Press release: Smithsonian Scientists Find Deadly Amphibian Disease in the Last Disease-free Region of Central America

Toad Mountain harlequin frog (Atelopus certus)

The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project has established an assurance colony for two species endemic to the Darien, including the Toad Mountain harlequin frog (Atelopus certus), shown here. (Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Smithsonian scientists have confirmed that chytridiomycosis, a rapidly spreading amphibian disease, has reached a site near Panama’s Darien region. This was the last area in the entire mountainous neotropics to be free of the disease. This is troubling news for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, a consortium of nine U.S. and Panamanian institutions that aims to rescue 20 species of frogs in imminent danger of extinction.

Chytridiomycosis has been linked to dramatic population declines or even extinctions of amphibian species worldwide. Within five months of arriving at El Cope in western Panama, chytridiomychosis extirpated 50 percent of the frog species and 80 percent of individuals.

“We would like to save all of the species in the Darien, but there isn’t time to do that now,” said Brian Gratwicke, biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and international coordinator for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. “Our project is one of a few to take an active stance against the probable extinction of these species. We have already succeeded in breeding three species in captivity. Time may be running out, but we are looking for more resources to take advantage of the time that remains.”

The Darien National Park is a World Heritage site and represents one of Central America’s largest remaining wilderness areas. In 2007, Doug Woodhams, a research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, tested 49 frogs at a site bordering the Darien. At that time, none tested positive for the disease. In January 2010, however, Woodhams found that 2 percent of the 93 frogs he tested were infected.

“Finding chytridiomycosis on frogs at a site bordering the Darien happened much sooner than anyone predicted,” Woodhams said. “The unrelenting and extremely fast-paced spread of this fungus is alarming.”

The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project has already established captive assurance colonies in Panama of two priority species endemic to the Darien—the Pirre harlequin frog (Atelopus glyphus) and the Toad Mountain harlequin frog (A. certus). In addition, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo maintains an active breeding program for the Panamanian golden frog, which is Panama’s national animal. The Panamanian golden frog is critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and researchers have not seen them in the wild since 2008.

Bd infection

Chytridiomycosis is a rapidly spreading amphibian disease that attacks the skin cells of amphibians (shown here) and is wiping out frog species worldwide. (Doug Woodhams, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute)

“We would like to be moving faster to build capacity,” Gratwicke said. “One of our major hurdles is fundraising to build a facility to house these frogs. Until we jump that hurdle, we’re limited in our capacity to take in additional species.”

Nearly one-third of the world’s amphibian species are at risk of extinction. While the global amphibian crisis is the result of habitat loss, climate change and pollution, chytridiomycosis is at least partly responsible for the disappearances of 94 of the 120 frog species thought to have gone extinct since 1980.

“These animals that we are breeding in captivity will buy us some time as we find a way to control this disease in the wild and mitigate the threat directly,” said Woodhams, who was the lead author of a whitepaper Mitigating Amphibian Disease: strategies to maintain wild populations and control chytridiomycosis. This paper, published in Frontiers in Zoology, systematically reviews disease-control tools from other fields and examines how they might be deployed to fight chytrid in the wild. One particularly exciting lead in the effort to find a cure is that anti-chytrid bacteria living on frog skin may have probiotics properties that protect their amphibian host from chytrid by secreting anti-fungal chemicals. Woodhams recently discovered that some Panamanian species with anti-chytrid skin bacteria transmit beneficial skin chemicals and bacteria to their offspring. The paper, Social Immunity in Amphibians: Evidence for Vertical Transmission of Innate Defenses, was published in Biotropica in May.

“We are all working around the clock to find a cure,” Gratwicke said. “Woodhams’ discovery that defenses can indeed be transferred from parent to offspring gives us hope that if we are successful at developing a cure in the lab, we may find a way to use it to save wild amphibians.”

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute serves as an umbrella for the Smithsonian Institution’s global effort to understand and conserve species and train future generations of conservationists. Headquartered in Front Royal, Va., SCBI facilitates and promotes research programs based at Front Royal, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and at field research stations and training sites worldwide.

# # #

Media only: contact Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo, 202-633-3081

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

Guppy Travels: Day Three

Harlequin frog (Atelopus limosus)

This female harlequin frog (Atleopus limosus) is the only female of her kind (the highland variation) that the rescue project has in captivity.

There’s something almost sublime about her and it’s not just the way we angle the light during her photo shoots. She’s of the highland variation of Atelopus limosus, a harlequin frog from Cerro Brewster, and she happens to be the only female of her kind that we’ve got in captivity.

Talk about pressure.

Before I left for Panama, I already knew about her and to be honest, to be perfectly honest, she was the frog at Summit Zoo I was most looking forward to meeting. I’m not sure what I expected. She’s certainly a beauty, but in my opinion, most frogs are. Did I expect her to indicate, in some way, that she understands the significance of her position in the Universe? And if I did, what did I expect that sign to look like? A knowing nod? A regal posture upon a bromeliad? An extra quick flick of the tongue?

What I do know is that every time I’ve had to open her tank over the last few days, to clean it or to take her photo, my heart has started racing. I imagine her escaping, getting hurt or getting lost, and taking with her the possibility that the rescue project will be able to save these dark brown frogs with striking green chevrons. The frog keepers at Summit Zoo must feel the weight of this responsibility every day with every frog in their care. I’m not sure I could handle the gravity of that responsibility with the same level of grace that I’ve seen in them.

The reality, of course, is that one female isn’t going to be enough to build a genetically diverse population of these frogs. She was one of the frogs the project collected last year from Cerro Brewster in Panama’s Chagres National Park, where chytrid had spread rapidly, surprising (and, I think, momentarily devastating) our researchers who had hoped to beat the wave of the disease there. We haven’t stopped the search and we hope to find more females to add to our ark early next year.

Atelopus limosus tadpoles

The project's first group of tadpoles belongs to the lowland variation of Atelopus limosus.

Hope is really what drives the project. And really, how can it not? The situation may be dire, but there’s a song of hope in the call of one of the project’s male Harlequin frogs of the lowland variation in a tank in the middle of the rescue pod. There’s hope in the adorable adolescent Toad Mountain harlequin frogs (Atelopus certus) in tanks at the front of the pod. There’s hope in the far end of the rescue pod where a large tank holds what may be hundreds of tadpoles—a first for the rescue project. The tadpoles are not the highland variation of the harlequin frog, but the lowland variation, which is less threatened than their more colorful counterparts. Still, each step toward successful breeding marks a victory for us and provides an encouraging boost.

And perhaps that is what accounts for the sole female Harlequin frog’s seemingly ethereal beauty: in part because of her, we still have plenty of hope.

Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Brian Gratwicke: In search of the Toad Mountain Harlequin Frog

The Darien conjures up so many different mental images.  At nearly 6,000km2 this National Park and World Heritage site represents one of Central America’s largest remaining wilderness areas. It is full of charismatic wildlife like harpy eagles, jaguars and endemic birds such as the beautiful tree-runner and the green-naped tanager.  To many travelers, the Darien Gap is a dangerous blank spot on a map, filled with Columbian Rebels who thwart most overland journeys between the two great American continents.  To historians,  the Darien is the tomb of Scotland’s failed attempt at empire building where in the late 17th century, nearly 3,000 settlers failed to establish a hold for Scotland in the new world. And to many Panamanians, the Darien is a rural heartland for their country, inhabited by the Kuna, and Embera-Wounaan tribes who resisted the settlers. 

