The Frog People

Rachel Page, STRI

Rachel Page, STRI staff scientist, studies the interaction between frogs and bats. When male frogs call to attract female frogs, they also attract predators, like bats. (Photo courtesy of STRI)

At the Behavioral Discussion Group at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama earlier this month, post-doc Justin Touchon presented a new study of egg-laying behavior in Dendropsophus tree frogs to a standing-room only crowd. Weeks after the rainy season begins, 30 plus species of frogs join the chorus at the edge of Panama’s Soberania National Park, and the Frog People arrive in droves.

“We don’t experience this concentration of frog researchers at any of our other field sites,” said Karen Warkentin, who brought several students with her from Boston University to study parental care and hatching plasticity in glassfrogs.

Mike Ryan from the University of Texas at Austin, Ryan Taylor, Salisbury University and STRI’s Rachel Page received significant funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation to study female responses to male robofrogs. They’ll learn how animals, including humans, integrate information through different sensory channels.

Karen Lips, University of Maryland, continues to monitor amphibian decline in Cope and in Darien Province. Roberto Ibañez and Brian Gratwicke will orchestrate the construction of new facilities in Gamboa for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. Corinne Richards-Zawacki from Tulane University also has a major NSF grant to study the evolution of Bocas del Toro’s emblematic strawberry poison dart frogs.

-Provided by Beth King, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

AZA Updates Amphibian Husbandry Guide

Amphibian Husbandry Resource Guide

The AZA has released an updated Amphibian Husbandry Resource Guide, a user-friendly source to aid in the development of successful amphibian conservation programs. With more thna 6,900 species of amphibians in the world, there is still much to be learned about their natural history and captive husbandry requirements. This lack of information and expertise can impede the urgent action needed for the 500+ threatened species in risk of disappearing within the immediate future. The zoological community and private sector have made great strides within the last two decades regarding amphibian husbandry and reproduction techniques, and will continue to develop new and innovative methods each year. However, as amphibian populations wane, it’s important to quickly and effectively pool resources, share expertise and learn from shared experiences to effectively remain ahead of the extinction tide. You can find a rich array of other resources on amphibians on the AZA website.

Cindy Hoffman, Defenders of Wildlife

Now Hear This

Is your volume turned up? Hear what this horned marsupial frog (Gastrotheca cornuta) has to say to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Dr. Della Garelle during an exam at an Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project breeding center in Panama. He sounds more like a baby than a frog! This uniquely vocal species is on the verge of extinction due to the chytrid fungus.

The female horned marsupial frog carries fertilized eggs in a pouch on her back and the eggs hatch as fully developed frogs! This particular species produces the largest known amphibian eggs.

Katie Borremans, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Frogs, Medicine and the Rainforest

The phantasmal poison frog produces a very strong toxin called epibatidine, which works as a pain reliever. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Despite the perception that many of our pharmaceuticals come from a scientist randomly mixing chemicals in a lab, many of our medicines are derived from wild plants and animals.

It’s a fiercely competitive world out there and nature resorted to chemical warfare long ago. Organisms evolved to produce these costly molecules to protect themselves from predators. From plants to butterflies to frogs, everything is in on the act.

Think back to the last time you took some aspirin. Did you ever think about where this widely used medicine originated? The active ingredient in aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid, is derived from a compound found in willow bark. Going back as far as Hippocrates (~400 B.C.E), people have used willow bark to ease pain and fever. The new compound is only slightly tweaked from the original to make it lighter on the stomach.

One of the most famous examples of frog poisons comes from the poison dart frogs of Central and South America. Some of the most toxic of them carry enough poison to kill several adult people!

I want to focus on one of them, the phantasmal poison frog (Epipedobates tricolor) of Ecuador. This little frog produces a very strong toxin called epibatidine. Epibatidine, as a toxin, targets the nervous system, causing paralysis and death with even small doses.

In 1974, Dr. John Daly at the National Institutes of Health discovered that secretions from E. tricolor worked as powerful pain-relievers at super low doses. How powerful? Try 200 times stronger than morphine, but without the addictive side effects.

The discovery hasn’t led to a drug on the shelf yet, but since the 1990s, a method of synthesizing epibatidine has provided researchers with all the test substance they need to find similar but safer compounds with the same effects, just like the discovery of aspirin. Even today, papers are still being published about new, promising molecules inspired by the epibatidine from this tiny frog.

The cautionary tale in this story is that not all E. tricolors produce epibatidine. Many species of poison dart frogs do not produce their deadly toxins in captivity because they eat a different diet than they do in the wild. In the wild, E. tricolor is losing its old rainforest habitat and moving down the mountain to banana plantations where they eat a different diet of insects than they used to. These individuals do not produce epibatidine.

In the end, it is not just a single species of frog or plant that matters. It is the rainforest ecosystem as a whole. I think it’s worth saving if not for its beauty, then for the promise of easing pain around the world.

Andrew Franks, Zoo New England

Start Spreading the Word

Paul Crump

Houston Zoo Amphibian Program Manager Paul Crump meets a family attending the Milam County Nature Fest. The aquarium on the table holds Houston toad ‘ambassadors.’ More than 600 people attended the one day Nature Fest in Rockdale, Texas. (Photo courtesy of the Houston Zoo)

Learning about endangered species is the first step in helping to protect them.

In 1968, a small amphibian landed a spot on the list of “Rare and Endangered Fish and Wildlife of the United States.” Five years later, the Houston toad was included in the passing of the Endangered Species Act and became one of the first amphibian species in the United States, and maybe even the world, to be recognized as declining.

Today the Houston toad is no longer found in its namesake city, and fewer than 300 individuals remain in the wild, largely due to habitat loss.  The Houston Zoo is working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas State University and the Environmental Defense Fund to ensure the toad’s survival. The Zoo also works with private landowners to restore habitat and monitor populations in Houston toad counties. But before we can involve a landowner in the project we have to find them–and that’s where the Zoo’s education and outreach programs come in.

Mainstream media of course plays a major role in the effort.  A recent front-page story in the Houston Chronicle highlighted the need for private landowners to participate in the restoration project. The article generated a dozen responses from interested landowners and raised the profile of the effort. But grassroots efforts also play an important role.

Through our collaboration with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Zoo has developed opportunities for the presentation of education and outreach programs in counties northwest of Houston, the Houston toad’s current range. In late February, a landowner workshop sponsored by Texas AgriLife Extension and the Texas Forest Service brought 200 landowners together to learn about woodland and pond management and how to get involved in the Houston toad recovery project. Recently, three members of the Houston Zoo Conservation Department participated in the Milam County Nature Fest 2012. Supported by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the festival drew more than 600 participants from surrounding communities in prime Houston toad range for a day of nature exhibits and demonstrations, crafts and games for children and an opportunity to meet Houston toads and hear from those who are directly involved in the toad’s recovery.

It’s one thing to tell the world about the importance of amphibians to the balance of nature. It’s another thing entirely when you see the smile on a child’s face when they have an up-close encounter with an endangered species. Then you know you’ve connected.

-Brian Hill, Houston Zoo

Spring is coming, time to get planting. But let’s think of our amphibian friends when we do.

Phlyctimantis leonardi

With spring in the air, there is much we can do to make sure our yards are safe for amphibians. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Last month, my husband and I were laying some huge pieces of flagstone in our backyard.  We had moved them into the yard over the winter, but had not placed them yet.  It was a nice day, so we decided to lay out our walkway.

Lo and behold, my husband exclaimed that there was a baby snake under one of the stones.  I took a closer look, and to my surprise, there were actually, not one, but three salamanders! What a discovery! These little guys were clearly hibernating under our flagstone. As I picked them up, they stretched in the sunshine and started to crawl around in my hands. So cute. I placed them in a safe place in the garden and put another piece of flagstone over them for safe keeping.

I am always amazed at the critters I find, even in the soil, when I am gardening. One day I found a toad, buried deep in the soil. I caused him serious injury, and have never forgotten him. To this day, I don’t dig in my garden until the soil has warmed enough for these guys to come out of hibernation.

