Meet 9 of Panama’s ‘Lost Frogs’

The deadly amphibian chytrid fungus has caused much devastation to Panama’s native frogs, salamanders and caecilians. We have learned a lot about this disease in the last 10 years and we have been able to take stock of its effects. A recent survey of Panamanian frog experts revealed that of Panama’s 214 described amphibian species, about 100 species can still be reliably found even in places where the chytrid fungus is found, and experts consider these species less susceptible to the fungus. Approximately 80 species are very rare, and we simply do not have any idea about their susceptibility to chytridiomycosis, or their current population numbers. 36 species were considered highly susceptible to the chytrid fungus and were once reliably encountered but have experienced, or are predicted to experience, severe chytridiomycosis-related declines.
Unfortunately a number of these species have already completely disappeared in the wild and have not been seen in many years. We call these Panama’s ‘lost frogs’.

1) Atelopus chiriquiensis – Chiriquí harlequin frog
These attractive diurnal frogs were appealing research subjects and occurred in high numbers in highlands on the border of Costa Rica and Panama. There are many scientific papers about this species, and they were primarily studied for their highly toxic tetradotoxins in their skin as well as their unique signaling and aggressive mating behavior. A study by Dr. Karen Lips in the las Tablas reserve of Costa Rica reports that they occurred in high numbers – up to 20 individuals seen in 100m of stream on a single visit, but the frogs experienced a severe chytridiomycosis-related decline over a 5-year period and were last seen in 1996.

A pair of Atelopus chiriquiensis in amplexus. Photo (c) Marcos Guerra, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

A pair of Atelopus chiriquiensis in amplexus. Photo (c) Marcos Guerra, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

2) Atelopus zeteki – Panamanian golden frog
This is Panama’s national amphibian, a charismatic emblem of the environment and conservation. August 14th is a dedicated national day to honor the golden frog as a symbol for Panama’s incredible biodiversity heritage. Recognizing the chytridiomycosis threat, a conservation project called Project Golden Frog established a healthy breeding colony of golden frogs at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, another colony is maintained in Panama at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center. As predicted, Panamanian golden frogs experienced severe chytridiomycosis-related declines starting in 2006, and the last confirmed observation of Panamanian golden frog in the wild was in 2009. Project Atelopus continues to survey known golden frog sites for survivors, and a detailed conservation plan has been developed by stakeholders and facilitated by the IUCN Species Survival Commission for golden frogs in Panama. The plan aims to eventually reintroduce them to the wild.

One of 2,000 captive Panamanian Golden Frogs managed in captivity by the Golden Frog Species Survival Plan and the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore Photo: Brian Gratwicke Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

One of 2,000 captive Panamanian golden frogs managed in captivity by the Golden Frog Species Survival Plan and the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore Photo: (cc) Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

3) Craugastor obesus
This species was found in the spray zone on rocks, boulders in the Atlantic-facing slopes of Western Panama and Costa Rica. The species was last recorded from Costa Rica in 1984 rainforest. This species belongs to the Craugastor rugulosus group and all these closely related species of amphibians have all been have been decimated by the amphibian chytrid fungus.
4) Craugastor punctariolus
This semi aquatic species was found in mountainous streams of Central Panama. Rapid chytridiomycosis-related declines and disappearances were observed in the field in 2004-2008. This species belongs to the Craugastor rugulosus group and all these closely related species of amphibians have been decimated by the amphibian chytrid fungus. Genetic analysis revealed that it is likely a species complex. It has been maintained in captivity, and occasionally deposited eggs that were either infertile or did not develop fully and a viable captive population was not established.

Craugastor punctariolus, Bob's Robber Frog at the El valle Amphibian Conservation Center, photo (c) Kevin Johnson Amph

Craugastor punctariolus, Bob’s Robber Frog at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC) photo (c) Kevin Johnson Amphibian Ark

5) Craugastor rhyacobatrachus
This species is found in premontane and lower montane southern slopes of the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama. Despite extensive searches for this species in both Costa Rica and Panama, there are no recent records of this species. This species belongs to the Craugastor rugulosus group and all these closely related species of amphibians have all been have been decimated by the amphibian chytrid fungus.
6) Incilius majordomus
Males of this species were lemon yellow, and females were brown, the only other known toad of this genus that exhibited similar sexual dimorphism was Incilius peringelis—the famous Monte Verde Golden Toad of Costa Rica that is now extinct. Incilius majordomus is known only from the Pacific slope of Cerro Bollo, on the border between the provinces of Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí. This species was described in 2013 using a series of specimens collected in 1980. It has not been seen in the wild since 1980 despite extensive herpetological surveys in the area.