To a herpetologist, the Darien region of Eastern Panama represents one of our last clear chances to conserve neotropical amphibians. This is because an invasive pathogen causing a deadly amphibian disease known as chytridiomycosis has been spreading through the highlands of Central and South America. The only place it hasn’t reached yet is Eastern Panama. The disease devastates amphibian populations without paying any heed to protected area boundaries and it has been implicated in more than 90 amphibian disappearances.  One of the hardest hit groups are riotously colorful toads also known as Harlequin frogs. About 30 out of around 113 described species of Harlequin frogs are feared to be extinct, and 60-75 percent of all known species are experiencing rapid population declines.  For this reason, the project considers the endemic toad Mountain Harlequin frog, Atelopus certus, as a top rescue priority.  

Our 4.5-hour drive, 3-hour boat ride and 4 hours by horse, and 2-hour track on foot took us past many huts on stilts, cows, surly faced children and deep into the Darien National Park led by our Embera guide named Alonso.  Soldiers prominently displaying AK47s on their hips manned frequent security checkpoints. They stood in front of wanted posters promising $300,000 rewards for information leading to the arrest of pictured FARC rebels, which gave me a clue as to why this area is so poorly explored from a herpetology standpoint. Our operation was divided into two teams.  An advance monitoring team headed into the field a week earlier to complete the baseline monitoring of the frog community at upland and lowland sites. Our team followed as an international rescue team of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project’s partners tasked with collecting the frogs.  We were also accompanied by a 2-man documentary film crew for Smithsonian Networks and a troupe of Embera porters who safely ferried our ungainly equipment over slippery waterfalls and muddy tracks.

On the first day, we immediately found several Atelopus certus males, emitting a low whistling sound from smooth-worn boulders around the rain-swollen mountain stream. Every 10-20m we found an incredulous orange-peel-colored frog with jet-black spots and white belly, vigorously defending his turf from competing males and calling hopefully for females. It turns out that males are much easier to find because they pretty much live by the stream waiting for females year-round.  Females, on the other hand, only come down to the streamside when their rosy abdomens are engorged with eggs and they are ready to reproduce.  This swiftly became a problem for us, because in order to get captive insurance populations started with good genetic representation of the species, we really needed at least 20 males and 20 females to start us off. On our first day we collected more than 30 males, but just one female, who we found staggering around on a boulder with a smaller, oblivious male clinging onto her back in a mating embrace.  Clearly if we wanted more females, we were going to have to cover more ground or to change our strategy.

The Toad Mountain Harlequin Frog, Atelopus certus. Female left, male right.

The Toad Mountain Harlequin Frog, Atelopus certus. Female left, male right.

The next day, we decided to focus on finding juvenile frogs that had just metamorphosed from tadpoles. The idea is that at least half of them should theoretically be female. Collecting juveniles has an added advantage from an assurance colony perspective, in that we can reliably age them.  The problem was figuring out what they look like, and how to separate them from the numerous other dark, 5-mm toad metamorphs hopping around on the damp leaf piles on the stream bank.  Edgardo Griffth soon gave us a lesson in juvenile toad identification, pointing out a small dark black frog half the size of your baby fingernail, but closer inspection revealed characteristic features—Atelopus froglets are covered in metallic green chevrons and have bright orange feet! 

In all, we managed to find 50 males, 12 adult females and about 16 juveniles, from two sites. We ignored the vast majority of calling males, leaving them to continue their daily routines on Toad Mountain.  Overall this was a very successful expedition compared to our attempts last year.  In November 2009, we hoped to get ahead of the spreading disease wave in the Chagres watershed and targeted Atelopus limosus and Hyloscirtus colymba.  When we arrived, however, we discovered that the site was at the peak of a massive disease outbreak.  Frogs were difficult to find and 70 percent of all species were infected with chytridiomycosis. We lost many frogs despite having two veterinarians on board to give them daily anti-fungal treatments, and it was deeply upsetting to be thrust into the midst of such a harsh triage situation.  Given this perspective, it was a real privilege for us all to witness a healthy, pre-decline population of Atelopus.  Our pro-active approach to get ahead of the disease wave made finding the animals and getting them situated in captive conditions much easier, with no mortalities in the first week.

We gratefully acknowledge funding for this expedition from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife Without Borders Program, and by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.