I have also met a few snakes and a turtle that have taken up residence in my yard. I have a toad that visits my backyard annually. With the weather warming, I am keeping my eyes peeled for him.

Making sure these creatures are safe is important to me. So I try to not use any pesticides in my yard. I was having problems with slugs on my hosta one year, until I surrounded the plants with sand. Apparently slugs don’t like to crawl through sand. No problems after that!

Overuse of pesticides kill frogs, fish and insects that live in your watershed. And farther down the river it can poison those tasty shrimp, clams and crabs. Knowing exactly what insect problem you have will help you select several effective treatments. Several alternatives include manual removal, physical barriers, attracting beneficial insects, and diversified planting. For more alternative pest control methods, please click here.

We can all do our part to help frogs, toads and other amphibians in our backyard and by supporting the Panamanian Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project.

Cindy Hoffman, Defenders of Wildlife

Frogs and Painted Dogs – A Unique Partnership

The rain frogs live most of their lives hibernating under the sand in Southern Africa and also creep rather than hop. Only after heavy rains will they emerge from the earth to eat and to breed. The males are so much smaller than the females they must actually secrete a glue from their abdomen to stick on to the females back and hitch a ride to where she will dig her underground burrow to deposit her eggs! (Photo courtesy of the Houston Zoo)

Frogs and Painted Dogs.  It’s got a nice ring to it.

It might seem unlikely that a conservation organization focused on a large charismatic carnivore would be interested in using frogs and toads to teach students about research, biology and conservation. But amphibians are an indicator species in a habitat in which the painted dog depends on survival and a model organism for teaching taxonomy, biology, adaptations, ecological concepts, environmental threats and how students can implement conservation action.

During a 2010 lecture stop at the Houston Zoo, Dr. Gregory Rasmussen, the director of Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) in Dete, Zimbabwe heard about Toad Trackers, a conservation education program implemented by the Houston Zoo Department of Conservation and Science.

Through specialized classroom training and field experiences, Toad Trackers teaches students the methods wildlife biologists use to study wild animal populations.

Dr. Rasmussen saw the concept as a great fit for PDC’s Iganyana Bush Camp, which teaches local children conservation concepts, ecological relationships and the value of biodiversity.

On November 22, 2011, Houston Zoo Conservation Programs Manager Rachel Rommel and Dr. Cullen Geiselman, a Houston Zoo board member with experience teaching bat workshops and field programs, arrived at Painted Dog Conservation headquarters and began scouting study sites for a new conservation education program – Kids for Science, a pilot program for 14-year-old students.

A teacher holds a bocage

After scouting out potential study sites, Rachel conducted nightly visual and audio searches and documented 16 species of amphibians. Cullen identified the bat species that would be observed with the children during the program. They visited local villages and schools accompanied by PDC education staff creating conservation action plans that would be implemented by teachers and students .

With ideas for community conservation programs and a familiarity with the local fauna, Rachel and Cullen welcomed 11 exceptional and gracious pupils from Nechilibi High School to pilot the first PDC Kids for Science program, an intensive two-day course including class presentations, classroom training activities, field exercises and interactive discoveries.

After learning how biologists detect and monitor animal activity and how scientific information is collected, students spent two evenings in the field, at Hwange National Park and Granda Lodge making observations and assisting teachers, conservation coordinators and a National Park staff member in the capture and data collection of amphibians and bats.

A final project, an amphibian field guide, was assembled by the group to present to their classmates and headmaster.  The students, now community ambassadors for amphibians and bats, are now tasked with creating specific ways their school and club can help in the conservation of insectivores and will report back to PDC this spring.

Resources donated to PDC (bat detectors, spring scales, calipers, calculators, headlamps, field guides and more) will be used to incorporate Kids for Science into the existing education program.

Frogs and Painted Dogs–a unique collaboration advancing conservation efforts of amphibians and bats in Zimbabwe.

