Frog Rescue Team Wins Prestigious Conservation Medal

Heidi Ross and Edgardo Griffith received the prestigious Conservation Medal from San Diego Zoo Global for their work with frogs. (Photo by Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian

Congratulations to Edgardo Griffith and Heidi Ross Griffith of the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC) and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute who received the prestigious Conservation Medal from San Diego Zoo Global on Wed., Aug. 1. Previous winners of the award include primate researcher Jane Goodall, natural history film presenter Sir. David Attenborough and Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson.

The pair was selected for the Medal and a $10,000 prize in the category Conservation-in-Action for their pioneering wildlife conservation efforts to create amphibian survival colonies in Panama. In the award letter the San Diego Zoo’s Board of Trustees stated: “Your program serves as a groundbreaking model for the development and successes of similar programs worldwide.”

EVACC, founded by the Houston Zoo, joined forces with the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project to save twenty target species from a devastating disease caused by a fungus by learning how to breed them in captivity.

Q&A with EVACC’s Frog Heroes

Heidi Ross and Edgardo Griffith

Heidi Ross and Edgardo Griffith run a facility in Panama that is a safe haven for more than 60 species of frogs. (Photo by: Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Last fall I had the privilege to spend some time at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC) in El Valle, Panama. At the time I described it as a frog lover’s heaven. It is also an impressive safe haven for Panama’s national animal, the Panamanian golden frog, and about 60 other struggling species. I had an opportunity to sit down with both Edgardo Griffith and Heidi Ross, who run EVACC, and here is some of what these frog heroes had to say about their important work.

What is EVACC’s role in the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project?

Edgardo Griffith, Director of EVACC: Our role is to be part of the whole conservation effort. In the beginning, we were all working separately. In Panama City especially, there wasn’t much going on in the way of amphibian conservation. Fortunately, the National Zoo and our other partners, such as the Houston Zoo, were also alarmed by the fact that so many amphibians were disappearing because of this chytrid fungus. Now that EVACC is involved with the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, we can make an even bigger effort toward amphibian conservation. It’s also encouraging for people to see that an international group of people are working toward the amphibian conservation of our country. What we focus on here at EVACC is identifying a group of species that we know, if we don’t do something now, they will go extinct. They go on our priority list. We find those species and bring them to our facility to study and care for them and provide a safe and comfortable breeding environment.

How did you get involved with amphibian conservation?

Heidi Ross, Associate Director of EVACC: I first came to Panama in 2000 with the Peace Corp. and worked with them for four years. I started doing volunteer work on the weekends and surveying for frogs, which is when I met Edgardo. I had studied biology in college at Luther but to go out into a tropical rainforest at night and see these frogs was unbelievable. After that, I started going out more and more to learn about the frogs in Panama.

Edgardo: After 3 ½ years of studying biology and parasitology at the University of Panama, I got invited to go to the field and look for snakes and frogs for a field seminar. I wasn’t really happy about that. I didn’t want to go in to the jungle at night. It’s wet, dark, dangerous… You just don’t do that! I was just a normal student living in Panama City so that did not sound like fun to me. But thank god I got convinced to go. When I started finding all the different frogs, it was amazing. I had never seen anything like it and the habitat was just so beautiful. I fell in love.

What is it about frogs that make them so special?

Golden frogs at EVACC

EVACC is the only place in Panama where the country's national animal, the Panamanian golden frog, exists. (Photo by: Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Heidi: Because they’re the coolest! I’m from Wisconsin and never really thought twice when I would see a frog outside or in my yard, but once you come to the tropics, it changes everything. The diversity here is just so enormous! You can see the frogs’ hearts beating, hear different calls, see how they utilize and manipulate their habitat. It amazes me that there are species upon species here and they all share the same space and work together. We could learn from them.

Edgardo: If you want to see an animal that really identifies a place or a healthy environment, find a frog or an amphibian because they are so sensitive to environment change or pollution. From a biology perspective, that’s a huge reason to love and appreciate frogs.

How does it feel to see these amphibian populations declining and disappearing?

Edgardo: I cannot quite describe the feeling of going to the field and not finding what you’re used to finding. You still see the rocks covered with green moss and the insects in the clear water, but you don’t see the animals that, in my mind, identify these beautiful places, that make these places perfect. You don’t see the amphibians anymore. It’s sad and it feels a little unfair. I’ve been dealing with amphibian declines since 1999. You go into the field and see the amphibian population during the summer, then you go the next year and see nothing. Your animal friends that you love and appreciate are not there any more. It’s very upsetting. Even worse, this chytrid fungus could potentially be wiping out species we have yet to even discover. And this is happening to amphibians worldwide, not just in Panama.

Heidi: To not see frogs in a stream where you know they used to be… It’s anger, frustration, sadness. A species is gone. It’s not something that’s easy to deal with, especially after you’ve invested so much in caring for and protecting these animals.

Can you describe what it’s like to take care of the amphibians at EVACC?

