National Zoo Part of Amphibian Ark

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You've heard of silent spring, get ready for silent swamp.

After losing 122 amphibian species since 1980, the handiwork of a killer fungus, habitat destruction and pollution, frog researchers are mounting an international conservation campaign to save endangered amphibians by capturing them.

"Captivity is a stopgap measure to buy more time," says Kevin C. Zippel, director of Amphibian Ark. "The goal is to quickly fix the problems in the wild and have things in captivity for the least amount of time possible."

The $40 million effort, led by Zippel, hopes to save some of the thousands of species heading for extinction and draw attention to their plight.

Rather than one large building to house all the world's threatened amphibians, Amphibian Ark sets up many "satellite lifeboats," says Zippel.

The Smithsonian's National Zoo is one such lifeboat. It currently houses one-fifth of the world's Panamanian golden frog population under heavy attack by the chytrid (pronounced KIT-trid) fungus.

Chytrid thrives in warm, mountainous regions like Panama. It spreads through skin-to-skin contact or when there is a diseased amphibian in a shared water source. Researchers believe that the fungus kills frogs by shutting down their respiratory systems. There is no known cure for wild populations.

"Eastern Panama is the last remaining place in the near tropics that hasn't been hit by chytrid fungus," says Brian Gratwicke, the lead amphibian conservation biologist at the National Zoo. "It's a very valuable area in terms of amphibian biodiversity and we are being shown our last chance to do something about it." But they have to act fast. The fungus jumped the canal into Eastern Panama last year and 25 to 50 species are at risk of extinction.

As part of an ongoing effort called "Project Golden Frog," over two-dozen institutions have opened their doors to Panama's national animal. The Houston Zoo even directed the creation of the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center in central Panama. The facility holds several hundred native Panamanian frogs, toads, and salamanders.

In the coming months, the National Zoo will launch another golden frog conservation effort in Panama. According to Zippel, the Zoo has been raising funds for a facility that would focus on research, especially looking at ways to treat the chytrid fungus as well as rescue a couple of species in captivity. Specific details on the project are not yet available.

Reintroduction is the ideal goal, however, as long as the fungus continues to spread, at least the frogs have a comfortable place to call home.

To get involved with the amphibian conservation effort, visit the Amphibian Ark Web site.

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