Golden frogs are extinct in the wild, but in addition to two Panamanian facilities, about 50 zoos and aquariums in the USA participate in a Species Survival Program led by the Maryland Zoo to help breed and conserve these precious animals. Investigate TV interviews Matt Evans at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute about his work with this species.
Around 2004, a poison dart frog resembling the polka dot poison dart frog Oophaga arborea was smuggled into the European pet trade. The striking animal had yellow dots characteristic of the species and caused a sensation. Part of the excitement is because Oophaga arborea is a critically endangered species is from a very small known distribution where it inhabits bromeliads in the tree canopies. It was thought to be common in the 1980’s but may have declined due to chytridiomycosis. According to the IUCN redlist it was last seen in 2012, but was possibly heard from the Fortuna forest reserve more recently. Could this animal indicate that the polka dot poison dart frog survived the amphibian chytrid epidemic?
In June 2022, a population of frogs with yellow spots resembling the polka dot poison frog was discovered in Veraguas, outside the known distribution of the polka dot frog. The researchers collected a few specimens and analyzed them genetically where they most closely matched Vicente’s poison frog Oophaga vicentei. These dart frogs are known to be highly polymorphic, coming in slate gray, metallic blue, yellow or brick red with mottling. The yellow polka dot version, however, has now been confirmed to be Vicente’s poison dart frog as opposed to strawberry poison dart frogs Oophaga pumilio, or Oophaga arborea. Vicente’s poison dart frogs are listed by the IUCN as an endangered species, they can be locally abundant in places they are found and are known from a small area in Panama.
The paper was published in the journal Salamandra: Monteiro JPC, Ibáñez, R, Mantzana-Oikonomaki, V., Pröhl, H., Rodríguez, A. (2023) Genetic diversity of Oophaga vicentei (Anura: Dendrobatidae) and taxonomic position of a remarkable color morph from Panama. Salamandra 59 (4): 347-351
Every year on August 14th, Panamanians officially celebrate golden frog day as a symbol of Panama’s incredible biodiversity and cultural diversity. This year we are thrilled to share the original song “La Rana Dorada” by National Geographic explorer Janni Benavides of Jacana Jacana. The song is one of four original scores developed as part of a National Geographic Meridian Grant supporting the Atelopus Survival Initiative.
On you tube https://youtu.be/LwxzgzKa40A
Bob Hirshon from Sci-starter interviews Brian Gratwicke on amphibian citizen science
This video celebrates Atelopus manauense, a small recently described harlequin toad species from Manaus in central Amazonia, Brazil. The music video was made by JacanaJacana as part of a National Geographic grant to foster interdisciplinary conservation collaboration.
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!
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 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.
Celebrating our Natural Heritage
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.
Each year around August 14, the streets of El Valle de Anton in Panama fill up with golden frogs. Though they’re not the real amphibians—the Panamanian golden frog is extinct in the wild—school-age children dress up as the animals in a spirited celebration of what has become a popular national holiday: Panamanian Golden Frog Day.
“Panamanian Golden Frog Day is about being thankful for the gift of life that we are able to experience each and every day,” says Katie Uckele, a volunteer at Punta Culebra Nature Center, one of the participants in the celebrations. “The Panamanian golden frog reminds us to cherish the gift of life and celebrate biodiversity in the world.”
In 2010—just one year after the last confirmed observation of a Panamanian golden frog in the wild—Panama’s National Assembly declared August 13 National Golden Frog Day, passing a law that made the Panamanian golden frog one of Panama’s official cultural and ecological symbols. Since then the holiday has grown from the mere acknowledgement of the National Assembly’s declaration to an entire week full of frog-focused events for children and adults across the country.
This year’s Golden Frog Day started August 13, ran through August 20 and included two family days, a race for frogs, an open house at the Gamboa Amphibian Research and Conservation Center, a book fair with a live frog exhibition and a parade in El Valle.
Golden Frog Day came near the end of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project’s #FightforFrogs campaign, during which time Golden Frog—a global online services provider—matched donations to the rescue project, helping raise money critical to the Zoo’s fight for frogs. The successful digital campaign brought in $21,800 in donations. With Golden Frog’s initial donation of $10,000 and their generous commitment to match up to an additional $20,000, we’ve raised a total of $51,800 for frogs.
“I’m very hopeful for the future of golden frogs and several other highly endangered frogs in Panama,” says Brian Gratwicke, international coordinator for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. Gratwicke adds that he will be baking golden frog cupcakes for his co-workers in celebration of Panamanian Golden Frog Day. “We have a fantastic team of dedicated conservationists working at maintaining and breeding frogs, and conducting the research needed to put them back in the wild.”
Though no longer found in the wild, the golden frog is a beloved icon in Panama, where local markets sell thousands of enamel-painted terracotta and hand-carved tagua nut golden frog statues, and hand-stitched fabric works of art called molas with the likeness of the amphibian. Last year Panamanian Golden Frog Day celebrations even kicked off with a golden frog-themed national lottery ticket.
“Panamanian golden frogs mean hope,” says Angie Estrada, a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech and a native Panamanian. “Hope that Panamanians can reclaim and protect their rivers, streams and forest. Hope that we can collaborate with people from different countries and backgrounds when the goal is larger than our own interests. Hope that we will be able to find more frogs out in the wild, and that if we don’t we will keep looking. Hope that if they disappeared, we will be able to say that we did everything we could to help them out.”
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.