Things we are thankful for: Amphibian baby boom

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

Snakes where frogs should be!

As the fungal disease, chytridiomycosis, wipes out frogs and other amphibians across Panama, snakes appear to be more common than previously—but are they really, and will they last?

Eyelash viper

Chad Montgomery took this photo of an eyelash viper, Bothriechis schleglii, eating a frog in El Cope, Panama, one of the most studied frog decline sites here.

Panama’s ongoing “Amphibian Armageddon” completely changes who eats whom—aka the food chain—near the highland tropical streams where frogs and amphibians used to abound.

Researchers from the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project’s latest expedition to Cerro Brewster in Central Panama report that where the frogs used to be, they are now seeing snakes—deadly eyelash vipers, to be exact.

This weekend my family was visiting from the United States and we ventured out on my favorite easy day trip from Panama City–a drive up to El Valle, a little town nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano.

Our first stop was El Nispero, a small private zoo, home to the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, EVACC, a project initiated by the Houston Zoo with some logistical support from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

EVACC is housed in a new building—with a beautiful small exhibit about Panama’s endangered frogs where you can see one of the last remaining golden frogs, Atelopus zeteki—named for James Zetek, one of the founder’s of STRI’s Barro Colorado Island research station in the 1920’s.

Edgardo Griffith is pretty much the powerhouse behind EVACC. He was in the lab there and was kind enough to take a break to talk to me about the most recent rescue project trip up to Brewster Hill.

The last visit to Brewster, which also included a big group of people from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado, was in November, 2009.  That team found a lot of frogs, but many of them were already infected with the fungus.

This time they found very few frogs, although they were psyched to have found a female Altelopus limosus, the Limosa harlequin frog, which the rescue project recently bred in captivity.

Instead they found a lot of snakes. Edgardo speculated that because there are fewer frogs it is not so much that there are more snakes, but that the snakes have to work harder to find frogs and are concentrated around the streams where a few frogs remain, so the team was just running into them more often.  But without more careful work, it is hard to say.

Chad Montgomery, now a professor at Truman State University in Missouri, did his post-doctoral research with Karen Lips from the University of Maryland on the effects of amphibian declines on frog predators at El Cope, one of the most studied frog decline sites in Panama.

He told me: “In 2005, the first year following the amphibian decline, we saw a change in the snake community, with snake species that are more dependent on amphibians as food (such as Sibon and Leptodeira) becoming less common relative to those snake species that are not as reliant on amphibians as prey (such as Oxybelis and Dipsas).”

“The ecosystem can’t support the previously large snake community,” he said. “Ultimately, loss of amphibians probably causes local extinction of some snake species and severely reduced population sizes in those species that remain.”

According to Julie Ray, the director of the La Mica Biological Station in El Cope, it’s unusual to see so many eyelash vipers, which have declined in El Cope following the frog decline. Eyelash vipers feed on frogs, lizards, mice, etc. She also said that Fer de lance, Panama’s most poisonous snake, actually feed on dying and dead frogs.

One of the truths that the rescue project reveals is how little we still know about playing Noah.  Many of Panama’s endangered frogs have never been studied in the wild or kept in captivity.

Not only do rescue project researchers have to figure out what frogs eat and what they need to survive and reproduce in a zoo, they still have no idea how their habitat will change as a result of the disease and when, if ever, it will be possible to reintroduce captive frogs back into the wild. We need to know much more about how frog extinctions change insect and animal communities…and that take precious time and money, which is why frog rescue projects need your support.

–Beth King, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Houston Zoo receives AZA top honors for El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center


The El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center is the only place in Panama where Panamanian golden frogs live. (Photo by: Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Five years ago, a small contingent of Houston Zoo staff arrived in the El Valle region of western-central Panama.  The group was made up of biologists, zoo keepers and members of the Zoo’s facilities department.  The diverse group had one common goal–create a facility on the grounds of the El Nispero Zoo that would serve as a living repository to prevent the extinction of the threatened amphibian species of El Valle.

Unfortunately, amphibian chytrid arrived in the region earlier than anticipated.  While construction of what would become the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, or EVACC, proceeded, temporary facilities were developed at a nearby hotel as a staging site for a rapid response rescue program.

In March of 2007, the off-exhibit portion of the facility was in operation and last year construction was finished on the exhibition portion of the facility.

On September 8 of this year, at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums 86th annual conference, the Houston Zoo received the AZA’s Top Honors 2010 International Conservation Award, the AZA’s highest level of recognition, for its leadership in establishing the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC) in western-central Panama. 

