Earth optimism: Frogs

What’s Working in Conservation

The global conservation movement has reached a turning point. We have documented the fast pace of habitat loss, the growing number of endangered and extinct species, and the increasing speed of global climate change. Yet while the seriousness of these threats cannot be denied, there are a growing number of examples of improvements in the health of species and ecosystems, along with benefits to human well-being, thanks to our conservation actions. Earth Optimism is a global initiative that celebrates a change in focus from problem to solution, from a sense of loss to one of hope, in the dialogue about conservation and sustainability.

The Smithsonian will host an Earth Optimism Summit in Washington DC April 21-23, 2017
Please register if you are coming in person or stream the presentations online here: Sunday is a free public day.

Dr Brian Gratwicke will present the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project on Saturday April 22 5:15pm on the panel Science on the Edge

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.

Brian Gratwicke: The Panamanian Golden Frog

Panamanian Golden Frogs in the market at El ValleKeep an open eye in Panama and you might just see a Panamanian Golden Frog. Local legend used to promise luck to anyone who spotted the frog in the wild and that when the frog died, it would turn into a gold talisman, known as a huaca. Nowadays, you’ll see the frogs on decorative cloth molas made by the Kuna Indians, on T-shirts, as inlaid design on a new overpass in Panama City and even on lottery tickets. In the market at El Valle de Antòn, you will see them by the thousands either as enamel-painted terracotta or on hand-carved tagua nuts. The one place you probably won’t see a Panamanian Golden Frog, however, is in their native home—the crystal clear streams of the ancient volcanic crater of El Valle de Antòn. In the mountain forests you may spot other similar-looking extant species such as Atelopus varius, but the only local and true Panamanian Golden Frogs Atelopus zeteki are those breeding in captivity at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC) at the El Nispero Zoo.

Panamanian Golden Frog, Atelopus zeteki (in captivity)In the early 2000’s conservationists warned that this day-glo yellow emblem of Panama was in grave danger of extinction. In emergency response, Project Golden Frog was established to create captive assurance colonies of this species, just in case the scientists’ worst fears came to pass and the species went extinct in the wild. In 2006, just as the scientists had predicted, the chytridiomycosis disease hit El Valle. The Panamanian Golden Frog—whose populations were already under pressure due to collectors and habitat loss—was decimated. Suddenly, Panama’s unique harelquin frog species joined the ranks of at least 30 other harlequin frogs that are most likely extinct in the wild. Luckily, Panama’s charismatic namesake was part of an AZA Species Survival Plan. Today, the captive population is being carefully managed and bred for long-term survival by a number of zoos and aquaria in the United States and Panama. The animals in these assurance colonies have served their intended purpose and provide an insurance policy for the species, guaranteeing that this important Panamanian cultural symbol will never be lost all together.

amphibian_rescue_project-300x296A tragedy has thus been averted. Instead of a dire warning of the future fate of the planet, Panamanian Golden Frogs are now a symbol of hope. Exiled frogs are playing the role of a flagship species, bringing the story of global amphibian declines to world wide audiences in zoos and aquaria, magazines and films. As the logo of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, the Panamanian Golden Frog is a powerful symbol uniting 8 key institutions. Together, we have embarked on this ambitious national program to build capacity at the Summit Municipal Park in Panama and to create assurance colonies of other amphibian species from Eastern Panama before it is too late. We are also actively working with some of the world’s leading researchers like Reid Harris and Louise Rollins-Smith to develop a cure that will allow us to control the further spread of chytridiomycosis. Our great hope is that one day we may re-establish wild populations of Panamanian Golden Frogs back into their rightful home in the streams of El Valle. Until then, we embrace Panama’s living gold as a symbol of hope and achievement in showing us how we can preserve Panama’s amphibian biodiversity.

Brian Gratwicke: Extinct amphibians – a roll call of missing species

bufo_periglenes1-300x200It’s difficult to communicate the extent of the amphibian crisis using only numbers. The 2008 global amphibian assessment lists 120 potentially extinct species and 39 extinct amphibian species. Of these, 94 had chytridiomycosis listed as a likely threat associated with their disappearance. Most of the missing species are from Central and South America, but we are also losing species from North America, the Caribbean, Australia, the Middle East, Asia and Australia.

Now let’s try and put those numbers into the context of our mammal-centric world. Think of a whole bunch of endangered mammals from around the world: a jaguar, Panthera onca, a Baird’s tapir, Tapirus bairdii, the golden lion tamarin, Leontopithecus rosalia, a mountain pygmy possum, Burramys parvus, Dama gazelle, Nanger dama, and the New Guinea big-eared bat, Pharotis imogene. Repeat that exercise 25 times, and you’ll have some idea of what we have probably already lost in the amphibian world.

Here is a roll-call of missing amphibians. Those marked with an (EX) are classified by the IUCN as extinct. Those with an asterisk * next to them have had chytridiomycosis suggested as one of the threats associated with their disappearance.


Alytidae – Midwife Toads

1. Discoglossus nigriventer (EX) Rediscovered in 2011!


1. Aromobates nocturnus *

2. Mannophryne neblina*

3. Prostherapis dunni*

Bufonidae – True toads

1. Adenomus kandianus (EX)

2. Anaxyrus baxteri (EX in the wild)*

3. Andinophryne colomai

4. Atelopus arthuri*

5. Atelopus balios*

6. Atelopus carbonerensis*

7. Atelopus chiriquiensis*

8. Atelopus chrysocorallus*

9. Atelopus coynei*

10. Atelopus famelicus*

11. Atelopus guanujo*

12. Atelopus halihelos*

13. Atelopus ignescens (EX)*

14. Atelopus longirostris (EX)*

15. Atelopus lozanoi*

16. Atelopus lynchi *

17. Atelopus mindoensis*

18. Atelopus muisca*

19. Atelopus nanay*

20. Atelopus oxyrhynchus*

21. Atelopus pachydermus*

22. Atelopus peruensis*

23. Atelopus pinangoi*

24. Atelopus planispina*

25. Atelopus senex*

26. Atelopus sernai*

27. Atelopus sorianoi*

28. Atelopus vogli

29. Incilius fastidiosus*

30. Incilius holdridgei (EX)*

31. Incilius periglenes (EX)*

32. Melanophryniscus macrogranulosus

33. Nectophrynoides asperginis*

34. Peltophryne fluviatica

35. Rhinella rostrata

Centrolenidae – Glass frogs

1. Centrolene ballux*

2. Centrolene heloderma*

3. Hyalinobatrachium crybetes

Ceratophryidae – Horned frogs

1. Telmatobius cirrhacelis*

2. Telmatobius niger*

3. Telmatobius vellardi*


1. Craugastor anciano

2. Craugastor andi*

3. Craugastor angelicus*

4. Craugastor chrysozetetes (EX)*

5. Craugastor coffeus

6. Craugastor cruzi*

7. Craugastor emleni*

8. Craugastor escoces (EX)*

9. Craugastor fecundus*

10. Craugastor fleischmanni*

11. Craugastor guerreroensis*

12. Craugastor merendonensis*

13. Craugastor milesi (EX)**Population just rediscovered in Honduras (see comments)

14. Craugastor olanchano*

15. Craugastor omoaensis*

16. Craugastor polymniae*

17. Craugastor saltuarius*

18. Craugastor stadelmani*

19. Craugastor trachydermus*


1. Cryptobatrachus nicefori


1. Cycloramphus ohausi*

2. Odontophrynus moratoi

3. Rhinoderma rufum*

Dendrobatidae – Poison dart frogs

1. Colostethus jacobuspetersi

2. Hyloxalus edwardsi

3. Hyloxalus ruizi

4. Hyloxalus vertebralis*

5. Ranitomeya abdita*


1. Nannophrys guentheri

Eleutherodactylidae – Neotropical frogs

1. Eleutherodactylus eneidae*

2. Eleutherodactylus glanduliferoides

3. Eleutherodactylus jasper*

4. Eleutherodactylus karlschmidti*

5. Eleutherodactylus orcutti*

6. Eleutherodactylus schmidti*

7. Eleutherodactylus semipalmatus*

Hylidae – Treefrogs

1. Bokermannohyla claresignata*

2. Bokermannohyla izecksohni

3. Bromeliohyla dendroscarta*

4. Charadrahyla altipotens*

5. Charadrahyla trux*

6. Ecnomiohyla echinata*

7. Hyla bocourti*

8. Hyloscirtus chlorosteus

9. Hypsiboas cymbalum*

10. Isthmohyla calypso*

11. Isthmohyla debilis*

12. Isthmohyla graceae*

13. Isthmohyla tica*

14. Litoria castanea* Breaking news – this has been rediscovered after 30 years!

15. Litoria lorica*

16. Litoria nyakalensis*

