Golden Frog Day: Supporting Frog Conservation
Today is a special day for frogs in Panama: It's the fourth annual Golden Frog Day, first officially declared in 2010 to honor Panama's national animal and celebrate the country's amazing biodiversity.
But the frogs of Panama are in need of more than just a party. They've been devastated by a disease caused by the chytrid fungus that's threatening amphibians all over the world. In fact, the last time a Panamanian golden frog was seen in the wild was in 2008.
The good news is that on this Golden Frog Day, there's something to celebrate: 44 baby frogs have been bred in Panama by the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, a group of organizations that have been working together since 2009 to address the amphibian crisis in that country.
Bringing the Frogs Back
Golden frogs have been bred in captivity since the 1990s, but this is a milestone for conservation efforts in their native land. "In the U.S. they're doing very well, but it's been a while since we've managed to breed them in Panama," says Brian Gratwicke of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. "So we're really excited to be able to put this out for Golden Frog Day."
These frogs came from eggs laid in November 2012, but the project has waited to announce them not just to coincide with the occasion, but because growing up is a complicated business for a frog.
"We wanted to make sure they metamorphosed," says Gratwicke. "That's a really difficult time in a frog's life. They're basically changing their entire body plan, sucking in their tails and filling out the legs. It's a massive reorganization of the body."
It's a nerve-wracking time for frog conservationists too: You've gotten your frogs to lay eggs and have cared for the tadpoles, and now you have to hope they make it through the transition to their adult form. And it's all more difficult in a developing country with less reliable power to keep the systems running that maintain crucial water quality.
The captive breeding effort in Panama started in 2007 with the opening of the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, run by the Houston Zoo. There are now two captive breeding facilities, and the goal is to extend efforts to 20 species that are at high risk. "The golden frog is a flagship species," says Gratwicke. "It encapsulates the entire story and the challenge that's being faced by all 200 species of amphibian in Panama."
With the golden frog's national significance and striking beauty to attract attention to the cause, the hope is that they will be able to help other amazing but less-known species. One that Gratwicke thinks is especially cool is the rocket frog.
Helping the Rocket Frog
"They're called rocket frogs because they can move very quickly — they're very difficult to catch," he says. "They might be this inconspicuous brown frog, but they've got fascinating behavior, and they occur nowhere else in the world."
Although they're tiny, these frogs produce an amazing amount of sound — when Gratwicke first heard them, he assumed it was the sound of birds. "In a healthy stream they sit and chirp and make this awesome chorus," he says. "If you take your iPhone with the call of this frog and play it back to them, they will come from wherever they're hiding and try to attack the iPhone."
They also provide remarkable parental care to their young. "Once the eggs have developed, the tadpoles wiggle up onto the mother's back and they sit in little rows, where they continue to grow and develop and are looked after," says Gratwicke. "Once they get big enough, the parent will deposit them in a nice protected area."
This species has also been hard hit by chytrid, and because of their amazing chorus, he says it's easy to tell where it's happened: "If you go to a stream in Panama and it's silent, chances are chytrid has swept through."
While the lack of rocket frogs can be conspicuous, it's actually not always easy to tell when a frog species is gone, so for the last two years, researchers have been systematically searching the known habitat of the Panamanian golden frog. "The fact that there haven't been any seen doesn't necessarily mean that they are gone. It could mean people stopped looking," says Gratwicke. "That's what tends to happen when chytrid comes through — people get so depressed going to these empty streams that they stop going back."
Sadly, they still haven't seen any rocket frogs, but knowing the current situation is important because the ultimate goal is to reintroduce the frogs bred in captivity. Research is ongoing to figure out how to help frogs survive in a chytrid-infected environment — bacteria have been found that help some amphibians resist the disease, and geneticists are trying to identify the genes that give some individuals of some other species resistance.
Why so much effort for these tiny animals? You can argue that frogs are important to people for practical reasons. "Frogs do a lot of things in an ecosystem," says Gratwicke.
"They eat a lot of pests and bugs that eat crops and transmit human diseases. Once we lose them from an ecosystem, we don't know what the effects are going to be." Frogs also have chemicals in their skin that may be useful to human medicine.
But they're also simply amazing creatures, one the world would be poorer without — and that might be telling us something important about what's happening to our planet.
"Frogs are a very diverse, beautiful set of creatures, and we've been losing them at in incredible rate," says Gratwicke. "That's really sending us a message, and I think we ignore that at our peril."
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