This award-winning documentary featuring our race to find a cure for a deadly amphibian disease and to build an amphibian ark in Panama is now available for FREE. Watch the trailer below and download the full feature if you would like to see more on the itunes store for a limited time only.
Limosa harlequin frog (Atelopus limosus) baby on a U.S. quarter. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)
The limosa harlequin frog (Atelopus limosus), an endangered species native to Panama, now has a new lease on life. The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project is successfully breeding the chevron-patterned form of the species in captivity for the first time. The rescue project is raising nine healthy frogs from one mating pair and hundreds of tadpoles from another pair.
“These frogs represent the last hope for their species,” said Brian Gratwicke, international coordinator for the project and a research biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, one of six project partners. “This new generation is hugely inspiring to us as we work to conserve and care for this species and others.”
Nearly one-third of the world’s amphibian species are at risk of extinction. The rescue project aims to save priority species of frogs in Panama, one of the world’s last strongholds for amphibian biodiversity. While the global amphibian crisis is the result of habitat loss, climate change and pollution, a fungal disease, chytridiomycosis, is likely responsible for as many as 94 of 120 frog species disappearing since 1980.
Between its facilities at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Gamboa, Panama, and the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center in El Valle, Panama, the rescue project currently cares for 55 adult limosa harlequin frogs of the chevron-patterned form and 10 of the plain-color form. The project has had limited success breeding the plain-color form of this species, and has successfully bred other challenging endangered species, including crowned treefrogs (Anotheca spinosa), horned marsupial frogs (Gastrotheca cornuta) and toad mountain harlequin frogs (A. certus).
Each species requires its own unique husbandry to thrive and breed. The project’s animal care team and scientists learn husbandry techniques as they work with a limited number of individuals. Jorge Guerrel, conservation biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, arranged rocks in the breeding tank to create the submerged caves that appear to be the preferred egg deposition sites for limosa harlequin frogs. Like other Atelopus species, tadpoles require highly oxygenated, gently flowing water between 22 and 24 degrees Celsius. The tadpoles’ natural food is algal film growing on submerged rocks, which Guerrel and his colleagues re-created by painting petri dishes with a solution of powdered spirulina algae, then allowing it to dry.
The mission of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project is to rescue amphibian species that are in extreme danger of extinction throughout Panama. The project’s efforts and expertise are focused on establishing assurance colonies and developing methodologies to reduce the impact of the amphibian chytrid fungus so that one day captive amphibians may be reintroduced to the wild. Current project partners include Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Houston Zoo, Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Zoo New England.
On Dec. 30, the Washington Post ran a front-page story about the rescue project.
The year ended on a high note for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. William Booth, a science writer for the Washington Post, joined rescue project researchers on a field expedition and his story about the rescue project came out on the front page of the Post on Dec. 30. The story inspired one reader, Tim Torkildson, to share a lovely poem about frogs and the disease that is wiping them out.
If you saw the story and are interested in making a donation to the rescue project, please follow this link to the National Zoo’s website.
by Tim Torkildson
The frog is an amphibian
Who thrives most ev’rywhere,
From the dry Namibian
To just off ol’ Times Square.
The ones who have a bumpy skin,
With warts and pits and nodes,
Are the closest Phylum kin;
We simply call them toads.
The bullfrogs in the early spring
give ponds reverberation
With their raucous verbal fling,
The have a courtship ritual
that’s called, I think, amplexus,
Which gives them fits conniptual
Between the two odd sexes.
A little boy will manage to
Corral a tadpole, yes,
And give it quite a slimy view
Right down his sister’s dress!
And did you know the urine from
a pregnant lady will
cause some frogs to lay a scum
of eggs, with no male thrill?
And so they’re useful critters,
As the French will tell you so;
Their legs taste good in fritters,
Are mistaken for turbot.
And what of cane toads, mind you,
Where, if you lick the skin,
The psychedelics blind you
To sorrow, grief and sin?
But frogs, those little gargoyles,
Which are funny in cartoons,
Are engaged in lethal broils
That leaves their lives in ruins.
A fungus known as “Bd” kills
The frogs down in Belize,
Then jumps the valleys and the hills
So others it may seize.
The Costa Rica Golden Toad
Is now extinct, alack.
More are headed down that road,
Since habitat is slack.
Toxins give some frogs three legs,
Which doesn’t help them jump.
Instead they are like clumsy kegs
Who in the water flump.
Scientists preserve some frogs
In habitats in labs.
Dressed in their starched, stiff white togs
They keep meticulous tabs.
To save the frogs, oh please donate
A dollar or a yuan,
So the polliwog birth rate
Will someday be a shoo-in!
The lowland leopard frog is the focus of SCBI postdoc Anna Savage's work looking at the relationship between genes and chytrid resistance.
Chytridiomycosis, the disease wiping out frog species around the world, was described in 1999 by a team of researchers at the Smithsonian and the University of Maine. Today, in addition to creating an insurance population for various Panamanian species, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute aims to find a way to manage this disease. One of the most promising solutions to stopping the killer may rest in genetics. SCBI scientists are looking to identify genes within frogs that provide resistance to the pathogen or that make them more susceptible to it.
Researchers pursuing this approach are optimistic that genetics could provide different answers than those offered by probiotics, which SCBI is also pursuing. The genetic approach is one based on natural selection.
“If you look across species, including humans, diseases rarely wipe out an entire species without any evidence of resistance, regardless of how virulent they are,” said Anna Savage, an postdoctoral fellow in SCBI’s Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics studying the genetics of chytrid. “Immune systems are so complex that there’s a strong possibility for the development of resistance. The probability that a species develops no resistance to a disease is rather small.”
Genetics research within the last decade has identified frogs with varying degrees of resistance to chytrid. Savage is focusing her research on the lowland leopard frog (Lithobates yavapaiensis), which exhibits an intermediate level of resistance to the pathogen. Some individuals demonstrate resistance while others of the same species die if infected with chytrid. The identification of genetic variations between the individuals holds the potential of being the answer between life and death. One of the new frontiers for genetic research is the examination of a frog species’ immune system genes.
“If we can identify the genes responsible for resistance, we can breed the animals in captivity to ‘spread’ this genetic resistance and give adaptation a headstart,” Savage said. “This area of research holds the potential for creating populations of self-sustaining frogs that confer resistance to the rest of the population through reproduction.”
Savage's research could hold the key to putting a stop to a deadly pathogen killing frogs around the world.
In order to understand a frog’s response to chytrid, the focus must be broadened to understanding how immune system genes interact with one another and which ones are being expressed during resistance. Savage is using this approach to understand chytrid susceptibility in lowland leopard frogs that are being raised at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. This approach could potentially help scientists identify genes responsible for chytrid resistance. While this type of research shows considerable potential, researchers are only just beginning to scratch the surface.
“Disease outcomes from chytridiomycosis can depend on several factors,” said Brian Gratwicke, SCBI wildlife biologist and Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project international coordinator. “Some frogs appear to have innate resistance to the disease and produce antimicrobial peptides from glands in their skin. It is possible that some might acquire resistance through exposure, while other frogs have beneficial anti-fungal skin bacteria or a behavioral preference for temperatures that are bad for the fungus. As the fight against chytrid continues, we remain hopeful that the answers are out there and that Dr. Savage’s work will give us some insight into how this system really functions.”
–Will Lazaro, Smithsonian’s National Zoo
(Frog photo by Jared Grummer; photo of Anna Savage by Dennis Caldwell)
Reflecting on our achievements this last year, we would like to thank you, our generous supporters. You have provided moral support; social media likes and retweets generously; more than 40 of you have given us your time to help us save frogs; and even more have sacrificed your hard-earned money to help us achieve this important mission. Thank you! In particular I would like to recognize the extraordinary dedication and above-and-beyond service from our devoted conservation staff seen above proudly displaying the the captive-bred products of their hard work, including a second generation of captive-bred frogs. We salute you all.
