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

Bender Blog

Kim Terrell

Kim Terrell, an SCBI wildlife biologist and David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow, led a team of scientists in conducting hellbender field work this year as a complement to her hellbender lab research. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Story)

The National Zoo’s 2012 hellbender field season was a wild one! We had a high-energy mix of scientists, zoo keepers and volunteers in the field crew this year, including:

Lauren Augustine, Barbara Watkins, Rick Quintero and Matt Evans from the National Zoo’s Reptile Discovery Center.

Brian Gratwicke, amphibian biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Brad Nissen, an intern in our Amphibian Research and Husbandry Program.

Dan Nissen, a retired hydrologist from the VA Dept of Environmental Quality (and Brad’s dad!).

Jeff Storey, a wildlife photographer and strongman (seriously – he plays in the Highland Games!).

Zoe Hore, a student from Newcastle, England (she wins the award for having traveled the farthest to get slimed by a hellbender).

JD Kleopfer, a biologist for the VA Dept of Game and Inland Fisheries and overall herpetological guru.

Altogether, our team put in about 400 hours of survey work and caught more than 100 hellbenders from nine different streams in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Seneca Indian Territory. Every hellbender was released safely, all the samples made it back to the lab, and the crew survived without a single case of poison ivy (impressive, since during one trip I inadvertently set up the mobile lab in a clearing infested with hundreds of little tiny poison ivy sprouts). Below are a couple of highlights from our adventure-filled summer.

Virginia – June 2012

We began our season in the rolling hills of southwest Virginia (locations are undisclosed due to poaching risk). During the first three straight days of survey work, the crew had been bumped, bruised, drenched, pooped on, stung, pinched, covered in sweat, and driven to extreme mental frustration. We had conducted a completely unsuccessful night survey (hellbenders are nocturnal, after all) and had stayed up into the wee morning hours making emergency repairs on broken field equipment. We even woke up early one morning to trek up a mountain and visit a timber rattlesnake den (gotta love working with herpetologists!). After all this, any normal human would be ready to call it quits. Fortunately, my team of bionic super-humans lives for this kind of stuff.

Hellbender search

Catching hellbenders--which are covered in a protective mucus--is tricky and involves overturning large, heavy rocks. (Photo by Lauren Augustine, National Zoo)

We woke up refreshed and ready for our fourth and final day of surveys in Virginia. We had been pretty successful in finding hellbenders thus far and had already collected our minimum number of samples, so we decided to try a new stream. Earlier in the trip I had struck up a conversation with a guy hanging out of a pickup truck in a Food City parking lot. He had seen the realistic hellbender model that I keep on the van dashboard and wanted to know where I got it (and, I think, whether it was taxidermied). He mentioned that he had some buddies who had caught some ‘benders at a fishing hole up the road, so we decided to check it out. But when we got there I started to have some doubts. Many of the big rocks were too embedded for anything to live under, and I started to feel like turning over each rock was just a formality before we could call it quits. There was no official record of hellbenders in this creek, and we were a good ways downstream from the fishing hole (which turned out to be just across the border into Tennessee, where I didn’t have a survey permit). But just when I was feeling like this was a complete waste of time, I reached under a rock and felt the soft, familiar squish of a hellbender. Yes!!! This catch was a big deal – it represented a new official record of a hellbender population in a state where the species has a very limited distribution. This kind of information is especially important right now because the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering this subspecies of hellbender (the eastern) as a candidate for endangered species listing. Knowing where a species occurs is the first step towards assessing its extinction risk. After another hour of searching we caught a second adult (a big fat one!) and a little juvenile. I couldn’t have imagined a better outcome – we found what appeared to be a high-density population with evidence of successful reproduction at a whole new site. What a fabulous way to end the trip!

Pennsylvania – July 2012

Back on the road again! This time we were tagging along on someone else’s surveys (which meant I got to focus on the science instead of the planning and logistics – woo-hoo!).  The surveys were led by Eric Chapman from Western PA Conservancy, and he was accompanied by a large, incredibly enthusiastic field crew. Let’s just say that you don’t want to be a sociophobic hellbender in one of his streams. I was absolutely astounded by how quickly they worked and the size of the rocks they managed to lift. I had barely finished taking blood and skin swab samples from one hellbender when Eric’s team wrestled a second one into the net. At several points he had to tell them to stop and take a break because I couldn’t keep up. I was working quickly to try and get a blood sample within three minutes of capture, and in most cases we met this goal. That’s pretty good when you consider that we had to carry the hellbender back to our equipment, glove up, and roll its squirmy, slimy body into a wet towel (think hellbender burrito) before we could draw blood from the tail.

Hellbender crew

The researchers caught more than 100 salamanders in nine streams. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Story)

While I prepared the blood for freezing, Kurt Regester (a researcher from Clarion University) took samples to test for rana virus and chytrid fungus – two very lethal diseases in amphibians. Next, one of our field techs rubbed the skin with a special Q-tip to look for ‘good’ bacteria that might help protect the hellbender from disease (part of a study led by Andy Loudon from James Madison University). Lastly, Eric marked it with a microchip, the same kind the vet puts in your dog or cat. The chip allows him to identify individual hellbenders and to estimate the size of the population based on how often they’re recaptured. We’re definitely learning as much as possible about each hellbender we find. This winter I’ll be analyzing all of the frozen blood samples to determine how climate change and stream water quality impact hellbender health.

By the end of our first day in Pennsylvania, I was wiped. We’d caught an astounding 16 hellbenders (a new record for me) and a mudpuppy (bonus!).  Unbelievably, we had several other trips throughout the summer that were just as successful. But we also surveyed several sites where the hellbender populations didn’t appear to be reproducing (indicated by a complete absence of young animals). For a long-lived, slow-growing species like the hellbender, reproductive failure can be the first signpost on a path leading to extinction. I’m hopeful that our efforts, along with those of our state, university and NGO partners, can help determine why hellbenders are disappearing from certain areas and what we can do to protect a species that has roamed the earth since the time of the dinosaurs.

For additional updates, check out Kim’s blog on the National Zoo’s site.

Kim Terrell, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

A Successful Golden Frog Day in Panama

Golden frog parade

Part of National Golden Frog Day was a golden frog parade.

August 10th through August 13th marked the celebration of Golden Frog Day for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. The week prior, the entire staff worked hard to put together a unique experience for visitors in Panama. STRI researchers in nearby Gamboa captured túngara frogs, Savage’s thin-toed frog, gladiator frogs, leaf frogs and glass frogs for public display. Everyone took turns blowing up hundreds of yellow and black balloons. Without such team effort, we would not have been able to pull off this event.

The rescue project does not have any actual specimens of the golden frog, Atelopus zeteki, and because the species is extinct in the wild, we were repeatedly asked where the golden frogs are. This allowed for us to discuss the importance of amphibian conservation and of the rescue project, EVACC and other amphibian conservation efforts around the world. Staff members educated visitors about the frogs that were on display, and scientists studying tungara frogs in Gamboa set up a small exhibit to educate the public about the research being conducted by STRI scientists.

Seeing children become so enthused about frogs instills a wonderful feeling in a herpetologist. Over the course of the weekend, nearly 1,000 children visited the event. Every day there was an activity station set up for the kids to paint frog masks, and winners were selected from each group. On Saturday, we had use of a bouncy house and bungee race, which undoubtedly led to many tired kids (and grateful parents). But the highlight of the children’s day was always the frogs. Tiny faces lit up and smiled time and time again every time they saw the tadpoles swimming, the túngaras hopping, or even just the size of the sedentary Savage’s thin-toed frog.

Golden frog day

Children and adults alike dressed up in the frog

Events like the one held that weekend demonstrate the importance and effectiveness of educational outreach. 1,000 children over the course of three days (along with uncounted adults and family members) mean that the rescue project was able to spread the word out about the necessity of preserving biodiversity. The fact that this weekend was dedicated to the golden frog, a national symbol of Panama that now exists only in captivity, underscores the urgency to address worldwide amphibian declines.

We thanked MEDUCA (Ministry of Education) who made it possible for 310 students to visit; Aid4Aids staff; kids and parents who made our Saturday an unforgettable day; all the staff at Summit Municipal Park, especially to: Melgar, Itzel and Adalberto. Lastly, a special thanks to the volunteers (Ximena, Jesse, Laura, Kristen, Jennifer, Jose Maria, Meghan, Andrew, Kelsey, Shanta, Natalie, Ana, Giancarlo, Alexis, Sangie, Dania, Anayansi, Kristel, Digna and Katherine) who helped keep everything flowing in an orderly manner the entire weekend!

Norman Greenhawk, rescue project volunteer; and Angie Estrada, rescue project coordinator

Happy Third Annual Golden Frog Day!

Panamanian golden frogs

In 2010, the National Assembly of Panama passed a law that honors the significance of one of the most striking amphibian species, the Panamanian golden frog. That day is Aug. 14. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

It’s National Golden Frog Day in Panama today and we’re celebrating here on the blog with some thoughts from the rescue project’s partners and other stakeholders about what the golden frog means to each of us individually, to Panama’s culture, to the ecosystem and to the world:

Adrian Benedetti, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
“The golden frog was the first animal to capture my imagination when I returned to Panama after living abroad for 12 years. The fact that this little animal had such a grip on local myth and legend makes it almost magical.”

“La Rana Dorada fue el primer animal en capturar mi imaginación al regresar a Panamá después de 12 años de estar fuera del país. El hecho de que este animalito ha tenido un impacto tan grande en la mitología y leyenda local lo hace casi mágico.”

Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
“I actively search for a little glimmer of neon-yellow peeking out from behind a rock every time I hike up a river in El Valle de Anton, but I’m always disappointed. I guess I’m chasing that same ecstatic rush that people get when they twitch a new bird species, or see a grizzly bear catching a salmon in Alaska. I think anyone who has seen charismatic wildlife in wild, natural landscapes where they belong can understand why it would be so thrilling to play a small role in bringing golden frogs back from the brink.”

Golden frogs

In the market at El Valle de Antòn, you will see golden frogs by the thousands either as enamel-painted terracotta or on hand-carved tagua nuts. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Edgardo Griffith, EVACC
“The only reason golden frogs and other species are going extinct is because of us. We are the ones that created the problems they and their habitats are facing, so we are the ones that have to find the solutions. It is our responsibility big-time, especially because the more responsible we are with the environment, plants and animals, the more chances of survival the future generations of our own kind will have. In my opinion, saving wildlife today is the only way we have to assure the survival of our very own species.”

“I recognize that not all amphibians are physically beautiful, but I love them all and consider all of them master pieces of DNA. However, the Panamanian golden frog is indeed colorful, elegant and very wise. Knowing a little bit about their natural behavior makes me appreciate them even more. I think they are one of those things where Mother Nature just went overboard.”

Heidi Ross and Edgardo Griffith, EVACC
“The golden frog is the most significant, important and charismatic amphibian in Panama. It is part of our culture and a very important member of the amphibian community. From an ecological point of view, it is one of those species that is extremely susceptible to even minimal environmental changes. It is also a species that has been used as a flagship to conserve other amphibian species.”

