© Brian Gratwicke/Smithsonian's National Zoo
Animals are not exactly marching up the gangway in mated pairs, but a coalition of zoos and Defenders of Wildlife is attempting to create a modern-day Noah's Ark for frogs and other amphibian species suffering from a deadly fungal disease.
Researchers believe that of the nearly 6,000 known amphibian species in the world, a third are in danger of being wiped out by the disease. As a preemptive strike against extinction, the groups formed the Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, and set a goal to establish an amphibian conservation center at the Summit Municipal Park in Panama.
Chytrid fungus, described in 1999, is causing drastic declines in amphibian populations. Already the disease is believed to have caused the extinction of more than 30 species of harlequin frogs, the Monte Verde golden toad in Costa Rica, the Wyoming toad in the United States, the golden coqui frog from Puerto Rico and both known species of gastric brooding frogs in Australia.
Conservationists have captured 50 frog species—including 17 that are now extinct or close to extinct in the wild—to protect them from the fungus and have them quarantined at a zoo in Panama. Working with researchers at James Madison and Vanderbilt universities who have identified an antifungal bacteria that provides immunity to the fungus, the plan is to breed 15 to 20 high-priority endangered amphibians with this immunity and then reintroduce them into the wild.
"Currently, 10 to 50 species of amphibians are at risk of extinction in Panama," says Brian Gratwicke, a biologist at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., where the coalition kicked off the amphibian rescue program in May. "We plan to establish captive-assurance populations for the most vulnerable species that have small ranges and are restricted to mountainous regions that are most severely impacted by the fungus."