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 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

Happy First Annual National Golden Frog Day!

The Panamanian golden frog, now extinct in the wild, was once considered a token of good luck and is now a flagship species for frog conservation. (Photo by Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian's National Zoo)

The Panamanian golden frog, now extinct in the wild, was once considered a token of good luck and is now a flagship species for frog conservation. (Photo by Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Frog lovers (and anyone else who values the planet’s biodiversity) worldwide, rejoice! Last week the National Assembly of Panama passed a law that honors the significance of one of the most striking amphibian species, the Panamanian golden frog. The National Assembly declared August 14, today, National Golden Frog Day and we’re celebrating that important decision, both in the frogs’ native country and abroad.

We’ve written before about how beloved these animals are in Panama, where they appear on lottery tickets, t-shirts and decorative cloth molas made by the Kuna Indians. The overwhelming admiration of these animals has not abated since 2006, when the chytridomycosis disease swept through their home in western Panama, effectively annihilating the species. But all is not lost. Zoos and aquaria in the United States and Panama are carefully managing and breeding a captive population whose offspring will—we hope—be able to survive someday in their native home.

In Panama, golden frogs appear all over, including on lottery tickets, t-shirts and decorative cloth molas made by the Kuna Indians. The actual animals, however, are extinct in the wild. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project)

In Panama, golden frogs appear all over, including on lottery tickets, t-shirts and decorative cloth molas made by the Kuna Indians. The actual animals, however, are extinct in the wild. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project)

In addition to declaring August 14 National Golden Frog Day, the National Assembly passed a law on August 3 that makes the Panamanian golden frog one of Panama’s official cultural and ecological symbols. This flagship species for frog conservation is part of a narrative that is playing out now in eastern Panama, where we’re focusing our rescue efforts—and the Panamanian government is supporting that work, too. Last year the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM), the Panamanian government agency charged with protecting its biodiversity, joined on as a full financial and logistical partner to our rescue project.

So how can you celebrate today? If you’re in the United States far from the festivities in Panama, head to one of the zoos and aquaria that house these golden treasures, including:

  • Smithsonian’s National Zoo
  • Buffalo Zoo
  • Central Park Zoo
  • Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
  • Cleveland Metro Parks
  • Dallas Zoo
  • Denver Zoo
  • Houston Zoo
  • Maryland Zoo in Baltimore
  • Oakland Zoo
  • Philadelphia Zoo
  • Sedgwick County Zoo
  • Woodland Park Zoo
  • Zoo Atlanta
  • Zoo New England

Be sure to learn more about the Panamanian golden frog, whose beauty is only part of its charm:

  • Their skin secretions are the most toxic of all frogs in their taxonomic family, Bufonidae. Those bright colors you see are meant to warn predators that taking a bite out of the frog isn’t such a great idea.
  • In addition to a low whistling call, they can communicate by waving their hands to defend their territory or lure a potential mate. Some researchers believe they may even use this to greet one another.
  • Golden frog eggs are light-sensitive, so females lay their eggs in dark crevices to keep the light out.
  • The Panamanian golden frogs were thought to indicate good luck and would be gathered and placed in people’s homes to ensure the residents good fortune.
  • Tadpoles have several rows of teeth that they use primarily to hold on to rocks and a stream bottom when the water picks up after a heavy rain.

Of course, you could always make a donation, big or small, to our rescue project in honor of this day. We’re focused on saving more than 20 other Panamanian frog species that demand quick and careful action if we want to keep them on the planet.

And we most certainly do.

–Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Cindy Hoffman: Frog savers of the future

On September 23, Jeff Corwin of Animal Planet fame and Defenders of Wildlife went to the National Zoo to launch the “Feeling the Heat with Jeff Corwin” series of 11 videos on the impacts of global warming on wildlife and release Jeff’s series of 4 children’s books.

Water quality testing in Rock CreekAnd on this sunny morning, Jeff met up on the banks of Rock Creek with 30 lucky third-graders from Chevy Chase Elementary school to learn a little about frogs. Together, the team assessed the habitat and the water quality in the stream, finding that it was pretty good. That’s good news for frogs, especially in such an urban environment.

But as we learned that day, frogs all over the planet are in the fight of their lives. Jeff showed us the Amazonian horned frog, a very cool frog with a really big mouth, and then he introduced us to one of the most threatened frogs on Earth….one of the few Panamanian golden frogs left in the world. These little beauties are being impacted by chytrid fungus and have been extirpated from the wild.

Jeff showed the kids his new Defenders of Wildlife video on frogs from the “Feeling the Heat” series, which highlights the impacts that chytrid fungus  and a changing climate are having on frogs and other amphibians. It set the stage for a discussion about the impacts of chytrid fungus on Panamanian golden frogs, why the kids felt frogs were important and what the Panama Amphibian Rescue Project is doing to save them.

By the end of the day, the students were charmed by the many frog ambassadors at the zoo and concerned about their plight. They all walked away with a signed book from the Jeff Corwin children’s book series and hopefully a memorable experience they will pass on to others about the fragility of life on earth and our responsibility to conserve, because these young minds are the environmental stewards of the future.

“Feeling the heat” videos and books can be found at

Brian Gratwicke: The Panamanian Golden Frog

Panamanian Golden Frogs in the market at El ValleKeep an open eye in Panama and you might just see a Panamanian Golden Frog. Local legend used to promise luck to anyone who spotted the frog in the wild and that when the frog died, it would turn into a gold talisman, known as a huaca. Nowadays, you’ll see the frogs on decorative cloth molas made by the Kuna Indians, on T-shirts, as inlaid design on a new overpass in Panama City and even on lottery tickets. In the market at El Valle de Antòn, you will see them by the thousands either as enamel-painted terracotta or on hand-carved tagua nuts. The one place you probably won’t see a Panamanian Golden Frog, however, is in their native home—the crystal clear streams of the ancient volcanic crater of El Valle de Antòn. In the mountain forests you may spot other similar-looking extant species such as Atelopus varius, but the only local and true Panamanian Golden Frogs Atelopus zeteki are those breeding in captivity at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC) at the El Nispero Zoo.

Panamanian Golden Frog, Atelopus zeteki (in captivity)In the early 2000’s conservationists warned that this day-glo yellow emblem of Panama was in grave danger of extinction. In emergency response, Project Golden Frog was established to create captive assurance colonies of this species, just in case the scientists’ worst fears came to pass and the species went extinct in the wild. In 2006, just as the scientists had predicted, the chytridiomycosis disease hit El Valle. The Panamanian Golden Frog—whose populations were already under pressure due to collectors and habitat loss—was decimated. Suddenly, Panama’s unique harelquin frog species joined the ranks of at least 30 other harlequin frogs that are most likely extinct in the wild. Luckily, Panama’s charismatic namesake was part of an AZA Species Survival Plan. Today, the captive population is being carefully managed and bred for long-term survival by a number of zoos and aquaria in the United States and Panama. The animals in these assurance colonies have served their intended purpose and provide an insurance policy for the species, guaranteeing that this important Panamanian cultural symbol will never be lost all together.

amphibian_rescue_project-300x296A tragedy has thus been averted. Instead of a dire warning of the future fate of the planet, Panamanian Golden Frogs are now a symbol of hope. Exiled frogs are playing the role of a flagship species, bringing the story of global amphibian declines to world wide audiences in zoos and aquaria, magazines and films. As the logo of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, the Panamanian Golden Frog is a powerful symbol uniting 8 key institutions. Together, we have embarked on this ambitious national program to build capacity at the Summit Municipal Park in Panama and to create assurance colonies of other amphibian species from Eastern Panama before it is too late. We are also actively working with some of the world’s leading researchers like Reid Harris and Louise Rollins-Smith to develop a cure that will allow us to control the further spread of chytridiomycosis. Our great hope is that one day we may re-establish wild populations of Panamanian Golden Frogs back into their rightful home in the streams of El Valle. Until then, we embrace Panama’s living gold as a symbol of hope and achievement in showing us how we can preserve Panama’s amphibian biodiversity.

Peter Riger: 5 years and one golden frog later…

In 2004, the Panamanian Golden Frog was garnering attention as a group of zoos, universities and researcher known as Project Golden Frog were responding to the ongoing decline and disappearance of this species in the wild while developing populations of captive golden frogs as a safeguard against extinction. One of their goals at the time was “our expectation that this species holds the potential to rally public support for amphibian conservation throughout the Neotropics”.  At the same time, the chytrid fungus was winding its way through western Panama heading directly for the only known habitat of the Panamanian Golden Frog.

working amphibian tanks in the El Valle Amphibian Conservation CenterIt seemed like a simple idea at the time.  Houston Zoo staff thought it was would be in the best interest of this species to build a small facility where we could house this species in its range country until we had a better idea of when amphibians in the region could safely be released back into the wild, safe from the chytrid fungus which has now moved through western Panama and is heading for the eastern side of the Panama Canal.

But what about all the other amphibians in the region, surely they are in need of protection as well? From this one species, it was decided that a larger focus, based on the 15-20 species potentially threatened with extinction due to the chytrid fungus, should be protected within what was soon to become the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center.

Golden frog exhibit in the public area of the EVACC center, PanamaEVACC center$250,000, 50 plus partners, 17 species and 600 individuals later – El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center in El Valle de Anton, Panama opened its doors to the public in May of 2009 and has been the focus of media attention, Animal Planet specials, and news articles over the past 2 years. It even has its own 15 minute documentary called Leap of Faith and Spanish version Un Salto de Fe. So now we wait for a cure and manage the individuals we have collected with support from the zoos, schools, corporations and private individuals.

Actually, we cannot wait. The fungus is jumping the Canal Zone and heading into the largest contiguous tract of rainforest not currently affected by the fungus – called the Darien Gap. We do not know how many species exist within the Darien Gap, undiscovered species that could disappear before we ever knew they had existed.

In 2008, the Houston Zoo and Zoo New England partnered on the design and development of an Amphibian Pod which is now housed at the Summit Municipal Parque. This pod is actually a shipping container based on models developed by groups in Australia and England and modified to maintain amphibians where each pod can safely house 1-2 species of individual amphibians; managing and reproducing them through their life history stages. This was simply the first phase of what you will see here on these pages in months to come. The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation program has brought together partners for Eastern Panama while the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center continues to focus on Western Panama. And hopefully together, these partners can hold the line against what seemed to be the imminent extinction of dozens of amphibians within Panama’s borders.