Incilius majordomus type specimen © Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Amphibians & Reptiles

Incilius majordomus type specimen © Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Amphibians & Reptiles

7) Isthmohyla calypsa
A  treefrog frog covered with spiny tubercles found in a small mountainous area on the border of Costa Rica and Panama where is used to be locally common. At las Tablas in Costa Rica, the species experienced severe chytridiomycosis-related declines between 1993 and 1998. Despite extensive recent survey efforts in Costa Rica and Panama, the species has not been seen recently and is possibly extinct. Many other stream breeding species in this genus have also experienced dramatic declines and are now extremely rare frogs.


Isthmohyla calypsa in the wild, Photo (c) Marcos Guerra, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

8) Ecnomiohyla rabborum – Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog
Rabbs’ treefrog is thought to be endemic to the vicinity of El Valle de Anton, where it was always a rare frog difficult to find as they live high in trees and breed in tree holes. Experienced herpetologists could hear their calls reliably at some places, but the last individual was heard in El Valle de Anton in 2008. A few individuals of this species were collected for captive breeding efforts at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center and at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, but captive breeding efforts were unsuccessful. As of 2015 only a single individual persists in captivity at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

Ecnomiohyla rabborum - Rabb's Fringe-Limbed Frog at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. Photo (c) Brad Wilson

Ecnomiohyla rabborum, Rabb’s fringe-limbed  tree frog at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. Photo (c) Brad Wilson

9) Oophaga speciosa – Splendid poison frog
This large, unmistakable bright red dart frog lives only in the mountains of Western Panama. It was once collected for the pet trade, and was exported as recently as 1992. This species has not been seen in the wild in many years, despite intensive searches. It is not known whether it still lives in captivity, but has probably disappeared from the wild.

Oophaga speciosa, the Splendid poison dart frog. Photo (c) Marcos Guerra, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Oophaga speciosa, the Splendid poison dart frog. Photo (c) Marcos Guerra, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

If you have any recent records of these missing species please let us know, and consider uploading your record to the global amphibian bioblitz on inaturalist.

by Brian Gratwicke


Golden frogs with unique communities of skin bacteria survive exposure to frog-killing fungus  

Chytridiomycosis is an amphibian disease that has wiped out populations of many frog species around the world, including the charismatic Panamanian golden frog, which now exists only in captivity in the United States and Panama.

Research published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society found unique communities of skin bacteria on golden frogs that survived chytridiomycosis. The original experiment was designed to test the idea that antifungal probiotic bacteria may be used to prevent chytridiomycosis in captive golden frogs. Approximately 25 percent of the golden frogs eventually cleared infection, but their survival was not associated with the probiotic treatment, rather it was associated with bacteria that were present on their skin prior to the start of the experiment. In fact, the probiotic antifungal bacteria did not appear to establish on the golden frog skin at all.

Study authors Matt Becker and Shawna Cikanek work to inoculate frogs with beneficial bacteriaMatthew Becker, a fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute who conducted the experiment as part of his PhD research at Virginia Tech University, says it is unclear why the microbes did not linger on the skin, but he thinks that the way he treated the frogs – with a high dose of bacteria for a short duration – may be part of the reason.

“I think identifying alternative probiotic treatment methods that optimize dosages and exposure times will be key for moving forward with the use of probiotics to mitigate chytridiomycosis,” Becker said.

Brian Gratwicke, amphibian conservation biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute where the experiment was conducted, says that he was disappointed that they did not find a ‘silver bullet’ to cure chytridiomycosis in this species, but noted that the results do advance our understanding of this disease.

“Previous experiments found that golden frogs are highly susceptible to chytridiomycosis, so any survival is cause for hope,” said Reid Harris, director of disease mitigation at the Amphibian Survival Alliance. “The tricky piece is figuring out the survival mechanism, and this exciting research gives some new insights in that direction.”

This research also provides additional support for the importance of symbiotic microbes, or the ‘microbiome,’ for the health of their hosts, ranging from sponges and corals to humans.

“In all multi-cellular organisms, we have suites of microbes performing critical functions for their hosts, and the same appears to be true for golden frogs,” said Lisa Belden, who supervised the study at Virginia Tech University.

The team, led by Becker, now plans to determine if this study is repeatable by investigating whether the golden frog’s skin microbiota can predict the susceptibility to chytridiomycosis. They will also investigate whether the bacteria associated with the surviving frogs from this study can be used as a probiotic treatment to prevent infections of golden frogs without a ‘protective’ microbiota.

“The ultimate goal of this research is to identify a method to establish healthy populations of golden frogs in their native habitat, despite the presence of chytridiomycosis in the environment,” Becker said.

Citation: Matthew H. Becker, Jenifer B. Walke, Shawna Cikanek, Anna E. Savage, Nichole Mattheus, Celina N. Santiago, Kevin P. C. Minbiole, Reid N. Harris, Lisa K. Belden, Brian Gratwicke (2015) Composition of symbiotic bacteria predicts survival in Panamanian golden frogs infected with a lethal fungus. Proc. R. Soc. B: 2015 282 20142881; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.2881. Published 18 March 2015

Golden Frog Successfully Bred in Captivity in Panama

Juvenile Panamanian golden frog, reared at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center

Juvenile Panamanian golden frog, Atelopus zeteki, reared at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center

Now in its fourth year, Panama’s Golden Frog Day, August 14, is a salute to Panama’s cultural and ecological heritage with the golden frog, one of the most iconic symbols of Panama. The national legislation promotes species preservation and maintains an objective to promote conservation and protection of this amphibian species. This year the country can celebrate the successful breeding of the Panamanian golden frog at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC), located inside the Níspero Zoo in El Valle de Antón. The egg clutch laid on November 24, 2012 successfully developed into tadpoles and were raised to form a group of 42 healthy young golden frogs.

“Bringing wild animals into captivity is only the beginning of the work that we do in our facility. Fusing applied technology, available resources, and human innovation to create Mother Nature, inside, is the challenge, “ said Heidi Ross, Director of EVACC. “Learning from our past experiences we focused a lot of energy on diet, and as the saying “you are what you eat” applies to humans, it also is essential for amphibians”.

EVACC director, Heidi Ross with a box of juvenile captive-reared golden frogs (Atelopus varius).

EVACC director, Heidi Ross with a box of juvenile captive-reared golden frogs (Atelopus varius).

“We are extremely proud of our conservation team in Panama,” said Peter Riger, director of conservation programs at the Houston Zoo, and one of the principal sponsors of this project. “EVACC has successfully bred both golden frog species in captivity and they have aggressive population management goals to grow the captive population to at least five hundred individuals for each species that I’m sure they will meet.”

The EVACC facility forms part of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. The Project collects frogs in areas threatened by the devastating chytrid fungal disease that has decimated amphibians worldwide. The hope is to learn to raise these animals in captivity until enough is known about the disease to allow researchers to release amphibians into the wild once again. Project partners include the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the Houston Zoo, and Zoo New England. To learn more about the project please visit the project’s website.

Contact: Beth King 202-633-4700

Happy Third Annual Golden Frog Day!

Panamanian golden frogs

In 2010, the National Assembly of Panama passed a law that honors the significance of one of the most striking amphibian species, the Panamanian golden frog. That day is Aug. 14. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

It’s National Golden Frog Day in Panama today and we’re celebrating here on the blog with some thoughts from the rescue project’s partners and other stakeholders about what the golden frog means to each of us individually, to Panama’s culture, to the ecosystem and to the world:

Adrian Benedetti, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
“The golden frog was the first animal to capture my imagination when I returned to Panama after living abroad for 12 years. The fact that this little animal had such a grip on local myth and legend makes it almost magical.”

“La Rana Dorada fue el primer animal en capturar mi imaginación al regresar a Panamá después de 12 años de estar fuera del país. El hecho de que este animalito ha tenido un impacto tan grande en la mitología y leyenda local lo hace casi mágico.”

Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
“I actively search for a little glimmer of neon-yellow peeking out from behind a rock every time I hike up a river in El Valle de Anton, but I’m always disappointed. I guess I’m chasing that same ecstatic rush that people get when they twitch a new bird species, or see a grizzly bear catching a salmon in Alaska. I think anyone who has seen charismatic wildlife in wild, natural landscapes where they belong can understand why it would be so thrilling to play a small role in bringing golden frogs back from the brink.”