Brian Gratwicke – International project coordinator for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
Big frog, little frog, golden frog, marsupial frog, endangered frog, and common frog; what do all of those guys have in common? They all need to eat. There is no call-up home delivery in Panama, so here in El Valle at EVACC, we have had to roll up our sleeves and become invertebrate breeders (adding to an eclectic list of “other skills” needed in this particular conservation project).
Lisandro Vasquez, rolling up his sleeves in the cricket room at EVACC.
The thing that most people do not think about when thinking about an amphibian conservation project is food for the animals. It would be incredibly difficult to have a successful breeding/conservation project without being able to feed the subjects at hand. At EVACC we think about insects, and other invertebrates, on a very regular basis. And we think about what they eat, in a captive setting, just as much.
Some of the ingredients that go into preparing insect diets.
What do our frogs eat? We have quite a few different species we look after, so we have quite a few invertebrates to offer to them. For the most part we delineate food items to specific species based on food size, and the mode in which the frog eats. The smallest food we have to offer is springtails, from the insect order Collembola. They go through simple metamorphosis, and the different size nymphs can be sifted and fed to different size amphibians.
Working our way up through the sizes we have the two different kinds of fruit flies; Drosophila melanogaster and Drosophila hydei. The two fruit flies at EVACC do not fly and the smaller one, D. melanogaster, does not have wings. They have both been genetically modified to possess these traits. Fruit flies, with vitamin powders, are fed alternately to our diurnal species, and to some of the nocturnal species at different stages in their life. These two species of Drosophilago go through complete metamorphosis.
Drosophila melanogaster in fly cup.
Drosophila hydei colony.
Domestic crickets (Acheta domesticus) make up a large portion of the diet for many species at EVACC. This captive food colony requires quite a bit of time and space, but well worth it. This insect goes through incomplete or simple metamorphosis as well, making it a food item for the smallest of frogs to large ones, as well.
Cricket box crawling with one-month-old nymphs.
Cricket breeding room, boxes upon boxes of crickets stacked up at EVACC.
Woodlice, sow bugs, or roly-poly bugs are also on the menu at EVACC. These invertebrates are not insects, but a crustacean from the family Oniscidea. Leaf litter frogs love these calcium-packed treats.
Woodlice at EVACC.
The super worm (Zophobas morio) is a larva of a species of darkling beetle. Only the larvae are fed out to amphibians, as the adult are not preferred foods for frogs. This insect goes through complete metamorphosis.
We also have a colony of earthworms. Our colonies are not thriving at the moment, so most of the time we harvest from our own backyard. The other food item that we are currently not breeding, but do feed out, is the Neoconocephalus saturatus, a type of cone-headed katydid. We rely on a local family to help us out by collecting these katydids for us.
Last, but certainly not least, is the newest food item on the menu at EVACC; Blaberus discoidalis, a very large cockroach.
Cockroach on the menu.
Larvae, pupa, and adult stages of Zophobas morio
—Heidi Ross, director of El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center
In 1993 what was thought to be the last 10 living toads were captured at Mortenson Lake and brought into captivity to start a breeding program. (Photo courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)
The Wyoming toad (Bufo hemiophrys) was discovered in 1946 by Dr. George T. Baxter, a University of Wyoming professor. This toad was originally considered a subspecies of the Canadian toad (Bufo hemiophrys). The historic range of the toad included flood plains of the Big and Little Laramie Rivers and the margins of ponds in the Laramie Basin within 30 miles of the city of Laramie, Wyo.
More than 100,000 tadpoles and toadlets have been reintroduced since 1995. (Photo courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)
Wyoming Toads In Decline
Once was one of the most plentiful vertebrate species in the Laramie River Basin Wyoming.
