Guppy Travels: Finis

Lindsay and frog

This little hourglass tree frog (Dendropsophus ebrecattus) was among my favorites that we caught in the rainforest.

One full week of being nothing but frog mad. When I close my eyes, it’s frogs that I see. When there’s a nearby chirp, it’s frogs that I hear. And when I think about conservation, it’s frogs that I feel. One full week clearly isn’t enough.

It’s enough, though, to give me a real sense of what, exactly, we are working so hard to conserve–the biodiversity, the beauty, the values and the hope. It isn’t a matter of “should” or “should not.” It’s a matter of “must.” That’s exactly what I told the guy at customs checking my passport upon my return to the States yesterday when he asked what I was doing in Panama. I’m sure he didn’t expect a lecture about why it’s important for us to save frogs–or for me to write down the website of this project–but I hope that he got the message.

I left Panama yesterday with an even stronger conviction, if that’s possible. I am relieved that there are those among us who are dedicated to biodiversity and to preserving what this beautiful planet has to offer. Those who understand the difference between using and abusing power. Amphibians have strong advocates and I will continue to help seek new recruits.

With that, I offer a few of my favorite frog memories from the week and am hopeful that others will be able to see these treasures in their natural habitats for years to come.

10. Frog talk. Every day I looked forward to lunchtime at Summit Zoo with the keepers; the project’s international coordinator, Brian Gratwicke; and project volunteer, Jeff Coulter. Although we didn’t all speak the same language, our shared passion carried us through.
9. Frog pit stops. No matter where we were driving to or from at night, Brian would roll his windows down to listen to the frogs. “We’re just going to make a quick pit stop. Is that okay?” he’d ask, even as Jeff and I were already jumping out of the car. Many grand excursions came out of these frog pit spots.
8. The frog whisperer. When Jeff interacted with the frogs in the wild, the animals that would leap out of my hands posed very nicely for photos in his. It was delightful to watch the delicate way he held the animals.

Brian and cane toad

The rescue project's international coordinator, Brian Gratwicke, shows some love for the cane toad (Bufo marinus).

7. Frog lovers’ heaven. One of the trip’s highlights was wandering around El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, peering into one tank and then another, excited each time to discover whichever species was housed there. I had only ever read about most of the species in captivity there.
6. Amplexus. One day after the keepers put a pair of Toad Mountain harlequin frogs (Atelopus certus) together in a beautiful breeding tank, we found the two animals in amplexus, moving the project ahead more quickly than expected.
5. Frog calls. Brian, Jeff and I spent many nights out in the rainforest collecting frogs for photo shoots the next morning. On one particularly successful night, one little frog decided to call late at night from our porch, keeping Brian awake and giggling (which, in turn, kept me awake and giggling).
4. Leaf litter toad mystery. One evening on a night quest we were stumped when we were suddenly surrounded by the calls of dozens, if not hundreds, of frogs. I recorded the call and played it back to get them going again so we could locate them. After about 30 minutes of looking in the trees and finding nothing, I found a leaf litter toad (Bufo typhonius alatus) on the ground. Turns out this very common species had tricked us into thinking they were in the trees.
3. Frog queen. That’s how I think about the female harlequin frog (Atelopus limosus) of the highland variation that may be the very last of her kind. Every day that I was at Summit, I made sure to check in on her. If the everyone was as gentle with and respectful of the natural world as the keepers were with her and all of the other frogs in the ark, the rescue project would never be necessary.
2. Smokey jungle frog. A frogging trip to Barro Colorado Island quickly turned stinky after I nabbed a very large smokey jungle frog. Unbeknownst to me, a primary mode of defense for smokey jungle frogs is to squawk loudly, rather like a chicken, and to emit a mucus that smells foul. I only discovered this as it unfolded, resulting in both a squawking frog and a squealing/swearing/panicked Lindsay.
1. Sierra Llorona frogs. One day we ventured to Sierra Llorona, which is the origin of the lowland variation of the harlequin frogs (Atelopus limosus) that we have in captivity at Summit. To see these animals in the wild was  thrilling–and to top that, the first frog that I caught was a female (an unusual find). We swabbed about 10 frogs to test for chytrid, but that female was my favorite. I set her free with the wish that she is chytrid free and ready to reproduce and that that will be the future for these animals–and the reality someday for all others we have in captivity.

Lindsay Renick Mayer, 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

Guppy Travels: Day Five

Brian Gratwicke and Atelopus glyphus

One of the ways to tell the frog's story is through photos that capture each animal's unique beauty in detail. Here the project's international coordinator, Brian Gratwicke, takes one of his incredible stylized frog shots.

Anyone who’s been out in the woods at night has heard the call of a frog. Sometimes it’s from a female to a nearby male looking for some romance. Sometimes it’s from a whole camp of males hoping to impress a very picky female. After just a few days in the Panamanian rainforest, I have learned to identify the call of the tungara frog (and can hear one out my window right now), the gladiator frog and the red-eyed tree frog. I’m still working on learning the many other big noises that come from these small creatures.

Although the sounds that frogs make are as varied as the animals themselves, there’s one thing frogs can’t do: talk. That’s where I come in.

Frogs have an important story to tell. It’s one about a fungus that is wiping out their kind worldwide and spreading rapidly. It’s one about those among the Earth’s most powerful species who are doing something to save the animals and it’s about those who don’t much care. Through the frogs’ eyes, it’s a story that has evolved along with the planet since the time of the dinosaurs and a story that still has a very uncertain ending.

Shipping container

To bring frogs into captivity, rescue members and volunteers have to transform this shipping container...

Rescue pod

...into a rescue pod like this, which already houses a number of frogs and is the pod I've worked in this week.

The frogs at Summit Zoo were able to tell their story to a reporter who came to visit today and my job—the conservation action that I have to offer—is to ensure that reporters help get the word out and that we connect with as many people as possible in Panama, the States and, well, everywhere else. We need people to care and then we need people to take action. We need this to happen very quickly, before chytrid spreads to those places that are home to the rescue priority species we’re still trying to make room for.

Right now we’re already pushing capacity with the newbie Pirre Mountain frogs (Atelopus glyphus) in quarantine, awaiting their turn to re-locate to a rescue pod. But their rescue pod still looks more like what it was originally created to be—a shipping container.

Ed Smith

Spreading the word requires the interest of reporters around the world. Ed Smith, a biologist at the National Zoo, helps a film crew work with Panamanian frogs at the Zoo's Amazonia Exhibit.

Outfitting the pods for the frogs takes a tremendous amount of work. Once we receive the shipping industry’s donation, we need to turn it into an ark by setting up life support systems, from air conditioning to filtration to lighting. This week it took me two hours to make just three false bottoms (tank bottoms that prevent the frog from escaping through a filtration pipe) and about an hour to put together about 20 lights. Really we’re just doing this one or two people at a time.

This takes time and this takes money. Thanks to a grant from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, the rescue project was able to hire someone to coordinate and recruit volunteers—and volunteers are essential to building capacity we need.

So my shameless plug in the midst of a week of being nothing but frog mad: If you want to be among the good guys in the story of the frogs, come to Panama to volunteer. Or donate money. Or help with the campaign we’ll be announcing next week. Or just do whatever you can to help us spread the word, whether on Facebook, Twitter or at your next dinner party. When the words stop, so, too, will the frog calls.

And that’s a silence I don’t think the world can bear.

Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Guppy Travels: Day Four

Jorge Luis Guerrel Soriano

Jorge Luis Gurrel Soriano, one of the project's frog keepers, shows me how to feed one of the La Loma tree frogs in the rescue pod.

It’s official. When it comes to spotting La Loma tree frogs (Hyloscirtus colymba), I just don’t have what it takes. These light green frogs plaster themselves to the underside of leaves and blend right in—a testament to Mother Nature’s brilliant design.

Of the 24 La Loma tree frogs that I was assigned to find in the tanks in the rescue pod yesterday, I found only 10. That’s 42 percent, or a solid F in most classrooms. Pretty freaking lousy.

It didn’t much matter, though, just as it didn’t much matter that my primary task yesterday was to do spot checks (read: find the frogs, clean their poo). I was just thrilled to be in close contact with the animals. In addition to performing spot checks in the rescue pod that is up and running, I’ve given the frogs their breakfast and helped with providing medication this week. This has all made me very appreciative of what the rescue project’s five keepers are doing behind the scenes to keep the frogs alive.

Frog mug

The best tea steeper I've ever seen.

There’s Angie and Jorge, the primary frog keepers, who handle the animals delicately, but in a way that suggests they know exactly what they’re doing and that they’re good at it. Angie gets up around 4:30 every morning to make it to work, which is probably why she drinks plenty of tea in the morning—steeped in a large plastic cup with a cartoon frog sketched on it. The keepers use these plastic cups otherwise for crickets and other froggie food items.

Jorge apparently has just the right touch—I watched, captivated, as he skillfully provided medical care for one of the frogs. He’s also completed the creation of two beautiful breeding tanks during my time here and tomorrow I’ll have a chance to watch him move four Toad Mountain harlequin frogs (Atelopus certus) to their new homes and introduce them to their new mates.

Then there’s Rousmery and Nancy, who shatter the stereotype that girls will run shrieking from the room at the sight of a creepy crawly. These two work the entire day straight in a room that is full of crickets. It sounds like nighttime and smells like, well, I suppose it smells a whole lot like cricket poo.

Rousmery Bethancourt

Rousmery Bethancourt, who taught me how to identify female crickets, has helped ensure that the frogs are well fed.

These two women are in charge of caring for the crickets and other insects the frogs eat. They have to develop and modify breeding techniques to ensure that the food doesn’t run out. Yesterday Rousmery and Nancy reported that they’ve got 85 boxes of crickets—too many for the frogs here at Summit, so we’ll take the leftovers to the other project facility, El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, on Friday. After months of trying to figure out how to produce enough crickets, too many insects is a blessing.

Lastly, there’s Lanky, who is the jack of all trades, helping do a little bit of everything, as needed. Unlike the others, who get up early and take the bus (or two) to work, Lanky takes a boat in from the Wounaan Village of San Antonio in Gamboa. He carves the most beautiful frogs out of tagua nuts, most of which are species we have in captivity. The details are so intricate it’s as though the frog might up and hop away at the first sign of a cricket.

These five are all biology experts and love frogs unabashedly. They are now among my frog heroes and if we can harness their passion and make sure it spreads, I am certain amphibians stand a fighting chance.

–Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Guppy Travels: Day Three

Harlequin frog (Atelopus limosus)

This female harlequin frog (Atleopus limosus) is the only female of her kind (the highland variation) that the rescue project has in captivity.

There’s something almost sublime about her and it’s not just the way we angle the light during her photo shoots. She’s of the highland variation of Atelopus limosus, a harlequin frog from Cerro Brewster, and she happens to be the only female of her kind that we’ve got in captivity.

Talk about pressure.

Before I left for Panama, I already knew about her and to be honest, to be perfectly honest, she was the frog at Summit Zoo I was most looking forward to meeting. I’m not sure what I expected. She’s certainly a beauty, but in my opinion, most frogs are. Did I expect her to indicate, in some way, that she understands the significance of her position in the Universe? And if I did, what did I expect that sign to look like? A knowing nod? A regal posture upon a bromeliad? An extra quick flick of the tongue?

What I do know is that every time I’ve had to open her tank over the last few days, to clean it or to take her photo, my heart has started racing. I imagine her escaping, getting hurt or getting lost, and taking with her the possibility that the rescue project will be able to save these dark brown frogs with striking green chevrons. The frog keepers at Summit Zoo must feel the weight of this responsibility every day with every frog in their care. I’m not sure I could handle the gravity of that responsibility with the same level of grace that I’ve seen in them.

The reality, of course, is that one female isn’t going to be enough to build a genetically diverse population of these frogs. She was one of the frogs the project collected last year from Cerro Brewster in Panama’s Chagres National Park, where chytrid had spread rapidly, surprising (and, I think, momentarily devastating) our researchers who had hoped to beat the wave of the disease there. We haven’t stopped the search and we hope to find more females to add to our ark early next year.

Atelopus limosus tadpoles

The project's first group of tadpoles belongs to the lowland variation of Atelopus limosus.

Hope is really what drives the project. And really, how can it not? The situation may be dire, but there’s a song of hope in the call of one of the project’s male Harlequin frogs of the lowland variation in a tank in the middle of the rescue pod. There’s hope in the adorable adolescent Toad Mountain harlequin frogs (Atelopus certus) in tanks at the front of the pod. There’s hope in the far end of the rescue pod where a large tank holds what may be hundreds of tadpoles—a first for the rescue project. The tadpoles are not the highland variation of the harlequin frog, but the lowland variation, which is less threatened than their more colorful counterparts. Still, each step toward successful breeding marks a victory for us and provides an encouraging boost.

And perhaps that is what accounts for the sole female Harlequin frog’s seemingly ethereal beauty: in part because of her, we still have plenty of hope.

Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Guppy Travels: Day Two

Lindsay and gladiator frog

Before I had even set my luggage down, we were in the Panamanian rainforest looking for frogs.

The night quest—it’s not quite the childhood sport I remember. Sure, your heart is thumping rapidly and you–the frogger–have only moments to figure out the most effective way to wrap your hands around the frog without letting it escape. And when you finally do get your hands around him, you’re spellbound by the feeling of the animal perched there. But I had never actually caught frogs at night as a kid and in the first 24 hours here I’ve found myself on two nighttime frog hunts in the rainforest—one within hours of my plane touching down.