17. Litoria piperata*

18. Megastomatohyla pellita*

19. Plectrohyla calvicollina*

20. Plectrohyla celata*

21. Plectrohyla cembra*

22. Plectrohyla cyanomma*

23. Plectrohyla ephemera*

24. Plectrohyla hazelae*

25. Plectrohyla siopela*

26. Plectrohyla thorectes*

27. Phrynomedusa fimbriata (EX)

28. Scinax heyeri*

Hemiphractidae – Marsupial frogs

1. Gastrotheca lauzuricae


1. Crossodactylus trachystomus

Leptodactylidae – Southern frogs

1. Paratelmatobius mantiqueira*

Megophryidae – Asian toadfrogs

1. Scutiger maculatus

Myobatrachidae – Australian toadlets and waterfrogs

1. Taudactylus acutirostris*

2. Taudactylus diurnus (EX)*

3. Rheobatrachus silus (EX)*

4. Rheobatrachus vitellinus (EX)*


1. Conraua derooi

2. Petropedetes dutoiti*

Ranidae – True frogs

1. Lithobates fisheri (EX)

2. Lithobates omiltemanus*

3. Lithobates pueblae

4. Lithobates tlaloci

Rhacophoridae – Asian Tree Frogs

1. Philautus jacobsoni

2. Philautus adspersus (EX)

3. Philautus dimbullae (EX)

4. Philautus eximius (EX)

5. Philautus extirpo (EX)

6. Philautus halyi (EX)

7. Philautus hypomelas (EX)

8. Philautus leucorhinus (EX)

9. Philautus maia (EX)

10. Philautus malcolmsmithi (EX)

11. Philautus nanus (EX)

12. Philautus nasutus (EX)

13. Philautus oxyrhynchus (EX)

14. Philautus pardus (EX)

15. Philautus rugatus (EX)

16. Philautus stellatus (EX)

17. Philautus temporalis (EX)

18. Philautus travancoricus (EX)

19. Philautus variabilis (EX)

20. Philautus zal (EX)

21. Philautus zimmeri(EX)


1. Holoaden bradei

2. Oreobates zongoensis

3. Pristimantis bernali


Plethodondiade – Lungless salamanders

1. Bradytriton silus

2. Chiropterotriton magnipes

3. Oedipina paucidentata

4. Plethodon ainsworthi (EX)

5. Pseudoeurycea ahuitzotl

6. Pseudoeurycea aquatica

7. Pseudoeurycea naucampatepetl

8. Pseudoeurycea praecellens

9. Pseudoeurycea tlahcuiloh

10. Thorius infernalis

11. Thorius narismagnus

Salimandridae – Newts

1. Cynops wolterstorffi (EX)

Have you seen any of these missing amphibians? Do you think that other species should be added? Use the comments field below to tell us your thoughts. For another list of possibly extinct species, grouped by countries, see amphibia web.

Brian Gratwicke: Why frogs matter

Over the last year I have spent countless hours talking to people, explaining why I’m an amphibian conservationist battling to save some of the 2000-odd species of amphibians that are facing extinction. I’ll bet that the bird conservationists saving warblers don’t get that question as often as I do, because birds clearly do matter. Birds are a very accessible form of wildlife, you can see them in your back yards, and they are the sound of nature. Just a few adrenalin-filled moments spent watching a woodpecker and a cardinal having a fight at a bird feeder is enough escapism to lift the burdens of a hard day in the office. Yet frogs do matter for all these reasons and more. The main difference between frogs and birds is that the bird folks are organized and the amphibian conservationists are only just starting to get their act together. Birdlife International has 4000 full-time employees, RSPB has 1,300 staff, the Audubon Society has 600 employees. Even Ducks Unlimited has 500 employees – all working full time applying their skills to bird conservation! Yet in the whole amphibian world there are only a handful of people are working full-time to mitigate the threats facing amphibians. Faced with this dearth of capacity it is no wonder that just 12% of birds are in danger of extinction compared to 32% of amphibians. Since 1980 we have lost just 5 species of birds but over 120 species of amphibians!

That still doesn’t answer the question why does it matter if they go extinct? Humans have many different kinds of value systems. The most obvious one is goods and services that can be exchanged for cash. The best example of the direct value of amphibians is frog legs. These are a culinary curiosity and have obvious direct value that can easily be quantified in dollars. Most people would be surprised to hear that between 1996 and 2006, over 100,000 tons of frogs legs were imported and had a value approaching half a billion dollars! Every year 100 million to 400 million wild-caught animals are imported and exported to nearly every country in the world.vancouver_frogs-651x1024

This public service announcement from the Vancouver aquarium elegantly captures how important amphibians are to controlling pests. However, it is difficult to figure out how much these ecosystem services are worth if people aren’t paying for them, they are indirect values. The trouble is it’s tough to know how much something is really worth unless someone is willing to pay for it. One example that gives us a clue about what people may be willing to sacrifice for these indirect services is from India. In 1981 the Indian the frog leg trade peaked, when more than 4,000 tons were exported, mainly to Europe earning revenues of $9.3 million. In 1987, however, India banned frog legs exports, arguing that the cost of importing more pesticides to combat pests in rice paddies devoid of amphibians was outstripping revenues earned from frog leg exports. This contention also contributed to the listing of two species that were targeted specifically for food on Appendix II in CITES.

Many people will justify saving the rain forest, because we don’t know what AIDS cure might be out there, and we don’t want it to go extinct before we find out where to get it, something that we’ll call option values. Well, one of my collaborators, an incredible lady by the name of Louise Rollins-Smith recently discovered that the White’s tree frog from Australia produces a kind of chemical called a caerin (pronounced see-rin) that can block HIV transmission to t-cells! In fact, frog-skins are a real pharmacopeia something I’ve tried to communicate in this illustration below.


The gastric brooding frog from Australia may have held a cure for peptic ulcers, a condition that affects millions of people around the world each year. Unfortunately though, its potential benefits went extinct along with both species in its genus in the 1980’s. Looking at this diagram makes one realize that some values are difficult to prescribe in dollar terms. It makes you think about what we are loosing when you hear stories like one from my colleagues in Panama who recently discovered 10 new species in Panama-after they had already gone extinct!

Amenity values are difficult to quantify in dollar terms, yet frogs are one of the most commonly used animals in classroom education in Western countries. 44-64% of all colleges and secondary schools surveyed in Georgia, USA used amphibians for educational purposes. And how many of us had our first real wildlife experiences catching frogs and kissing them to see if they turned into a prince? Or chasing a bullfrog across the garden lawn in a frog-jumping competition with your friends?

Ethical values are, in my mind, the real justification for saving a species. Many people will spend countless millions on a work of art, a unique object of beauty and fascination that enriches our lives simply because it exists. I feel the same way about a species, when we lose it, it can never be replaced. Like many people before me I find frogs fascinating creatures. In Africa, the ancient Egyptian goddess of fertility, Hequet, was often depicted as a frog. In Asia Chan Chu, the three-legged money frog is a popular Chinese symbol for prosperity and it is said to bring wealth into your life. In the America’s pre-Columbian indigenous people crafted frogs in gold and clay talismans called huacas. Today, golden frogs are considered lucky, and adorn Panamanian lottery tickets and crowd tables in tourist markets. In more contemporary settings, one has to wonder what the value is of modern cultural icons such as Kermit or the Budweiser trio of frogs named Bud, Wei and Ser?

So you may be saying right now – I’m not convinced, frogs creep me out. That’s OK, but I would beg to differ with you because I know that frogs do matter. I just want to keep them around so that your children and their children can form their own opinions. Not just by looking at catalogues of extinct species in a library somewhere, but by exploring a stream with their friends and discovering these incredible creatures for themselves.

Brian Gratwicke: Chytrid Jumps Canal

It’s official. The deadly amphibian chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) has now spread across the Panama Canal into Eastern Panama according to a study recently published in Ecohealth. Elsewhere in Central and South America, this disease has spread through mountainous regions. According to Karen Lips, a conservation biologist who has studied the problem for years, when Bd arrives at a site,  about half of the species vanish and the remaining species experience massive die-offs.chytrid spread

Conservationists have been fretting for years about what might happen to Eastern Panama’s 120-odd amphibian species when Bd hits. Bd is a disease that cannot tolerate extremely hot temperatures, so it tends to be most devastating in cooler mountainous regions of the tropics that remain cool and moist year-round. The mountainous regions of Eastern Panama are one of the last remaining strongholds of naïve amphibian populations in the New World, and species that tend to have a highland distribution and small ranges are the most vulnerable to extinction.

To add another layer of complexity to this problem, there are many species new to science that we could lose before they are even discovered. According to Dr. Andrew Crawford who studies amphibian genetics, “Eastern Panama has been relatively poorly explored by herpetologists and it is likely that there are several species new to science that live only in this region. What is particularly worrying is that we are facing a huge biodiversity threat, but we don’t have a good idea of just how many species are at stake”.