Puerto Rico’s Dia del Coqui

Common_CoquíFor five years, I have worked as the staff herpetologist at Las Casas de la Selva, a sustainable forestry project in Puerto Rico. I’ve also had the privilege of spending five months in Panama; some of that time was spent working with PARC and I have noticed many similarities between Puerto Rico and Panama. Specifically, I have noticed how each country has a frog as a national and cultural symbol.

In Panama, everyone knows of the Golden Frog (Atelopus zeteki), and when I was studying the folklore of Panama, I heard old stories about how the frog was good luck, and that people used to believe that it turned to gold when it died. Nowadays, the Golden Frog is a symbol of Panama itself, and what it means to be Panamanian. Images of the Golden Frog adorn everything from lottery tickets to t-shirts to coffee mugs. Some of my friends in Panama have even gone so far as to get Golden Frog tattoos. And each year, thousands of people celebrate Golden Frog Day.

As an island, Puerto Rico has very few species of frogs, and 16 of the 18 native species belong to the genus Eleutherodactylus. This genus is referred to collectively as “Coquis”, although only two species make the distinctive “Ko-Kee” mating call that makes nighttime in Puerto Rico such a noisy affair. Of the 16 species of Coquis, 13 are listed by the IUCN as either Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered. As with the Golden Frog in Panama, Coquis are a symbol of everything Puerto Rican. Mainland-born Puerto Ricans who return to the island respond to challenges about their Puerto Rican “authenticity” used to respond, “I’m as Puerto Rican as the Coqui”. Images of the Coqui show up on artistic murals, tourist kitch, and tattoos; there is even a “Coqui” brand of coffee and a “Coqui” car dealership!

But we are missing something in Puerto Rico- we have no equivalent to the “Dia de Rana Dorada”. After my time at PARC, including my opportunity in 2012 to help Angie Estrada, Jorge Guerrel, Ligo Diaz, and the rest of the staff plan and execute educational activities at the Summit Zoo, I decided to take the spirit of “Dia de Rana Dorada” back to Puerto Rico with me. The idea has been well-received, and the first “Dia del Coqui” will be a weekend-long festival from September 26th-28th, 2014. It will be held at the Jardin Botanical y Cultural William Miranda Marin in the centrally-located city of Caguas. Already, artisans, scientists, musicians, university students, historians, and public-works officials are coming together to make this event a success.

The intention of Dia del Coqui is to be a cultural celebration, but also an important learning tool to help the people of Puerto Rico know that the frogs that they have always shared the island with are in need of conservation. We hope that Dia del Coqui becomes a cultural mainstay in Puerto Rico, akin to Dia de Rana Dorada in Panama.

by  Norman Greenhawk  greenhawk81@gmail.com  www.facebook.com/diadelcoqui

Update from Project Atelopus: One small frog

There are two types of golden frogs in Panama, Atelopus zeteki, the Panamanian golden frog, and Atelopus varius, the variable harlequin frog, which has more variable coloration ranging from mostly yellow to this darker chevron form. Photo: Jamie Voyles, Project Atelopus

There are two types of golden frogs in Panama. This one, Atelopus varius is the variable harlequin frog, which ranges in appearance from from this browner form to a bright yellow color at some sites. Atelopus zeteki is the distinctive day-glow yellow  Panamanian golden frog. Photo: Jamie Voyles, Project Atelopus

Jamie Voyles

One small frog can offer a great deal of hope. This frog, an adult male Atelopus varius, belongs to a genus that is critically endangered – not a single species, but the entire genus – and it is, therefore, one of the most rare creatures on earth. The Panamanian golden frog Atelopus zeteki carries the additional distinction of being Panama’s national animal and it is a symbol of good luck for the Panamanian people – so much so, that in the past golden frogs graced the face of lottery tickets. So, the loss of Atelopus, due to the lethal disease chytridiomycosis, has been nothing short of a tragedy for Panamanians, as well as for the larger global community.