–Brian Hill, Houston Zoo

A United Front in Panama

The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project implementation team met in Panama in February. From left: Pete Riger, Alan Pessier, Eric Baitchman, Paul Crump, William, Heidi Ross-Griffth, Angie Estrada, Jorge Guerrel, Della Garelle, Roberto Ibanez (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Amphibian conservationists convened in El Valle, Panama, last month to plan the future of our fight to save amphibians. We didn’t do any collecting this trip, as frogs are much harder to find during the dry season. Parts of the country, including past collection sites in the Darien region, are also currently too dangerous. Instead, members of the project’s implementation team met with the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC). We are joining forces and looking at ways we can work together as one organization with two campuses.

Dr. Alan Pessier of San Diego Zoo Global facilitated the two-and-a-half day strategic planning session where a SWOT analysis was used to identify the organizations’ combined Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Participants included Heidi Ross, director of EVACC; Roberto Ibañez project director in country; Brian Gratwicke, project coordinator; Angie Estrada and Jorge Guerrel, project staff; Peter Riger and Paul Crump, Houston Zoo; Eric Baitchman, Zoo New England; Della Garelle, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

The outcome was an ambitious and detailed action plan to achieve our mutual goals of creating assurance colonies of Panama’s most vulnerable amphibian species, and ultimately re-establishing their healthy wild populations. We plan to expand our ability to house more priority species and breed them reliably, better communicate progress on our work to interested parties, continue to improve husbandry and increase efficiency, identify staffing and equipment needs, prioritize research projects, and develop re-introduction criteria.

Dr. Della Garelle, Director of Conservation, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Defenders Urges USFWS to Ban Importation of Live Frogs That May Have Chytrid

Chytrid infected frog

Defenders of Wildlife has submitted a proposal to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ban the importation of live frogs unless they are accompanied by a health certificate verifying that they are free of the chytrid, which killed the frog shown here. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

The global amphibian trade has been indicted as the culprit in the spread of the deadly chytrid fungus. A study published in New Scientist  calls for an amphibian quarantine to help slow the disease’s spread.

The study sequenced the genomes of 20 samples of Bd, collected in Europe, Africa, North and South America and Australia. They found that 16 of the 20 samples were genetically identical.

The researchers say the explanation for this is simple, that world-wide trade in amphibians enabled the spread of this disease.

The researchers suggest that countries quarantine all imported amphibians and only allow them to stay if they are not infected.

Defenders of Wildlife, a partner in the Panamanian Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, has submitted a proposal to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ban the importation of live frogs unless they are accompanied by a health certificate verifying that they are free of the chytrid fungus.

“Billions of frogs are traded internationally each year for human consumption, and that industry is responsible for depleting wild populations, spreading deadly disease, and allowing invasive species to destroy the health of native ecosystems,” said Alejandra Goyenechea, counsel for the international conservation programs for Defenders of Wildlife.

Defenders is working with the upcoming CITES Animals Committee to ensure that the international trade of frogs is not detrimental to their survival and with CITES Parties to bring awareness on the international trade of frog legs with our report.

Cindy Hoffman, Defenders of Wildlife

Double Whammy: Snake carries killer fungus

blunt-headed tree snake

Researchers recently confirmed that the fungus causing the lethal disease chytridiomycosis is present on nonamphibian carriers, such as this blunt-headed tree snake, in natural environments. (Photo courtesy of STRI)

The blunt-headed tree snake (Imantodes cenchoa) not only eats frogs and their eggs, it also carries the killer fungus that has wiped out more than 100 amphibian species worldwide.

A new study by Vanessa Kilburn and David Green from Canada’s McGill University with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Roberto Ibáñez, in-country director of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, confirms for the first time that the fungus causing the lethal disease chytridiomycosis is present on nonamphibian carriers in natural environments.

The team surveyed 13 species of lizards and 8 species of snakes from sites across Panama using a genetic test to identify fungal DNA in samples taken from the reptiles’ skin with a cotton swab. They found evidence of the disease on up to 32 percent of lizards (Anolis humilis) and on three different species of snakes.

The irony of a frog-eating snake that carries a killer frog disease is that it may eliminate its own food supply, leading to its own demise.

Beth King, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute