Since it was first discovered in 1999, frog chytrid fungus, Batrachocytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), has decimated amphibian populations in Central America. In 2004, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, along with partners at Southern Illinois University and Zoo Atlanta, formed the Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Coalition, dedicated to maintaining captive breeding populations of frog species endangered by the fungus’ spread in Panama.
There is no known way to control the fungus’ spread or treat the resulting illness in the wild, so creating captive assurance populations where frogs could safely live and reproduce was a top priority. A captive breeding program was immediately established in the town of El Valle de Anton in central Panama. In 2005, additional frogs were exported to the United States, with the majority coming to live at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. From 2008 onward, these frogs and generations of their offspring lived in the frogPOD, an isolation-style facility and state-of-the-art laboratory.
Two frog species—the crowned tree frog (Anotheca spinosa) and the lemur leaf frog (Agalychnis lemur)—thrived in captivity at the Garden. It seems likely that the entire wild population of both species from the El Valle region has disappeared, making these animals and their genetics especially significant.
In recent years, Panamanian researchers have continually expanded their capacity for breeding and researching native frogs. This, coupled with the genetic importance of the frogs in Atlanta, prompted Garden scientists to begin the process of repatriating the Garden’s collection to Panama. This year-long process, undertaken in conjunction with partners at the Smithsonian Institution, the National Zoo and Panama’s Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project (PARC) at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, began in 2017 and was completed in May 2018 when 47 frogs were transported to Gamboa’s facility.
The Garden is proud of the role it played for 14 years in keeping these frog species safe and preserving their genetic diversity, and was pleased to repatriate its collection into the capable hands of the scientists at the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project (PARC) at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Their newly-expanded breeding program will continue to maintain these and other species with the hope of one day releasing them back into the wild. Meanwhile, research in frog behavior and breeding habits continues at the Garden.
The Garden Conservation team has had significant results from work with Panamanian frogs:
- First in the world to breed the Eyelash Marsupial Frog, Gastrotheca cornuta (2006) and the Slope-snouted Glass Frog in captivity, Cochranella euknemos (2008).
- Regarded as leaders in the field for developing methods for keeping and breeding Glass Frogs in captivity, especially with regard to methods for rearing tadpoles (2000-present).
- Published the first detailed account of an emergency response to an emergent infectious amphibian disease outbreak (peer review, 2008). [Gagliardo, R, P. Crump, E. Griffith, J. R. Mendelson III, H. Ross, and K. C. Zippel. 2008. The principles of rapid response for amphibian conservation, using the programs in Panama as an example. International ZooYearbk 42: 125–135.]
- Published the first accounts for the captive care and breeding of Gaige’s Robber Frog, Pristimantis gaigei (2010), Granulated Glass Frog, Cochranella granulosa (2012), Eyelash Marsupial Frog, Gastrotheca cornuta (2010), and Pratt’s Rocket Frog, Colostethus pratti (peer review, 2011). [Hill, R., J. Kaylock, E. Griffith, H. Ross, R. Gagliardo, and P. Crump, 2010. Observations on the captive reproduction of Gaige’s Rain Frog, Pristimantis gaigeae. Herpetological Review, 41(4): 465 –467.]; [Gagliardo, R., E. Griffith, R. Hill, H. Ross, J.R. Mendelson, E. Timpe, and B. Wilson, 2010. Observations on the captive reproduction of the Horned Marsupial Frog Gastrotheca cornuta (Boulenger 1898). Herpetological Review 41(1): 52–58.]; [Hill, R. L., J. B. Kaylock, R. W. Gagliardo, E. K. Timpe, E. Griffith, and H. Ross, 2011. Observations on the Captive Reproduction of Colostethus pratti. Herpetological Review, 42(3): 365-367.]; [Hill, R. L., J. B. Kaylock, E. Cuthbert, E. Griffith, and H. Ross. Observations on the captive maintenance and reproduction of the Cascade Glass Frog, Sachatamia albomaculata, 2012. Herpetological Review, Accepted for publication July 2012.]
- Published a full account of the use of a modified shipping container as a frog breeding lab (Leaf Litter Magazine, 2009) [Fenolio, D., R. Hill, J. Kaylock, and J Cruse Sanders, 2010. The use of a modified shipping container as an amphibian laboratory at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Leaf Litter Magazine 3(1): 6–9.]
- Advanced the implementation of modified shipping containers with unique modifications implemented in our own lab (2008-2012, heat pump vs. A/C units, floor mats, lighting, and misting system improvements).
- Shipped hundreds of captive produced frogs from the Panama collection to accredited institutions worldwide to serve as education and outreach tools for spreading the news about amphibian decline (2005-2012). Recipient Institutions include: the National Zoo, the Houston Zoo, Zoo Atlanta, the Toronto Zoo, the Albuquerque BioPark, the Miami Zoo, the Henry Dorley Zoo, the Toledo Zoo, the Como Zoo, the Henry Vials Zoo, the North Carolina Zoo, the Fresno Chaffe Zoo, the Bronx Zoo, the Denver Zoo, the Tennessee Aquarium, the Baltimore Aquarium, the Moody Gardens and the Audubon Institute.
- Advised nearly a dozen institutions with regard to implementing new amphibian breeding labs, or modifications or existing labs, based on our own experiences (2008-present). (e.g., Labs in Chile, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Brazil, Singapore, and the Central Florida Zoo, Albuquerque BioPark, Oklahoma City Zoo, the Dallas Zoo, etc.)
- Assisted with academic research by supplying captive produced frogs for said work to no fewer than six universities/academic organizations (2008-2012). Examples: North Carolina State University (developmental research), Tennessee State (Bd research), University of South Florida (taxonomic research), University of Miami (captive husbandry research), Glasgow University (skin toxin research) and the National Institute of Health (skin toxin research).
- Of the five institutions requested to attempt it, the Garden was the only group to successfully establish techniques for hatching and rearing of larval Ambystomal cingulatum and bishopi for captive breeding and repopulation efforts in Florida panhandle in conjunction with US Fish and Wildlife Services.
Publications in the works include the first observation of competitive interactions between Crowned Tree Frog Tadpoles and the care and captive reproduction of the Slope-snouted Glass Frog.