Milan Vesely and Abel Batista scientifically described Panama’s seventh harlequin frog species in the journal Zoological Research in April 2021. This beautiful harlequin frog species has been in biological collections for some time, the first museum specimen was first collected by Henri Pittier at Puerto Obaldlia in 1911, but has previously been assumed to be related to other sister species that it closely resembles. Historically collected formalin-preserved specimens were unsuitable for genetic analyses and so the frog remained undescribed.
Vesely and Batista conducted expeditions to the Darien to collect new specimens and this allowed them to conduct genetic analysis showing that this species is most closely related to Atelopus certus and Atelopus glyphus, but is genetically distinct enough to warrant recognition as a species. It also has a slightly different call and morphological characteristics that are also described in the paper.
Atelopus fronterizo Photo by Abel Batista, UNACHI-Fundación Los Naturalistas-SNI (SENACYT)
They named the frog Atelopus fronterizo to refer to borderland inhabitants and the Panamanian border security force who protect the Darien mountain range in NE Panama on the border where this frog is found. Like other harlequin frog species in Panama, even though they live in well-protected habitat, they are Likely Critically Endangered due to the threat of the amphibian chytrid fungus that has caused the declines of other Atelopus species in Panama.
Panamanian toads Rhinella centralis are distinguished by their dorsal skin covered with pointed warts. They are common along the Pacific coastal areas, often in urban areas around Panama City and small towns, and form large choruses on rainy nights. The small but strongly swollen poison glands on their heads secrete a white toxic goop. This effective defense mechanism makes predators spit them out, or froth at the mouth, vomit and it may even kill them if they try to eat the toad.
Scientists working at INDICASAT, the University of Panama and STRI began screening wild frogs for substances with pharmacological potential to treat various tropical diseases. When they analyzed secretions from these toads they discovered a chemical in the poison glands called 19-hydroxy-bufalin. They found that this chemical was very potent at killing the parasites that cause Chagas disease, and that it was not very toxic to cells. Chagas disease is a neglected tropical disease that kills 10,000 people per year, and current medications used to treat the disease are not very effective, particularly in acute cases. The fact that this chemical is quite selective with low cell toxicity means it is a promising compound that make it a candidate compound to further explore as a potential way to treat Chagas disease.
Salamanders are remarkably enigmatic amphibians, both due to their often-cryptic colorations and their extremely secretive lifestyles. They are nocturnal, but even at night, one can hardly call them “active”. Many species are burrowing, and barely ever come out of their moist and dark haven created by earth and fungi. Other species prefer a life in the canopy of mysterious and often nearly inaccessible cloud forests, in a world dominated by bark, moss and lichen.
Panamanian salamanders are no exception to this rule. Herpetologists that set out to find them, regularly return after their tiring night-time missions without seeing even a trace of these wonderful creatures. Local people that work and live in areas where salamanders occur sometimes don’t even know of their existence – which is exactly why a handful of Panamanian institutions decided to organize the first International Festival of the Salamander.
The Festival took place from November 1 to 3 in Boquete, located right at the border of Volcan Barru National Park. Aptly, this is the place to be if one wants to set out on a nocturnal quest to look for them. During the days, there were photographic exhibitions, stands of the organizations involved, an interactive kids corner with movies and drawings for coloring and a small T-shirt shop, hosted by a team of volunteers that where sitting on the edge of their seats to tell you about their beloved salamanders.
But Friday and Saturday night, things even got better: every evening from 6 to 10 p.m., there was a free guided tour by Los Naturalistas in Volcan Barru National Park, with experts knowing where exactly chances of spotting one where highest.
The tour started off at the entrance of Volcan Barru National Park, where we met with a team of tour guides and biologists, led by Dr. Abel Batista. Then we drove on for another 3 km on a bumpy gravel road, until we were at a place known for its substantial salamander population. The first and most important part of the tour consisted of disinfecting boots and equipment, to avoid spreading diseases. After all, one of the major reasons of amphibian declines worldwide is an extremely infectious fungus, Batrachochytrium sp.. While harmless to us, for many amphibian species, it causes severe skin damage, leading to death of susceptible individuals. After sterilizing our shoes, we began measuring about a dozen environmental variables; humidity, temperature, elevation, etc.. In the meantime, the guides explained a few rules: avoid touching the animals, don’t shine too bright lights directly in their eyes and don’t take pictures of them for too long and preferably without flash.
Then, we started searching. The weather was cold, but very dry, and therefore, our subjects of interest would mostly be hiding in moist places, one of the guides explained. We adjusted our strategies accordingly, looking in small holes between rocks and gently turning branches to peer underneath. We slowly walked upwards, and over the course of 20 minutes, we had only progressed about a hundred meters. When we had nearly given up, one of the guides suddenly called us further on.
We hurried on, nearly running uphill. But with a great reward waiting for us: a nearly 20 cm long, female magnificent web-footed salamander (Bolitoglossa magnifica) was cautiously watching us from underneath her hiding place – a thick, rotting branch covered with lichen, about a meter and a half away from the road. All excited, we had to take turns to take a look from the right angle, so you could see her. We all took a few pictures, then we stopped bothering her with our flashlights and left her in peace.
We started hiking down again, all the while scanning every hole and crevice. We passed the cars, and soon after, someone else already shouted he had found another one. This one was more difficult to see, hiding in a small hole in between rocks and loose earth. We had barely gotten to the second, when a third one was found, and soon after even a fourth and fifth!
Biologist taking photographs of a salamander (left), while a guide in the back continues searching in other holes. (right) A magnificent web-footed salamander (Bolitoglossa magnifica) that found a hiding place behind a mushroom.
Despite the unfavorable weather conditions, our evening excursion turned out to be a great success, spotting 5 individuals of the endangered magnificent web-footed salamander in less than an hour and a half. We returned tired and quite hungry, but fully satisfied nonetheless.
Los Naturalistas are currently working on a salamander-focused guided tour, which will roughly follow a similar structure as the tour we could enjoy that night. They hope to organize a lot of similar events like the International Festival of the Salamander, to further raise awareness among tourists as well as Panamanians concerning these mysterious and intriguing animals. Salamanders are facing many threats, but in protected places like Volcan Barru National Park, they are thriving.
By Leni Lamens Herpetologist, biologist and intern at the Panama Amphibian Research and Conservation center, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Smithsonian National Zoological Park.
By Leni Lammens
I would like to express my gratitude towards all organizing parties involved in the International Festival of the Salamander:
Action Hub+, Bioguias Panamá, Los Naturalistas, Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí (UNACHI), Vicerrectoria de Investigación y Posgrado (VIP)
as well as to all sponsors, without which the Festival would not have been possible.
A new research paper published on strawberry poison dart frogs in Bocas del Torro found that one of the reasons we have polymorphism or so many different color forms within one species of frog. Female tadpoles prefer to mate with males that have the same color as their parents (sexual imprinting), and males defend their territories more vigorously from other males that are the same color as their parents (rival imprinting). The researchers demonstrated this experimentally by using foster parents of different color forms to raise offspring, and then tested mate or rival preference of the adult offspring.
This process of sexual selection can lead to sexual isolation even in populations that live in the same places. From an evolutionary perspective this would be a rare example of sympatric speciation, or the evolution through natural selection without geographical isolation.
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
Almost thirty years have passed since Panamanian and international scientists formed working groups to investigate the mysterious disappearances of amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders and caecilians) around the world. Motivated by their devotion to these animals and their inexhaustible curiosity, in 1999 scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and the University of Maine, in the United States, discover the infectious fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, commonly known as the chytrid fungus, responsible for the massive amphibian die-off in Panama’s western highlands.
In 2009, the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project (PARC – www.amphibianrescue.org) project was established to safeguard Panamanian amphibians at risk of extinction, such as the Golden Frog. Today, this operation continues to make significant progress toward amphibian conservation, thanks to generous support from Panama’s national government, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and many national and international entities, both public and private. Committed to the conservation of Panama’s natural heritage, the institute has invested more than four million dollars in amphibian rescue and conservation, continually placing valuable scientific resources in the hands of Panamanian professionals.
