Variable Harlequin Frog. Photo Credit: Brian Gratwicke. Please click here for link to the Creative Commons License.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Panama has pioneered a breeding programme which last month saw the release of hundreds of tiny colourful frogs into the wild.

On January 17 2018, researchers released approximately 500 frogs at the First Quantum Minerals’ concession site situated in the country’s Colón province – the first step toward full-scale reintroduction of the species.

This small vibrant amphibian – which takes its names from its array of neon colours, yellow orange, green and pink – was once commonly found inhabiting highland streams throughout western Costa Rica and Panama.  The harlequin frog, however, has had its numbers decimated by the deadly chytrid fungus.

Chytrid has been pushing frog species throughout the world to the brink of extinction, and the harlequin frog is particularly sensitive to it.

To aid the harlequin frog’s survival, between 2013 and 2016, the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation project (PARC) at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, brought several frogs to its breeding center.

Brian Gratwicke, international coordinator of PARC, said in a press release: “Before we reintroduce frogs into remote areas, we need to learn how they fare in the wild and what we need to do to increase their chances of survival in places where we can monitor them closely. Release trials may or may not succeed but the lessons we learn will help us to understand the challenges faced by a frog as it transitions from captivity into the wild.”

To monitor them, researchers have fitted 30 of the amphibians with miniature radio transmitters and gave each frog an elastomer toe marking that glows under ultraviolet light – this marks individuals as being part of a population monitoring study.

PARC is hoping to secure the future for this and other endangered amphibians by reintroducing animals bred in captivity according to an action plan developed with Panama’s Ministry of the Environment.

According to the press release, Robert Ibáñez, PARC project director at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, added: “The variable harlequin frog is one of the closest relatives of Atelopus zeteki, Panama’s iconic golden frog, another target species in our captive breeding program.

“We’ll be monitoring the surrounding amphibian community and the climate at this site, and comparing this to the amphibian community at another, control site. This kind of intensive monitoring will help us to understand disease dynamics in relation to the release trials”


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