Detailing the Darien: Defenders Magazine Profiles a Riveting Rescue Expedition

Mark Cheater

Mark Cheater accompanied the rescue project to the Darien last year, writing about it for Defenders magazine.

Ever wonder how scientists find and protect rare amphibians? I wanted to find out, and I persuaded the folks at the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project to let me accompany them on an expedition to the Darien region of Panama last June in search of rare Toad Mountain harlequin frogs. I discovered that not only is working in the field physically demanding—spending long hours hiking through jungles and up rivers to find and capture the frogs—but it’s also dangerous, involving frequent encounters with venomous snakes and scores of biting insects. To learn more about the hazards and rewards of rescuing  imperiled frogs, check out my story—and an accompanying behind-the-scenes slideshow—in the new issue of Defenders magazine:

Mark Cheater, Defenders of Wildlife

All dressed up and nowhere to go.

Toad Mountain harlequin frog (Atelopus certus)

Toad Mountain harlequin frog (Atelopus certus): Juvenile Toad Mountain harlequin frogs sport metallic green chevrons and bright orange feet.

Cute Frog of the Week: January 3, 2011

The Toad Mountain harlequin frog is a pretty snazzy dresser; like other harlequin frogs, both males and females sport skin pigmented in bright, fanciful colors and patterns. However, males are much more likely to show off, gathering together by the stream-side year-round to boast their colors and call for mates. Female Toad Mountain harlequin frogs, on the other hand, only strut their stuff when they want to reproduce. On a recent expedition, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project scientists found 50 males out and about and only 12 females, who came to the water to mate and lay eggs.

Native to the Darién Province of Panama’s tropical forests, these endangered frogs’ populations are dwindling due to the rapid spread of chytrid fungus. The rescue project’s keepers at the Summit Zoo recently observed their Toad Mountain harlequin frogs in amplexus (from the latin “embrace,” amplexus is a form of pseudocopulation in which a male amphibian grasps a female with his front legs as part of the mating process), and a clutch of eggs soon followed! This is exciting news, especially because restoring Toad Mountain harlequin frog populations is one of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project’s top priorities. This success is vital for the understanding of their reproduction in captivity, which will make it possible one day to reintroduce this extremely rare species back into its native region.

Photo credit: Brian Gratwicke, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project.

Every week the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project posts a new photo of a cute frog from anywhere in the world with an interesting, fun and unique story to tell. Be sure to check back every Monday for the latest addition.

An update from Summit Zoo

Toad Mountain harlequin frogs

A pair of the project's Toad Mountain harlequin frogs (Atelopus certus) were in amplexus for about 100 days and recently produced a clutch of eggs. (Photo by: Jorge Guerrel, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project)

Hi amigos!

We are glad to give you the latest update on what is going on with our frogs here at the Panamanian Rescue and Conservation Project at the Summit Zoo in Panama. And we are going to start with some great news: After almost 100 days of a very long amplexus (from the latin “embrace,” amplexus is a form of pseudocopulation in which a male amphibian grasps a female with his front legs as part of the mating process), we have our very first Toad Mountain harlequin frog (Atelopus certus) clutch!

This is huge news especially since A. certus is facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild and is classified as “endangered” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Toad Mountain harlequin frog is an endemic species from the Darien region of eastern Panama and little is known about its reproductive and breeding behavior. From observations made here at the Summit Zoo in Panama, we have noticed some interesting behavior. For example, during amplexus, the male A. certus holds on to the female so tight that he won’t eat for three months or more. We are taking notes and paying attention to the smallest change in water quality and temperature in their tank to assure the largest number of juveniles possible.

La loma tree frog morph

The rescue project is the first ever to successfully breed the La loma tree frog. (Photo by: Jorge Gurrel)

The rest of the group is doing just fine. The La loma treefrog (Hyloscirtus colymba) tadpoles are growing and some have fully developed legs, though we still need to wait until they come out of the water and absorb the tail to place them in their new individual tanks. The baby Limosa harlequin frogs (Atelopus limosus) are bigger and stronger–they have been eating lots of springtails and we are making sure that UV light is always available to them to prevent any bone disease.

The male adults are calling very often, especially early in the morning for our diurnal species, such as the Pirre harlequin frog (Atelopus glyphus). The rest of the harlequin frogs, H. colymba and our single male Bob’s robber frog (Craugastor punctariolus) call to attract their females throughout the night, particularly when is raining. We are also testing a few ways to feed the big C. punctariolus so we can offer them a variety of food as part of their diet.

Thanks to our collaborators and volunteers for all their suggestions and new ideas.

That’s all for now, but we will continue to keep you updated. Thanks for your support!

-Angie Estrada, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project

Keepers on the Front Lines

The five keepers for the rescue project at Summit Zoo (left to right): Nancy Fairchild, Rousmary Betancourt, Angie Estrada, Jorge Guerrel, Lanky Cheucarama.

The five keepers for the rescue project at Summit Zoo (left to right): Nancy Fairchild, Rousmary Betancourt, Angie Estrada, Jorge Guerrel, Lanky Cheucarama.

