[an error occurred while processing this directive] Prioritizing amphibian species for captive breeding to save them from extinction
November 19, 2008

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Frogs, toads, salamanders and other amphibians are disappearing at an alarming rate. Of approximately 6,000 amphibian species in the world, about one third are classified as threatened or endangered. A disease caused by a chytrid fungus has devastated frogs living in mid to high elevation streams worldwide. Amphibians also face habitat destruction as forests and wetlands are developed and polluted by agricultural chemicals. In Panama, highland frog populations west of the Canal have declined at an alarming rate.

The Amphibian Ark projectSmithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Summit Municipal Park hosted an Amphibian Ark Workshop from Nov. 12-14 at the Institute in Panama City to determine which amphibian species in Panama are most endangered and should be the focus of captive breeding efforts.

Atelopus zeteki. Panama's iconic Golden Frog, on the brink of extinction, is the focus of the Amphibian Conservation Center's captive breeding program in El Valle, Panama. Photo credit: Marcos Guerra.
In 2005 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, hosted a meeting in Washington D.C. to develop an Amphibian Conservation Action Plan. One result was the Amphibian Ark project, an attempt to save a few of the most endangered amphibian species by breeding them in captivity.

Captive breeding may be an effective strategy to save amphibians from extinction, but it is expensive. In 2007, a draft plan for global ex situ amphibian conservation estimated that millions of dollars would be needed in order to save only a hundred species or so. Therefore, only a few of the most endangered species can be bred in captivity. The first step is to prioritize--to decide which amphibians would benefit the most from captive breeding and which species should be the focus of educational and public relations efforts.

Ex situ breeding programs have been criticized of stealing the biological heritage of the countries where they work, especially when live animals are collected and shipped to U.S. or European zoos to be bred there. By convening workshops of in-country professionals who evaluate the risks faced by amphibians and develop plans for their rescue, concerned scientists hope to do a better job of conserving amphibians and communicating the urgency of their task to the public.

Amphibian experts from Panama’s National Environmental Authority, the University of Panama and the Autonomous University of Chiriqui, the Panamanian Society of Mastozoology, USAID-CBC, El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, Houston Zoo, and STRI gathered to rank the risks faced by a list of the 198 amphibians known from the country. They consider each species, ranking it from the standpoint of its status in the wild, genetic uniqueness, cultural and economic importance, and other factors in a standardized database.

The New England Zoo and the Houston Zoo recently donated a specially adapted shipping container and equipment to begin a small captive breeding program at Summit Municipal Park. The Amphibian Ark project also continues to support the El Valle project, which has successfully bred Panama’s symbolic golden toad, Atelopus zeteki, in captivity. The Smithsonian promotes this and other efforts to place scientific research results in the hands of concerned conservationists in order to promote wise decisions about the use of limited resources available for conservation.

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