Next September, STRI will join the international scientific community to celebrate a group of researchers who dedicated their careers to the study of the fungus and the preservation of Panamanian amphibians, with hopes that soon we will also be able celebrate the successful reintroduction of these charismatic animals to their natural environment.
About the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute:
The Panama-based Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) is the only dependency of the Smithsonian Institution located outside the United States and is dedicated to enriching knowledge about the biological diversity of the tropics (www. Stri.si.edu).
What began in 1923 as a small field station on Isla Barro Colorado in the former Panama Canal Zone, today represents one of the world’s leading research institutions. STRI’s facilities provide a unique opportunity for long-term ecological studies in the tropics and are intensively used by more than 1400 scientists, including Panamanians and visitors who come every year from academic and research institutions in the Americas and around the world.
The global conservation movement has reached a turning point. We have documented the fast pace of habitat loss, the growing number of endangered and extinct species, and the increasing speed of global climate change. Yet while the seriousness of these threats cannot be denied, there are a growing number of examples of improvements in the health of species and ecosystems, along with benefits to human well-being, thanks to our conservation actions. Earth Optimism is a global initiative that celebrates a change in focus from problem to solution, from a sense of loss to one of hope, in the dialogue about conservation and sustainability.
A New Review of Chemicals Produced by the Toad Family, Bufonidae
As human diseases become alarmingly antibiotic resistant, identification of new pharmaceuticals is critical. The cane toad and other members of the Bufonidae family produce substances widely used in traditional folk medicine, but endangered family members, like Panama’s golden frog, Atelopus zeteki, may disappear before revealing their secrets. Smithsonian scientists and colleagues catalog the known chemicals produced by this amphibian family in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology highlighting this largely-unexplored potential for discovery.
“We’re slowly learning to breed members of this amphibian family decimated by the chytrid fungal disease,” said Roberto Ibañez, Panamanian staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and in-country director of the Panama Amphibian Conservation and Rescue (PARC) project. “That’s buying us time to understand what kind of chemicals they produce, but it’s likely that animals in their natural habitats produce an even wider range of compounds.”
15 of 47 frog and toad species used in traditional medicine belong to the family Bufonidae. For millennia, secretions from their skin and from glands near their ears called parotid glands, as well as from their bones and muscle tissues have been used as remedies for infections, bites, cancer, heart disorders, hemorrhages, allergies, inflammation, pain and even AIDS.
Toxins of two common Asian toad species, Bufo gargarizans and Duttaphrynus melanostictus, produce the anticancer remedies known as Chan Su and Senso in China and Japan, respectively. Another preparation used to treat cancer and hepatitis, Huachansu or Cinobufacini, is regulated by the Chinese State Food and Drug Administration. In Brazil, the inner organs of the toad, Rhinella schneideri, are applied to horses to treat the parasite Habronema muscae. In Spain, extract from the toad Bufo bufo is used to treat hoof rot in livestock. In China, North and South Korea, ranchers use the meat of Bufo gargarizans to treat rinderpest.
Only a small proportion of the more than 580 species in the Bufonidae family have been screened by scientists. “In Panama, not only do we have access to an amazing diversity of amphibian species,” said Marcelino Gutiérrez, investigator at the Center for Biodiversity and Drug Discovery at Panama’s state research institute, Instituto de Investigaciones Cientificas y Servicios de Alta Tecnologia (INDICASAT), “we’re developing new mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy techniques to make it easier and cheaper to elucidate the chemical structures of the alkaloids, steroids, peptides and proteins produced by these animals. We work closely with herpetologists so as not to further threaten populations of these species in the wild.” Their efforts to catalog chemicals produced by the Bufonidae included researchers from the University of Panama, Vanderbilt University, in Tennessee, U.S.A. and Acharya Nagarjuna University in Guntur, India.
Most of the chemicals produced by frogs and toads protect them against predators. Atelopus varius contains tetrodototoxin. Chiriquitoxin is found in Atelopus limosus, one of the first species that researches succeeded in breeding in captivity as well as in Atelopus glyphus and Atelopus chiriquiensis. An atelopidtoxin (zetekitoxin) from the Panamanian golden frog, Atelopus zeteki, appears to consist of two toxins. Toxins from a single frog skin can kill 130-1000 mice.
