"Frog Hotel" to Shelter Panama Species From Lethal Fungus

Jonathan Franklin
for National Geographic News
November 2, 2006
Edgardo Griffith knew the plague was closing in.

For the past two years the Panamanian biologist has been watching as a lethal fungus spread across Central America, wiping out entire populations of frogs.

The Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (BD) fungus is so deadly that within six months of arrival in a given country, about half of all amphibian species disappear and overall populations are reduced by 80 percent.

In March Griffith discovered the first evidence that the disease had arrived in the El Valle region of Panama, frog-rich mountains about 90 minutes southwest of Panama City (Panama map).

Dead frogs, including the golden frog—a symbol of good luck in Panama—have been found scattered throughout the area.

So researchers have implemented an unusual rescue plan: creating a fungus-free "frog hotel."

Dozens of scientists volunteered to fly to Panama and tromp through the swampy forest at night to capture male and female members of every possible frog species.

Now about 300 amphibians representing more than 20 species are being housed at the Hotel Campestre in El Valle, where the animals are treated to daily cage cleaning and hand-captured insect meals.

Pruning the Tree of Life

Central America is particularly susceptible to the BD fungus. In Panama, for example, an estimated 40 species of frogs are already reaching critically low populations.

At-risk varieties include translucent-skinned glass frogs and the iconic golden frog, with its bright orange skin and black leopardlike markings (photos: frogs as environmental indicators).

Scientists tracking the spread of BD have reported seeing infected frogs with muted reflexes and their skin falling off.

"You can't overstate how serious this pathogen is—it is the worst infectious disease ever recorded among vertebrates," said Mathew Fisher of the department of infectious disease epidemiology at the U.K.'s Imperial College London.

"The amphibian tree of life is being severely pruned by [BD]."

The effort to collect and house Panama's frogs is being led by the Houston Zoo based in Texas.

The hotel is a temporary measure while the zoo gathers funding to build a permanent facility for the frogs at the El Nispero Zoo in El Valle.

When complete, the 2,400-square-foot (223-square-meter) center will hold about 1,500 frogs, all of which will receive VIP treatment including sterilized water, spacious cages, and specialized diets.

The frogs will be isolated in the new building until the disease has run its course and the animals can hopefully be reintroduced to the wild.

In a similar effort, researchers from the Atlanta Botanical Garden and Zoo Atlanta, both in Georgia, packed hundreds of the frogs into suitcases and flew them to safety in Atlanta.

But both plans are controversial moves.

How many samples are needed to save each species?

Are they still "wild frogs" if they are nurtured and raised in zoos?

Is it ethical to rapidly collect hundreds of amphibians without first studying their wild population numbers and behaviors?

Those questions must wait, say the scientists, who are caught up in a rush to protect what remains of Panama's frog populations.

Warming Fueling BD

BD's arrival in Panama was followed by new evidence that the disease spreads faster as a result of climate change.

A study released in October by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B found further proof that rising temperatures may allow the fungus to reproduce year-round.

Scientists in Spain, using data collected over 26 years, concluded that BD, which would normally be slowed when the weather turns cold, is able to grow continuously in years with milder winters.

"Global warming is loading the dice in favor of this disease-causing fungus," said Alan Pounds, a resident frog expert at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve in Costa Rica.

In a separate study earlier this year, Pounds documented the link between global warming and the BD fungus.

He estimates that in the past two decades the fungus has wiped out at least 74 harlequin frog species in Central and South America.

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