Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Finds Endangered Frog In The Jungles of Panama

Limosa Harlequin Frog

Limosa Harlequin frog. Photo B. Gratwicke, Smithsonian Institute

A Cheyenne Mountain Zoo team led by President Bob Chastain is back in Colorado after spending nine days in the jungles of Panama as part of a global effort to save amphibian species on the verge of extinction due to chytrid fungus. The team was searching for the endangered Atelopus limosus harlequin frog, and collected one female, two males, and a juvenile (sex to be determined). Until this trip, there was just one Atelopus limosus female and four males in captivity in the world. The female found by the team is especially important in creating a viable, sustainable population.

“I saw first-hand how grave the situation is, and it’s sobering,” said Chastain. “But there’s no time for despair. There’s work to be done and we have to dig in. As Americans, we are no strangers to digging in and dealing with monumental problems.”

Over one-third of the world’s amphibians are threatened with extinction. The rapidly spreading chytrid fungus is taking a huge toll, wiping out 30% – 50% of species in its path, species which could hold the key to significant medical advances against HIV, cancer, and other diseases.

“The forest is getting quieter and quieter,” said Chastain. “During our first trip in November of 2009, the sound of frogs was almost deafening. That’s not the case anymore.”

This was the fifth expedition for Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. The team of five spent as many as 13 hours a day hiking the remote, mountainous area of Cerro Brewster looking for the Atelopus limosus, a half-dollar-sized frog that blends in with the dark rocks and green moss. The only tools at their disposal were walking sticks to move leaves and rocks.

“It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Chastain.

When a specimen was found, the team swabbed the frog to check for chytrid. Each frog was then placed in a plastic bag and transported to a bio-secure breeding facility at Panama’s Summit Zoo, where another Cheyenne Mountain Zoo staffer assisted with veterinary care.

“We’re seeing entire populations go extinct before our eyes,” said Chastain. “By finding these frogs and treating them, we’re at least giving them a chance at survival. In the words of ecologist Aldo Leopold, to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo hopes by getting involved before amphibians are gone forever, future generations of scientists will have the resources necessary when it comes to curing environmental disasters and making medical history.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is a founding partner in the international Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project initiative. The organization’s mission is to establish amphibian assurance colonies and develop methodologies to reduce the impact of the chytrid fungus so captive amphibian species may one day be re-introduced to the wild. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo was joined this trip by representatives from other Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project partners, including Houston Zoo’s El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC), Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and Summit Zoo. Zoo New England oversaw the veterinary support. Africam Safari, ANAM (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente), Defenders of Wildlife, and Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park also fund and provide support for the project.


Katie Borremans, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo