The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Panama’s Ministry of the Environment (MiAmbiente) Participate in Frog Release Trials in Eastern Panama as Part of the Implementation of the Action Plan for the Conservation of Amphibians in Panama

Scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and officials from Panama’s Ministry of the Environment (MiAmbiente) visited the Mamoní Valley Reserve, where release trials are underway to release Limosa Harlequin (Atelopus limosus) frogs. These frogs were bred in captivity and are the descendants of frogs collected a few years ago in the same area.

MiAmbiente was represented by biologists Erick Núñez and Anthony Vega, technicians from the Department of Biodiversity of the Office of Protected Areas and Wildlife. They were accompanied by STRI staff scientist Roberto Ibáñez, director of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project (PARC), and Juan Maté, STRI’s manager for scientific affairs and operations and institutional liaison with MiAmbiente. PhD student at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation at George Mason University, Blake Klocke, who is currently conducting this research, hosted and guided this visit, together with his field assistant, Mirjana Mataya.

Some of the frogs are from the initial release trial conducted in the El Valle del Mammoní Reserve by Panamanian PhD students from Virginia Tech, Daniel Medina and Angie Estrada. They kept the frogs inside enclosures in this reserve to protect them from predators and so that they could obtain samples to determine if they were infected by the chrytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis). In a second release trial, Blake Klocke freed these and additional frogs. In this phase of the investigation, one of the objectives is to determine if it is necessary to keep in enclosures before releasing them completely. Some of the frogs were equipped with radio transmitters that allow researchers to follow their movements and estimate the size of their territories.

The visit with MiAmbiente officials was aimed at monitoring the release trials and the progress of research. Blake Klocke showed them how the radio-telemetry tracking system works using mini-transistors. This technological tool, applied to scientific research, allows us to follow the movements of these small frogs. Frogs without radio transmitters were certainly harder to observe. Likewise, measurements of the size and weight of frogs were obtained and samples of their skin were collected with swabs for detection of the chytrid fungus. At this point, the frogs have been kept close to the point of release. However, based on the data being collected, researchers will be able to estimate the future dispersion and survival of the frogs.

The initiative to advance the release trials is part of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, known colloquially as PARC and administered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute under the supervision of MiAmbiente. This project is a collaboration among several organizations including Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Houston Zoo, Smithsonian National Zoological Park and New England Zoo. It has been supported by a long list of sponsors, among them Minera Panama SA.
PARC has two facilities, one at El Níspero Zoo in El Valle de Antón, Coclé, now known as PARC El Valle and the other in Gamboa in the Panama Canal Watershed, known as PARC Gamboa. The PARC El Valle facility received the first rescued frogs, which had been temporarily kept at the Hotel Campestre in 2007, an initiative of the El Nispero Zoo and the Houston Zoo, with funding from the latter as an emergency response to the reduction in numbers of amphibians due to the mortality caused when the fungus arrived in El Valle de Antón in 2006. In 2009, this facility in El Valle came under the umbrella of the PARC project, and has continued its operation within the El Níspero Zoo. In addition, in 2009, PARC Gamboa initially began with the building of facilities at Summit Municipal Park, before relocating to its current location in Gamboa in 2012 to improve and expand capacity for ex-situ conservation of amphibians and create an additional backup at a second site. The PARC project is characterized by the result of the joint effort of multiple organizations and large numbers of people who, over the years, have contributed to the conservation of Panama’s amphibians.

MiAmbiente and the STRI have an inter-agency collaborative agreement under which they work closely on the implementation of the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan in Panama approved in 2011. The Plan aims to ensure the conservation of amphibian populations through the implementation of actions that promote research and management, both in situ (in their habitat) and ex situ (outside their habitat) in addition to promoting the education of society in general. This plan integrates specific research, conservation and education activities in the short and medium term with the goal of safeguarding our natural heritage.

This visit served as a joint verification by STRI and MiAmbiente on the progress of the project. An important milestone has been reached in the implementation of this Action Plan, as this is the first time in Panama that an amphibian conservation project is executing the phase where the behavior and survival of frogs reared in captivity is being investigated by exposing the animals to their natural environment. The results of these release trials will be of great use in guiding future efforts to re-establish the populations of certain species of frogs at sites where they have decreased in abundance or disappeared.

Golden frogs with unique communities of skin bacteria survive exposure to frog-killing fungus  

Chytridiomycosis is an amphibian disease that has wiped out populations of many frog species around the world, including the charismatic Panamanian golden frog, which now exists only in captivity in the United States and Panama.

