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Amphibians are remarkably adaptive. Amphibians are found in all land and freshwater ecosystems except in places with permanent ice and extreme deserts. Some toads in the Sahara can “sleep” in a cocoon for years during dry periods, and an Alaskan frog can freeze solid during the winter and then thaw itself out in the spring.
Amphibians are in the midst of a crisis that has been compared to the fall of the dinosaurs, with more than one third of all species in danger of extinction. Frogs, toads, salamanders, newts and caecilians are disappearing more quickly than any other species on Earth.
Many species, including the stunning Panamanian golden frog, have all but disappeared from the wild. Thanks to recent amphibian conservation efforts and the involvement of the general Zoo community, a rare group of Panamanian golden frogs are thriving today in zoos across the United States, including Philadelphia Zoo’s KidZooU: Hamilton Family Children’s Zoo & Faris Family Education Center.
Working alongside many partners including the Amphibian Ark, the Amphibian Survival Alliance, local museums, governments, researchers and villagers, the Zoo is striving to undertake conservation and ecological research of threatened amphibian populations.
Recognizing the potential to have a species-saving impact, Philadelphia Zoo’s amphibian conservation program is dedicated to saving endangered frogs from the Andes and the Caribbean, which are home to a particularly high number of unique and at-risk frog species. Our main focus is on the captive breeding of frogs from Haiti at the Zoo and from the highlands of Ecuador, which is done through the country’s local Zoo, Amaru. We also focus on research, local capacity building and the establishment of additional captive breeding programs.
At Philadelphia Zoo, we’ve created an "ark" here at the Zoo to safeguard amphibian populations threatened with extinction by focusing on an ex situ (or “off-site”) conservation breeding program for Haitian frogs (that is, away from their natural habitat). In October 2010, the Zoo rescued 154 individual frogs representing nine of the world’s most endangered amphibian species, all found only in Haiti. That same year, we began devising an action plan to reverse the collapse of biodiversity in Haiti. Today, the ex-situ colony at Philadelphia Zoo contains more than 1,500 individual amphibians— all deemed critically endangered by the IUCN.
The Zoo’s team has had reproductive success with four of these nine species. The most successful is the La Hotte land frog (Eleutherodactylus bakeri), with more than 1,200 individuals from three generations now housed on site. Philadelphia Zoo is currently the only zoo in the world raising these frogs in captivity, and we are working closely with the Haitian government to develop a long-term conservation strategy for amphibians.
With an extraordinary amount of work to be done, the Zoo will soon launch a pilot program to engage young minds in the region and expand our conservation efforts toward amphibians. Participants will help analyze data to gather better information on how to manage our program by studying hours of footage of frog behavior and wild frogs in Haiti.
Dr. Carlos Martínez Rivera, Philadelphia Zoo's Amphibian Conservation Biologist, has spent the last two years working in the field in Haiti with staff from Société Audubon Haiti to help save critically endangered amphibians and their habitats. Only 1% of forests remain in the country, and the neighboring Dominican Republic, which benefits from much more government protection, is not too far behind. Both countries have unfortunately suffered from the inevitable consequences of extreme deforestation, making the island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) a threatened ecosystem of what would otherwise be a lush tropical paradise.
Dr. Martínez Rivera’s latest efforts focus on developing and implementing a two-year conservation and capacity building project for Hispaniola with Sociètè Audubon Haiti, Grupo Jaragua and the Ministries of Agriculture and of the Environment. The project, called Building Capacity and Conservation Management Plans for Endangered Amphibians in Four Key Biodiversity Areas in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, promotes collaboration between the government and private institutions and includes field work, training and capacity building for stakeholders. It is funded by the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund and Philadelphia Zoo.
Dr. Martínez Rivera has spent the majority of his five-year tenure at the Zoo working with local groups trying to help save endangered amphibians in the Tropical Andes of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, where more than 200 threatened species of amphibians can be found.
In Ecuador, Dr. Martínez Rivera and his team continue to work with some of the most threatened amphibians, including several endangered harlequin toad species. On a recent trip, the team set out to study five critically endangered harlequin toads, including three rediscovered species that were feared extinct: the black Cajas harlequin toad, the Pastaza harlequin toad and the jambato collarejo, the last two had not been seen for more than 20 years. The Zoo spent more than three years working with the local Zoo Amaru and Cajas National Park in the city of Cuenca in Ecuador to establish a breeding and research facility for four endangered amphibians, including the green Cajas harlequin toad and the black Cajas harlequin toad. The Zoo continues to support the Centro de Conservación de Anfibios – Zoo Amaru, an amphibian rescue and breeding facility in the city of Cuenca, where five endangered local species are being held in a safe environment in hopes that their offspring can eventually be released to repopulate local habitats. These projects were funded by Disney’s Worldwide Conservation Fund, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife – Amphibians in Decline Fund, the Amphibian Taxon Advisory Group, Philadelphia Zoo, Cajas National Park and Zoo Amaru.
In Peru, Dr. Martínez Rivera led several explorations in 2008 and 2009 working with the amphibians of Cajamarca and the Oxapampa poison frog – an amphibian so rare that only 10 specimens were found since its discovery in 1998. Dr. Martínez Rivera also participated as guest professor with the Organization for Tropical Studies –Alianza Andes.
Currently in Colombia, the Zoo is helping the local group FIBA (Fundación para la Investigación de la Biodiversidad Andino-Amazónica) and senior researcher, John J. Mueses Cisneros, describe and study endangered amphibians in the Pasto and Putumayo departments of Southeastern Colombia. In 2012, Dr. Martínez Rivera joined Mr. Mueses Cisneros and Dr. Enrique La Marca to carry a 5-week capacity building and conservation program for that region. The team created a month long Species Saving program that included: (1) the design of a responsible ex situ conservation programs for the amphibians of Southeastern Colombia; (2) the generation of information about amphibian populations including the description of new amphibian species previously unknown to science; (3) the execution of a detailed environmental education program for local people; and (4) an amphibian ecology and conservation course designed to increase capacity and train young professionals about the survival of these species and their habitats.
That program was possible thanks to a generous donation from Marilyn Faris, who is dedicated to conservation and the Zoo. A new frog, which was described as a result of this program, was named the Faris rain frog (Pristimantis farisorum) in honor of Marilyn Faris and her family.
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