Panamanian Golden Frog

Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project

Update 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. Another member of the ZNE team will soon travel to Gamboa to install plumbing in the pods.

"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. 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 Animal Health and Conservation Medicine, is the lead veterinarian for this vital conservation effort.

During a visit to Panama, 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. Without the rescue facility, these species may not exist anywhere else in the world. 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.

Read Panama Amphibian Rescue & Conservation Project's Annual Report

Why amphibians are 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 ZNE is 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.

Dr. Eric Baitchman, Vice President of Animal Health and Conservation, 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 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.