Time running out for many amphibians

December 4, 2009
photo - A frog is swabbed to check for the chytrid fungus. Photo by Courtesy of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
A frog is swabbed to check for the chytrid fungus. Photo by Courtesy of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo 

It’s too soon to know whether conservationists from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo who ventured into the rainforests of Panama to save frogs arrived too late, or in the nick of time.

Chytrid had already attacked, they revealed Friday.

The local zoo is part of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, with partners in Washington, D.C., Texas, Massachusetts, Mexico and Panama.

The goal of the project is to save amphibians from the chytrid fungus (or Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), which can lay waste to half the amphibian species in its path. Scientists say we are watching the largest mass extinction since the dinosaurs were decimated 65 million years ago.

The plan to save the frogs is basically the Noah’s Ark idea: collect as many species as possible, breed them in captivity until the danger has passed, and then release them into the wild again.

Zoo President Bob Chastain and director of conservation Della Garelle were among the team of five from the zoo that returned from Panama a week ago. They had arrived in Panama with high hopes, hiking into a remote area so muddy from rain that vehicles couldn’t make it through.

They were part of the first step — collecting as many species as possible to build breeding populations before chytrid gets to them. They picked an area rich with frog and toad species, including many unique to the region.

“The first part of tinkering is saving all the parts,” Garelle said. “Then you can figure out how to put them back together.”

The deadly fungus has been sweeping south through Central America, but the barrier of the Panama Canal held it back for a time, and conservationists thought it would take the fungus two to five years to reach the area they visited.

They spent hours every night searching for the tiny frogs, and it went well. Chastain said he didn’t suspect the worst until one of the final days, when they went to a new area and found two frogs in seven hours.

“It flat out scared me,” he wrote in his trip blog. “‘Were we too late?’ kept ringing in my head.”

Maybe so.

Tests confirmed that most of the frogs found there were infected. But in captivity some of them might be saved.

“I think we got there right in the nick of time,” said Garelle, a veterinarian. “They’re not necessarily doomed, because that’s the ark that’s holding the species until they can return to the wild.”

Problem is, they started building that ark after the rain was already falling.

The bad news has kicked the effort to save frogs into a higher gear. Storage spaces are being prepared, species are being prioritized, the Panamanian government is throwing in money, and the zoo team will return to Panama next week instead of next year.

“We thought we had some breathing room,” Garelle said, “but we don’t have that kind of time.”

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