Panamanian golden frog

Panamanian golden frogs are extinct in the wild, but a number of zoos have successful breeding programs that aim to keep the species alive. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

“To witness an entire population disappear is just devastating, and heartbreaking. Now every time we go back to the sites where we used to work with golden frogs, all we do is remember where we used to find them and imagine what it would be like to hear their characteristic whistle-like call again. But after a few hours of not finding them, or hearing them at all, a horrible feeling of void and silence fills us up. This is the time to get out of there. In other words, it is sad, very sad to know that they are all gone now, just like living the worst day of your life over and over again. That is how it feels to go to the field now. They are some of the many ghosts of the stream now.”

Mason Ryan, University of New Mexico
“This frog is such an important symbol to Panama and now the entire conservation community that saving them is our responsibility. They are colorful, have neat behaviors, and are overall captivating. Future generations should have the joy and wonderment of seeing these frogs.”

“I spent five years looking for a closely related species in Costa Rica, the Harlequin frog, and never found one. I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to see any frogs of the genus Atelopus. But then I started my first field season at El Cope with Karen Lips. Early in the season we were walking one of the main streams in the park and there it was. An adult golden frog hopping along the bank of the stream. It was a magical experience to see this golden frog with block spots in real life! I am pretty sure I was smiling the next two days. It was a dream come true to see one of these animals in its natural habitat. Over the years I saw dozens more and never tired of seeing them. I’ll never forget that first one.”

Matt Evans, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Panama’s National Golden Frog Day Events 10-19 August, 2012

Golden Frog Day is a national day of awareness in Panama that occurs annually on August 14th. This day was designated in 2010 to celebrate the Panamanian golden frog and promote amphibian conservation. Here is a detailed agenda of the many activities next week, in Spanish and translated into English below:

GOLDEN_FROG_POSTER

GOLDEN_FROG_POSTER

10-12 August: Summit Municipal Park, Panama City

  • Temporary frog exhibit and presentations by researchers
  • Student visits coordinated with the Ministry of Education (MEDUCA)
  • Recreational activities, face painting and games
  • Info: 6597-0768  parquesummit@gmail.com

14 August NATIONAL GOLDEN FROG DAY

  • Public Forum:“The cultural impact and state of conservation of the Golden Frog and other Panamanian amphibians
  • Presentations by: Richard Cooke, Edgardo Griffith, Roberto Ibañez
  • Earl S. Tupper Research and Conference Center, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama City. 6:00 PM
  • Info: 212 81 11   tejadas@si.edu

17 -18 August: El Nispero Zoo, El Valle de Antón – 7AM- 5PM

  • Golden Frog Parade,10:00 AM, EL Valle de Antón
  • Cultural Celebration, all afternoon, Friday 17 August
  • Visit the Golden Frog exhibit at the Zoo.
  • Student activities focused on conservation
  • Info: 6676-8094   egriffith23@hotmail.com

19 August: Punta Culebra Nature Center, Amador Causeway, Panama

  • Sand sculpture contest
  • Activities for the whole family
  • Presentations by experts
  • Creativity zone and games
  • Info: 212 8793  puntaculebra@si.edu

The Frog People

Rachel Page, STRI

Rachel Page, STRI staff scientist, studies the interaction between frogs and bats. When male frogs call to attract female frogs, they also attract predators, like bats. (Photo courtesy of STRI)

At the Behavioral Discussion Group at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama earlier this month, post-doc Justin Touchon presented a new study of egg-laying behavior in Dendropsophus tree frogs to a standing-room only crowd. Weeks after the rainy season begins, 30 plus species of frogs join the chorus at the edge of Panama’s Soberania National Park, and the Frog People arrive in droves.

“We don’t experience this concentration of frog researchers at any of our other field sites,” said Karen Warkentin, who brought several students with her from Boston University to study parental care and hatching plasticity in glassfrogs.

Mike Ryan from the University of Texas at Austin, Ryan Taylor, Salisbury University and STRI’s Rachel Page received significant funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation to study female responses to male robofrogs. They’ll learn how animals, including humans, integrate information through different sensory channels.