Hello, little frog. I flew 2,071 miles today just to meet you!

During Saturday night’s excursion, I held a red-eyed tree frog in my hand, watched as two tungara frogs in amplexus whipped up a froth of eggs, spotted more than one cane toad and got a good look at the hourglass pattern on the aptly named hourglass frog. Even before I laid eyes on a frog, though, I was swept up in the sounds of a richly diverse world. The chucking of the tungura frogs calling to mates, the chirping of the red-eyed tree frog as air pushes through its larynx. If these are the prima divas (and divos) in the opera of the natural world, then the insects are definitely the orchestra.

Gladiator frog

Although red-eyed tree frogs are quickly becoming one of my favorite species, this gladiator frog stole my heart on our second night of frogging.

We also ran into a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute frog researcher in the forest. As I understand it, he was studying what combination of sounds and vibrations elicit a response—vocal and physical—from a potential mate. With his camera, we were able to see the world through infrared, including an unknowing red-eyed tree frog who looked eerily supernatural through this lens.

Last night’s excursion was a little different. Certainly more muddy and wet. My first spotting was of a pair of tungura frogs in amplexus. We collected them for a photo shoot before setting them free this morning. We also tracked down two red-eyed tree frogs by following their sound, standing under the tree that seemed to be making all the noise and peering up into the branches as two pairs of big red eyes peered back down at us. Perhaps my favorite discovery of the night was a gladiator frog the size of the palm of my hand. We didn’t collect this guy, but we did spend some time taking beauty shots of him. And oh how beautiful he was.

What is so markedly different about my hunt for frogs now, as an adult, is the feeling of gratitude and relief that I experience each time I see a frog in the wild. Relief that I am in the presence of a living, presumably healthy animal that doesn’t yet need an ark to survive the wave of chytrid in the way many of the highland species do. And relief that even though as an adult I am cursed with the ability to understand just how grave the situation is for amphibians, I am blessed to be part of a project that aims to ensure a biodiverse world for the next few generations of froggers looking for a good night quest.

-Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Guppy Travels: Day One

Travels to PanamaThere is the distinct possibility that, lately, my family and friends all think that I’ve gone mad. Frog mad. My Facebook posts are almost exclusively photos of frogs and frog-related news. When someone at a party asks me what’s happening, I’m likely to launch into a lecture about how we need to alter a value system gone awry in order to save frogs. My partner can’t get through the door of our apartment before I pull out my favorite frog photo of the day to show off. And today I’m headed to Panama, where I will work with some of the most beautiful treasures our planet has to offer—and to meet the heroes trying to save them in a world where one species is too dangerously preoccupied to pay much heed to others.

The truth is that I took to frogs early on, learning as a kid to catch bullfrogs in a nearby pond with my bare hands and racing frogs against my sister’s toads on camping trips. But it wasn’t until I started my job at the National Zoo and became a part of the communicatinos team for this rescue project that the interest was re-ignited—and now the passion is yet again aflame.

There’s more to it than a personal fascination with these animals. Somewhere in the detour from my childhood love, I lost my sense of connection to my home—the Earth—and all of the creatures I share with it. Like so many others, I let the very planet that sustains me slip from under me, feeling powerless among the extinctions and oil spills and burgeoning levels of pollution. My interest in frogs is the barometer by which I measure my connection to nature and my willingness to be a fierce steward of its health.

Frog kiss

I offer this ridiculously embarrassing photo as evidence of my love for frogs as a kid. (Yes, that's a frog in my hands.)

To a large extent, although many animals need our help, humankind’s effort to conserve amphibians is the barometer by which I measure the health of our values, as they relate to Mother Nature. How can we be responsible citizens of the world if we ignore the largest extinction event since the time of the dinosaurs? How can we not cherish a planet that offers a world so markedly different from those that neighbor us in the solar system and beyond? How can we not feel privileged to be the species with the power to protect all others?

Plus, frogs are just dang cool, from the golden poison frog that can make you numb just by perching nearby (they don’t call him Phyllobates terribilis for nothing!); to the lemur leaf frog who can rival any puppy in cuteness; to the Panamanian golden frog, who waves to potential mates—or even, perhaps, just to greet one another. The biodiversity in the frog world alone is one of the natural world’s gifts that we should celebrate and marvel at.

Today I head to a country that is rapidly losing this part of its natural beauty, like so many other places around the world. For the week I get to be among that beauty, to lend the rescue mission my words, fueled by my childhood passion. A week to be nothing but frog mad.

More dispatches to come throughout the week.

–Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo