The golden frog is a symbol of Panama — revered by indigenous cultures in the past and the lucky emblem on lottery tickets today.
Now threatened by a lethal fungus that has killed other species, the national treasure may be facing life in captivity. A pair of biologists have decided that plucking the frogs from the cloud forests and putting them in quarantine is the only way to save them.
Their goal is to eventually return the frogs to the wild, but these scientists cannot predict if or when the fungus will disappear.
"It's sad to see them in tanks," said Heidi Ross, 31, of Park Falls, Wisconsin. "They're so perfect. They're like our children."
The chytrid fungus, which thrives in highland streams, attacks the frogs' skin through which they breathe, eventually suffocating them. Scientists reported its appearance in Panama's El Cope forest in 2004 and two years later in the Valley of Anton. It made its way south from Costa Rica, where it wiped out several frog species.
Ross and her husband, Panamanian biologist Edgardo Griffith, opened the Amphibian Conservation Center two years ago in the Nispero Zoo in the Valley of Anton, a region popular with tourists and foreigners buying vacation homes. Financed in part by the Houston Zoo, the $300,000 center houses 500 amphibians representing up to 50 species.
Legend says golden frogs bring luck
The stars are the golden frogs — actually orange or yellow with black spots — whose scientific name is atelopus zeteki.
Of the 62 frog species that lived in the Valley of Anton years ago, only about 10 are left, Griffith said. Golden frogs were once so abundant they were commonly found in residential gardens. Now it can take days to find one in the wild, and Griffith fears they will completely disappear within a few years.
He and another Panamanian biologist, Roberto Ibanez, started trying to save the golden frogs in 2000, carrying out a field study and sending groups of the frogs for breeding experiments in zoos in Baltimore, Detroit and Cleveland.
The Houston Zoo eventually asked Griffith to direct its amphibian conservation and breeding efforts in Panama. Ross, meanwhile, arrived in Panama as a Peace Corps volunteer working on sustainable agriculture and eventually joined the golden frog initiative.
Pre-Columbian Indians created golden and mud figurines of the frogs known as "guacas." Legend had it that golden frogs turned into guacas when they died and brought luck and fertility. Today, replicas abound in Panama's artisan shops. A national symbol, the frogs also can be seen enjoying a beer or chatting on the phone in advertisements.
In the amphibian center, the real things are housed in tanks with wild plants and temperatures comparable to their habitat. There were also a group of tadpoles born this month in the center's second breeding project.
The frogs are quarantined while they are cured of the fungus and parasites, but eventually will be on public display.
Within a few years, that may be the only way to see a golden frog. Scientists have ruled out using pesticides to destroy the chytrid fungus for fear of killing other types that are beneficial to the environment.
"The only way for the golden frog to survive on the planet may be in captivity," Griffith said. "They'd lose part of their charm, part of their value as a species."