Learn and Share Your Concern.
Up to half of all the world’s amphibian species are in danger of disappearing forever. A key cause of extinction is a fatal chytrid fungus spreading around the world. Chytrid travels quickly; in about five months it can wipe out 80% of all frogs and salamanders in its path. Chytrid is now spreading to the mountains of Eastern Panama. Up to 50 species in this area are at grave risk of extinction as the fungus advances at more than 20 miles per year.
The search through Panama for the last wild amphibians
Two of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s staff, Jackie Butterfield and Rick Hester, recently returned from a conservation trip to Panama. While there, they were part of an effort to locate and conduct research on toads and frogs in the Darien gap of Panama. The trip was coordinated by the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation (PARC) project, which Cheyenne Mountain Zoo helped to create in 2009.
“The last search for amphibians in the Darien gap was in 2012,” Rick Hester, Lead Monkey Pavilion Keeper, said. “The Darien is located between Panama and Columbia. It is highly guarded by military groups, because of its known affiliation of being a drug corridor between the two countries. It also has a reputation of being one of the hardest places in the world to visit and, thus, is one of the least visited places on the globe. The fact that PARC received another permit to conduct research there and that we were invited to assist, is truly remarkable.”
The goal of the research project was to find toads, specifically the mountain harlequin toad, to swab for the chytrid fungus. Chytrid is fatal to amphibians and is responsible for the largest decline of amphibian species in Panama and around the world. The epidemic is threatening more than one-third of the world’s amphibian species with extinction. The group also wanted to collect mountain harlequin toads to add to the PARC isolation pods in an effort to protect them from chytrid. They will house and breed the toads until a cure for the fungus can be found.
“It was amazing to be in the Darien providence doing field research,” Jackie Butterfield, Special Events Manager, said. “The biodiversity is amazing and it was clear the site was virtually unexplored. We searched for toads for 8 days and 7 nights. We were told we didn’t locate as many toads as the group in 2012, but many factors could have played a part in that. The first factor was that we searched for toads on this trip during the dry season. On top of that, the Darien has experienced a drought for the last two years. The jungle’s drought isn’t like a Colorado drought — it’s still humid and green — but locals told us it’s much drier than normal. The third factor is that chytrid continues to be responsible for population declines of amphibians, and we weren’t sure if it was playing a role in the Darien, too. Given those factors, we were excited that we located 18 mountain harlequin toads.”
The swabs collected during this trip will determine if chytrid is present on Cerro Sapo, the mountain that the group explored. Regardless of the results, future research is proposed in this region, pending permit acquisition, funding and government approval.
“For me, the biggest take away from this experience is that relationship building with local people and governments is vital if we want to save species around the globe,” Hester said. “We really do need to all work together if we’re going to save not just amphibians, but all imperiled species.”
PARC is a collaborative project that was established to rescue amphibians at risk of extinction in Panama and to research a solution to save them from Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, more commonly known as chytrid. In 2009, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo responded to the growing crisis by becoming a founding partner of PARC along with Africam Safari Park (Mexico), Defenders of Wildlife (Washington DC), the Smithsonian National Zoological Park (Washington DC), the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (Panama), Zoo New England (Massachusetts) and Houston Zoo (Texas). Cheyenne Mountain Zoo continues to support PARC financially and through staff expertise in the area of field research and in-country veterinary care.