Studying behavior and hormones to improve amphibian care

Shawna_CikanekBefore beginning my research at the Smithsonian, I knew surprisingly little about the status of the world’s amphibians. I was fortunate to be awarded an internship through Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine based at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, VA. Once I arrived in Front Royal, I learned quickly about the plight of amphibians around the globe and I remember listening in awe when I was first told about the Amphibian Arks in Gamboa and El Valle in Panama and how they hold the last remaining individuals of some of Panama’s most precious amphibian species. They had been brought into these assurance colonies because of the threat of a devastating fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) that is responsible for the disappearance of many species around the world. Initially, the harlequin frogs in the Amphibian Arks in Panama were housed individually, because when placed together keepers observed that males would fight and they were worried the fighting would unduly stress these precious animals. However, this quickly led to a space shortage as the amphibian ark filled up. The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, which helps coordinate the Species Survival Plan for Panamanian Golden frogs in the USA, suggested that we group the animals together in same-sex groups. They noted that this was working out just fine for frogs reared in captivity, but we wanted to evaluate whether wild-collected harlequin frogs would adapt to this group-housing situation.

Ethogram showing different types of aggressive interactions

Ethogram showing different types of aggressive interactions

My collaborators in Panama conducted a behavioral study of frogs placed in groups and monitored the number of aggressive interactions between the frogs, making sure that there were no injuries. Back in Front Royal, I worked with my colleagues in the endocrine labs to measure the amount of cortisol, a steroid hormone that the frog produces and can be detected in its poop. We did this by adapting existing stress hormone monitoring methods that the SCBI uses for many other wildlife species, like pandas and elephants. We found that, initially, the frogs housed together would interact aggressively towards one another. This aggression was mirrored by an elevation in stress hormones in the feces during the first week of the study. However, after the first 2 weeks, the frequency of aggressive behaviors declined dramatically, and the concentration of cortisol dropped back down to normal. Based on these results, we determined that wild caught harlequin frogs could be safely housed together in same-sex groups over the longer term, and this study helped us to greatly reduce space constraints in our ex-situ collection of amphibians. We hope that our new method may be useful to others wanting to evaluate husbandry issues in captive amphibian collections. Read the full paper in PLoS One here By Shawna Cikanek, Kansas State University

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

Meet Angie Estrada: Amphibian Ambassador

We are a small part of a much larger global effort called the Amphibian Ark program working to coordinate and support global efforts to prevent amphibian extinctions. Learn more about other cool amphibian conservation work at the AArk ambassador’s page and like their Facebook page.

Meeting on the Conservation of Golden Frogs

Meeting Participants from the golden frog PHVA workshop

Meeting Participants from the golden frog PHVA workshop

From Nov. 19 to 22 a group of scientists from as far as Australia met at the Hotel Campestre for The Golden Frog Population Habitat Viability Analysis workshop. The participants from around the world met to share information on the current status of Panamanian golden frogs in captivity and in the wild. They began an open dialog about concerns regarding Panamanian golden frog conservation, education and community engagement, as well as how to create a framework to coordinate and guide the work of those dedicated to the golden frog recovery. 

The meeting was convened by the Project Golden Frog and the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project  and facilitated by the IUCN Conservation Breeding Specialist Group with support form the Anela Kolohe Foundation and the Shared Earth Foundation.

The Move to Gamboa

November was the culmination of a year of incredibly hard work for us in Panama. We finally moved into our beautiful our beautiful new frog conservation facility in Gamboa. Maersk Line generously donated 7 shipping containers that that once ferried ice cream and frozen vegetables around the world, but they now house a most precious collection of endangered Panamanian frogs. The new Gamboa ARC (Amphibian Rescue Center) is an incredible leap forward enabling us to more effectively tackle the amphibian conservation crisis in Panama.

We are incredibly grateful to the Summit Municipal Park, who have been our generous hosts for the first 4 years of our project, and to our project partners Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Houston Zoo, Zoo New England, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. We have relied intensively on each other for help over the last 4 years and it has truly been a team effort! Generous grants from USAID and Minera Panama were the primary source of funds used for the construction of phase I and thanks to them, we now have a world class amphibian conservation facility. We have essential back-up systems such as an emergency generator power, and backup air-conditioning so that frogs can be kept in simulated tropical montane forest environments, even in the event of a power failure. We are now getting ready to break ground on phase II, a new NSF-funded amphibian research lab, quarantine and office building that will be the hub of our new research facility for the conservation of endangered Panamanian amphibians.  

This week’s cute amphibian: White-spotted slimy salamander

White spotted slimy salamander - Plethodon cylindraceus

White spotted slimy salamander (Plethodon cylindraceus) Photo: Brian Gratwicke SCBI

White-spotted slimy salamanders are large, attractive, boldly marked lungless salamanders from the Appalachian region of the United States. they range from Maryland to South Carolina and have a thick tail and secrete a sticky white substance when handled, giving them the group the reputation of being ‘slimy’ salamanders.  These terrestrial salamanders are found under large rotting logs. They have an elaborate courtship dance where the male deposits a spermatophore on the ground that is then taken up by the female, the female lays her fertilized eggs in underground cavities where she guards them.  Some authors have noted worrying declines of this species, but they are still widely distributed and can be abundant in places. They are listed as ‘least concern’ by the IUCN.

