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Panamanian Golden Frog

Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project

"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, Zoo New England

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, Zoo New England 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 come 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. Louise Rollins-Smith, one of the world’s leading amphibian immunologists, sees potential use for these frogs in HIV treatment.

The Amphibian Crisis

After thriving for more than 360 million years, one third to one half of the world’s approximately known 6,000 amphibian species could go extinct in our lifetime. The amphibian crisis has been called “the biggest mass extinction in the environment since the dinosaurs."

Amphibians are severely affected by habitat loss, climate change, pollution and pesticides, introduced species, and over-collection as food and pets. While habitat loss is a major threat, the most acute threat is a fungal disease called chytridiomycosis, caused by a parasitic fungus known as amphibian chytrid. Throughout the past 30 to 40 years, this deadly disease has quickly spread to hundreds of amphibian species across the planet.

Chytrid is currently unstoppable and untreatable in the wild. In the environments where it thrives, the fungus can kill 80 percent of the native amphibians within months, leading to widespread amphibian extinctions.

Amphibians are very sensitive to changes in their environment and are among the first species to be affected by environmental stressors. They depend very heavily on environmental quality and water quality. 

The decline of amphibian populations in the wild serves as a potent warning to other species, including humans. All ecosystems are incredibly interconnected and the disappearance of amphibians can have grave effects.

About the Panama Amphibian Rescue & 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. A host of experts including Zoo New England, 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.

Eastern Panama is the “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 Zoo New England and sent to the site.

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 purpose of the Project’s first expedition was to collect living specimens of critically-endangered frog species for captive breeding before they became 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 were 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 frogs were already showing signs of illness and many more developed signs in the following days. Investigation by the Project veterinarians, including Zoo New England'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.

A 10-day treatment protocol to eliminate the fungus called for all the collected animals 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; once the organism was actually identified in these animals, this treatment became all the more vital. Animals actively showing signs of illness also receive intensive supportive care to help them survive 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 as well as 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.

What is Zoo New England Doing

Since 2006, Zoo New England 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. The Zoo 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.

Zoo 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, Zoo New England 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 studies that might affect the captive collection.

Zoo New England 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.