Golden frogs

In the market at El Valle de Antòn, you will see golden frogs by the thousands either as enamel-painted terracotta or on hand-carved tagua nuts. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

Edgardo Griffith, EVACC
“The only reason golden frogs and other species are going extinct is because of us. We are the ones that created the problems they and their habitats are facing, so we are the ones that have to find the solutions. It is our responsibility big-time, especially because the more responsible we are with the environment, plants and animals, the more chances of survival the future generations of our own kind will have. In my opinion, saving wildlife today is the only way we have to assure the survival of our very own species.”

“I recognize that not all amphibians are physically beautiful, but I love them all and consider all of them master pieces of DNA. However, the Panamanian golden frog is indeed colorful, elegant and very wise. Knowing a little bit about their natural behavior makes me appreciate them even more. I think they are one of those things where Mother Nature just went overboard.”

Heidi Ross and Edgardo Griffith, EVACC
“The golden frog is the most significant, important and charismatic amphibian in Panama. It is part of our culture and a very important member of the amphibian community. From an ecological point of view, it is one of those species that is extremely susceptible to even minimal environmental changes. It is also a species that has been used as a flagship to conserve other amphibian species.”

Panamanian golden frog

Panamanian golden frogs are extinct in the wild, but a number of zoos have successful breeding programs that aim to keep the species alive. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

“To witness an entire population disappear is just devastating, and heartbreaking. Now every time we go back to the sites where we used to work with golden frogs, all we do is remember where we used to find them and imagine what it would be like to hear their characteristic whistle-like call again. But after a few hours of not finding them, or hearing them at all, a horrible feeling of void and silence fills us up. This is the time to get out of there. In other words, it is sad, very sad to know that they are all gone now, just like living the worst day of your life over and over again. That is how it feels to go to the field now. They are some of the many ghosts of the stream now.”

Mason Ryan, University of New Mexico
“This frog is such an important symbol to Panama and now the entire conservation community that saving them is our responsibility. They are colorful, have neat behaviors, and are overall captivating. Future generations should have the joy and wonderment of seeing these frogs.”

“I spent five years looking for a closely related species in Costa Rica, the Harlequin frog, and never found one. I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to see any frogs of the genus Atelopus. But then I started my first field season at El Cope with Karen Lips. Early in the season we were walking one of the main streams in the park and there it was. An adult golden frog hopping along the bank of the stream. It was a magical experience to see this golden frog with block spots in real life! I am pretty sure I was smiling the next two days. It was a dream come true to see one of these animals in its natural habitat. Over the years I saw dozens more and never tired of seeing them. I’ll never forget that first one.”

Matt Evans, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

National Zoo Successfully Collects Sperm Samples to Save Endangered Frog

Gina Della Togna, an SCBI PhD student and native Panamanian, is one of the researchers in charge of the sperm collection procedure.

Gina Della Togna, an SCBI PhD student and native Panamanian, is one of the researchers in charge of the sperm collection procedure. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute)

With nearly one-third of all amphibian species at risk of extinction as the result of the deadly chytrid fungus, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo has taken a bold step toward preserving amphibian genes and the world’s incredible amphibian biodiversity. Researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, DC, have begun to collect sperm samples from the Zoo’s collection of Panamanian golden frogs (Atelopus zeteki), which are extinct in the wild.

Although researchers have collected sperm samples from other amphibian species such as Mississippi gopher frogs and leopard frogs, there are no publications detailing sperm collection methods from Panamanian golden frogs. SCBI’s colleagues at the Maryland Zoo have aided in the process, providing advice to the SCBI researchers about the method to collect the frogs’ spermatozoa using hormonal stimulations.

“We currently have three other species of Atelopus in captive assurance colonies in Panama,” said Brian Gratwicke, an SCBI conservation biologist who leads the Zoo’s amphibian conservation program to curb global amphibian declines. “If we can freeze some of their sperm, golden frogs will be a model to secure the long-term genetic integrity of other toad species in similar situations.”

Gina Della Togna, an SCBI PhD student and native Panamanian, is one of the researchers in charge of the sperm collection procedure. Even though this is still a fairly new endeavor, Della Togna said she felt that it was easy compared to collecting sperm from mammals. After hormonal stimulation, spermatozoa are excreted in the urine from the frog’s cloaca, a multipurpose opening from which feces, urine and gases are expelled. This is in contrast to mammals, which possess specialized structures for the expulsion of waste and reproduction.

Atelopus zeteki sperm

A Panamanian golden frog sperm

Although sperm collection from this species has been successful, finding the most efficient and repeatable stimulation protocol is critical. Then, identifying the right cryoprotectant and freezing method will be another challenge. Researchers suspect that the cell component most likely responsible for the movement of the sperm, called a mitochondrial vesicle, has a unique structure compared to that of other animals.

“The mitochondrial vesicle is a very fragile structure,” Della Togna said. “Protecting this structure will definitely be one of our greatest challenges.”

Even in the face of numerous challenges, the research team overseeing the sperm collection and storage of the samples remains optimistic.

Pierre Comizzoli, an SCBI gamete biologist supervising the PhD project  is enthusiastic about the prospect of this endeavor and is charged with studying the complex golden frog sperm structure with Della Togna.

“It is always exciting to discover new biological mechanisms,” Comizzoli said. “Spermatozoa from each species have unique traits that needs to be well understood before developing preservation protocols.”

Other than its genetic and natural significance, the Panamanian golden frog is a meaningful symbol of culture for Panamanians. Pre-Columbian peoples used to make golden “huacas,” or sacred objects, in the image of these frogs, along with creating legends about these renowned frogs, which endure in the Panamanian countryside today, Della Togna said.

“This species does not exist anywhere else in the world,” Della Togna said. “You will find pictures and sculptures of it in local markets, in indigenous handcraft sales, and on lottery tickets, among places. Hopefully this project will help to ensure that one day you will be able to see them once again on the banks of Panamanian streams where they belong.”

Phil Jaseph, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Cupcakes for Golden Frog Day

Last year on Golden Frog Day, Aug. 14, I made Panamanian golden frog cupcakes to share with our herpetologists at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. This year I’m giving you the recipe ahead of time so that you can make your own this weekend in celebration of one of the coolest and most beloved of frog species. You might even consider hosting a bake sale to raise funds for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project’s work!

Ingredients to make 2 dozen Panamanian golden frog cupcakes:

Two 9.1 oz boxes of marble cake mix (Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines, whatever you can get your hands on)
Two 16 oz containers of lemon frosting (Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines, etc)
Note: If you’d prefer vanilla frosting, get some yellow food coloring and mix it into the frosting.
One 16 oz container of chocolate frosting
One 16 oz container of vanilla frosting
Red food coloring (to mix with the vanilla frosting to make mouths) or one pack of Twizzlers Pull and Peel candy
Yellow food coloring (to dye the marshmallows)
One 12 oz package of chocolate chips
Cupcake liners
One 10 oz package of marshmallows or a bag of mini Oreos
Sandwich baggies or frosting tips


Or make 'em 3-D!


Follow the directions on the box of cake mix and wait to frost cupcakes until they are cool. Frost either with lemon frosting or with vanilla frosting that has been dyed yellow. Next, cut the marshmallows into slices or halves, depending on how far you want the eyes to pop up. If you cut the marshmallows in half, dye the outside of the marshmallow with yellow dye and then affix onto the cupcake. If you cut the marshmallow thinner, put two slices directly onto the cupcakes. Put a chocolate chip on each marshmallow to complete the eyes. You could also try using mini oreo halves for the eyes.

Use a frosting tip or a sandwich bag with a hole cut in a corner to make the stripes on the golden frog’s face and nostrils with the chocolate frosting. Do the same with the vanilla dyed red to create the mouths. Or use Twizzlers Pull and Peel candy to make mouths.

Very simple! If you have other creative suggestions for making these cupcakes, leave your ideas in the comments section below. If you’re in Panama, don’t forget to check out our schedule of events to celebrate the second annual golden frog day. Anyone anywhere can enter our golden frog photography contest by joining us on Facebook.

Enjoy! And Happy Golden Frog Day!

Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Join us in celebrating Golden Frog Day

Panamanian golden frog day is Aug. 14.

Golden Frog Day is a national day of awareness in Panama that occurs annually on August 14th. This day was designated in 2010 to celebrate the Panamanian golden frog and promote amphibian conservation. This year, the Golden Frog Day celebration starts on August 8th and goes until the 14th with different activities in El Valle and Panama city. On Aug. 13, those of us at Summit Zoo in Gamboa will offer activities that help demonstrate the significance of frogs in ecosystems and why we should protect them. Here is a detailed agenda of the many activities next week.

Golden Frog Day Celebration Agenda

Monday, Aug. 8th to Friday, Aug 12th (El Valle)

8 am – 2 pm: Writing and Drawing Contest for students from elementary and high schools from El Valle.

Saturday, August 13th (El Valle)

9 am: Elementary and high schools, governmental and non-governmental institutions from El Valle and near towns will be part of a Golden Frog Day Parade on El Valle Principal Avenue.

7:30 pm: Play in honor of golden frogs. Title: “La India Dormida” by high school students from the Instituto Profesional Técnico de El Valle at San José de El Valle Church.


Saturday, August 13th (Summit Zoo)

10 am: Golden Frog Day Celebration with 100 Summit Zoo kids. First Frog Exhibit at the Zoo: Two common species and their amazing stories.

11 am: A sneak peek on Frog Conservation in Panama. Exhibit: Frogs food at the Zoo: flies, worms, crickets and more. What else can we do?

12 pm: Frog Fun! Games and educational activities with kids.

1 pm: Frog lunch and Frog cake.


Sunday, August 14th (El Valle)

11 am: Mass at San Jose de El Valle Church.

12 pm: Visit to EVACC

2 pm: Marching bands performances at Hotel Pekin plaza in front of El Valle Public Market.

We would also like to encourage all of our frog friends to enter their cool golden frog pictures or any other amphibian picture in our online photography contest. How can you participate? You just need to friend us on Facebook and upload your frog pics (one per person), then tag us and tell all your friends to “like” it. Don’t forget to post your name and email so we can contact you when you win! The winner will receive a specially commissioned traditional tagua carving of their winning frog made by Lanky.

Pocket Frogs teams up with rescue project to raise funds for frogs


Creators of this popular iPhone and iPad app, Pocket Frogs, are helping spread the word about and raise money for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project.

There’s so much to love about everyone’s new favorite free iPhone and iPad app, Pocket Frogs: the adorable and colorful little frogs that players guide through various habitats; the opportunity to breed more than 10,000 frogs to produce new, rare and even more colorful frogs; and the element of social networking, giving users the option to trade frogs with friends and even give them as gifts.

And then there’s the fact that for the last week, Pocket Frogs creator NimbleBit has used this popular platform to spread the word about the global amphibian crisis and help raise funds for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project via our text FROG campaign. With their help, we’ve been able to reach a new audience full of frog lovers and we’re bringing in some of the money that we need to care for and breed endangered species of frogs outside of the virtual world. For this we are very grateful, both to NimbleBit and to Pocket Frogs players!

The goal of Pocket Frogs, which was downloaded more than 1 million times in the first two weeks after NimbleBit released it, is to breed different frogs and maintain their habitats. Die-hard players aim to complete certain challenges that revolve around breeding a number of specific frogs of various colors and patterns. But it’s not just frog lovers singing the game’s praises—within one week, Pocket Frogs rocketed to the No. 1 spot for free iPad apps and the No. 3 spot for free iPhone apps.

I can certainly see why. Although I haven’t yet progressed much beyond breeding a green folium anura with a yellow pruni anura, I’m hooked. My nursery is filled with a rainbow of frogs—I’ve also got an egg or two in there ready to hatch in the next few hours—and the dragonflies in the pond don’t stand a chance against my frogs’ smooth moves. Today I even won the “frog basics” award, reached the second level and bought a new habitat. My own primary objective as I continue playing? To breed two frogs that create Panamanian golden frog-like offspring!

So from the frog rescuers at the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project: Thanks, NimbleBit, for your part in helping us save the real frogs!

Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Jeff Coulter: Confessions of a Frog Volunteer

Jeff Coulter and frog

As a volunteer for the rescue project, Jeff Coulter helped both to care for frogs at Summit Zoo and to build the second rescue pod.

Author Ralph Charell once said: “Nobody exceeds his or her wildest expectations unless he or she begins with some wild expectations.” I think that nicely sums up my recent trip to Panama as a volunteer with the Amphibian Rescue and Conservation project. To be candid, my expectations ranged from the mundane (constant cage cleaning) to the extravagant (finding a Panamanian golden frog in the wild). So by the time I got to Gamboa, I had no idea what to expect.

