Guppy Travels: Day Three

Harlequin frog (Atelopus limosus)

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

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

Talk about pressure.

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

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

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

Atelopus limosus tadpoles

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

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

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

Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Mark Cheater: The Week of Living Dangerously

Defenders of Wildlife's Mark Cheater holds a Toad Mountain harlequin frog he collected on a recent expedition to the Darien. (Photo courtesy of Mark Cheater, Defenders of Wildlife)

Defenders of Wildlife's Mark Cheater holds a Toad Mountain harlequin frog project researchers collected on a recent expedition to the Darien. Cheater's story on the Cerro Sapo expedition is scheduled to run in the winter issue of Defenders magazine. (Photo courtesy of Mark Cheater, Defenders of Wildlife)

The toughest work week of my life. That’s how I described my Panama trip to colleagues at Defenders of Wildlife, after returning in late June from a week in the field with scientists from the amphibian rescue project. I was documenting their work for an upcoming story in Defenders magazine.

I got my first hint of how challenging the assignment would be when I first contacted project director Brian Gratwicke last winter about sending someone along on a rescue expedition. “Send us somebody young and fit!” he said. Youth is overrated, I told myself. I go to the gym regularly and hike, bike and kayak on weekends—so I qualified as fit. But just to be sure, several weeks before the trip I stepped up my workouts to a daily regimen of running and weight training, and lengthened my weekend hiking forays.

 By the time I left for Panama in late June, I had lost several pounds and could comfortably carry a full backpack for an afternoon in the mountains near my home in Washington, D.C. Plus, this wasn’t my first such trip—on previous assignments I had accompanied field biologists as they tracked wolves in Idaho, wild cats in northern Mexico, and rare salamanders in the Appalachians.  How hard could this trip be?

Harder than I imagined.

The first day in the field began with a 3 a.m. wake-up call in Panama City, packing vehicles in the dark and then driving four-and-a half-hours into the Darien region of southern Panama—a place notorious for drug runners, armed rebels and assorted other outlaws. We were reminded of these hazards frequently, as dour, armed soldiers stopped us at checkpoints to look at our passports, examine our equipment and quiz us about our destination and intentions. By mid-morning, we reached a small port town and then transferred our gear into a motorboat for a two-hour trip to Garachine, a coastal village on the northwestern edge of Darien National Park.

Project researchers collected nearly 80 healthy Toad Mountain harlequin frogs on their June expedition to the Darien.

A Toad Mountain harlequin frog sits on a mossy boulder alongside the San Antonio River. Project researchers collected nearly 80 healthy Toad Mountain harlequin frogs on their June expedition to the Darien. (Photo courtesy of Mark Cheater, Defenders of Wildlife)

In Garachine, we hired native Embera people as guides and porters, distributed most of our gear between them and their horses, and set out in the steamy early afternoon heat up the San Antonio River to our destination—Cerro Sapo, or Toad Mountain. Within an hour of starting our trek, my hiking boots had turned into muddy weights around my ankles—waterlogged from repeated river crossings and slathered in the brown ooze that passes for a trail in this area. Moving uphill into the jungle became harder, but I soldiered on, sweating through my shirt in the heat and humidity.

After about five hours of hiking, the trail ended—and the best way upriver was to literally go up the river. Hiking in the water was doable when the San Antonio was shallow and gravelly, but such placid stretches were rare as we moved up the mountain—they were interrupted frequently by slick, algae-covered boulders and stones; narrow, watery ledges next to deep pools; or impassable waterfalls, which had to be circumvented by hacking through trees, vines, palms and other vegetation in the surrounding jungle with machetes.

Then it got dark.

 What had been a demanding hike now became dangerous. Even though we all had headlamps or flashlights, they couldn’t illuminate every slippery rock or deep pool or twisted vine. One misstep or slip could mean a badly twisted ankle or bruised limb—or much worse. And the nearest doctor was a six-hour hike back down the river. I gritted my teeth and swallowed my pride, carefully calibrating every step with my hiking pole like an octogenarian with a cane, or, when I didn’t trust my footing, sitting down and sliding over rocks or down muddy embankments on my backside. It couldn’t possibly get worse than this, I reasoned.

One of a number of fer de lances that Cheater came across during his expedition to the Darien with the rescue project. The fer de lance is one of the most dangerous snakes in the world. (Photo courtesy of Mark Cheater, Defenders of Wildlife)

One of several poisonous fer de lance snakes encountered by the Cerro Sapo expedition team. The fer de lance is one of the most dangerous snakes in the world. (Photo courtesy of Mark Cheater, Defenders of Wildlife)

That’s when we saw the snake.

We were making one of our frequent bushwhacking forays around an impassable section of the river when one of our porters stopped suddenly and said “culebra!”—Spanish for ‘snake.’  It wasn’t just any snake that he had nearly stepped on. This yellowish-brown creature in the light of our headlamps was a fer de lance, one of the most dangerous snakes in the world. Edgardo Griffith, one of the biologists on the expedition, carefully moved the viper out of our path and into the darkness with his snake hook—a metal pole with a crook at the tip, around which snakes will instinctively wrap themselves. This particular fer de lance was a juvenile, he said, trying to reassure me. “It probably couldn’t kill you—you’d just lose the leg or arm where it bit you.”  I didn’t find much comfort in his words.  

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity in the dark, we sloshed across a gentle section of the river and climbed about 50 feet up a steep, muddy embankment. There we found a slightly less steep, muddy section of jungle that had been cleared of vegetation and roofed with several blue plastic tarps suspended from nearby trees.  This was the Cerro Sapo base camp—our home for the next few days. Someone cooked up a dinner of rice and beans—the first real meal of the day. My stomach was in knots from the stress of the previous eight hours of hiking, but I reasoned that I should eat—and then discovered I could barely open my mouth because I had been clenching my teeth so tightly my jaw muscles had frozen.  I pushed a few spoonfuls into my gullet and collapsed in my tent.  

What had I gotten myself into? Could I survive another four days of this?

"By the time I left for Panama in late June, I had lost several pounds and could comfortably carry a full backpack for an afternoon in the mountains near my home in Washington, D.C.," Cheater says. "How hard could this trip be? Harder than I imaged."

Bob Chastain of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo searches for Toad Mountain harlequin frogs in and around the San Antonio River. (Photo courtesy of Mark Cheater, Defenders of Wildlife)

The short answer is that I did survive. The following days brought many more long difficult hikes upstream, finding and capturing the small, colorful harlequin frogs that were the focus of this rescue expedition. We encountered several more fer de lances along the way, along with whip scorpions and other large spiders, and a wide variety of biting ants, gnats, mosquitoes, midges and flies.  One or more of the biting insects attacked my feet, causing them to swell up to twice their normal size, adding a new challenge to the already difficult task of walking. And there was mud everywhere and on everything—on clothes, skin, equipment, dishes, utensils, tents.

But none of us got seriously injured or sick. And, despite the challenges we encountered in the jungle, we managed to bring back nearly 80 healthy Toad Mountain harlequin frogs to the rescue facility at Summit Zoo in Panama City. The frogs have proved to be free of the chytrid fungus that is devastating amphibians in so many other parts of Panama—and worldwide. Now begins the long task of breeding these animals and keeping them safe in captivity until a cure for the fungal epidemic is developed. If successful, Toad Mountain harlequin frogs may be spared the fate of the dozens of other species that have succumbed to the chytrid epidemic.  

So, yes, it was the toughest week in my career—but also one of the most fascinating and rewarding. 

Mark Cheater is editor of Defenders magazine, the quarterly membership magazine of Defenders of Wildlife. His story on the Cerro Sapo expedition is scheduled to run in the winter issue of the magazine.

Frog Husbandry: The Recipe for Success

Picture this:

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. 

La Loma tree frog (Hyloscirtus colymba)

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.”

 —Lindsay Renick Mayer, Smithsonian’s National Zoo