‘Ark’ races to rescue jungle frogs
As lethal fungus spreads, captive amphibians are bred for eventual return to the wild.
Rio Jordanal, Panama
Biologist Edgardo Griffith is ready to find frogs. He has his rubber boots, his plastic bags, his camera, and an intimidating metal hook to turn over rocks and prod logs. But after an hour searching this scenic stream in the cloud forest, he has yet to find a single one.Skip to next paragraph
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“Five years ago, if we had come to this stream we would have seen the whole bottom moving just [from] the amount of tadpoles. Now we can’t see any,” he sighs, ankle deep in the currents.
Conservationists predict that in 10 years, every highland stream in Panama will resemble this one, all but devoid of frogs. For now, they see little that can be done about it.
Scientists say that a deadly fungus is moving through mountain streams here and elsewhere, killing as many as 8 out of 10 frogs and extinguishing some species entirely. The enemy is a fungus known as chytrid (KIH-trid) or by its scientific name, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. Mr. Griffith and others are trying to stay ahead of the plague by plucking animals from the wild and placing them in captive breeding centers. This effort and similar ones around the world have been dubbed the Amphibian Ark.
In Panama, space for the captured frogs is filling up. Griffith and his wife, Heidi Ross, opened the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center in western Panama in 2006 with help from the Houston Zoo. They house more than 600 frogs and expect to complete another wing in March. Plans are under way for a second amphibian
conservation center at the Summit Municipal Park in Panama City, which will shelter species from eastern Panama as chytrid cuts a lethal path through that region.
The facility here is unusual in Central America. In many other places, expansion plans are few and tank space for amphibians is limited.
“There are more species in need of rescue than there are resources to rescue them,” says Kevin Zippel, Amphibian Ark’s program director, who is based in upstate New York. “By an order of magnitude, that’s true.”
The scattered Ark in some ways resembles the well-known California Condor Recovery Program, in which biologists captured the remaining nine wild birds in the 1980s, bred them, and eventually returned them to the wild, where their numbers have risen to more than 300 with supplementation from captive stocks.
The Ark encompasses more than just a single breeding program, and the obstacles it faces are more grave. Dr. Zippel estimates that 500 species need such “escape pods” from chytrid and other environmental threats, yet only 40 to 50 species are involved in such programs. Unlike the condor, amphibians are often mysteries to science, their habits and needs poorly studied. That makes captive programs experiments in trial and error. And before reintroduction efforts can even begin, scientists must find some way to overcome the presence of chytrid in native habitats. These might include vaccines, breeding for resistance, or genetic engineering of the fungus.
Still, many scientists see no other option.
“When you’re talking about insidious threats like disease or climate change,” Zippel says, “threats that can’t be mitigated in the wild, there’s simply no alternative.”