To try to share everything that I experienced in my eight days as a volunteer would fill up a number of blog posts, so I will try to stick with the highlights.

Building Frog Habitats: Sounds mundane and routine…is mundane and routine. And that’s how I thought about it at first.  But the more I thought about it, the more inspired I became. Sure it’s not the most exciting work around, but just about the time I thought I would hate doing it, I realized that I hated the fact that it needed to be done even more.  The project’s goal is to establish an amphibian ark where scientists can maintain healthy, genetically diverse populations of priority species. At one time Panama had more than two hundred species of frogs. Twenty-five of those have already gone extinct and as many as half of the rest are on the verge of extinction. If by hanging lights, and building cage bottoms I could play even a small role in helping keep a species from going extinct, I was more than willing to do whatever was necessary.

Spot Checks: The project has a number of employees who really give from the heart, but there is so much to do each day! On a couple of occasions I was able to pitch in and help them get through the tasks at hand. Each day every frog is visually checked, his or her cage is cleaned, and on certain days vitamins and minerals are provided to keep the frog healthy. This is in addition to the days when all the greenery in the habitats is checked or replaced. The job sounded easy at first. Spot the frog, look it over, clean out the frog poop. Sounds simple right?  Now factor in the fact that these frogs are great at hiding and jumping and it suddenly becomes a much more complicated task! It seemed like I usually used one hand for keeping the frog in the enclosure, one for cleaning and one on standby in case my first hand failed (which it did a couple of times). You never knew you had three hands until you are taking care of frogs!

Red-eyed tree frog

This red-eyed tree frog was among the frogs Jeff caught while volunteering in Panama.

Frogging: I was fortunate to be in Gamboa at the same time as project international coordinator, Dr. Brian Gratwicke, and Lindsay Renick Mayer, public affairs specialist for the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and all around frog-lover. So several nights we went out frog hunting. Frog hunting in the Panamanian rainforest often involves tramping around in the middle of marshes at night, wearing a tiny head lamp and trying to track down the call of one frog in the middle of a full-scale frog opera. Did I mention I am afraid of snakes? I did think to mention it when we were ankle deep in a marsh and Brian’s sound advice was: “Then try not to step on one.”

I am an interpreter in the Amazonia Exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, so I have had the opportunity to learn a lot about frogs and enjoy talking to guests about them. There is a massive difference between pointing out frogs in a tank and chasing a one-inch frog through a marsh at night while your frogging team keeps yelling: “Don’t let it get away! Grab it, grab it!” It’s a whole new level of learning, let me tell you. It was an amazing opportunity to catch, photograph, learn about and release the frogs back into the wild. Along the way I learned more about their behaviors, calls and needs, which is all to the good.

Not just about frogs: When I first filled out my volunteer application I was convinced I would not be selected. I didn’t really have any animal husbandry background and my Spanish skills were limited, at best. What I learned is that the project needs people with all sorts of different skills–and skill levels–and that all you really have to have is a love of frogs. But the trip wasn’t just about frogs. It was also about people and cultures and sharing, learning and laughing. One evening after we finished working I was invited to visit the village of one of the project staff. Lanky is a member of the Wounaan tribe, a group of indigenous people who live along the Rio Chagres and it was a great honor to meet his family and see the combination of traditional lifestyle and forward thinking that this family group embraces.  Their thatched platform homes are very traditional, but use solar panels for lighting and electrical needs.

Jeff Coulter and caiman

During a nightly frogging expedition, Jeff seized the opportunity to hold this caiman.

All of the staff made me feel welcome and actively contributed to my somewhat improved Spanish. While we couldn’t always communicate in long sentences, we could always find a way to get our meaning across and a smile is a language unto itself!

I also learned a lot about other types of animals that live in Panama. The project is located at the Summit Botanical Garden, which houses a large number of animals native to Panama. I was able to see harpy eagles (the national bird), tamarins, ocelots, monkeys, coatis and more. Our frogging adventures introduced me to all sorts of other animals. 

Would I recommend it?
 How could I not? The phrase “life-changing” may sound cliché, but in this case is perfectly accurate. It’s an opportunity to make a real difference in a fun, beautiful, exciting and sometimes challenging environment!

Jeff Coulter is a volunteer at Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Interested in volunteering for the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project? Apply now!