About a decade ago, together with my colleague, Cori Richards (now Dr. Cori Richards-Zawacki), and I watched these golden jewels vanish from the streams of Panama as the disease chytridiomycosis (“chytrid”) spread across the country. Cori and I were still graduate students; we had a youthful (albeit slightly naïve) enthusiasm for confronting the ominous conservation disaster. Cori focused on golden frogs for her PhD and sampled thousands of frogs before they succumbed to disease. I was interested in understanding which species would be affected by the disease, not knowing that chytrid would, in a few short years, cause a wholesale wipe-out of entire amphibian communities. When frogs started to disappear, our research projects ground to a halt. After all, no frogs means no frog research. So our advisers, perhaps wisely, advised us to move on. As we shifted our research projects to other locales, the golden frogs reached the brink of extinction; sightings of these now-rare creatures dwindled until they were mere rumors.

Jamie_Cori

Drs Cori Richards-Zawaki and Jamie Voyles, the principal investigators of Project Atelopus.

Fast-forward ten years. Cori and I had both advanced in our academic careers, but we were still haunted by the loss of Panamanian amphibians. When Cori visited the University of California, Berkeley, where I was finishing up my post-doctoral work, we spent an afternoon sitting on the green campus lawn and reflecting on our work of a decade earlier; despite the projections, we had not realized the full scope of what had been coming – especially for those beautiful Panamanian  frogs. In those days, we remembered, not very many people outside of a small group of researchers had even heard the word “chytrid”, much less tried to pronounce it. Few were paying attention to the global decline of amphibian populations; even fewer were aware of Panama’s devastating loss of its national mascot and lucky charm. So, naturally, we hatched a plan to return. We needed to see for ourselves what remained of the Panama’s golden frogs.

We set about gathering money from conservation grants, one small award at a time. The news coming from field reports was grim, but we remained determined. We pooled our small pots of funds (including support from the Smithsonian and Project Golden Frog) and galvanized small research team (including Edgardo Griffiths, Heidi Ross and Matt Robak). Soon enough, we trudged the misty mountains of Panama, machetes in hand and hopes held high despite the overwhelming odds. We visited numerous sites where Atelopus varius and Atelopus zeteki were historically found, including all of Cori’s old golden frog sites. We followed rumors, tips and hints. After several months of surveys, after hours of climbing trails with heavy packs and muddy boots, we repeatedly stumbled out of the rainforest disappointed, bug-bitten and empty handed. It would have been easy to admit that we weren’t chasing frogs anymore – now we were chasing ghosts.

Until, after months of searching, we finally found our glimmer of hope. On November 8, 2012 we found a healthy adult male Atelopus perched on a mossy boulder, unconcerned that a cross-continent scramble had been underway for months, just to find him. We sat in the rain, watching him and snapping pictures. We collected non-invasive samples for diagnostic and genetic testing and then, somewhat reluctantly, we said good-bye and wished him well. We were overjoyed…. and here’s why: One small frog in the wild suggests that there are at least some surviving populations out there. And if there is even one small population holding on, there is hope – not just for that population, or even for the species, but for the whole genus. Having evidence to support that hope, in the form of that single, small and beautiful frog, is something even better than holding a winning lottery ticket with his picture on it.

To find out more about Project Atelopus follow their field blog here.

Amphibian Ark training workshop for Latin America

With the support from USAID and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Amphibian Ark held the Amphibian Conservation Training for Latin America’s workshop in Panama last April. Twenty seven participants from Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Ecuador, Mexico and Panama shared experiences and information about design, implementation and husbandry of ex-situ amphibian conservation programs. The main goal was to guide amphibian conservation programs in Latin America to the next level by successfully caring for and breeding endangered species in captivity, population management and developing an exit plan with possible reintroduction methods.