Find out more about the National Zoo’s salamander conservation program here.

Cute frog of the week: Yellow Treefrog (Dendropsophus microcephalus)

The yellow tree frog (Dendropsophus microcephalus)  Photo: Brian Gratwicke Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

The yellow tree frog (Dendropsophus microcephalus) Photo: Brian Gratwicke Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Yellow treefrogs are abundant and widely distributed in lowlands from Belize to South America. This adaptable species prefers highly disturbed agricultural areas flooded grasslands and ponds and is classified by the IUCN as least concern because their populations seem to be stable or increasing in places.

These tiny frogs call from small ponds and swamps, where males aggressively joust for the best calling sites where they emit an insect-like ‘creek-eek-eek-ekk’ sound. If you have seen this awesome little critter send you photos to i-naturalist so we can improve the known distribution map. http://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/65373-Dendropsophus-microcephalus

Long Live the Frog: The 2013 Golden Frog Festival

THE HIGHLIGHTS
Participants: 6280
Volunteers: 44
School Groups: 34 (approx. 1000 kids)
Events: 9
Fliers Distributed: 1450
Frog Cookies Eaten: 100

MEDIA COVERAGE
Radio/TV Spots: 5
News Articles: 4
Media Websites: 4

The third annual Golden Frog Festival, consisting of events throughout Panama, united locals and visitors from around the world in a single mission: celebrating and conserving Panama’s amphibian treasures.

2013 Golden Frog Day Parade  in El Valle

2013 Golden Frog Day Parade in El Valle

The festival began on Sunday, August 11 at the Smithsonian’s Punta Culebra Nature Center, where staff members from the Gamboa Amphibian Rescue Center led discussions and animal demonstrations for visitors of all ages. Children competed to make the best frog sculpture on the center’s sandy beach, then moved to decorating their own golden frog masks. Visitors learned about the crisis facing the country’s amphibian populations—from the deadly fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) to habitat loss—and of different ways to help preserve these valuable species. It was a fun-filled day for all ages.

Frog sandcastle at Punta Culebra

Frog sandcastle at Punta Culebra Photo: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

The Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute (STRI) hosted several mid-week events in both English and Spanish. In STRI’s weekly “Tupper Talk,” Dr. Myra Hughey spoke on her cutting-edge research in how understanding the bacterial components of a frog’s skin can help elucidate ways to combat Bd infection. Hughey’s lecture targeted the scientific community, while the following day a public forum offered visitors of all backgrounds and ages the chance to hear from Dr. Roberto Ibanez, one of the chief scientists at the Panamanian Amphibian Rescue and Conservation (PARC) project; Lucrecia Arosemena, whose tireless efforts helped prompt the Panamanian legislature to recognize August 14, 2010, as the first national Golden Frog Day; and Dr. Justin Touchon, who humorously explored a number of interesting and little known facts about frogs. (For example, until his talk, I had no idea that some female frogs select their mates based on the complexity of their calls—or that those complex calls that woo the most females also make males more vulnerable to predators such as bats.)

GFD&parkour

In continued efforts to build public involvement, STRI and PARC personnel also spoke at La Rana Dorada pub in Casco Viejo, where Dr. Richard Cooke enthralled many casual passersby with his tales of the psychotropic properties of frogs and in a talk titled “It’s not easy being green,” Angie Estrada offered a moving plea for conservation and action. These talks proved so inspiring that by evening’s end, several audience members had decided to start volunteering with PARC.

Edgardo Griffith presenting a lesson on frog conservation in El Valle schools

Edgardo Griffith presenting a lesson on frog conservation in El Valle schools

Finally, the week wrapped up with events for schoolchildren and families at both Gamboa’s Summit Zoo and the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center. Throughout the weekend, visitors saw the frogs—including several golden frogs successfully hatched in captivity, learned about the valuable contributions amphibians make to the Panamanian ecosystem, and discovered how to help conserve these animals. In El Valle, the local golden frog parade featured floats and costumes galore—one child dressed as a golden frog princess; another, a morphologically accurate tadpole. After learning that golden frogs use semaphore, a form of hand gestures, for communication, some children compiled a dance to mimic their movements. As dusk fell in the mountains that night, I heard one shimmying teenage girl explain to another, “If I were a golden frog, this is how I’d call my mate.” Her hands circled her torso, then she raised her palms to the sky. From a distance, she probably looked like any teenager bouncing to the beat of her favorite song. But I was close enough to hear her explain, “And this is how I’d protect my territory,” and I knew this dance stemmed not from the idle energy of a teenager on holiday, but from an engagement that just might lead to action.

Kids on the Golden Frog Float on the 2013 Golden Frog Day Parade

Kids on the Golden Frog Float on the 2013 Golden Frog Day Parade

Somewhere nearby a woman exclaimed, “This year’s festival was amazing! Next year’s will be even better!” With your help, it will. If you’d like to be involved as a volunteer for amphibian rescue, please contact us. See you in 2014!

-Elizabeth Wade, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project Volunteer

Golden Frog ATVs!

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