Bob Hirshon from Sci-starter interviews Brian Gratwicke on amphibian citizen science
It isn’t every day that one gets to travel to the heart of one of Panama’s richest rain forests on a rescue mission to save some of Panama’s most endangered amphibians. A brief two-hour drive from Panama City brought us to a facility run by Earth Train called the Mamoni Valley. I was lucky enough to be able to shadow leading herpetologists, Brian Gratwicke and Roberto Ibáñez, on one of their field expeditions to rescue endangered frogs.
One of the main objectives for our expedition to Mamoni Valley was to rescue a rapidly declining harlequin frog called Atelopus limosus and to launch the Global Amphibian Bioblitz, a citizen-science initiative to document as many amphibian species on the planet as possible. Hours of sweaty hiking up and down a mountain track in the dark brought us to a cool, clear stream where we began our search for frogs. After studying each passing leaf fruitlessly, and slipping and falling in the stream a few times, I found myself impressed at how much skill and patience it actually takes to capture frogs. But the numerous hours of careful searching in the streams both day and night turned out to be well worth the effort because we found some beautiful Atelopus limosus along with 13 other species of glass frogs, poison dart frogs, toads, rocket frogs and some spectacular snakes. We bagged each frog we collected and swabbed them individually. Each swab will be tested for the deadly amphibian chytrid fungus back at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute lab.
Each day when we returned from our 5-6 hour expeditions, there was always a feeling of success in the air, because we did find few Atelopus limosus, but it was always slightly reserved. Although I thought the number of frogs we had collected was fantastic, I learned quickly that the team had encountered many more frogs on previous visits to the site. It was extremely sobering for me to look at the worried faces of the experts sitting next to me as they explained that at current rates of decline it would be unlikely that we would find any more Atelopus limosus next year, and that I was in a very privileged position of being able to see a rapidly declining species in the wild, because few people will ever have that opportunity again.
This Amphibian Rescue Mission to Mamoni Valley not only taught me a great deal about the grave dangers that many amphibians face, but it also gave new perspective on how important it is to save these beautiful, endangered frogs before it’s too late. If you would like to help the global amphibian effort – try to mount your own amphibian expedition to a nearby park or pond and then share your photos on the Global Amphibian Blitz website!
Meryl Monfort is a volunteer for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project and is working on developing education and outreach for the project.