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

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

National Zoo Successfully Collects Sperm Samples to Save Endangered Frog

Gina Della Togna, an SCBI PhD student and native Panamanian, is one of the researchers in charge of the sperm collection procedure.

Gina Della Togna, an SCBI PhD student and native Panamanian, is one of the researchers in charge of the sperm collection procedure. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

With nearly one-third of all amphibian species at risk of extinction as the result of the deadly chytrid fungus, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo has taken a bold step toward preserving amphibian genes and the world’s incredible amphibian biodiversity. Researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, DC, have begun to collect sperm samples from the Zoo’s collection of Panamanian golden frogs (Atelopus zeteki), which are extinct in the wild.

Although researchers have collected sperm samples from other amphibian species such as Mississippi gopher frogs and leopard frogs, there are no publications detailing sperm collection methods from Panamanian golden frogs. SCBI’s colleagues at the Maryland Zoo have aided in the process, providing advice to the SCBI researchers about the method to collect the frogs’ spermatozoa using hormonal stimulations.

“We currently have three other species of Atelopus in captive assurance colonies in Panama,” said Brian Gratwicke, an SCBI conservation biologist who leads the Zoo’s amphibian conservation program to curb global amphibian declines. “If we can freeze some of their sperm, golden frogs will be a model to secure the long-term genetic integrity of other toad species in similar situations.”

Gina Della Togna, an SCBI PhD student and native Panamanian, is one of the researchers in charge of the sperm collection procedure. Even though this is still a fairly new endeavor, Della Togna said she felt that it was easy compared to collecting sperm from mammals. After hormonal stimulation, spermatozoa are excreted in the urine from the frog’s cloaca, a multipurpose opening from which feces, urine and gases are expelled. This is in contrast to mammals, which possess specialized structures for the expulsion of waste and reproduction.

Atelopus zeteki sperm

A Panamanian golden frog sperm

Although sperm collection from this species has been successful, finding the most efficient and repeatable stimulation protocol is critical. Then, identifying the right cryoprotectant and freezing method will be another challenge. Researchers suspect that the cell component most likely responsible for the movement of the sperm, called a mitochondrial vesicle, has a unique structure compared to that of other animals.

“The mitochondrial vesicle is a very fragile structure,” Della Togna said. “Protecting this structure will definitely be one of our greatest challenges.”

Even in the face of numerous challenges, the research team overseeing the sperm collection and storage of the samples remains optimistic.

Pierre Comizzoli, an SCBI gamete biologist supervising the PhD project  is enthusiastic about the prospect of this endeavor and is charged with studying the complex golden frog sperm structure with Della Togna.

“It is always exciting to discover new biological mechanisms,” Comizzoli said. “Spermatozoa from each species have unique traits that needs to be well understood before developing preservation protocols.”

Other than its genetic and natural significance, the Panamanian golden frog is a meaningful symbol of culture for Panamanians. Pre-Columbian peoples used to make golden “huacas,” or sacred objects, in the image of these frogs, along with creating legends about these renowned frogs, which endure in the Panamanian countryside today, Della Togna said.

“This species does not exist anywhere else in the world,” Della Togna said. “You will find pictures and sculptures of it in local markets, in indigenous handcraft sales, and on lottery tickets, among places. Hopefully this project will help to ensure that one day you will be able to see them once again on the banks of Panamanian streams where they belong.”

Phil Jaseph, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Cupcakes for Golden Frog Day


Last year on Golden Frog Day, Aug. 14, I made Panamanian golden frog cupcakes to share with our herpetologists at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. This year I’m giving you the recipe ahead of time so that you can make your own this weekend in celebration of one of the coolest and most beloved of frog species. You might even consider hosting a bake sale to raise funds for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project’s work!

Ingredients to make 2 dozen Panamanian golden frog cupcakes:

Two 9.1 oz boxes of marble cake mix (Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines, whatever you can get your hands on)
Two 16 oz containers of lemon frosting (Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines, etc)
Note: If you’d prefer vanilla frosting, get some yellow food coloring and mix it into the frosting.
One 16 oz container of chocolate frosting
One 16 oz container of vanilla frosting
Red food coloring (to mix with the vanilla frosting to make mouths) or one pack of Twizzlers Pull and Peel candy
Yellow food coloring (to dye the marshmallows)
One 12 oz package of chocolate chips
Cupcake liners
One 10 oz package of marshmallows or a bag of mini Oreos
Sandwich baggies or frosting tips

Cupcakes

Or make 'em 3-D!

Instructions:

Follow the directions on the box of cake mix and wait to frost cupcakes until they are cool. Frost either with lemon frosting or with vanilla frosting that has been dyed yellow. Next, cut the marshmallows into slices or halves, depending on how far you want the eyes to pop up. If you cut the marshmallows in half, dye the outside of the marshmallow with yellow dye and then affix onto the cupcake. If you cut the marshmallow thinner, put two slices directly onto the cupcakes. Put a chocolate chip on each marshmallow to complete the eyes. You could also try using mini oreo halves for the eyes.

Use a frosting tip or a sandwich bag with a hole cut in a corner to make the stripes on the golden frog’s face and nostrils with the chocolate frosting. Do the same with the vanilla dyed red to create the mouths. Or use Twizzlers Pull and Peel candy to make mouths.

Very simple! If you have other creative suggestions for making these cupcakes, leave your ideas in the comments section below. If you’re in Panama, don’t forget to check out our schedule of events to celebrate the second annual golden frog day. Anyone anywhere can enter our golden frog photography contest by joining us on Facebook.

Enjoy! And Happy Golden Frog Day!

Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Join us in celebrating Golden Frog Day

Panamanian golden frog day is Aug. 14.

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. This year, the Golden Frog Day celebration starts on August 8th and goes until the 14th with different activities in El Valle and Panama city. On Aug. 13, those of us at Summit Zoo in Gamboa will offer activities that help demonstrate the significance of frogs in ecosystems and why we should protect them. Here is a detailed agenda of the many activities next week.

Golden Frog Day Celebration Agenda

Monday, Aug. 8th to Friday, Aug 12th (El Valle)

8 am – 2 pm: Writing and Drawing Contest for students from elementary and high schools from El Valle.

Saturday, August 13th (El Valle)

9 am: Elementary and high schools, governmental and non-governmental institutions from El Valle and near towns will be part of a Golden Frog Day Parade on El Valle Principal Avenue.

7:30 pm: Play in honor of golden frogs. Title: “La India Dormida” by high school students from the Instituto Profesional Técnico de El Valle at San José de El Valle Church.

 

Saturday, August 13th (Summit Zoo)

10 am: Golden Frog Day Celebration with 100 Summit Zoo kids. First Frog Exhibit at the Zoo: Two common species and their amazing stories.

11 am: A sneak peek on Frog Conservation in Panama. Exhibit: Frogs food at the Zoo: flies, worms, crickets and more. What else can we do?

12 pm: Frog Fun! Games and educational activities with kids.

1 pm: Frog lunch and Frog cake.

 

Sunday, August 14th (El Valle)

11 am: Mass at San Jose de El Valle Church.

12 pm: Visit to EVACC

2 pm: Marching bands performances at Hotel Pekin plaza in front of El Valle Public Market.

We would also like to encourage all of our frog friends to enter their cool golden frog pictures or any other amphibian picture in our online photography contest. How can you participate? You just need to friend us on Facebook and upload your frog pics (one per person), then tag us and tell all your friends to “like” it. Don’t forget to post your name and email so we can contact you when you win! The winner will receive a specially commissioned traditional tagua carving of their winning frog made by Lanky.

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

Pocket Frogs teams up with rescue project to raise funds for frogs

PocketFrogs

Creators of this popular iPhone and iPad app, Pocket Frogs, are helping spread the word about and raise money for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project.

There’s so much to love about everyone’s new favorite free iPhone and iPad app, Pocket Frogs: the adorable and colorful little frogs that players guide through various habitats; the opportunity to breed more than 10,000 frogs to produce new, rare and even more colorful frogs; and the element of social networking, giving users the option to trade frogs with friends and even give them as gifts.

And then there’s the fact that for the last week, Pocket Frogs creator NimbleBit has used this popular platform to spread the word about the global amphibian crisis and help raise funds for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project via our text FROG campaign. With their help, we’ve been able to reach a new audience full of frog lovers and we’re bringing in some of the money that we need to care for and breed endangered species of frogs outside of the virtual world. For this we are very grateful, both to NimbleBit and to Pocket Frogs players!

The goal of Pocket Frogs, which was downloaded more than 1 million times in the first two weeks after NimbleBit released it, is to breed different frogs and maintain their habitats. Die-hard players aim to complete certain challenges that revolve around breeding a number of specific frogs of various colors and patterns. But it’s not just frog lovers singing the game’s praises—within one week, Pocket Frogs rocketed to the No. 1 spot for free iPad apps and the No. 3 spot for free iPhone apps.

I can certainly see why. Although I haven’t yet progressed much beyond breeding a green folium anura with a yellow pruni anura, I’m hooked. My nursery is filled with a rainbow of frogs—I’ve also got an egg or two in there ready to hatch in the next few hours—and the dragonflies in the pond don’t stand a chance against my frogs’ smooth moves. Today I even won the “frog basics” award, reached the second level and bought a new habitat. My own primary objective as I continue playing? To breed two frogs that create Panamanian golden frog-like offspring!

So from the frog rescuers at the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project: Thanks, NimbleBit, for your part in helping us save the real frogs!

Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Jeff Coulter: Confessions of a Frog Volunteer

Jeff Coulter and frog

As a volunteer for the rescue project, Jeff Coulter helped both to care for frogs at Summit Zoo and to build the second rescue pod.

Author Ralph Charell once said: “Nobody exceeds his or her wildest expectations unless he or she begins with some wild expectations.” I think that nicely sums up my recent trip to Panama as a volunteer with the Amphibian Rescue and Conservation project. To be candid, my expectations ranged from the mundane (constant cage cleaning) to the extravagant (finding a Panamanian golden frog in the wild). So by the time I got to Gamboa, I had no idea what to expect.

To try to share everything that I experienced in my eight days as a volunteer would fill up a number of blog posts, so I will try to stick with the highlights.

Building Frog Habitats: Sounds mundane and routine…is mundane and routine. And that’s how I thought about it at first.  But the more I thought about it, the more inspired I became. Sure it’s not the most exciting work around, but just about the time I thought I would hate doing it, I realized that I hated the fact that it needed to be done even more.  The project’s goal is to establish an amphibian ark where scientists can maintain healthy, genetically diverse populations of priority species. At one time Panama had more than two hundred species of frogs. Twenty-five of those have already gone extinct and as many as half of the rest are on the verge of extinction. If by hanging lights, and building cage bottoms I could play even a small role in helping keep a species from going extinct, I was more than willing to do whatever was necessary.

Spot Checks: The project has a number of employees who really give from the heart, but there is so much to do each day! On a couple of occasions I was able to pitch in and help them get through the tasks at hand. Each day every frog is visually checked, his or her cage is cleaned, and on certain days vitamins and minerals are provided to keep the frog healthy. This is in addition to the days when all the greenery in the habitats is checked or replaced. The job sounded easy at first. Spot the frog, look it over, clean out the frog poop. Sounds simple right?  Now factor in the fact that these frogs are great at hiding and jumping and it suddenly becomes a much more complicated task! It seemed like I usually used one hand for keeping the frog in the enclosure, one for cleaning and one on standby in case my first hand failed (which it did a couple of times). You never knew you had three hands until you are taking care of frogs!

Red-eyed tree frog

This red-eyed tree frog was among the frogs Jeff caught while volunteering in Panama.

Frogging: I was fortunate to be in Gamboa at the same time as project international coordinator, Dr. Brian Gratwicke, and Lindsay Renick Mayer, public affairs specialist for the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and all around frog-lover. So several nights we went out frog hunting. Frog hunting in the Panamanian rainforest often involves tramping around in the middle of marshes at night, wearing a tiny head lamp and trying to track down the call of one frog in the middle of a full-scale frog opera. Did I mention I am afraid of snakes? I did think to mention it when we were ankle deep in a marsh and Brian’s sound advice was: “Then try not to step on one.”

I am an interpreter in the Amazonia Exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, so I have had the opportunity to learn a lot about frogs and enjoy talking to guests about them. There is a massive difference between pointing out frogs in a tank and chasing a one-inch frog through a marsh at night while your frogging team keeps yelling: “Don’t let it get away! Grab it, grab it!” It’s a whole new level of learning, let me tell you. It was an amazing opportunity to catch, photograph, learn about and release the frogs back into the wild. Along the way I learned more about their behaviors, calls and needs, which is all to the good.

Not just about frogs: When I first filled out my volunteer application I was convinced I would not be selected. I didn’t really have any animal husbandry background and my Spanish skills were limited, at best. What I learned is that the project needs people with all sorts of different skills–and skill levels–and that all you really have to have is a love of frogs. But the trip wasn’t just about frogs. It was also about people and cultures and sharing, learning and laughing. One evening after we finished working I was invited to visit the village of one of the project staff. Lanky is a member of the Wounaan tribe, a group of indigenous people who live along the Rio Chagres and it was a great honor to meet his family and see the combination of traditional lifestyle and forward thinking that this family group embraces.  Their thatched platform homes are very traditional, but use solar panels for lighting and electrical needs.

Jeff Coulter and caiman

During a nightly frogging expedition, Jeff seized the opportunity to hold this caiman.

All of the staff made me feel welcome and actively contributed to my somewhat improved Spanish. While we couldn’t always communicate in long sentences, we could always find a way to get our meaning across and a smile is a language unto itself!

I also learned a lot about other types of animals that live in Panama. The project is located at the Summit Botanical Garden, which houses a large number of animals native to Panama. I was able to see harpy eagles (the national bird), tamarins, ocelots, monkeys, coatis and more. Our frogging adventures introduced me to all sorts of other animals. 

Would I recommend it?
 How could I not? The phrase “life-changing” may sound cliché, but in this case is perfectly accurate. It’s an opportunity to make a real difference in a fun, beautiful, exciting and sometimes challenging environment!

Jeff Coulter is a volunteer at Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Interested in volunteering for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project? Apply now!

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