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Captive breeding project offers hope for survival of rare tree frogs

By Emma McNeil - 18 Nov 2010 14:6:0 GMT
Captive breeding project offers hope for survival of rare tree frogs

Image Credit: Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian's National Zoo

A critically endangered species, the La Loma tree frog, Hyloscirtus colymba, has been successfully bred for the first time as part of a project involving the Smithsonian Institute's National Zoo. The scheme, undertaken in conjunction with nine partners as part of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project offers hope, not just for the survival of the La Loma tree frog but other endangered amphibians from the region.

They have successfully managed to keep and breed the La Loma tree frogs with 28 adults specimens and four tadpoles currently living at the Summit Municipal Park, outisde Panama City, Panama. The species has in the past been notoriously difficult to keep alive in captivity, yet alone breed.

Brian Gatwicke, a Smithsonian research biologist  and international coordinator for the project said: “We are some of the first researchers to attempt to breed these animals into captivity and we have very little information about how to care for them. We were warned that we might not be able to keep these frogs alive, but through a little bit of guesswork, attention to detail and collaboration with other husbandry experts—we've managed to breed them. The lessons we're learning have put us on target to save this incredible species and our other priority species in Panama."

Populations of amphibians are under threat around the world. It's estimated that nearly one-third of the planet's amphibian species are now at risk of extinction. Amphibian species are threatened by a number of factors including climate change, pollution and habitat loss. But the most urgent threat comes from a disease: chytridiomycosis.

Chytridiomycosis is an infectious fungal disease and when it spreads in an amphibian population its effects can be devastating. While in some outbreaks it causes only sporadic fatalities it sometimes has a mortality rate of 100%.

Shortly after infection by a fungal spore the amphibian will develop sporangia (a fungal structure) on their skin producing new spores to infect others. Meanwhile, the infected amphibian begins to exhibit the later symptoms of the disease. In addition to damage to its skin it may suffer from convulsions. The disease also causes behavioural changes such as lethargy and a reluctance to find shelter or flee from danger.

Roberto Ibáñez, local director of the project and a scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute explained how they hoped the breeding programme would help the survival of the La Loma tree frog. He said: "We are creating what amounts to an ark for these animals so that their species may survive this deadly disease. We're also looking for a cure so that someday we can safely release the frogs back into the wild."

In addition to the La Loma tree frogs, the project has also successfully bred the endangered Limosa harlequin frog, Atelopus limosus. It may be possible one day to successfully breed and conserve all the endangered frog populations from the region until the threat from epidemic chytridiomycosis has passed.

One species from the region, the Chiriqui harlequin frog, Atelopus chiriquiensis, from western Panama, is likely to be extinct already. Another species, the Panamanian golden frog, Atelopus zeteki now only survives in captivity.

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Topics: Endangered Species / Amphibians