(Versión en Español)

Our next door neighbors are: a margay cat named Derek, a couple of Geoffroy’s tamarins and an ocelot. Across the street lives a troop of white face capuchins and every day we pass the parrots as they try to hit on us and say “hola,” no matter how many times we ignore them.

We are the keepers at the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project at the Summit Municipal Park in Panama.

We take care of 191 frogs, from seven species, all of them native to Panama. Though each one of us has our own favorite frog—Kuno, Danielito, Chasky, James Bond and Survivor, for example—we make sure they all have everything they need to be happy and safe in their home at the zoo.

Our frogs need a lot of attention! We have to keep them healthy, clean and fed. Maybe it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but each of those tasks takes a tremendous team effort, a high level of responsibility, tons of time and even a bit of intuition.

To ensure healthy frogs, first we treat the animals for chytridiomicosis (a skin disease caused by Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd) once they get back from rescue missions in the mountains of eastern Panama. Chytridiomicosis is a fungal skin disease that’s been killing amphibians in the wild for more than two decades and that is spreading fast. Treatment days are awful! We often get nervous and anxious because we know that for some of the frogs it’ll be too late, but we’re relieved at the same time when the majority of them survive. After they are treated, the new frogs are ready to be part of our collection. The hard part really comes after treatment.

A chytrid-free frog does not automatically mean a healthy frog. Before and after they become part of our collection, the frogs can be underweight or have parasites. It is part of our job to hand feed them if necessary and sometimes to remove very active worms under their skin. We need to make sure the frogs take their medicine on time, with the correct dose and with proper follow-up. None of this would be possible without the help and supervision of a group of vets and keepers from other conservation centers and zoos who trained us and are patient enough to receive a lot of emails and phone calls from us.

Hyloscirtus colymba

One of the many frogs that keepers for the rescue project care for at Summit Zoo. (This is la loma tree frog, or Hyloscirtus colymba)

Frogs don’t need to take a bath to stay clean, though their environment needs to be cleaned regularly. Amphibians are very sensitive to changes in their habitat because of their permeable skin and the fact that during metamorphosis, they spend part of their life stages in both ecosystems: aquatic and terrestrial. These are some of the reasons why they are declining so rapidly in the wild. When permeable skin comes in contact with contaminated water or soil, frogs can get infected by Bd. In our control environment in the pod, we need to clean the frogs’ enclosures, especially the ones in quarantine. We change and clean all the tanks twice a week, change and clean their plants and leaves, spray water on the tanks that don’t have misting systems and remove the feces.

Last but not least: frogs need to eat! What do our frogs eat? We would need many blog posts to fully explain how we manage to keep alive a room full of two species of fruit flies, springtails and earthworms; and an even larger room with 95 plastic boxes full of crickets and a couple containers of superworms. The latest additions to the menu are a working colony of cockroaches and a brand new outdoors house for grasshoppers. You can say that these frogs are well fed…maybe too well. They eat so much that we’re even putting a few of them on a diet this week!

Summit keepers cups

Frogs are clearly always on the minds of the rescue project's keepers at Summit Zoo.

Did we mention that all of this is not enough to save the species? To do that, we need to breed them too. Reproduction is a very different story. We basically need to create the perfect scenario so the frogs can get in the mood. And getting them in the mood can take from two days (such as for the Toad Mountain harlequin frog, or Atelopus certus) or eight months (as is the case for La Loma leaf frogs, or Hyloscirtus colymba).

This is part of our daily work; we love it and we are very proud of it. Though some people call us “frog heroes,” we are proud to be part of a group of scientists, keepers, vets, volunteers and frog lovers who are trying to safe these beautiful and interesting animals all over the world.

–Angie Estrada, Nancy Fairchild, Rousmary Bethancourt, Jorge Guerrel, Lanky Cheucarama, keepers for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project at the Summit Zoo in Panama.

Cuidadores en lineas delanteras

The five keepers for the rescue project at Summit Zoo (left to right): Nancy Fairchild, Rousmary Betancour, Angie Estrada, Jorge Guerrel, Lanky Cheucarama.

Los cuidadores del proyecto de rescate: Nancy Fairchild, Rousmary Betancour, Angie Estrada, Jorge Guerrel, Lanky Cheucarama.

(Version in English)

Nuestros vecinos de al lado son: un tigrillo llamado Derek, una pareja de monos tití y un ocelote. En frente viven una tropa de monos cariblancos y sin importar las veces que caminemos frente a los loros de cresta roja tenemos que ignorar sus flirteos y sus incesantes “hola”.

Somos los cuidadores del Proyecto de Rescate y Conservación de Anfibios de Panamá en el Parque Municipal Summit en Panamá.

Nosotros cuidamos de 191 ranas, de siete especies diferentes, todas ellas nativas de Panamá. Y aunque cada uno de nosotros tiene su favorita-por ejemplo: Kuno, Danielito, Chasky, James Bond y Survivor-nos aseguramos que todas tengan todo lo que necesiten para ser  felices en su hogar en el zoológico.