Participants and instructors from throughout Latin America at the recent Amphibian Ark training workshop in Gamboa, Panama

Participants and instructors from throughout Latin America at the recent Amphibian Ark training workshop in Gamboa, Panama. Participants: Dalina del Carmen Cosme, Abbileth González, Diana Troetsch, Rigoberto Diaz, Lanki Cheucarama, Nahir Cabezón, Humberto Membache, Francis Torres, Javier Jara, Ana Gabriela Castillo, Maykell Morales, Mireya Dimas, Marta Torres, Erick López, Elida Leiva, Camilo Londoño. Jose Alfredo Hernández, Leiza Torres, Juan Daniel Jaramillo, Diorene Smith, Diego Villaquiran, Osvaldo Cabeza, Diego Medina, Didier Ramos, Andy Pascual, Marcos Ponce y Benjamin Walker.

Participants received intense theoretical and practical training from some of the best amphibian specialists in the region. Amphibian crisis, species status, medical issues and veterinary care, food culture, daily husbandry and biosecurity standards were some of the subject discussed, complemented with group projects and nocturnal field trips around Parque Nacional Soberania.

We thank Ron Gagliardo, Amphibian Ark Trainning Officer; Luis Carrillo, Diego Almeida Reinoso, Brian Kubicki, Brad Wilson VMD, Eric Baitchman VMD, Edgardo Griffith, Roberto Ibanez, Jorge Guerrel and Angie Estrada for donating their time and sharing all their knowledge and experience. And to all the participants for their interest, enthusiasm and work on amphibian conservation.

– Angie Estrada, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project

Rescue Project Successfully Breeds Endangered Frog Species

 

Limosa harlequin frog (Atelopus limosus) baby on a U.S. quarter.

Limosa harlequin frog (Atelopus limosus) baby on a U.S. quarter. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

The limosa harlequin frog (Atelopus limosus), an endangered species native to Panama, now has a new lease on life. The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project is successfully breeding the chevron-patterned form of the species in captivity for the first time. The rescue project is raising nine healthy frogs from one mating pair and hundreds of tadpoles from another pair.

“These frogs represent the last hope for their species,” said Brian Gratwicke, international coordinator for the project and a research biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, one of six project partners. “This new generation is hugely inspiring to us as we work to conserve and care for this species and others.”

Nearly one-third of the world’s amphibian species are at risk of extinction. The rescue project aims to save priority species of frogs in Panama, one of the world’s last strongholds for amphibian biodiversity. While the global amphibian crisis is the result of habitat loss, climate change and pollution, a fungal disease, chytridiomycosis, is likely responsible for as many as 94 of 120 frog species disappearing since 1980.

Between its facilities at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Gamboa, Panama, and the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center in El Valle, Panama, the rescue project currently cares for 55 adult limosa harlequin frogs of the chevron-patterned form and 10 of the plain-color form. The project has had limited success breeding the plain-color form of this species, and has successfully bred other challenging endangered species, including crowned treefrogs (Anotheca spinosa), horned marsupial frogs (Gastrotheca cornuta) and toad mountain harlequin frogs (A. certus).

Each species requires its own unique husbandry to thrive and breed. The project’s animal care team and scientists learn husbandry techniques as they work with a limited number of individuals. Jorge Guerrel, conservation biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, arranged rocks in the breeding tank to create the submerged caves that appear to be the preferred egg deposition sites for limosa harlequin frogs. Like other Atelopus species, tadpoles require highly oxygenated, gently flowing water between 22 and 24 degrees Celsius. The tadpoles’ natural food is algal film growing on submerged rocks, which Guerrel and his colleagues re-created by painting petri dishes with a solution of powdered spirulina algae, then allowing it to dry.

The mission of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project is to rescue amphibian species that are in extreme danger of extinction throughout Panama. The project’s efforts and expertise are focused on establishing assurance colonies and developing methodologies to reduce the impact of the amphibian chytrid fungus so that one day captive amphibians may be reintroduced to the wild. Current project partners include Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Houston Zoo, Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Zoo New England.

Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Genetic Matchmaking Saves Endangered Frogs

Marsupial frog

The casque headed tree frog (Hemiphractidae: Hemiphractus fasciatus), is one of 11 species of highest conservation concern now being bred in captivity in Panama. Females carry eggs on their backs where the young complete development hatching out as miniature frogs. DNA barcoding data suggest that populations of H. fasciatus may comprise more than one taxonomic group.

What if Noah got it wrong? What if he paired a male and a female animal thinking they were the same species, and then discovered they were not the same and could not produce offspring? As researchers from the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project race to save frogs from a devastating disease by breeding them in captivity, a genetic test averts mating mix-ups.

At the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, project scientists breed 11 different species of highland frogs threatened by the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which has already decimated amphibian populations worldwide. They hope that someday they will be able to re-release frogs into Panama’s highland streams.

Different frog species may look very similar.

“If we accidentally choose frogs to breed that are not the same species, we may be unsuccessful or unknowingly create hybrid animals that are maladapted to their parents’ native environment,” said Andrew J. Crawford, research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and professor at Colombia’s Universidad de los Andes. Crawford and his colleagues make use of a genetic technique called DNA barcoding to tell amphibian species apart. By comparing gene sequences in a frog’s skin cells sampled with a cotton swab, they discover how closely the frogs are related.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, headquartered in Panama City, Panama, is a unit 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.

Beth King, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Photo by Edgardo Griffith.

Frog Poetry and the Washington Post

Washington Post

On Dec. 30, the Washington Post ran a front-page story about the rescue project.

The year ended on a high note for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. William Booth, a science writer for the Washington Post, joined rescue project researchers on a field expedition and his story about the rescue project came out on the front page of the Post on Dec. 30. The story inspired one reader, Tim Torkildson, to share a lovely poem about frogs and the disease that is wiping them out.

Booth also did this NPR interview about his recent trip to Panama.

If you saw the story and are interested in making a donation to the rescue project, please follow this link to the National Zoo’s website.

THE FROG
by Tim Torkildson

The frog is an amphibian
Who thrives most ev’rywhere,
From the dry Namibian
To just off ol’ Times Square.
The ones who have a bumpy skin,
With warts and pits and nodes,
Are the closest Phylum kin;
We simply call them toads.
The bullfrogs in the early spring
give ponds reverberation
With their raucous verbal fling,
Attempting procreation.
The have a courtship ritual
that’s called, I think, amplexus,
Which gives them fits conniptual
Between the two odd sexes.
A little boy will manage to
Corral a tadpole, yes,
And give it quite a slimy view
Right down his sister’s dress!
And did you know the urine from
a pregnant lady will
cause some frogs to lay a scum
of eggs, with no male thrill?
And so they’re useful critters,
As the French will tell you so;
Their legs taste good in fritters,
Are mistaken for turbot.
And what of cane toads, mind you,
Where, if you lick the skin,
The psychedelics blind you
To sorrow, grief and sin?
But frogs, those little gargoyles,
Which are funny in cartoons,
Are engaged in lethal broils
That leaves their lives in ruins.
A fungus known as “Bd” kills
The frogs down in Belize,
Then jumps the valleys and the hills
So others it may seize.
The Costa Rica Golden Toad
Is now extinct, alack.
More are headed down that road,
Since habitat is slack.
Toxins give some frogs three legs,
Which doesn’t help them jump.
Instead they are like clumsy kegs
Who in the water flump.
Scientists preserve some frogs
In habitats in labs.
Dressed in their starched, stiff white togs
They keep meticulous tabs.
To save the frogs, oh please donate
A dollar or a yuan,
So the polliwog birth rate
Will someday be a shoo-in!

Superhero Qualities in Frogs

Red-eyed tree frog

Frogs are helping researchers answer important questions about health and medicine.

In many Native American cultures, frogs are valued for their medicinal properties and are considered to have healing powers.

