Eight institutions announced today their joint venture to save amphibians from the brink of extinction in the eastern region of Panama—an area rich with diverse amphibian species. Experts from the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Africam Safari Park, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Defenders of Wildlife, the Houston Zoo, Summit Municipal Park, and the Zoo New England have pooled their energy and resources to form the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project to protect a number of species from complete loss.
A systematic global assessment of all 5,743 known amphibian species has found that one-third of them are in danger of elimination at an alarming rate by a pathogen known as the chytrid fungus, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“This unparalleled speed of loss to amphibians deserves an immediate and comprehensive global response,” said Brian Gratwicke, National Zoo biologist and project manager of the Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. “Time is of the essence, and we need to save these important creatures for their direct cultural, biomedical and ecological impact on human lives.”
The institutions involved in the project have collectively pledged more than $750,000 in cash and in-kind donations during the next three years.
The project will consist of three distinct and complementary parts: the ongoing operation of El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center in western Panama, run by the Houston Zoo; the Amphibian Chytrid Cure Research Program to be initiated at the National Zoo in collaboration with Vanderbilt University; and the construction and operation of the new Summit Park Amphibian Rescue Center in Panama. One “amphibian rescue pod,” which is a biosecure, modified shipping container that will house the first rescued species from eastern Panama, is already established.
Amphibian abundance in the eastern region of Panama is critical to amphibians as a whole. This area is known to contain at least 121 amphibian species (61 percent of all the amphibians of Panama) and to be a stronghold for at least 50 to 60 species listed as “critically endangered,” “endangered” or “data deficient” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Pending the extinction of amphibians, one of the most notable effects on humans would be the loss of amphibian-related medicinal potential. Scientists worldwide are studying a number of secretions emitted from amphibians’ skin. The animals themselves use these secretions to communicate with each other, to find mates and as defense against enemies. For humans, these chemicals can mean breakthroughs in medicines, including antibiotics and possible cancer-fighting drugs. In fact, studies with antimicrobial peptides in amphibian skin by Dr. Louise Rollins-Smith, one of the world’s leading amphibian immunologists, has potential use in HIV treatment.