The award carries the name of the Houston Zoo and recognizes the broad support for the effort that involved every area of the Zoo.  But EVACC could not have been realized without the support of more than a dozen contributing institutions including Amphibian Ark, Atlanta Botanical Gardens, BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo, Buffalo Zoo, Cleveland


EVACC is the home to more than 60 species of frogs. (Photo by: Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian's National Zoo)

Metroparks Zoo, Dickerson Park Zoo, Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Oklahoma City Zoo, Roger Williams Park Zoo, Rosamond Gifford Zoo, San Diego Zoo, Sedgwick County Zoo, Seneca Park Zoo, Utah’s Hogle Zoo, Zoo Atlanta and Zoo New England.  The institutions provided staffing, technical, financial and logistical assistance in a number of phases including facilities (electrical and carpentry), graphics/signage, veterinary, husbandry and invertebrate rearing capabilities.

Today, the public exhibition area of EVACC, which opened in April of 2009, exhibits 23 ambassador species amongst an immersing mural depicting the mountainous cloud forest of El Valle. A center exhibit features Panamanian golden frogs and a stream habitat reminiscent of their natural home in Panama. In fact, this exhibit is the only place in the country where Panamanians can view their cultural icon.

The EVACC project has reached a wide and demographically varied global audience. It is estimated that at least 10 million people have heard about the global amphibian crisis through the context of EVACC.  It’s an enduring example of the impact of teamwork by dedicated zoo professionals.

Brian Hill, Houston Zoo

Guppy Travels: Day Six

Edgardo Griffith and Heidi Ross

I had the pleasure to meet Edgardo Griffith, Heidi Ross and the more than 60 species of frogs they care for at El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center.

If El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center is a frog lover’s heaven, then Edgardo Griffith and Heidi Ross are the center’s angels. With more than 60 frog species at the facility, more commonly known as EVACC, I was spellbound, moving from tank to tank like a kid in a candy store. From the horned marsupial frog (Gastrotheca cornuta) to the crowned tree frog (Anotheca spinosa), each animal was sweeter than the next.

Brian Gratwicke, the project’s international coordinator, and Jeff Coulter, a project volunteer, and I drove the two hours yesterday from Summit Zoo to western Panama to visit EVACC. EVACC acts as another ark as part of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, housing about 10 of the rescue project’s priority species.

Golden frog jeep

What do frog lovers drive? Why a golden frog mobile, of course!

With only one other person to help them, Edgardo and Heidi care for all of the frogs on their own, every day of the week. While I was running around trying to say hello to each frog, they were moving through spot checks and misting the tanks, pausing only to proudly show me the newest tadpoles or metamorphs among the crew. The two biologists live for frogs—they have a car painted like a Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki) and a toilet top with the same pattern.

These are my kind of people!

Edgardo and Heidi’s outward love of these frogs is also a symbol of just how valuable a treasure they have at EVACC. The center houses the only population of Panamanian golden frogs—the country’s national animal—left in Panama. Panamanian golden frogs are extinct in the wild, found only in captivity at EVACC and a number of zoos and aquaria in the United States. Yet Panama still celebrates the golden frog and markets are filled with statues and artwork aimed at capturing these animals’ beauty. My suitcase will be overflowing on my trip back to the United States tomorrow.

Panamanian golden frog

Panamanian golden frogs are extinct in the wild and exist only in captivity at EVACC and zoos and aquaria in the United States. (Photo by Jeff Coulter)

I was reminded last night of how revered Panamanian golden frogs are in their native country when the owners of the restaurant we were at came out and offered us free cocktails and dessert in gratitude of the work that Heidi and Edgardo do at EVACC. To be part of a society for a week that actively cherishes frogs is something that I get to carry with me to the United States, where I aim to inspire the same type of interest in the rescue project.

I will also carry with me the memory of our hike today up to the top of Sleeping Indian Mountain in El Valle. Brian told me that this spot would have once been teaming with Panamanian golden frogs, lined up and down the sides of the stream. I didn’t see a single frog on the five-hour hike today, in fact, though Brian says that there are red-eyed tree frogs and tungara frogs a-plenty. I would imagine that such a sight today would be far more heartbreaking for anyone who remembers what it should be like and is faced with the grim reality. While I didn’t get to spot any golden frogs in the wild myself, I’m proud to be part of a project that could be responsible for filling the streams with gold once again someday.

Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Saving Frogs: From Panama to Other Backyards

In 2005, as chytrid was sweeping across Panama from El Cope to El Valle, the Houston Zoo rallied other zoos and aquariums, universities and international conservation organizations to begin work on the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, also known as EVACC.

Adult Houston Toad

One of the Houston Zoo's backyard efforts focuses on the Houston toad, which had all but disappeared since being added to the Endangered Species Act in 1973. (Photo courtesy of the Houston Zoo)

EVACC led the Houston Zoo to partner with the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. All rescue project partners work together for a common goal: the survival of the world’s amphibians. But at the same time, we each support conservation efforts in our own backyards. For the Houston Zoo, our ‘backyard’ project involves a small toad with a big story.  

In the late 1940s, Houston, like many metropolitan areas in post WWII America, looked very different from what we see today. Before freeways and tract housing developments, Houston was ringed by dairies and rice fields. It was in that environment sixty years ago that amateur herpetologist John Wottring first suspected that the lengthy trill he was hearing in south Houston fields belonged to an undescribed species of toad.

In just a few years, the species was described in the journal Herpetologica as Bufo houstonensis. The Wottring Toad was a reference to the location of its discovery and its discoverer.

By 1968, James Peters from the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History, added Bufo houstonensis, to the list of “Rare and Endangered Fish and Wildlife of the United States.” With little fanfare the toad was included in the passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, likely one of the first amphibian species in the United States, maybe even the world, to be recognized as declining.

Fast forward 30 years to 2006. The Wottring Toad is now known as the Houston Toad, likely a consequence of the regional uproar that took place in its namesake city, despite the fact the toad had not been seen since its ESA listing and believed only to persist in four habitat patches within its central-eastern Texas counties. Its habitat is fragmented, reduced in both quantity and quality and entering a time of record drought.

Infant Houston toads

This past July, more than 600 Houston toad tadpoles and recent emergents were released in Central Texas and another release of 500 toads is planned in the next six weeks. (Photo courtesy of the Houston Zoo)

Under these dire circumstances, in the spring of 2007, parts of the only known egg strands laid by Houston Toads that year were collected for ex situ conservation by biologists at Texas State University and delivered to the Houston Zoo.

The three partial egg strands were acclimated at bio-secure facilities (a modified bird cage at the Houston Zoo), hatched the next day, and started eating a few days later. After a month, the larvae began metamorphosis, and by the fall of the same year, 1,200 toads had been released back to natal ponds.

Support to restore the Houston Toad to its historic range has grown over the past three years. In mid-2007, the AZA’s Amphibian TAG steering committee, along with regional experts from across the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean convened at the Ft. Worth Zoo for an Amphibian Ark Species Prioritization Workshop. The Houston toad was ranked a priority and a nascent program was mandated.  The Amphibian TAG published the second edition of its Regional Collection Plan in 2008, during the program selection phase Houston toads were elevated to the PMP management category.

The Houston Zoo’s main role in Houston toad recovery is head starting and the development of a captive assurance colony. This past July, more than 600 Houston toad tadpoles and recent emergents were released in Central Texas and another release of 500 toads is planned in the next 6 weeks. 

The Houston Zoo’s involvement in Houston toad recovery is just one supportive player in the whole effort.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department are the organizations charged with conserving the toad and work with partners such as Texas State University, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the myriad of private landowners who recognize the need for and appreciate having the little toad around. Knowing the situation is grim, everyone is responding with active stewardship, increasing the chance for long-lasting positive changes for the species.

 -Brian Hill, the Houston Zoo

Giving a Frog a Bath (and Other Treatments)

So, just how do you give a frog a bath? And, why would you need to? When the biologists in Panama bring the frogs in from the wild to either the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center or to Summit Municipal Park, one of the first things the frogs experience is a bath. Push those thoughts of tiny loofahs and soap bars right out of your head! No need for that here—rather, what these amphibians need is itraconazole, an antifungal medication.

Dr. Eric Baitchman

Dr. Eric Baitchman of Zoo New England gives one of the rescue project's frogs a bath in antifungal medication to ensure it doesn't spread chytrid to the rest of the captive population. (Photo courtesy of Zoo New England)

All frogs brought in from the wild go through a 10-day treatment protocol even before all of the amphibian chytrid results come back. The risks of missing a positive case and introducing chytrid to the entire captive population are too great to wait for results before beginning treatment. For 10 minutes each day, the frogs are bathed in the antifungal medication. Animals that are actively showing signs of illness also receive intensive supportive care to help them survive the course of treatment. The amphibian chytrid attacks the skin cells of amphibians, which can be quickly lethal for an animal that relies on its skin for the majority of respiratory function, hydration and electrolyte balance. Veterinary care for afflicted animals includes continuous fluid therapy to maintain hydration and replace electrolytes, as well as antibiotic treatment to protect against other infections that may take hold after the loss of the skin’s protective barrier.

