-situ conservation project as an immediate response to preserve in captivity those species of amphibians currently under threat in their natural habitat. Finally, the Education component seeks to implement education programs and information campaigns aimed at raising public awareness, which will in turn facilitate the implementation of conservation measures.

– Mónica Alvarado Garrido, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute