May 15 2009

Frog You may have heard a lot of talk about the global amphibian extinction crisis. In 2004 a study announced that about a third of all amphibians were facing extinction, and when you take out the species we just don’t have enough data for to make an assessment, that number rises to over 40%. What we haven’t heard a lot about is what people are doing to fight this global problem.

Last year I visited Panama and learned that eastern Panama is the last place in the mountainous neotropics that has not yet been hit by a devastating fungal disease that is wiping out many of the world’s frogs. This emerging disease is thought to have originated from Africa and was spread around the world—possibly on African Clawed frogs that were used in the 1950’s for pregnancy testing.

Biologists like Karen Lips have studied the spread of this disease for many years, warning that eastern Panama is our last chance to save many tropical amphibian species. She found that when the fungus hits a site, amphibians die quickly. At one site in western Panama about half of all the amphibian species were lost in just 5 months! Some zoos lead by Houston Zoo reacted to the news of the dead and dying frogs in western Panama by taking frogs into a captive ‘amphibian ark’ at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, an incredibly bold conservation intervention. This facility now houses over 17 highly endangered or extinct species, and is approaching capacity. The amphibian biologists are fretting about what might happen when the fungus continues to spread into those magnificent mountains of eastern Panama, including the Darien region which is home to many unique and beautiful species. Around the time of my first visit to Panama, we learned that the fungus had spread at a pace more rapidly than predicted and is now found east of the Panama Canal. Experts told me anywhere from 20-50 species might be lost from eastern Panama if no action is taken.

Fortunately, when I brought this compelling story back to Washington DC, our conservation friends rallied, agreeing that we simply couldn’t stand idly by as spectators and watch this devastating biodiversity loss unfold without trying to stop it. As a result, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Defenders of Wildlife, Zoo New England, Africam Safari (a Mexican zoo), Houston Zoo, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and the National Zoo all pledged significant funding or in-kind contributions to form the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation This project will help expand our capacity to save amphibians and we will build a facility to house several priority rescue species from the mountains of eastern Panama. The rescue center will be built at the Summit Municipal Park, a zoo 20mins outside Panama City.

But now that begs the basic question – what do we do to tackle the disease? Fortunately, Reid Harris, a researcher at James Madison University, recently discovered that red-back salamanders have a symbiotic bacteria growing on their skins that produces antifungal chemicals. He took some of these bacteria and grew them on a frog species highly susceptible to the amphibian chytrid fungus. He found that when exposed to the disease, the frogs treated with the probiotic bacteria all survived compared to almost complete mortality in the unprotected frogs! Our plans are to conduct similar trials using a Panamanian species this summer and hopefully develop a cure that might be applied in a wild situation, so keep your fingers crossed. Tightly.

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