Heidi: It can be very challenging. We’re trying to replicate Mother Nature, but she’s pretty good at what she does. It’s so much more than just dangling a cricket in their tank, which I think a lot of people think we do. We have to check the water temperature and quality and make sure the pH levels are balanced; plants and everything have to be clean. There are so many things to do in each tank. Ultimately, we’re not breeding frogs, frogs are breeding frogs. We’re just trying to provide conditions where they feel comfortable doing what they need to do.

Panamanian golden frog

The Panamanian golden frog once lined the streams in El Valle during the rainy season, but is now extinct in the wild. (Photo by: Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Edgardo: Taking care of amphibians is an art. You have to treat each animal as an individual and use special care, especially when you know that this animal may be the last of its kind. It’s overwhelming at first to know that you’re dealing with such an important species, so you have to be careful. If you stress out, the animals can feel it, and it makes them nervous too. Although it’s a lot of work, it’s very rewarding when we hear the males calling out, not because of stress, but to the females, and they’re ready to breed. We want them to be comfortable and engage in those natural breeding behaviors.

What is it like to discover a new species?

Edgardo: It’s always exciting and feels very rewarding. You’re out there working all day and night in the streams and then you see something that you’re not familiar with. It’s always exciting when that happens. We have a lot of new species that still need to be described because it’s quite a lengthy process. And we have to be quick about it. I found a new frog in 2005 and we got the papers out in 2007. By that time, the frog was already gone, disappeared for good.

What message would you give to the public about amphibian conservation?

Edgardo: Panamanians, especially, love the Panamanian golden frog. It is a symbol of our country. There used to be golden frogs everywhere, in the streams, being sold on the streets for 50 cents. Now the only golden frogs left in Panama live at EVACC. There are no more. I think this should say something to the people of Panama who love this frog so much. We need help. If we want to protect this beautiful symbol of our country, along with thousands of other species, we need help.

Heidi: We owe it to our planet, if we can do something to help, we should do something. Whether you like it or not or don’t even know what it is. We owe it to our planet to maintain biodiversity.

Lindsay Renick Mayer, with help from Lexie Beach, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Guppy Travels: Day Six

Edgardo Griffith and Heidi Ross

I had the pleasure to meet Edgardo Griffith, Heidi Ross and the more than 60 species of frogs they care for at El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center.

If El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center is a frog lover’s heaven, then Edgardo Griffith and Heidi Ross are the center’s angels. With more than 60 frog species at the facility, more commonly known as EVACC, I was spellbound, moving from tank to tank like a kid in a candy store. From the horned marsupial frog (Gastrotheca cornuta) to the crowned tree frog (Anotheca spinosa), each animal was sweeter than the next.

Brian Gratwicke, the project’s international coordinator, and Jeff Coulter, a project volunteer, and I drove the two hours yesterday from Summit Zoo to western Panama to visit EVACC. EVACC acts as another ark as part of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, housing about 10 of the rescue project’s priority species.

Golden frog jeep

What do frog lovers drive? Why a golden frog mobile, of course!

With only one other person to help them, Edgardo and Heidi care for all of the frogs on their own, every day of the week. While I was running around trying to say hello to each frog, they were moving through spot checks and misting the tanks, pausing only to proudly show me the newest tadpoles or metamorphs among the crew. The two biologists live for frogs—they have a car painted like a Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki) and a toilet top with the same pattern.

These are my kind of people!

Edgardo and Heidi’s outward love of these frogs is also a symbol of just how valuable a treasure they have at EVACC. The center houses the only population of Panamanian golden frogs—the country’s national animal—left in Panama. Panamanian golden frogs are extinct in the wild, found only in captivity at EVACC and a number of zoos and aquaria in the United States. Yet Panama still celebrates the golden frog and markets are filled with statues and artwork aimed at capturing these animals’ beauty. My suitcase will be overflowing on my trip back to the United States tomorrow.

Panamanian golden frog

Panamanian golden frogs are extinct in the wild and exist only in captivity at EVACC and zoos and aquaria in the United States. (Photo by Jeff Coulter)

I was reminded last night of how revered Panamanian golden frogs are in their native country when the owners of the restaurant we were at came out and offered us free cocktails and dessert in gratitude of the work that Heidi and Edgardo do at EVACC. To be part of a society for a week that actively cherishes frogs is something that I get to carry with me to the United States, where I aim to inspire the same type of interest in the rescue project.

I will also carry with me the memory of our hike today up to the top of Sleeping Indian Mountain in El Valle. Brian told me that this spot would have once been teaming with Panamanian golden frogs, lined up and down the sides of the stream. I didn’t see a single frog on the five-hour hike today, in fact, though Brian says that there are red-eyed tree frogs and tungara frogs a-plenty. I would imagine that such a sight today would be far more heartbreaking for anyone who remembers what it should be like and is faced with the grim reality. While I didn’t get to spot any golden frogs in the wild myself, I’m proud to be part of a project that could be responsible for filling the streams with gold once again someday.

Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo