A Big Project in Search of Some Little Frogs

The following travel diary entries were written by Josh Lucas, one of the Zoo’s amphibian and reptile caretakers. On behalf of the Zoo, he traveled more than 2,800 miles to work with one of its conservation partner organizations, Jatun Sacha, in Ecuador. Read and be transported to the depths of the wet and wild rainforest where much is still undiscovered and unearthed. 

Entry: 1/5/2017

 Hello! I’m currently writing to you from the center of the world! I’m elated to have the opportunity to share some exciting stories with you over the coming weeks, detailing my expedition to the rainforests of Ecuador. The Zoo’s never-ending pursuit of conservation, and my own mission, has brought me deep into the Amazon rainforest. Like other animal species, amphibian populations all over the world are in a state of catastrophic decline. Amphibians serve as excellent “indicator” species to their corresponding environments. In other words, when frogs start to get sick or disappear, horrendous implications on the health of the environment as a whole are already looming on the horizon.

 Working with Jatun Sacha, one of the Zoo’s many conservation partners, I have been able to develop and successfully implement on-site breeding programs for several species of amphibians. With the permission of the Ecuadorian government, we are collecting a handful of endangered frogs to reproduce in specialized containers on the ground in their native habitats. We hope to learn a great deal from the program, but our ultimate goal is to help ailing frog populations start to rebound. We will not only collect data on and study the frogs we’ve collected, but we will also release the resulting offspring and track the overall health of the population over time. As much as I love sharing my passion for amphibians with guests who come to the Zoo, I don’t want the Zoo to be the only place where you can see these incredible animals. Unfortunately, the Zoo already has species in its collection that no longer exist in the wild. Hopefully this project and others like it will help to stop, or at least slow the rate of, amphibian extinction across the globe.

 Entry: 1/7/17

 With a few days under our belts, the project is progressing better than expected, given our current circumstances. We not only had a pretty serious car accident on our journey to the reserve, but we also lost a lot of supplies in the wreck. The mountain roads here are very narrow and curve continuously. Add heavy rains to the mix and we ended up with a potential disaster. When our driver lost control of the car, we flew off the side of the road, over several road signs, straight up and over a slanted boulder twice the size of our car, and into a guardrail. Luckily, we made it out without major injuries. If we had crashed another 40 feet in either direction, however, we would have plummeted off the mountain and into river rapids below. Freshly out of the wreckage we hailed a taxi, loaded what supplies were still intact, and continued into the jungle. Our love offrogs propelled us forward in our journey.

 While building the habitats for our frogs, we suffered a few hiccups, largely due to a lack of resources. I was able to compensate with what was lost in the wreck by using some on-the-spot ingenuity and repurposing supplies. Now, after a few days of trial and error, we’ve completed 10 enclosures and have begun collecting frogs. We hike about two-hours from the reserve into dense Amazonian rainforest to reach the frogs and they aren’t easy to find when you get there. Here’s hoping that, by the next time I write you, I will have collected all the necessary frogs and maybe even have a few eggs to start raising!

 Entry: 1/11/2017

Wow! It has definitely been an intense several days. The two frog species we came here to collect (the thumbnail poison frog and the Ecuador poison frog) were much more difficult to find than we anticipated. To me, this scarcity clearly highlights the critical need for this project and others like it. We spent four to six grueling hours each of four long days trekking through the dense jungle, hiking mountains, and wading through small rivers and waterways--all in search of these fascinating little amphibians. Each day, we grew increasingly concerned that we wouldn’t find them. But then it happened! We finally stumbled onto the right spot, and were able to locate six of the thumbnail frogs and three of the Ecuador poison frogs! We will return to that area as soon as we can to continue our search, but as of now, we are stranded in the Reserve under very heavy rains that haven’t eased up in over 12 hours.

 To put our search in perspective, just five years ago, the popular and plentiful thumbnail poison frog could be found everywhere. The Jatun Sacha organization even created its logo featuring the frog. Now, unfortunately, it takes 4 to 8 people around 20 hours over the course of 4 days to find them. Some of the local people affiliated with Jatun Sacha have become concerned that we were having so much trouble finding thefrogs and the grave implications for the species. The good news is that we discovered the frog still exists! Although few in number, we now have the opportunity to help this small but significant species rebuild and repopulate!

 I am so proud to be a part of the Zoo’s conservation initiatives. Our project here is a testament that the Zoo cares about—and directly works to protect--even the smallest creatures in the world.

 – Josh Lucas, reptile and amphibian caretaker

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