Research published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society found unique communities of skin bacteria on golden frogs that survived chytridiomycosis. The original experiment was designed to test the idea that antifungal probiotic bacteria may be used to prevent chytridiomycosis in captive golden frogs. Approximately 25 percent of the golden frogs eventually cleared infection, but their survival was not associated with the probiotic treatment, rather it was associated with bacteria that were present on their skin prior to the start of the experiment. In fact, the probiotic antifungal bacteria did not appear to establish on the golden frog skin at all.

Study authors Matt Becker and Shawna Cikanek work to inoculate frogs with beneficial bacteriaMatthew Becker, a fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute who conducted the experiment as part of his PhD research at Virginia Tech University, says it is unclear why the microbes did not linger on the skin, but he thinks that the way he treated the frogs – with a high dose of bacteria for a short duration – may be part of the reason.

“I think identifying alternative probiotic treatment methods that optimize dosages and exposure times will be key for moving forward with the use of probiotics to mitigate chytridiomycosis,” Becker said.

Brian Gratwicke, amphibian conservation biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute where the experiment was conducted, says that he was disappointed that they did not find a ‘silver bullet’ to cure chytridiomycosis in this species, but noted that the results do advance our understanding of this disease.

“Previous experiments found that golden frogs are highly susceptible to chytridiomycosis, so any survival is cause for hope,” said Reid Harris, director of disease mitigation at the Amphibian Survival Alliance. “The tricky piece is figuring out the survival mechanism, and this exciting research gives some new insights in that direction.”

This research also provides additional support for the importance of symbiotic microbes, or the ‘microbiome,’ for the health of their hosts, ranging from sponges and corals to humans.

“In all multi-cellular organisms, we have suites of microbes performing critical functions for their hosts, and the same appears to be true for golden frogs,” said Lisa Belden, who supervised the study at Virginia Tech University.

The team, led by Becker, now plans to determine if this study is repeatable by investigating whether the golden frog’s skin microbiota can predict the susceptibility to chytridiomycosis. They will also investigate whether the bacteria associated with the surviving frogs from this study can be used as a probiotic treatment to prevent infections of golden frogs without a ‘protective’ microbiota.

“The ultimate goal of this research is to identify a method to establish healthy populations of golden frogs in their native habitat, despite the presence of chytridiomycosis in the environment,” Becker said.

Citation: Matthew H. Becker, Jenifer B. Walke, Shawna Cikanek, Anna E. Savage, Nichole Mattheus, Celina N. Santiago, Kevin P. C. Minbiole, Reid N. Harris, Lisa K. Belden, Brian Gratwicke (2015) Composition of symbiotic bacteria predicts survival in Panamanian golden frogs infected with a lethal fungus. Proc. R. Soc. B: 2015 282 20142881; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.2881. Published 18 March 2015

Golden Frog Successfully Bred in Captivity in Panama

Juvenile Panamanian golden frog, reared at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center

Juvenile Panamanian golden frog, Atelopus zeteki, reared at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center

Now in its fourth year, Panama’s Golden Frog Day, August 14, is a salute to Panama’s cultural and ecological heritage with the golden frog, one of the most iconic symbols of Panama. The national legislation promotes species preservation and maintains an objective to promote conservation and protection of this amphibian species. This year the country can celebrate the successful breeding of the Panamanian golden frog at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC), located inside the Níspero Zoo in El Valle de Antón. The egg clutch laid on November 24, 2012 successfully developed into tadpoles and were raised to form a group of 42 healthy young golden frogs.

“Bringing wild animals into captivity is only the beginning of the work that we do in our facility. Fusing applied technology, available resources, and human innovation to create Mother Nature, inside, is the challenge, “ said Heidi Ross, Director of EVACC. “Learning from our past experiences we focused a lot of energy on diet, and as the saying “you are what you eat” applies to humans, it also is essential for amphibians”.

EVACC director, Heidi Ross with a box of juvenile captive-reared golden frogs (Atelopus varius).

EVACC director, Heidi Ross with a box of juvenile captive-reared golden frogs (Atelopus varius).

“We are extremely proud of our conservation team in Panama,” said Peter Riger, director of conservation programs at the Houston Zoo, and one of the principal sponsors of this project. “EVACC has successfully bred both golden frog species in captivity and they have aggressive population management goals to grow the captive population to at least five hundred individuals for each species that I’m sure they will meet.”

The EVACC facility forms part of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. The Project collects frogs in areas threatened by the devastating chytrid fungal disease that has decimated amphibians worldwide. The hope is to learn to raise these animals in captivity until enough is known about the disease to allow researchers to release amphibians into the wild once again. Project partners include the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the Houston Zoo, and Zoo New England. To learn more about the project please visit the project’s website.

Contact: Beth King kingb@si.edu 202-633-4700