Leaping Into Action!

Zoo New England participates in vital amphibian conservation efforts 

 

 

 


 

“Looking through the microscope and seeing the chytrid organism present on these animals with my own eyes was devastating. I knew this meant we were already behind. This meant that the animals we were treating could very well be the last members of their species unless we act fast to get back out there and save as many more as we can from the wild.”

 

- Dr. Eric Baitchman, Director of Veterinary Services at Zoo New England, following a trip to Panama in November 2009


 

Since 2006, Zoo New England has been committed to amphibian conservation efforts in Panama. The institution is now helping to lead a new consortium of partners to expand the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. Dr. Eric Baitchman, ZNE Director of Veterinary Services, is the lead veterinarian for this vital conservation effort.

During a visit to Panama in November 2009, Dr. Baitchman identified chytrid organisms on frogs collected from Cerro Brewster in Panama’s Chagres National Park. This discovery prompted a huge coordinated effort for all of the Project partners to immediately get together and build a new space at the Summit Municipal Park in Panama City to house more frogs and save them from imminent extinction. In just a few short months, these species may not exist anywhere else in the world other than the rescue facility.

About the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project

Zoo New England is one of several institutions working to save amphibians from the brink of extinction in the eastern region of Panama—an area rich with diverse amphibian species. Exper
ts from ZNE, 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 and Summit Municipal Park have pooled their energy and resources to form the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project (PARC) to protect a number of species from complete loss.

A 2008 systematic global assessment by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature found that of all the 6,260 known amphibian species, one-third of them are in danger of extinction. While habitat loss is the biggest factor, a pathogen known as amphibian chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) is spreading around the world and is directly threatening a growing number of species. Eastern Panama is the current “front” of the chytrid wave as it spreads across Latin America. PARC partners are racing to stay ahead of the wave, in order to save those species that are in most critical danger as the disease advances.

The Project consists of three distinct and complementary parts: the ongoing operation of El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center in western Panama, run by the Houston Zoo; the Amphibian Chytrid Cure Research Program at the National Zoo in collaboration with Vanderbilt University; and the construction and operation of the new Summit Park Amphibian Rescue Center in Panama. One “amphibian rescue pod,” a biosecure, modified shipping container that will house the first rescued species from eastern Panama, was previously purchased by ZNE and sent to the site last year.

PARC’s Inaugural Expedition

Amphibian abundance in the eastern region of Panama is critical to amphibians as a whole.  This area is known to contain at least 121 amphibian species (61 percent of all the amphibians of Panama) and to be a stronghold for at least 50 to 60 species listed as “critically endangered,” “endangered” or “data deficient” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

During the inaugural expedition in November 2009, members of the PARC Project discovered that some of the frogs collected were already affected by chytrid fungus, the disease that has devastated frog species worldwide.

The purpose of the Project’s first expedition was to collect living specimens of critically-endangered frog species for captive breeding before they become affected by chytrid fungus in Panama. The rescue mission, led by Dr. Roberto Ibanez and Mr. Edgardo Griffith with support from all of the partners, collected approximately 20 harlequin toads (Atelopus limosus) and 20 treefrogs (Hyloscirtus colymba) under brutal field conditions at the peak of the rainy season from Cerro Brewster in Panama’s Chagres National Park.

These two species will be kept at the Summit Municipal Park in Panama City while other rescued species were taken to the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center.

When the animals arrived at the rescue facility, several of the frogs were already showing signs of illness and many more developed signs in the following days. Investigation by the Project veterinarians, including ZNE’s Director of Veterinary Services Dr. Eric Baitchman, identified these animals to be infected with the amphibian chytrid fungus. Samples were further examined by Dr. Roberto Ibanez at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the chytrid fungus was confirmed.

All animals collected began a 10-day treatment protocol to eliminate the fungus, which involves each animal being bathed in a medicated solution for 10 minutes a day. This is a standard protocol for animals that are collected from the wild, due to the risk of chytrid pathogen, though this treatment was all the more vital once the organism was actually identified in these animals. Animals that are actively showing signs of illness also received intensive supportive care to help them survive through the course of treatment. The chytrid organism 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 and antibiotic treatment to protect against other infections that may take hold after the loss of the skin’s protective barrier.


 


The discovery of amphibian chytrid on the frogs at this site means that time has nearly expired for at least four species of frogs that do not live further east than Cerro Brewster and have been extirpated at all their other known sites.

Why are amphibians important?
Pending the extinction of amphibians, one of the most notable effects on humans would be the loss of amphibian-related medicinal potential. Scientists worldwide are studying a number of secretions emitted from amphibians’ skin. The animals themselves use these secretions to communicate with each other, to find mates and as defense against enemies. For humans, these chemicals can mean breakthroughs in medicines, including antibiotics and possible cancer-fighting drugs. In fact, studies with antimicrobial peptides in amphibian skin by Dr. Louise Rollins-Smith, one of the world’s leading amphibian immunologists, has potential use in HIV treatment.

To learn more about the amphibian crisis click here. 

What is Zoo New England doing?
Since 2006, ZNE has been committed to amphibian conservation efforts in Panama by sending staff to assist in this important conservation field work as well as donating needed supplies. ZNE has worked in partnership with the Houston Zoo with a focus on rescue, treatment, captive breeding, research and education programs developed to safeguard threatened amphibian species.

ZNE Director of Veterinary Services Dr. Eric Baitchman has made several trips to Panama in recent years to assist with these vital conservation efforts. Through the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, ZNE will provide all aspects of veterinary oversight including leadership in developing protocols for quarantine, biosecurity, treatment of amphibian chytrid, treatment of common ailments and nutrition that might affect the captive collection.


ZNE will also take responsibility for training interested veterinarians from partner institutions, as well as Summit Municipal Park’s resident veterinarian, in principles of amphibian medicine.


To learn how you can help click here.

 

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To donate to Zoo New England click here.

To learn more about the amphibian crisis and to donate click here.