Ten days after the bath cycle, the frogs are again tested for chytrid. If they test negative, they are cleared to go into the collection at EVACC and Summit Municipal Park after their mandatory 30-day quarantine period ends.

Chytrid is not the only health concern for the captive population. Lungworms, which commonly affect wild and captive frogs, are also a big concern and one that the veterinarians and staff caring for the captive collection at EVACC and Summit are working hard to treat. While frogs can normally live with lungworms in the wild, extra care is taken with captive frogs because of the potential longevity of the parasite’s lifecycle. While lungworms do not have any relation to the chytrid fungus, they can still make the frogs quite ill, which is why it is important to treat them.

Lungworm larvae

Lungworms (larvae shown here) aren't related to the chytrid fungus, but they can still make the frogs sick. The frogs are treated and their tanks cleaned thoroughly. (Photo by Eric Baitchman, Zoo New England)

As one would expect, lungworms live in the frog’s lungs. Because the larvae are passed through the feces, it is important to regularly clean the frogs’ tanks so the animals do not get re-infected. All of the tanks are designed so they can be washed thoroughly and substrate in the tanks is routinely removed.

The parasite is also another physiological stress on the animal, which the veterinarians and staff strive to minimize as much as possible. While in quarantine, each frog is treated for lungworms through an oral medication that is administered once and then followed up two weeks later.

While frogs can typically test negative for lungworms, this does not mean they are not infected— it could just mean that they are not passing larvae. If treated and monitored, the veterinarians and staff are able to keep this parasite under control. It’s yet another challenge, but one that can be managed through diligent and attentive care.

 –Brooke Wardrop, Zoo New England

Peter Riger: 5 years and one golden frog later…

In 2004, the Panamanian Golden Frog was garnering attention as a group of zoos, universities and researcher known as Project Golden Frog were responding to the ongoing decline and disappearance of this species in the wild while developing populations of captive golden frogs as a safeguard against extinction. One of their goals at the time was “our expectation that this species holds the potential to rally public support for amphibian conservation throughout the Neotropics”.  At the same time, the chytrid fungus was winding its way through western Panama heading directly for the only known habitat of the Panamanian Golden Frog.

working amphibian tanks in the El Valle Amphibian Conservation CenterIt seemed like a simple idea at the time.  Houston Zoo staff thought it was would be in the best interest of this species to build a small facility where we could house this species in its range country until we had a better idea of when amphibians in the region could safely be released back into the wild, safe from the chytrid fungus which has now moved through western Panama and is heading for the eastern side of the Panama Canal.

But what about all the other amphibians in the region, surely they are in need of protection as well? From this one species, it was decided that a larger focus, based on the 15-20 species potentially threatened with extinction due to the chytrid fungus, should be protected within what was soon to become the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center.

Golden frog exhibit in the public area of the EVACC center, PanamaEVACC center$250,000, 50 plus partners, 17 species and 600 individuals later – El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center in El Valle de Anton, Panama opened its doors to the public in May of 2009 and has been the focus of media attention, Animal Planet specials, and news articles over the past 2 years. It even has its own 15 minute documentary called Leap of Faith and Spanish version Un Salto de Fe. So now we wait for a cure and manage the individuals we have collected with support from the zoos, schools, corporations and private individuals.

Actually, we cannot wait. The fungus is jumping the Canal Zone and heading into the largest contiguous tract of rainforest not currently affected by the fungus – called the Darien Gap. We do not know how many species exist within the Darien Gap, undiscovered species that could disappear before we ever knew they had existed.

In 2008, the Houston Zoo and Zoo New England partnered on the design and development of an Amphibian Pod which is now housed at the Summit Municipal Parque. This pod is actually a shipping container based on models developed by groups in Australia and England and modified to maintain amphibians where each pod can safely house 1-2 species of individual amphibians; managing and reproducing them through their life history stages. This was simply the first phase of what you will see here on these pages in months to come. The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation program has brought together partners for Eastern Panama while the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center continues to focus on Western Panama. And hopefully together, these partners can hold the line against what seemed to be the imminent extinction of dozens of amphibians within Panama’s borders.