¡Nuestras ranas necesitan de mucha atención! Es nuestro deber mantenerlas saludables, limpias y alimentadas. Quizás no parezca algo muy complicado, pero cada una de esas tareas requiere de un tremendo trabajo en equipo, un alto nivel de responsabilidad, toneladas de tiempo e incluso un poco de intuición.

Para asegurarnos que las ranas estén saludables, necesitamos primeramente tratar a los animales contra la quitridiomicosis (una enfermedad de la piel causad por Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis o también conocida como Bd) una vez regresan de las giras de rescate en las montañas del este de Panamá. La quitridiomicosis es una enfermedad infecciosa de la piel que ha causado el decline de poblaciones de anfibios por más de dos décadas y que se está dispersando demasiado rápido. ¡Los días de tratamiento son horribles! Muy a menudo nos sentimos ansiosos y nerviosos porque sabemos que para algunas ranas será demasiado tarde, pero al mismo tiempo nos sentimos aliviados al observar que la gran mayoría sobrevive. Después de ser tratadas, las ranas nuevas están listas para ser parte de nuestra colección. La parte mas difícil es realmente, después del tratamiento.

Hyloscirtus colymba

Uno de las ranas en Summit Zoo. (La rana hoja de la Loma, o Hyloscirtus colymba)

Una rana libre de quitrido no es una rana saludable. Antes y después que formen parte de nuestra colección, las ranas pueden presentar bajo peso o tener parásitos. Y es parte de nuestro trabajo el brindarles alimentación asistida de ser necesario y algunas veces debemos remover activos gusanos que se encuentran debajo de su piel. Tenemos asegurarnos que las ranas tomen a tiempo sus medicamentos, que la dosis sea la correcta y que se le de el seguimiento apropiado. Nada de lo anterior seria posible sin la  ayuda y supervisión de un grupo de veterinarios y cuidadores de otros centro de conservación y zoológicos quienes nos entrenan y están disponibles para recibir miles de emails y llamadas con cientos de preguntas.

Las ranas no necesitan de un baño para estar limpias, sin embargo el ambiente donde se encuentran debe permanecer regularmente limpio. Los anfibios son muy sensibles a cambios en su ambiente debido a su piel permeable y al hecho que durante la metamorfosis, pasan parte de su ciclo de vida en ambos ecosistemas: acuáticos y terrestres. Estas son alguna de las razones por las cuales los anfibios están desapareciendo en la naturaleza. Cuando la piel permeable entra en contacto con cuerpos de agua o suelo contaminado, las ranas pueden infectarse de Bd. dentro De nuestro ambiente controlado en el laboratorio, es necesario mantener limpios los contenedores de las ranas, especialmente aquellos que se encuentran en el área de cuarentena. Dos veces por semana, nos encargamos de cambiar y limpiar todos los tanques y plantas dentro de los mismos, mantener húmedo su interior con la ayuda de un aspersor y eliminar las heces que se encuentran en ellos.

Summit keepers cups

Las ranas son un parte grande de las vidas de los cuidadores del proyecto de rescate.

¡Por último pero no menos importante: las ranas tienen que comer! ¿Que comen nuestras ranas? Serán necesarios muchos otros “blogs” para explicarles como logramos mantener un cuarto con de dos especies diferentes de moscas de frutas, cajas con cientos de mínimos colembolos y lombrices de tierra. Además de un cuatro aun más grande con 95 cajas repletas de grillos domésticos y varios envases con larvas de escarabajos. La última adición al menú de las ranas es una colonia de cucarachas y una nueva casa al aire libre lista para albergar deliciosos saltamontes. Se podría decir que estas ranas están bien alimentadas…demasiado bien tal vez. Comen tan bien, que algunas iniciaron una estricta dieta esta semana!

¿Les mencionamos que todo esto no es suficiente para salvar a una especie? Para lograrlo, también debemos reproducirlas en cautiverio. La reproducción es una historia muy diferente. Básicamente hay que crear el escenario perfecto para que las ranas entren en ambiente. Y para lograr que las ranas se sientan cómodas y estén listas para reproducirse, puede pasar desde 2 días (como en el caso de el sapito arlequín de montaña) hasta 8 meses (como en el caso de la rana hoja de la Loma o H. colymba).

Todo esto es parte de nuestro trabajo diario; nos encanta y estamos muy orgullosos de ello. Aunque algunas personas nos han llamado “los héroes de las ranas” nos llena de orgullo formar parte de un grupo de científicos, cuidadores, veterinarios, voluntarios y amantes de las ranas quienes están haciendo un gran esfuerzo alrededor del mundo para salvar a estos hermosos e interesantes animales.

Angie Estrada, Jorge Guerrel, Lanky Cheucarama, Nancy Fairchild y Rousmary Betancour, los cuidadores del Proyecto de Rescate y Conservación de Anfibios de Panamá en el Parque Municipal Summit en Panamá.