Jonathan’s Ark: saving threatened frogs from extinction in a Honduran cloud forest
13th March 2017 by Marta Noblejas
Cloud forests are often shrouded in mist, and can give one the impression of being in a Jurassic Park movie, surrounded by massive pines and large tree ferns, not to mention the chilly temperature. In the Merendon mountain range, in Honduras, there is a very special cloud forest - and part of it is found in Cusuco National Park.
A biodiversity hotspot, this forest is surveyed every year by a team of field biologists, supported by Operation Wallacea. It was through this organisation that Jonathan Kolby first found himself in Central America, and where he met the frogs he would dedicate years of his life to. “I first went to Honduras in 2006, as a volunteer staff herpetologist for Operation Wallacea, where I was helping to carry out reptile and amphibian biodiversity surveys.
While I was preparing to go back for my second year, I started to research the species I had seen and I read their IUCN Red List assessments. I found out that some of the frogs in Cusuco were at very high risk of extinction, and had been assessed as Endangered or Critically Endangered. These assessments mentioned enigmatic declines for unknown causes. Having just worked in Cusuco and seen how beautiful the habitat was, I found it unusual that there were reports of declines.”
Having heard that the amphibian disease known as chytridiomycosis - caused by the chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) - can devastate amphibian populations, Jonathan decided to put together a rapid response project to see if the frogs in Cusuco were being affected by it. “I found out that chytrid was everywhere I looked, and especially in several threatened species. It was after that summer that I decided to keep going back to Cusuco and study the situation there. After determining that things were not okay, and that if we did nothing these frogs would start disappearing, we decided to create the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center (HARCC).”
To put it simply, Jonathan and his team are building an ark to rescue frogs and rehabilitate them, before releasing them back into the wild. “When the tadpoles start to metamorphose into baby frogs, it seems the chytrid infection really intensifies. The animals coming out of the water are too heavily infected for many of them to survive. With such a huge loss of recruitment, the adult populations are getting smaller and smaller.
Now that we have identified the weakest link, which is the metamorph stage, we will go to Cusuco and start taking either late stage tadpoles and/or early metamorph frogs from the forest before they die from chytrid infection. We will then bring them into our facility, where we have a controlled environment and can offer medication and other ways to reduce the impact of chytrid so they survive, and then raise them until they become adults.”
Research suggests that adults have stronger immune systems than younger frogs, and although some of them are infected with chytrid, the intensity of the infection is always much lower. By rehabilitating the younger frogs, Jonathan and his team hope to boost the size of the adult population to healthier levels. “We have targeted three species - two of them are endemic to Cusuco, and Critically Endangered, namely the Exquisite Spike-Thumb Frog (Plectrohyla exquisita), and the Cusuco Spike-Thumb Frog (Plectrohyla dasypus); the third species is the Endangered Mossy Red-Eyed Frog (Duellmanohyla Soralia).
It is best for us to invest all our resources into a small number of species so that we can really make sure we are doing it right. As things work out, and if we do acquire more financial resources down the road we can consider adopting additional species.”
Jonathan’s major partner in this endeavour is Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and construction of the arks - which are in fact retrofitted shipping containers - is underway. “We are in the middle of construction and are now probably one or two trips away from being completely done and ready to have a grand opening. When we first open we intend to hire two technicians to run the facility, and then once we have things established, I intend to start providing opportunities for volunteers and student internships.”
Jonathan also has a significant social media presence, raising awareness to these frogs and the need to conserve them. “Coming from academia, I have learned the importance of social media and outreach - communicating better with the public about what we do, why we do it and why they should care is critical. I have been really impressed with the engagement that we are getting from the public.”
On top of his mission to rescue frogs, Jonathan has recently finished his PhD and is now working for the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service as a CITES policy specialist. He hopes to get more involved in policy regarding the spread and monitoring of wildlife diseases.
Best of luck Jonathan!
To follow this project on social media check out these channels:
Website: Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center (HARCC)
Facebook: HARCC-Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center
YouTube: HARCC FrogRescue