Modern day science certainly backs this up. For instance, most frogs produce skin secretions of amino acid compounds called peptides that protect their sensitive and porous skin from bacterial and fungal infections. The presence of these peptides even discourages predators, which find the peptides unappetizing. Scientists have discovered an Australian tree frog with peptides that can kill bacteria resistant to conventional antibiotics.

Poison from a South American poison dart frog is being analyzed for use as a painkiller. One such chemical is a painkiller 200 times as potent as morphine.

The gastric brooding frog swallowed their eggs and gave birth through their mouths. During this time, the frogs’ stomachs temporarily stopped producing hydrochloric acid. This condition could have provided insight on the treatment of stomach ulcers in humans; unfortunately, both species of brooding frog are believed to be extinct.

Frogs seem to have some pretty powerful superhero properties. Not only are they full of amazing traits that can be explored for medicinal purposes but they also help keep pest populations under control.  Without frogs, our lives would be a lot different, and not in a good way. So show some love for our fellow frogs. They have our best interests at heart. We should do the same for them.

Cindy Hoffman, Defenders of Wildlife

(Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Food for Frogs at EVACC: What it takes to raise the inverts served for dinner

Big frog, little frog, golden frog, marsupial frog, endangered frog, and common frog; what do all of those guys have in common? They all need to eat.  There is no call-up home delivery in Panama, so here in El Valle at EVACC, we have had to roll up our sleeves and become invertebrate breeders (adding to an eclectic list of “other skills” needed in this particular conservation project).

Lisandro Vasquez

Lisandro Vasquez, rolling up his sleeves in the cricket room at EVACC.

The thing that most people do not think about when thinking about an amphibian conservation project is food for the animals. It would be incredibly difficult to have a successful breeding/conservation project without being able to feed the subjects at hand. At EVACC we think about insects, and other invertebrates, on a very regular basis. And we think about what they eat, in a captive setting, just as much.

ingredients

Some of the ingredients that go into preparing insect diets.

What do our frogs eat?  We have quite a few different species we look after, so we have quite a few invertebrates to offer to them.  For the most part we delineate food items to specific species based on food size, and the mode in which the frog eats.  The smallest food we have to offer is springtails, from the insect order Collembola.  They go through simple metamorphosis, and the different size nymphs can be sifted and fed to different size amphibians.

Springtail colony

Springtail colony.

Working our way up through the sizes we have the two different kinds of fruit flies; Drosophila melanogaster and Drosophila hydei.  The two fruit flies at EVACC do not fly and the smaller one, D. melanogaster, does not have wings. They have both been genetically modified to possess these traits. Fruit flies, with vitamin powders, are fed alternately to our diurnal species, and to some of the nocturnal species at different stages in their life. These two species of Drosophilago go through complete metamorphosis.

Drosophila melanogaster in fly cup

Drosophila melanogaster in fly cup.

Drosophila hydei colony

Drosophila hydei colony.

Domestic crickets (Acheta domesticus) make up a large portion of the diet for many species at EVACC.  This captive food colony requires quite a bit of time and space, but well worth it.  This insect goes through incomplete or simple metamorphosis as well, making it a food item for the smallest of frogs to large ones, as well.

cricket box

Cricket box crawling with one-month-old nymphs.

Cricket breeding room

Cricket breeding room, boxes upon boxes of crickets stacked up at EVACC.

Woodlice, sow bugs, or roly-poly bugs are also on the menu at EVACC. These invertebrates are not insects, but a crustacean from the family Oniscidea.  Leaf litter frogs love these calcium-packed treats.

Woodlice

Woodlice at EVACC.

The super worm (Zophobas morio) is a larva of a species of darkling beetle. Only the larvae are fed out to amphibians, as the adult are not preferred foods for frogs. This insect goes through complete metamorphosis.

We also have a colony of earthworms. Our colonies are not thriving at the moment, so most of the time we harvest from our own backyard. The other food item that we are currently not breeding, but do feed out, is the Neoconocephalus saturatus, a type of cone-headed katydid. We rely on a local family to help us out by collecting these katydids for us.

