Notes from the Field: Two Weeks in the Panamanian Jungle

Recently, I found myself trekking through the jungle, holding a machete, in search of the perfect piece of wood. This wasn’t a typical day of work for me with the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) – I’m usually found in the National Amphibian Conservation Center (NACC) at the Detroit Zoo, changing filters, cleaning misting lines and feeding tadpoles. But on this particular day, I was in El Valle, Panama, a small town situated in the valley of an extinct volcano; the historic home to the Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki), a species that is critically endangered in the wild.

The DZS has maintained a breeding population of Panamanian golden frogs at the NACC since the year 2000 as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan, a cooperative management program that ensures genetically healthy, diverse and self-sustaining populations of threatened and endangered species. Since I personally care for and breed this delicate species at the Detroit Zoo, it was truly awe-inspiring for me to travel to Panama; to see and experience the tropical cloud forest habitat that was home to the golden frog until the late 1950s, when the last sightings were reported in the area.

Like many amphibian population declines worldwide, the threat to the Panamanian golden frog is a multi-pronged, human-induced sucker punch of climate change, de-forestation and over-collection for the pet trade. Also, a very serious parasitic fungus known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis or “chytrid Bd” [ki-trid] became present in the area. This fungus thrives in the environment of a cloud forest and caused a dramatic decline in amphibians through the region.

Despite the thrill of viewing some amazing wildlife on our walk through the Panamanian jungle, I wasn’t there to enjoy the scenery. My purpose in traveling to El Valle was to assist the limited staff at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC), a small conservation center dedicated to breeding and researching the country’s most endangered amphibians, as well as educating the community in Panama about the amphibians in the area.

For two weeks, I trained the staff at EVACC on habitat design and maintenance. I shared techniques for designing water features, drilling enclosures for bulkhead placement and “propping” habitats – gathering supplies like logs, plants and rocks to create a naturalistic environment. One day was dedicated to removing and replacing an old “roof ” of a habitat planned for golden frogs, which was the size of a living room. Other days involved finding things like sticks, logs and foliage to prop the habitats, and since all of the animals were from the surrounding area, most of what we were collecting could be found and disinfected within the grounds of the conservation center.

The EVACC’s newly designed habitats would be playing an important role in the “Golden Frog Day” in El Valle, a celebration of the magical amphibian that once lived and thrived among the misty forests of the mountains. Without public support in its country of origin, there could be no future for this animal. With newly renovated habitats and the beauty of this vibrantly colored amphibian, visitors to the center can begin to understand the value of this species and the power it holds as members of the community work to conserve it.

A true reward for all of this hard work and training came several days after leaving Panama, when I received an email from EVACC staff informing me that they had drilled their first tank and were using techniques that I taught them to install a new waterfall feature. While I had ditched my machete and my head lamp, no longer needing to trek into the jungle for my work with the Panamanian golden frogs at the Detroit Zoo, I know that the work we are doing some 4,000 miles away from their home is just as critical to the survival of this incredible species.

– Mark Vassallo is an amphibian department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.

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