Karen Lips, University of Maryland, continues to monitor amphibian decline in Cope and in Darien Province. Roberto Ibañez and Brian Gratwicke will orchestrate the construction of new facilities in Gamboa for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. Corinne Richards-Zawacki from Tulane University also has a major NSF grant to study the evolution of Bocas del Toro’s emblematic strawberry poison dart frogs.

-Provided by Beth King, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

AZA Updates Amphibian Husbandry Guide

Amphibian Husbandry Resource Guide

The AZA has released an updated Amphibian Husbandry Resource Guide, a user-friendly source to aid in the development of successful amphibian conservation programs. With more thna 6,900 species of amphibians in the world, there is still much to be learned about their natural history and captive husbandry requirements. This lack of information and expertise can impede the urgent action needed for the 500+ threatened species in risk of disappearing within the immediate future. The zoological community and private sector have made great strides within the last two decades regarding amphibian husbandry and reproduction techniques, and will continue to develop new and innovative methods each year. However, as amphibian populations wane, it’s important to quickly and effectively pool resources, share expertise and learn from shared experiences to effectively remain ahead of the extinction tide. You can find a rich array of other resources on amphibians on the AZA website.

Cindy Hoffman, Defenders of Wildlife

Now Hear This

Is your volume turned up? Hear what this horned marsupial frog (Gastrotheca cornuta) has to say to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Dr. Della Garelle during an exam at an Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project breeding center in Panama. He sounds more like a baby than a frog! This uniquely vocal species is on the verge of extinction due to the chytrid fungus.

The female horned marsupial frog carries fertilized eggs in a pouch on her back and the eggs hatch as fully developed frogs! This particular species produces the largest known amphibian eggs.

Katie Borremans, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Frogs, Medicine and the Rainforest

The phantasmal poison frog produces a very strong toxin called epibatidine, which works as a pain reliever. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Despite the perception that many of our pharmaceuticals come from a scientist randomly mixing chemicals in a lab, many of our medicines are derived from wild plants and animals.

It’s a fiercely competitive world out there and nature resorted to chemical warfare long ago. Organisms evolved to produce these costly molecules to protect themselves from predators. From plants to butterflies to frogs, everything is in on the act.

Think back to the last time you took some aspirin. Did you ever think about where this widely used medicine originated? The active ingredient in aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid, is derived from a compound found in willow bark. Going back as far as Hippocrates (~400 B.C.E), people have used willow bark to ease pain and fever. The new compound is only slightly tweaked from the original to make it lighter on the stomach.

One of the most famous examples of frog poisons comes from the poison dart frogs of Central and South America. Some of the most toxic of them carry enough poison to kill several adult people!

I want to focus on one of them, the phantasmal poison frog (Epipedobates tricolor) of Ecuador. This little frog produces a very strong toxin called epibatidine. Epibatidine, as a toxin, targets the nervous system, causing paralysis and death with even small doses.

In 1974, Dr. John Daly at the National Institutes of Health discovered that secretions from E. tricolor worked as powerful pain-relievers at super low doses. How powerful? Try 200 times stronger than morphine, but without the addictive side effects.

The discovery hasn’t led to a drug on the shelf yet, but since the 1990s, a method of synthesizing epibatidine has provided researchers with all the test substance they need to find similar but safer compounds with the same effects, just like the discovery of aspirin. Even today, papers are still being published about new, promising molecules inspired by the epibatidine from this tiny frog.

The cautionary tale in this story is that not all E. tricolors produce epibatidine. Many species of poison dart frogs do not produce their deadly toxins in captivity because they eat a different diet than they do in the wild. In the wild, E. tricolor is losing its old rainforest habitat and moving down the mountain to banana plantations where they eat a different diet of insects than they used to. These individuals do not produce epibatidine.

In the end, it is not just a single species of frog or plant that matters. It is the rainforest ecosystem as a whole. I think it’s worth saving if not for its beauty, then for the promise of easing pain around the world.

Andrew Franks, Zoo New England