The golden frog, A. zeteki, Panama’s national frog, is the only species of the genus Atelopus that secretes zetekitoxins. Threatened by the chytrid fungal disease that infects the skin and causes heart attacks, with collection for the exotic pet trade and by habitat destruction, if golden frogs were to disappear, they would take this potentially valuable chemical with them.
More than 30 percent of amphibians in the world are in decline. Racing to stay ahead of the wave of disease spreading across Central America, Panama is leading the way in conservation efforts. The Smithsonian’s Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation project (PARC) identified several Atelopus species in danger of extinction, and are learning how to create the conditions needed to breed them in captivity. Not only do animal caretakers at their facilities in Gamboa and El Valle, Panama experiment to discover what the frogs eat, they also recreate the proper environment the entire frog life-cycle: egg laying, egg hatching and tadpole survival, to successfully breed Atelopus. Each species has unique requirements, making it an expensive challenge to create this Noah’s ark for amphibians.
The chemical building blocks amphibians use to create toxic compounds come from sources including their diet, skin glands or symbiotic microorganisms. Toads in the genus Melanophryniscus sequester lipophilic alkaloids from their complex diet consisting of mites and ants. Researchers found that toxins found in a wild-caught species of Atelopus could not be isolated from frogs raised in captivity: another reason to conserve frog habitat and to begin to explore the possibility of releasing frogs bred in captivity back into the wild.
Learn more about amphibians by visiting the PARC blog and the Panama’s Fabulous Frogs exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Culebra Point Nature Center in Panama.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, headquartered in Panama City, Panama, is a part of the Smithsonian Institution. The Institute furthers the understanding of tropical nature 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. Website. Promo video.
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Rodriguez, Candelario, Rollins-Smith, Louise, Ibanez, Roberto, Durant-Archibold, Armando, Gutiérrez, Marcelino. 2016. Toxins and pharmacologically active compounds from species of the family Bufonidae (Amphibia, Anura). Journal of Ethnopharmacology, doi:10.1016/j.jep.2016.12.021
Frogs matter. As a kid in nursery school, I remember observing tadpoles metamorphose into froglets right before our eyes in the classroom. It was like watching a magic trick over and over again. As I grew more interested in these cool little creatures, I learned that some frogs reproduce using pouches, others by swallowing their own eggs and regurgitating their young, others still by laying eggs that hatch directly into little froglets. It was like discovering not one magic trick, but an entire magical world—except this world was no illusion, it was real. My formative experiences both in the classroom and out rummaging around cold rainy ponds at night with my best friend and a headlamp spurred me into a career in the biological sciences. They also instilled in me a deep appreciation for the incredible diversity of life.
Today I am focused on conserving that incredible diversity specifically among amphibians in Panama, which is home to an astounding 214 amphibian species. Or at least it was. When a deadly amphibian chytrid fungus swept through, nine species disappeared entirely, including the country’s national animal, the beautiful Panamanian golden frog.
Since 2009, the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project has spearheaded efforts to bring at-risk species into rescue pods to ride out the storm while we work on finding a cure. We’ve worked with partners to conduct several experiments in search of a cure and to better understand why some frogs resist infection and others do not. We have built new facilities that house highly endangered species of amphibians as part of a bigger global push to create an “Amphibian Ark.” These efforts and those of our colleagues around the world give me profound hope for our amphibian friends.
But we need your help.
Although frogs are the orchestral backdrop to every pond and forest, frogs have no voice to represent themselves, and they certainly can’t write checks. It’s up to professional conservationists, including the rescue project’s 12 talented conservationists in Panama, to save frogs so that others can enjoy them. This, however, requires money. From now until the end of August, our generous sponsor Golden Frog—a global online services provider with a terrific name—will match donations to the rescue project up to $20,000, helping us raise money critical to our fight for frogs. Your donations during the Fight for Frogs campaign will buy us equipment to care for the frogs in the rescue pods, help us continue to conduct experiments to find a cure, ensure crucial breakthroughs, and ultimately one day see the return of these incredible species to their home in the wild.
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. You can follow the Fight for Frogs campaign on Twitter using the #FightForFrogs hashtag or on the rescue project’s Facebook page.