Last, but certainly not least, is the newest food item on the menu at EVACC; Blaberus discoidalis, a very large cockroach.

Cockroach

Cockroach on the menu.

Larvae pupa and adult stages

Larvae, pupa, and adult stages of Zophobas morio

Heidi Ross, director of El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center

(All photos courtesy of EVACC)

Rescue project partner Houston Zoo wins grant to continue work on amphibian biodiversity in Borneo

Brown bullfrog (Kaloula baleata)

This brown bullfrog is one of a number of species that Houston Zoo and partners will be able to continue studying in Borneo thanks to this grant. (Photo courtesy of Houston Zoo)

The Houston Zoo and our partners at Hutan, Cardiff University and the Danau Girang Field Center (DGFC) were recently awarded a Conservation Endowment Fund (CEF) grant from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

The grant will allow the Zoo and our partners to build on the amazing work for the conservation of biodiversity that has been accomplished in Sabah in Borneo by Hutan and DGFC over the last few decades.

The primary threats in the area are the loss of primary and secondary forests to oil palm plantations. In 2008, Australian amphibian conservation biologist Dr. Graeme Gillespie began to work with Hutan and DGFC to include amphibians in their research and conservation programs.

Since 2008 they have intensively sampled the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary and surrounding oil palm plantations to assess the amphibian fauna of the area. Results of the first phase were published in Biological Conservation earlier this year (Gillespie et al. 2012 152 (2012) 136–1440).

This grant will specifically address some of the questions relating to the value of the secondary forests for amphibian biodiversity by increasing the sampling done in primary areas. Once the dataset is assembled, we will be able to use this information to make additional recommendation for forest management.

Brian Hill, Houston Zoo

The Wyoming Toad: Almost extinct in America’s backyard

Wyoming toad

In 1993 what was thought to be the last 10 living toads were captured at Mortenson Lake and brought into captivity to start a breeding program. (Photo courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)

The Wyoming toad (Bufo hemiophrys) was discovered in 1946 by Dr. George T. Baxter,  a University of Wyoming professor. This toad was originally considered a subspecies of the Canadian toad (Bufo hemiophrys). The historic range of the toad included flood plains of the Big and Little Laramie Rivers and the margins of ponds in the Laramie Basin within 30 miles of the city of Laramie, Wyo.

Wyoming toad tadpoles

More than 100,000 tadpoles and toadlets have been reintroduced since 1995. (Photo courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)

Wyoming Toads In Decline

  • Once was one of the most plentiful vertebrate species in the Laramie River Basin Wyoming.
  • Rapid declines in the toad population seen in the 1970’s, the exact cause of these declines is unknown. Possible causes include aerial spraying of pesticides, chytrid fungus, red-leg disease and habitat alteration.
  • Federally listed as an endangered species in January of 1984.
Wyoming toads eggstrand

The Wyoming toad was declared “extinct in the wild” and still is. (Photo courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)

US Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Plan

  • The first Wyoming Toad Recovery Group was formed in September 1987.
  • In 1993 what was thought to be the last 10 living toads were captured at Mortenson Lake and brought into captivity to start a breeding program.
  • The Wyoming toad was declared “extinct in the wild” and still is.
  • The first successful captive reproduction of the toad occurred in 1994 at the Sybille Wildlife Research and Conservation Center in Wyoming.
  • Local land owners provide safe harbor sites for the reintroduction of Wyoming toads.
  • More than 100,000 tadpoles and toadlets have been reintroduced since 1995.
  • Sites are surveyed annually to monitor population numbers. So far we have seen mixed results.

American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP)

  • The SSP was formed in 1996.
  • Only seven AZA accredited zoos and two Fish and Wildlife facilities participate in the SSP program by breeding toads.
  • Volunteers from zoos travel to Laramie to assist in surveys for toads each summer.

For more information, visit www.wyomingtoad.org

Della Garelle, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo