Golden Frogs at the National Zoo’s Reptile Discovery Center

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.

A Golden Day to Fight for Frogs

Golden Frog Day parade (Photo by Brian Gratwicke)

Golden Frog Day parade (Photo by Brian Gratwicke)

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.”

Kids pledge to protect frogs on Golden Frog Day. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke)

Kids pledge to protect frogs on Golden Frog Day. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke)

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.

Frog jumping competition on Golden Frog Day (Photo by Brian Gratwicke)

Frog jumping competition on Golden Frog Day (Photo by Brian Gratwicke)

“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.

Golden Frog Day float (Photo by Brian Gratwicke)

“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.

Science to the Rescue in the #FightForFrogs

Gina Della Togna with a Panamanian golden frog, a beloved species at the center of her research. (Photo by Pei-Chih Lee, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Gina Della Togna with a Panamanian golden frog, a beloved species at the center of her research. (Photo by Pei-Chih Lee, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

When SCBI conservation biologist Brian Gratwicke started the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project with partners in 2009, it was a mad dash to find and collect frogs representing the very last best hope for their species, rapidly vanishing at the hands of an amphibian chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd) that causes a disease called chytridiomycosis.

If that was the opening chapter of the rescue project’s story, seven years later the story reads like a manuscript for an initiative set up to be among the most successful comprehensive conservation projects to date.

Today the rescue project has provided a stable safe haven for 12 of the most imperiled Panamanian frog species, requiring keepers to learn the complex husbandry, behavior and reproductive physiology unique to each individual species. In the meantime, rescue project scientists are making strides in developing and refining assisted reproduction protocols, while also conducting experiments in a resolute search for a cure for Bd.

“We are entering a new phase,” Gratwicke says. “We’ve brought together some of the world’s leading animal husbandry experts, veterinarians, reproductive biologists, disease ecologists and herpetologists. With all of the talented scientific minds working on this one, we have great hope that we may someday be able to return these species safely to their home in the wild.”

Searching for a Cure

Things in Matt Becker’s lab can sometimes get a bit…strange. Take, for instance, an experiment the SCBI postdoctoral researcher conducted a year ago with unexpected results. Becker’s research focuses on the use of probiotics—or beneficial bacteria—to help frogs fight off Bd. Last year Becker applied five different probiotics with anti-fungal properties to the skin of five groups of Panamanian golden frogs, hoping to discover which probiotic gives them an effective shield against the pathogen.

Matt Becker prepares-probiotic baths. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke)

Matt Becker prepares-probiotic baths. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

What he found surprised him. In past experiments, the probiotics were ineffective and all of the frogs died after the researchers infected them with Bd. This time, though, about 25 percent of the individuals survived. And those surviving frogs didn’t come from just one group with one kind of probiotics, but from every group, even the one that had been infected with Bd without a probiotic protectant.

So Becker and Gratwicke needed to determine what it was that the frogs did have in common to help them fight the disease. They started by looking at the frogs’ microbial community, or the complex community of bacteria on the skin. All of the frogs that survived had a greater abundance of specific bacteria on their skin.

In June of this year, the team launched a new experiment, this time using frogs from the Species Survival Plan collection at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore that have similar abundances and types of bacteria as those that survived last year. The researchers have given the frogs a cocktail of eight bacteria that seem to strongly ward off Bd.

Looking at which immune system genes turn on or off to fight off a chytrid infection can help scientists discover why some frogs aren't as susceptible. (Photo by Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Looking at which immune system genes turn on or off to fight off a chytrid infection can help scientists discover why some frogs aren’t as susceptible. (Photo by Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian’s National Zoo)

“At the start of every experiment, you’re really optimistic,” says Becker, who has been working on golden frog probiotics since 2007. “It’s been a great journey and we’re really learning a lot about golden frogs and how chytrid affects these guys. Every little bit of information really goes a long way for the conservation of this species and similar species.”

For the first time during a probiotics study on frogs, the researchers will also be looking at the gene expression—or combination of genes in an individual frog that gets turned on or turned off—while the frog mounts an immune response to fight off Bd.

“We’re throwing everything we’ve got at this,” Becker says. “We want to be able to use these tools to determine which frogs in the overall captive population share those same strengths—either their microbial community or gene expression—that keep them alive. There are so many questions we need to answer, but through the scientific process, we’re getting there.”

Frogs for the Future

While Becker is focused on getting frogs safely back into the wild, this goal is only possible if there are actually future generations of frogs to release into the wild. That’s where Smithsonian researcher and Panamanian native Gina Della Togna comes in.

Gina Della Togna in the lab. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke)

Gina Della Togna in the lab. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Della Togna is working on a number of complex assisted reproduction techniques for Panamanian frog species. She is the first scientist to develop protocols for extracting and freezing sperm from the Panamanian golden frog, a species that is extinct in the wild and a cultural icon in her home country. Scientists could someday use the sperm to infuse populations with additional genetic diversity, key to a species’ overall health.

“When we started, we didn’t know anything about anything,” Della Togna says. “We needed to learn which hormones at what concentrations to use, how to keep the sperm alive long enough to freeze it and the best techniques to freeze it so that the sperm is viable when we thaw it, even years later. It was a challenge, but I love a good challenge.”

Now Della Togna is working on developing similar protocol for other rescue project species, including the mountain harlequin frog, Pirre harlequin frog, variable harlequin frog, limosa harlequin frog and the rusty robber frog. In the future, she plans to get out into the field to capture genetic lineages from frogs in the wild. As she continues to perfect these protocols, Della Togna also aims to collect eggs from female Panamanian golden frogs to use for artificial fertilization with the frozen sperm. And most recently in Panama, she successfully applied a hormone treatment to help six pairs of the limosa harlequin frog and Pirre harlequin frogs breed that hadn’t laid eggs before.

“Breeding frogs is the fundamental step to sustaining captive populations and growing the numbers for release trials,” Gratwicke says. “Gina’s work is of huge applied value to us because we have some very challenging species to breed, and hormone dosing may help us to get them to cycle reproductively, even if we can’t figure out the external reproduction cues.”

For Della Togna, Gratwicke and Becker, the goal is the same: to give these unique species a fighting chance against Bd.

“If these frogs go extinct, nothing can replace them,” Della Togna says. “They are important to the ecosystem and essential to our planet’s equilibrium. There’s no doubt that we’re responsible for getting them back to where they belong.”

From now until the end of August, you can help us #FightForFrogs! 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.

Why Golden Frog Chose to Collaborate with the Rescue Project

Guest blog post from our friends at Golden Frog

We’re thrilled to be supporting the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project and their efforts to save the critically endangered Panamanian golden frog. As you might guess from our name, we have a strong connection to the Panamanian golden frog—our company was actually named after the golden frog! Below we’ll explain why this cause is so near and dear to our hearts, and the story behind our name.

The Golden Frog Story

At Golden Frog, we believe in a free and open Internet experience for all. We create products to offer users online privacy, security and freedom, and we fight for what we believe in. We were named after the Panamanian golden frog, and our story goes like this:

Golden Frog Co-CEOs Ron and Carolyn Yokubaitis were Peace Corps volunteers in Brazil during the late 1960s. While travelling through Central America after their service they stopped in Panama, where they visited the Golden Frog Coffee Bar. Back in the United States, Ron and Carolyn went on to raise five sons and found several Internet businesses over the years.

In 2008 they returned to Panama for the Latin American Internet Conference, and wondered if the Golden Frog Coffee Bar was still around. The coffee bar was no longer in business, but they discovered a fun fact: the golden frog is the national animal of Panama. Even better, they learned that the golden frog also has a very unique way of communicating with other frogs – it waves to them! They decided to name their newest Internet business after the Panamanian golden frog.

Today Golden Frog stands for online freedom, privacy and security, and embodies the same passion and freedom as in 1970 when Ron and Carolyn first discovered the Golden Frog Coffee Bar. Through our products and our advocacy, we continue to fight for causes we believe in and to support groups fighting for these important causes.

One of 2,000 captive Panamanian Golden Frogs managed in captivity by the Golden Frog Species Survival Plan and the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore Photo: Brian Gratwicke Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Why We’re Supporting This Cause

Among all the good causes out there, there are several reasons we choose to support the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. First off, we see a strong mission alignment with the Smithsonian. Their mission is “the increase and diffusion of knowledge” and our mission is to “provide people with privacy, security and access to a free and open Internet.” As the Smithsonian helps spread knowledge, we help people access information and share knowledge by communicating freely online around the world.

Additionally, one of our core values is “advocacy is important,” meaning we go beyond just selling a product and actively get involved in advocating for policies and issues that we care about. Alongside our many privacy and security policy efforts, we work to support causes we care about – the Panamanian golden frog that inspired our name being one of them.

And, of course, we have the connection to our company’s name.

We hope you’ll join us in supporting this cause, and you can get involved by making a donation now.

If you’re interested in learning more about Golden Frog’s mission for a free and open Internet, please check out our vision paper.

Join us as together we Fight for Frogs

Brian swabs frogs in the field_Brian GratwickeFrogs 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.

Panamanian golden frog_Brian GratwickeToday 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.

graphical abstractSince 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.

Together, let’s make a stand. Together, let’s #FightForFrogs.

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.