Rapid declines in the toad population seen in the 1970’s, the exact cause of these declines is unknown. Possible causes include aerial spraying of pesticides, chytrid fungus, red-leg disease and habitat alteration.
Federally listed as an endangered species in January of 1984.
The Wyoming toad was declared “extinct in the wild” and still is. (Photo courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo)
US Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Plan
The first Wyoming Toad Recovery Group was formed in September 1987.
In 1993 what was thought to be the last 10 living toads were captured at Mortenson Lake and brought into captivity to start a breeding program.
The Wyoming toad was declared “extinct in the wild” and still is.
The first successful captive reproduction of the toad occurred in 1994 at the Sybille Wildlife Research and Conservation Center in Wyoming.
Local land owners provide safe harbor sites for the reintroduction of Wyoming toads.
More than 100,000 tadpoles and toadlets have been reintroduced since 1995.
Sites are surveyed annually to monitor population numbers. So far we have seen mixed results.
American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP)
The SSP was formed in 1996.
Only seven AZA accredited zoos and two Fish and Wildlife facilities participate in the SSP program by breeding toads.
Volunteers from zoos travel to Laramie to assist in surveys for toads each summer.
A quick video overview of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. Thanks so much to all our valued supporters and volunteers for your help and generous donations. To see our 2011 annual report click here.
Part of National Golden Frog Day was a golden frog parade.
August 10th through August 13th marked the celebration of Golden Frog Day for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. The week prior, the entire staff worked hard to put together a unique experience for visitors in Panama. STRI researchers in nearby Gamboa captured túngara frogs, Savage’s thin-toed frog, gladiator frogs, leaf frogs and glass frogs for public display. Everyone took turns blowing up hundreds of yellow and black balloons. Without such team effort, we would not have been able to pull off this event.
The rescue project does not have any actual specimens of the golden frog, Atelopus zeteki, and because the species is extinct in the wild, we were repeatedly asked where the golden frogs are. This allowed for us to discuss the importance of amphibian conservation and of the rescue project, EVACC and other amphibian conservation efforts around the world. Staff members educated visitors about the frogs that were on display, and scientists studying tungara frogs in Gamboa set up a small exhibit to educate the public about the research being conducted by STRI scientists.
Seeing children become so enthused about frogs instills a wonderful feeling in a herpetologist. Over the course of the weekend, nearly 1,000 children visited the event. Every day there was an activity station set up for the kids to paint frog masks, and winners were selected from each group. On Saturday, we had use of a bouncy house and bungee race, which undoubtedly led to many tired kids (and grateful parents). But the highlight of the children’s day was always the frogs. Tiny faces lit up and smiled time and time again every time they saw the tadpoles swimming, the túngaras hopping, or even just the size of the sedentary Savage’s thin-toed frog.
Children and adults alike dressed up in the frog
Events like the one held that weekend demonstrate the importance and effectiveness of educational outreach. 1,000 children over the course of three days (along with uncounted adults and family members) mean that the rescue project was able to spread the word out about the necessity of preserving biodiversity. The fact that this weekend was dedicated to the golden frog, a national symbol of Panama that now exists only in captivity, underscores the urgency to address worldwide amphibian declines.
We thanked MEDUCA (Ministry of Education) who made it possible for 310 students to visit; Aid4Aids staff; kids and parents who made our Saturday an unforgettable day; all the staff at Summit Municipal Park, especially to: Melgar, Itzel and Adalberto. Lastly, a special thanks to the volunteers (Ximena, Jesse, Laura, Kristen, Jennifer, Jose Maria, Meghan, Andrew, Kelsey, Shanta, Natalie, Ana, Giancarlo, Alexis, Sangie, Dania, Anayansi, Kristel, Digna and Katherine) who helped keep everything flowing in an orderly manner the entire weekend!
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.”
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 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.”