Eight institutions – zoos and research and conservation centers – set up the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project (PARC) in 1999 under the institutional umbrella of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. According to the jury’s citation, PARC is “a ground-breaking project of great scientific solvency that combines preservation in captivity and investigation in field and laboratory, whose results can be applied in other parts of the world.”
PARC is run by Houston Zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Zoo New England, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Its main goal is to prevent the extinction of endangered species by establishing fungus-free assurance colonies, whose inmates may eventually be reintroduced into the wild. A kind of Noah’s Ark. “Now we have one of the world’s largest amphibian conservation efforts, and the facilities needed to manage a project of this size and scale”, explains Ibáñez.
Amphibians have existed for three hundred million years. They play a vital role in ecosystems – forming a bridge between aquatic and terrestrial systems – and are far more diverse than either mammals or reptiles. In them, evolution has performed its most intricate work. There are amphibians in the desert and frozen beneath the ice, poisonous amphibians, with and without lungs, metamorphosing and not metamorphosing, less than a centimeter long and weighing up to three kilos. They exist in every planetary habitat except in Antarctica and the High Arctic. And it is thought that there could be as many as 12,000 species, several thousand more than currently accounted for.
But amphibians are also the most endangered of all vertebrates. Herpetologists first raised the alarm in the early 1990s: amphibian populations appeared to be suffering a mysterious decline. Once the phenomenon was confirmed, the search was on for the causes. The usual suspects – habitat destruction, climate change, increased ultraviolet radiation, environmental pollutants – all shared in the blame, but a piece was still missing. For amphibians in well preserved areas remote from many of these threats were also undergoing a crisis. What was happening to the frogs?
The answer came in 1999 with the discovery that the Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) fungus causes a lethal disease called chytridiomycosis in a majority of amphibian species. The most widely accepted hypothesis for how it came to spread points to the 1930s and the beginnings of international trade in amphibians. Its advance has so far proved unstoppable, and so devastating that in some regions herpetologists have been able to trace the course of the infection by following dead frogs or detecting the absence of species populations.
This was the daunting challenge that the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project was set up to address. According to the jury’s citation, PARC is “a ground-breaking project of great scientific solvency that combines preservation in captivity and investigation in field and laboratory, whose results can be applied in other parts of the world.”
The fungus is thought to have entered Panama through the border with Costa Rica in 1995-1996. It then rapidly “spread throughout almost the entire country, carrying whole communities of amphibians before it”, laments PARC’s Director Roberto Ibáñez. “In some zones, around half the species had been wiped out five months after the invasion”.
In 2006, the chytrid fungus arrived in El Valle, home of the country’s national animal, the Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki). And this tiny but highly toxic frog, measuring 4 to 5 centimeters, is now considered extinct in its natural medium. In June that same year, a BBC crew – previously disinfected to prevent them carrying the pathogen – filmed one of the last wild populations just before it too fell prey to the fungus.
It was at this point that Houston Zoo and its partners began to rescue dying frogs, and opened the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC), the embryo of PARC. As the award submission stressed, “by 2008 it was clear that a nationwide project was urgently needed, with a lot more resources to take on the crisis”.
PARC is run by Houston Zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Zoo New England, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Its main goal is to prevent the extinction of endangered species by establishing fungus-free assurance colonies, whose inmates may eventually be reintroduced into the wild. A kind of Noah’s Ark. “Now we have one of the world’s largest amphibian conservation efforts, and the facilities needed to manage a project of this size and scale”, explains Ibáñez. Aside from EVACC, the project has also opened the Gamboa Amphibian Rescue Center.
The criterion for selecting which species can enter “the Ark” is primarily their susceptibility to the chytrid fungus. In many cases, the aim is to establish healthy populations before the species becomes infected, because once this has occurred, Ibañez points out, “it will be very difficult to find them in nature”. So far, twelve species have been raised in captivity, including the Panamanian golden frog. And that counts as a success. Achieving a stable population of captive amphibians is not just a matter of putting frogs in a pond. It is necessary to know and reproduce their natural medium so they can lead a normal way of life, and also to arrange breeding with regard to genealogical data so as to maintain their genetic diversity.
“In the next few years, we will attempt to increase the number of species and consolidate our collections, with the goal of arriving at twenty founding animals of each sex per species,” reads the award submission. “This will ensure us the capacity to produce a first generation in captivity”. Researchers are also developing assisted reproduction techniques and methods for freezing and preserving the gametes of founding animals, as insurance “against bottleneck situations in captive populations.”
Amphibian conservation initiatives worldwide will benefit from these techniques, but also from the project’s model of cooperative working between organizations with a shared goal. As Ibáñez remarks, “if we commit to actions and protocols based on scientific research, institutional collaboration, and the engagement of the wider public through education and volunteer schemes, we can conserve several endangered amphibian species per country.”
The Panamanian golden frog is highly susceptible to chytrid infection, but the good news is that it has proved easier to breed than other species. “In many cases, we know too little to be able to breed them,” explains Ibáñez. Ironically, the multiplicity of biological solutions amphibians have developed throughout evolution is now working against them, by confronting scientists with at times irresolvable problems. This is work that demands patience. “We have yet to reintroduce any species into nature,” Ibañez insists, “because we must first ensure the continuity of the collections”. What everyone wants most badly is a cure for chytridiomycosis. One research avenue is to look for bacteria capable of fighting the infection in the amphibians’ own skin. “Work is still at the preliminary stage”, Ibáñez relates. “Certain bacteria isolated in the skin of Panamanian frogs have been found to inhibit the fungus’s growth in vitro. The idea is to find local bacteria that can be used in a probiotic treatment for amphibian species in the same area”. And if that works, a similar methodology could be tried out in other regions, again with local bacteria and species.
All this would be impossible without the support of society in general and voluntary helpers in particular – around forty a year since the project started. These volunteers engage in every kind of task from breeding insects to feed the amphibians to working in the field. To mobilize support, PARC creates documentaries and exhibitions, and takes part in increasingly popular festivals that attract thousands of visitors. It has also contributed to the implementation of a Panamanian law enacted in 2010, decreeing August 14 National Day of the Panamanian golden frog and legislating its protection.