Anthony's Poison Arrow Frog

In 2015, 44 frogs, including Marsupial frogs, Sun’s glass frogs and Pinchincha Poison frogs, arrived in St. Louis to make the Saint Louis Zoo their home. They joined a collection in the Zoo’s Charles H. Hoessle Herpetarium that includes 23 species of frogs and two species of toads.

We have lots of frogs in our collection to offer visitors an opportunity to see these beautiful creatures. The Saint Louis Zoo is also serving as an ark — a safe haven where frogs can survive and reproduce.

Amphibians are one of the first animals to suffer when there are changes in the ecosystem. Since they live on both land and in water and their bodies are permeable, they are sensitive to problems in both environments.

This is why they are called a bellwether species. It is important to our health and the health of our planet that we save them.

But amphibians are in a downward spiral, and addressing the amphibian extinction crisis represents the greatest species conservation challenge in the history of humanity.

One-third to one-half of all amphibian species are threatened with extinction, with probably more than 120 species already gone in recent years. An international Global Amphibian Assessment has alerted us to the fact that hundreds of species face threats that cannot be mitigated in their natural homes. They require zoos to rescue/save them in the short term until adequate conservation measures to secure wild populations can be developed.

For that reason, the Zoo has been working in Ecuador — a nation that once was teeming with frogs on the shores of its rivers and in mountain forests. Ecuadorian amphibians still represent 9 percent of global amphibian diversity.

Estimates are that Ecuador had over 700 frog species — a wellspring of amphibian richness. Unfortunately, at least 30 percent (156 species) are threatened with extinction, and among them, 16 species are now possibly extinct.

What Is Killing the Frogs? 

Pathogens like ranavirus and amphibian chytrid fungus (diseases killing massive numbers of amphibians) are among a cocktail of factors behind their loss. However, in Ecuador, increasingly it seems climate change and habitat loss are the real culprits.

Let’s take climate change: Scientists believe that a warming climate may play an indirect role in facilitating epidemics of infectious disease. Changes in climate can affect survival, growth, reproduction and dispersal capabilities of animals. Climate change also can alter amphibian habitats, including vegetation, soil and hydrology and can influence food availability and predator-prey relationships. By forcing amphibians to move their homes it creates a “crowding” situation for species.

The amphibians begin to out compete against each other for resources, creating more stressful environments, which in turn leads to increased infections.

Another, even more immediate problem frogs face is habitat loss, which is the result of what humans are doing.

There are over 6 billion humans on the planet but not nearly enough natural resources to support us in a sustainable manner at our current rate of consumption. Humans alter and destroy amphibian habitat by logging forests, draining swamps, building over streams or ponds, damming and draining rivers for irrigation, using pesticides/herbicides and introducing livestock.

Taking Action

What are we doing to combat the decline of these creatures that are such important sentinels of ecosystem health? 

Since 2006, the Saint Louis Zoo has been supporting the research and conservation work of Centro Jambatu for Research and Conservation of Amphibians (Otonga Foundation) based in Quito, Ecuador. Luis Coloma, Ph.D., who directs Centro Jambatu, is working tirelessly rescuing and breeding species and developing methods of cryopreservation of amphibian germ cells so that we can continue to breed amphibians in captivity even after they are extinct. This would allow for possible reintroduction in the wild when habitats become available.

The current Centro Jambatu facility encompasses an area of close to 2 1/2 acres. This space has several small buildings used as amphibian and insect rearing rooms, multiple “amphibian pods” and outdoor breeding enclosures.

Centro Jambatu currently houses 24 species of amphibians, 11 of which are reproduced at the facility. Of the 24 species, 15 are listed as critically endangered, along with four species listed as having insufficient data to classify their condition in the wild.

This year marks a significant milestone as the New Jambatu Center opens to the public. This new exhibit area will allow visitors to enjoy the beautiful world of Ecuador’s amphibians and be educated on current conservation efforts.

It will offer Ecuadorian school groups and international visitors a glimpse into the world of species we cannot afford to lose.

Citizen Scientists Census Frogs

For several years, the Saint Louis Zoo has also sponsored a citizen science program: FrogWatch USA™ — a monitoring program of frogs and toads.

As a volunteer-based monitoring program, FrogWatch USA™ gives citizens across the country an opportunity to be directly involved in gathering information that can ultimately lead to practical and workable ways to stop the amphibian decline.

Participants do not have to be frog or toad experts to be FrogWatch USA™volunteers. All they need is an interest in frogs and toads and a willingness to participate in a volunteer training session with a commitment to monitor a site for at least three minutes twice a week throughout the breeding season from February through August. Volunteer training sessions are offered every spring.

Visit www.stlzoo.org for more information. 

Pods to the Rescue!

The Zoo is taking another important step for amphibian conservation in 2017. We are installing two amphibian pods in an area close to the Herpetarium. These pods are actually shipping containers like those used to transport strawberries, coffee beans and flowers.

Each container offers 995 cubic feet of space to house what else? Frogs!

The containers are specially modified to control the climate and keep diseases out, and are designed to hold one to two species or an assemblage species from a particular region. In these pods, frogs can thrive and reproduce with the goal of reintroduction back to their natural homes.

The pod will have a 4-foot by 6-foot viewing window so that visitors can check out what is going on inside. This will give visitors a peak at the dedicated work the Zoo’s keeper staff does every day and show how much we really care about the future and the health of our planet.

Why go to all this trouble to save amphibians?

Amphibians are one of the most important groups of animals controlling the number of insects worldwide. Whether it’s larval insects in bodies of water, like mosquitoes, or adult insects, we rely on amphibians to help control populations.

It’s frightening to think about how fast some infectious diseases, like malaria, zika virus or yellow fever would spread if amphibians weren’t helping control insect populations in our own backyards and around the world. We need to keep amphibians in our world.

All of us can help by providing small backyard habitats for amphibians and making healthy environmental decisions. Come see our gorgeous frogs at the Saint Louis Zoo, and you’ll understand why we care so much.