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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, Vice President of Animal Health and Conservation

Since 2006, Zoo New England has been committed to amphibian conservation efforts in Panama. Our institution is now helping to lead a consortium of partners to expand the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. Dr. Eric Baitchman, Vice President of Animal Health and Conservation, is the lead veterinarian for this vital conservation effort. Learn more about the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project.

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.

Why amphibians are important

As indicator species, amphibians play a crucial role in their ecosystems. Because they are uniquely sensitive to environmental changes, amphibians’ wellbeing is directly tied to the health of their ecosystem. Researchers look to indicator species populations as a warning system of impending environmental threats. If a large number of amphibians in a particular area exhibit symptoms of a disease, it’s an indication that their ecosystem is in poor health. Scientists can then direct their studies and rehabilitation efforts on those particular locations.

Humans directly benefit from amphibians’ role in the food chain. Amphibians serve as both predator and prey. They feed upon insects like mosquitoes, helping keep disease-transmitting populations in check. They also eat pests that might otherwise destroy crops.

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 ZNE is doing: Updates from the field

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. Dr. Eric Baitchman, Vice President of Animal Health and Conservation, has made numerous trips to Panama to assist with these vital conservation efforts. Zoo New England provides 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.

Updates from the field:



 

Preparations are underway to consolidate the frog collection currently held at the Níspero Zoo to the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project Center in Gamboa. This move requires a larger facility in Gamboa to accommodate an increased number of frogs. Senior field conservationist John Berkholtz traveled to Panama in December of 2018 to assist in the transition, working to set up new tank systems in Gamboa’s biosecure frog pods. Berkholtz’s work included scrubbing and painting pods, assembling and cleaning shelving units, installing sprinkler heads, deep-cleaning frog tanks, and constructing tank lids and frames.

Jason Platt

In April of 2019, Facilities Supervisor Jason Platt (pictured here) traveled to the Gamboa Amphibian Research and Conservation Center to help assemble tank platforms for relocated frogs. He also fabricated and installed misting systems and assembled a drainage system for the network of tanks.

Amphibian conservation here in New England:

Learn more about our efforts with eastern spadefoot toads and marbled salamanders here in New England.