While I was in Panama at the end of August, one of the things that stuck me the most were the sounds. I didn’t experience what it’s like to be in an area of the rain forest where you’re deafened by frog calls (and as we know, those places are diminishing quickly), but I took my time to learn some new calls while out searching for the little (and sometimes big) guys. And sometimes the sounds were particularly meaningful–such as the sound of a lone La loma tree frog, Hyloscirtus colymba, calling in one of the rescue pods at Summit Zoo, indicating his comfort with his environment and readiness to breed. Below I share some of the noises that I recorded while there and many of which are cherished by anyone familiar with the project, including volunteers:
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)
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.
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
The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project has successfully bred the endangered Limosa harlequin frog, Atelopus limosus. (Credit: Angie Estrada, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project)
As frogs around the world continue to disappear—many killed by a rapidly spreading disease called chytridiomycosis, which attacks the skin cells of amphibians—one critically endangered species has received an encouraging boost. Although the La Loma tree frog, Hyloscirtus colymba, is notoriously difficult to care for in captivity, the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project is the first to successfully breed this species.
“We are some of the first researchers to attempt to breed these animals into captivity and we have very little information about how to care for them,” said Brian Gratwicke, international coordinator for the project and a research biologist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, one of nine project partners. “We were warned that we might not be able to keep these frogs alive, but through a little bit of guesswork, attention to detail and collaboration with other husbandry experts—we’ve managed to breed them. The lessons we’re learning have put us on target to save this incredible species and our other priority species in Panama.”
The rescue project currently has 28 adult La Loma tree frogs and four tadpoles at the Summit Municipal Park outside of Panama City, Panama. In addition to the La Loma tree frog, the project also has successfully bred the endangered Limosa harlequin frog, Atelopus limosus. Keepers will continue to carefully monitor the tadpoles of both species.
Although the La Loma tree frog, Hyloscirtus colymba, is notoriously difficult to care for in captivity, the rescue project is the first to successfully breed this species. (Credit: Brian Gratwice, Smithsonian's National Zoo)
Nearly one-third of the world’s amphibian species are at risk of extinction. The rescue project aims to save more than 20 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, chytridiomycosis is likely at least partly responsible for the disappearances of 94 of the 120 frog species thought to have gone extinct since 1980.
“Although the outlook for amphibians is grim, the rescue project’s recent developments give us hope for these unique Panamanian species,” said Roberto Ibáñez, local director of the project and a scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, one of the project’s partners. “We are creating what amounts to an ark for these animals so that their species may survive this deadly disease. We’re also looking for a cure so that someday we can safely release the frogs back into the wild.”
Of Panama’s six harlequin frog species, five are in collections at the Summit Zoological Park and the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center in El Valle, Panama. One species, the Chiriqui harlequin frog, A. chiriquiensis, from western Panama, is likely extinct. The other species range from being extinct in the wild—the Panamanian golden frog, A. zeteki—to being endangered.
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. Project participants include Africam Safari, Panama’s Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Defenders of Wildlife, El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, Houston Zoo, Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Summit Municipal Park and Zoo New England.
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Media only: contact Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo, 202-633-3081
The La Loma tree frog (Hyloscitrus colymba) peering over the lip of this glass with its startling brown eyes is usually too shy to come out and play in the wild. They hide themselves under large boulders near briskly flowing streams, where they make their homes. These frogs will not give up any hints about their whereabouts in the wild. If they sense an animal is near or they hear a disturbance, their chip-like call will quickly fall silent. They also prove that boys are not braver than girls; male La Loma tree frogs are especially shy, more so than females. These tiny frogs are so elusive scientists cannot be sure where to draw the borders designating their natural range in the wild. The lower forests of Costa Rica and Panama’s mountains are where researchers have found the La Loma tree frog, but there is speculation that it may also call Colombia home.
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.
Our next door neighbors are: a margay cat named Derek, a couple ofGeoffroy’s tamarins and an ocelot. Across the street lives a troop of white face capuchins and every day we pass the parrots as they try to hit on us and say “hola,” no matter how many times we ignore them.
We are the keepers at the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project at the Summit Municipal Park in Panama.
We take care of 191 frogs, from seven species, all of them native to Panama. Though each one of us has our own favorite frog—Kuno, Danielito, Chasky, James Bond and Survivor, for example—we make sure they all have everything they need to be happy and safe in their home at the zoo.
Our frogs need a lot of attention! We have to keep them healthy, clean and fed. Maybe it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but each of those tasks takes a tremendous team effort, a high level of responsibility, tons of time and even a bit of intuition.
To ensure healthy frogs, first we treat the animals for chytridiomicosis (a skin disease caused by Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd) once they get back from rescue missions in the mountains of eastern Panama. Chytridiomicosis is a fungal skin disease that’s been killing amphibians in the wild for more than two decades and that is spreading fast. Treatment days are awful! We often get nervous and anxious because we know that for some of the frogs it’ll be too late, but we’re relieved at the same time when the majority of them survive. After they are treated, the new frogs are ready to be part of our collection. The hard part really comes after treatment.
A chytrid-free frog does not automatically mean a healthy frog. Before and after they become part of our collection, the frogs can be underweight or have parasites. It is part of our job to hand feed them if necessary and sometimes to remove very active worms under their skin. We need to make sure the frogs take their medicine on time, with the correct dose and with proper follow-up. None of this would be possible without the help and supervision of a group of vets and keepers from other conservation centers and zoos who trained us and are patient enough to receive a lot of emails and phone calls from us.
One of the many frogs that keepers for the rescue project care for at Summit Zoo. (This is la loma tree frog, or Hyloscirtus colymba)
Frogs don’t need to take a bath to stay clean, though their environment needs to be cleaned regularly. Amphibians are very sensitive to changes in their habitat because of their permeable skin and the fact that during metamorphosis, they spend part of their life stages in both ecosystems: aquatic and terrestrial. These are some of the reasons why they are declining so rapidly in the wild. When permeable skin comes in contact with contaminated water or soil, frogs can get infected by Bd. In our control environment in the pod, we need to clean the frogs’ enclosures, especially the ones in quarantine. We change and clean all the tanks twice a week, change and clean their plants and leaves, spray water on the tanks that don’t have misting systems and remove the feces.
Last but not least: frogs need to eat! What do our frogs eat? We would need many blog posts to fully explain how we manage to keep alive a room full of two species of fruit flies, springtails and earthworms; and an even larger room with 95 plastic boxes full of crickets and a couple containers of superworms. The latest additions to the menu are a working colony of cockroaches and a brand new outdoors house for grasshoppers. You can say that these frogs are well fed…maybe too well. They eat so much that we’re even putting a few of them on a diet this week!
Frogs are clearly always on the minds of the rescue project's keepers at Summit Zoo.
Did we mention that all of this is not enough to save the species? To do that, we need to breed them too. Reproduction is a very different story. We basically need to create the perfect scenario so the frogs can get in the mood. And getting them in the mood can take from two days (such as for the Toad Mountain harlequin frog, or Atelopus certus) or eight months (as is the case for La Loma leaf frogs, or Hyloscirtuscolymba).
This is part of our daily work; we love it and we are very proud of it. Though some people call us “frog heroes,” we are proud to be part of a group of scientists, keepers, vets, volunteers and frog lovers who are trying to safe these beautiful and interesting animals all over the world.
–Angie Estrada, Nancy Fairchild, Rousmary Bethancourt, Jorge Guerrel, Lanky Cheucarama, keepers for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project at the Summit Zoo in Panama.
Nuestros vecinos de al lado son: un tigrillo llamado Derek, una pareja de monos tití y un ocelote. En frente viven una tropa de monos cariblancos y sin importar las veces que caminemos frente a los loros de cresta roja tenemos que ignorar sus flirteos y sus incesantes “hola”.
Somos los cuidadores del Proyecto de Rescate y Conservación de Anfibios de Panamá en el Parque Municipal Summit en Panamá.
Nosotros cuidamos de 191 ranas, de siete especies diferentes, todas ellas nativas de Panamá. Y aunque cada uno de nosotros tiene su favorita-por ejemplo: Kuno, Danielito, Chasky, James Bond y Survivor-nos aseguramos que todas tengan todo lo que necesiten para ser felices en su hogar en el zoológico.
¡Nuestras ranas necesitan de mucha atención! Es nuestro deber mantenerlas saludables, limpias y alimentadas. Quizás no parezca algo muy complicado, pero cada una de esas tareas requiere de un tremendo trabajo en equipo, un alto nivel de responsabilidad, toneladas de tiempo e incluso un poco de intuición.
Para asegurarnos que las ranas estén saludables, necesitamos primeramente tratar a los animales contra la quitridiomicosis (una enfermedad de la piel causad por Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis o también conocida como Bd) una vez regresan de las giras de rescate en las montañas del este de Panamá. La quitridiomicosis es una enfermedad infecciosa de la piel que ha causado el decline de poblaciones de anfibios por más de dos décadas y que se está dispersando demasiado rápido. ¡Los días de tratamiento son horribles! Muy a menudo nos sentimos ansiosos y nerviosos porque sabemos que para algunas ranas será demasiado tarde, pero al mismo tiempo nos sentimos aliviados al observar que la gran mayoría sobrevive. Después de ser tratadas, las ranas nuevas están listas para ser parte de nuestra colección. La parte mas difícil es realmente, después del tratamiento.
Uno de las ranas en Summit Zoo. (La rana hoja de la Loma, o Hyloscirtus colymba)
Una rana libre de quitrido no es una rana saludable. Antes y después que formen parte de nuestra colección, las ranas pueden presentar bajo peso o tener parásitos. Y es parte de nuestro trabajo el brindarles alimentación asistida de ser necesario y algunas veces debemos remover activos gusanos que se encuentran debajo de su piel. Tenemos asegurarnos que las ranas tomen a tiempo sus medicamentos, que la dosis sea la correcta y que se le de el seguimiento apropiado. Nada de lo anterior seria posible sin la ayuda y supervisión de un grupo de veterinarios y cuidadores de otros centro de conservación y zoológicos quienes nos entrenan y están disponibles para recibir miles de emails y llamadas con cientos de preguntas.
Las ranas no necesitan de un baño para estar limpias, sin embargo el ambiente donde se encuentran debe permanecer regularmente limpio. Los anfibios son muy sensibles a cambios en su ambiente debido a su piel permeable y al hecho que durante la metamorfosis, pasan parte de su ciclo de vida en ambos ecosistemas: acuáticos y terrestres. Estas son alguna de las razones por las cuales los anfibios están desapareciendo en la naturaleza. Cuando la piel permeable entra en contacto con cuerpos de agua o suelo contaminado, las ranas pueden infectarse de Bd. dentro De nuestro ambiente controlado en el laboratorio, es necesario mantener limpios los contenedores de las ranas, especialmente aquellos que se encuentran en el área de cuarentena. Dos veces por semana, nos encargamos de cambiar y limpiar todos los tanques y plantas dentro de los mismos, mantener húmedo su interior con la ayuda de un aspersor y eliminar las heces que se encuentran en ellos.
Las ranas son un parte grande de las vidas de los cuidadores del proyecto de rescate.
¡Por último pero no menos importante: las ranas tienen que comer! ¿Que comen nuestras ranas? Serán necesarios muchos otros “blogs” para explicarles como logramos mantener un cuarto con de dos especies diferentes de moscas de frutas, cajas con cientos de mínimos colembolos y lombrices de tierra. Además de un cuatro aun más grande con 95 cajas repletas de grillos domésticos y varios envases con larvas de escarabajos. La última adición al menú de las ranas es una colonia de cucarachas y una nueva casa al aire libre lista para albergar deliciosos saltamontes. Se podría decir que estas ranas están bien alimentadas…demasiado bien tal vez. Comen tan bien, que algunas iniciaron una estricta dieta esta semana!
¿Les mencionamos que todo esto no es suficiente para salvar a una especie? Para lograrlo, también debemos reproducirlas en cautiverio. La reproducción es una historia muy diferente. Básicamente hay que crear el escenario perfecto para que las ranas entren en ambiente. Y para lograr que las ranas se sientan cómodas y estén listas para reproducirse, puede pasar desde 2 días (como en el caso de el sapito arlequín de montaña) hasta 8 meses (como en el caso de la rana hoja de la Loma o H. colymba).
Todo esto es parte de nuestro trabajo diario; nos encanta y estamos muy orgullosos de ello. Aunque algunas personas nos han llamado “los héroes de las ranas” nos llena de orgullo formar parte de un grupo de científicos, cuidadores, veterinarios, voluntarios y amantes de las ranas quienes están haciendo un gran esfuerzo alrededor del mundo para salvar a estos hermosos e interesantes animales.
Angie Estrada, Jorge Guerrel, Lanky Cheucarama, Nancy Fairchild y Rousmary Betancour, los cuidadores del Proyecto de Rescate y Conservación de Anfibios de Panamá en el Parque Municipal Summit en Panamá.
Jorge Luis Gurrel Soriano, one of the project's frog keepers, shows me how to feed one of the La Loma tree frogs in the rescue pod.
It’s official. When it comes to spotting La Loma tree frogs (Hyloscirtus colymba), I just don’t have what it takes. These light green frogs plaster themselves to the underside of leaves and blend right in—a testament to Mother Nature’s brilliant design.
Of the 24 La Loma tree frogs that I was assigned to find in the tanks in the rescue pod yesterday, I found only 10. That’s 42 percent, or a solid F in most classrooms. Pretty freaking lousy.
It didn’t much matter, though, just as it didn’t much matter that my primary task yesterday was to do spot checks (read: find the frogs, clean their poo). I was just thrilled to be in close contact with the animals. In addition to performing spot checks in the rescue pod that is up and running, I’ve given the frogs their breakfast and helped with providing medication this week. This has all made me very appreciative of what the rescue project’s five keepers are doing behind the scenes to keep the frogs alive.
The best tea steeper I've ever seen.
There’s Angie and Jorge, the primary frog keepers, who handle the animals delicately, but in a way that suggests they know exactly what they’re doing and that they’re good at it. Angie gets up around 4:30 every morning to make it to work, which is probably why she drinks plenty of tea in the morning—steeped in a large plastic cup with a cartoon frog sketched on it. The keepers use these plastic cups otherwise for crickets and other froggie food items.
Jorge apparently has just the right touch—I watched, captivated, as he skillfully provided medical care for one of the frogs. He’s also completed the creation of two beautiful breeding tanks during my time here and tomorrow I’ll have a chance to watch him move four Toad Mountain harlequin frogs (Atelopus certus) to their new homes and introduce them to their new mates.
Then there’s Rousmery and Nancy, who shatter the stereotype that girls will run shrieking from the room at the sight of a creepy crawly. These two work the entire day straight in a room that is full of crickets. It sounds like nighttime and smells like, well, I suppose it smells a whole lot like cricket poo.
Rousmery Bethancourt, who taught me how to identify female crickets, has helped ensure that the frogs are well fed.
These two women are in charge of caring for the crickets and other insects the frogs eat. They have to develop and modify breeding techniques to ensure that the food doesn’t run out. Yesterday Rousmery and Nancy reported that they’ve got 85 boxes of crickets—too many for the frogs here at Summit, so we’ll take the leftovers to the other project facility, El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, on Friday. After months of trying to figure out how to produce enough crickets, too many insects is a blessing.
Lastly, there’s Lanky, who is the jack of all trades, helping do a little bit of everything, as needed. Unlike the others, who get up early and take the bus (or two) to work, Lanky takes a boat in from the Wounaan Village of San Antonio in Gamboa. He carves the most beautiful frogs out of tagua nuts, most of which are species we have in captivity. The details are so intricate it’s as though the frog might up and hop away at the first sign of a cricket.
These five are all biology experts and love frogs unabashedly. They are now among my frog heroes and if we can harness their passion and make sure it spreads, I am certain amphibians stand a fighting chance.
It’s dinnertime in Panama and the Summit Zoo Diner is a-hopping: frogs of different colors and different sizes line up to receive their three-course meal after tucking in their plastic bibs. They start with an appetizer of delectable springtails, wriggling to perfection. Then it’s on to the main course of live crickets, grown to size. This is all followed by dessert—recently bred fruit flies—served à la carte. When the frogs return to the perches on their leaves, their bellies are full and they have smiles on their faces.
So the bibs and smiles might be a stretch, but the end goal is the same for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project—to design a menu for each individual frog in captivity that ensures the frog will eat and thrive in its new home. Food preference, however, is only one of many variables that make feeding complicated. A dedicated team of frog whisperers—animal detectives who study the individual frogs to learn their unique habits, quirks, fears and needs—must consider the differences between frogs based on species, gender, age and size to plan the perfect menu.
“The frogs’ perception of the world is, in many aspects, at least as subtle as our own,” says Ed Smith, a biologist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo who visited the Summit Zoo in Panama City, Panama, earlier this year to help develop husbandry protocols with project researchers. “These are living things and we all perceive the world in a special way; in a very particular way.”
Because many of the priority rescue species haven’t been studied extensively in captivity, project researchers start to learn about what the animals prefer to eat by providing the food that works for species that are closely related. They take into account the frog’s age and size, whether the frog will eat food its own size or items far smaller, if it’s nocturnal or active during the day, if it eats a big item once in a while or snacks on tiny treats throughout the day.
There may also be distractions that affect appetite, including environmental or social conditions: perhaps it’s too warm or too dry, maybe mating takes priority over food, or avoiding a suitor or a combative neighbor is keeping meals a secondary concern. Frogs can be finicky eaters—one might prefer springtails and soil mites to fruit flies and crickets, or grasshoppers, earthworms, or baby mice. Sometimes researchers can determine these traits only through trial and error. And tadpoles present their own challenges—a frog in the larval stage will eat entirely different food as the same frog as an adult.
The rescue project also has to look at external factors that could stress the frogs, causing them not to eat. This includes the design of each aquarium. “If I plucked you from your home and put you into a sterile cube of white walls with a white bottom and white ceiling and then all of the sudden dropped a hamburger in there, even an avid burger fan might not feel like eating,” Smith says. “You might want to make it look and feel more like home in order to reduce stress. A couch would be nice. A kitchen table wouldn’t be bad. Maybe a little bit of air conditioning.”
To give the aquariums a more natural feel, they are outfitted with plants and rocks that are put through a rigorous cleaning process so that the tanks remain biosecure. Animal keepers carefully monitor the temperature, humidity, water and light. Even the time of day that the auto-misters come on matters—baby crickets get stuck in water and die before the frogs can eat them, thus leaving cricket-loving frogs without breakfast, Smith says.
Focusing on the frogs is only the first part of the husbandry. To keep the frogs alive, the rescue project has to keep the frogs’ food alive and make sure the insects are reproducing. This can be especially challenging when crafty pests are after the same food, temperature plays a role in the success of breeding, and permits and documents needed to bring insect soufflé in take time to process. Some of the food stuff is collected out in the field, where researchers and volunteers use nets to sweep up what they can and pull out potential sustenance.
One little La Loma tree frog in captivity refused to eat for about a week and it wasn't until the lights went out that Smith and other rescue project members were able to solve the mystery. (Photo credit: Brian Gratwicke, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project)
Sometimes, even after all of these factors are taken into account, a frog or two still refuses to eat for mysterious reasons. Such was the case for one little La Loma tree frog (Hyloscirtus colymba) during Smith’s time in Panama. It wasn’t until the lights had gone out that Smith and another worker noticed a stream of ants pour out of a piece of bamboo the frog used to perch on. According to Smith, the frog cowered in the corner as the ants raided its food. Although the project team had cleaned the bamboo, the ants were hiding securely between bamboo nodes.
“The name of the game is husbandry,” Smith says. “And husbandry skills are entirely about paying attention to the organism. The people I met who are involved with the project pay an amazing amount of attention to each individual animal. They know their frogs not just as a species, not as male or female, or as a number in a book. They know all of those things, of course, but they know them each as an individual. Serving dinner is relatively easy. Ensuring that it is eaten, however, is often achieved only with that level of understanding.”