At first glance, frog number 307457, also known as “the Old Man,” looks no different from the 30-odd Panamanian golden frogs he shares a basement room with at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. His personality, though, is more muted. Although he has an entire enclosure to himself, he often prefers to hide among the leaves rather than bask under the warm lights like the others.
But the Old Man’s understated demeanor belies his outsized importance. He is not just any Panamanian golden frog, which, despite the name, is technically a type of toad. He’s a member of what might be called his species’ Greatest Generation, the first to battle the most formidable of all existential threats, extinction. Scientists captured his parents in 2003 in the verdant cloud forests of El Valle de Antón and Cerro Campana—the only places where Panamanian golden frogs existed in the wild—after it had become clear the beloved species was doomed.
In Panama, everyone knows about the golden frog, the national animal, celebrated in murals, lottery tickets and T-shirts. There’s even Panamanian Golden Frog Day. The creature is a natural marvel, not least for its defensive traits: The neon-yellow skin of just one frog contains enough toxin to kill 1,200 mice. Unlike many other amphibians, which prefer the cover of darkness, this toad, endowed with a lethal defense against predators and an unmistakable coloration to advertise it, is most active during the day. Panamanians have long seen the golden frog as a symbol of the nation’s biodiversity and natural heritage, making its abrupt disappearance all the more poignant.
In the 1990s, herpetologists around the world began warning of unexplained deaths and sudden disappearances of various amphibians. In 1999, researchers pinpointed the pathogen behind the plague: a deadly amphibian chytrid fungus. Correctly fearing the malady it caused would reach pandemic proportions, the nonprofit Maryland Zoo, in Baltimore, worked with Panamanian and U.S. scientists to launch Project Golden Frog. The team trekked into remote mountain forests, where they searched moss-covered streambeds for flashes of brilliant yellow.
In 2003, the 40 or so healthy adult frogs they eventually amassed—the Old Man’s parents among them—were shipped to the Maryland Zoo. The next year, eight “founder” couples—selected to start a captive breeding colony—arrived at the National Zoo, where researchers assigned them an important job: sex. The Old Man was hatched in June 2005. Meanwhile, all signs suggest the creature has vanished from its natural habitat; no one has seen a Panamanian golden frog in the wild since 2009.
The animals in captivity offer a life raft for the species. The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project, in collaboration with the National Zoo, is investigating the skin resistance of individual frogs in order to selectively breed a more resilient generation for release into the wild; if successful, they hope to reintroduce a disease-resistant version of species into the wild. While captive breeding programs can be expensive and risky, in the case of Panamanian golden frogs, “I think it is an example of a species where we have been able to mitigate an extinction,” says Brian Gratwicke, leader of amphibian conservation programs at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “But we still need to work on finding a way to rebuild sustainable wild populations.”
The Old Man’s offspring could bolster those efforts. The Maryland Zoo manages the golden frog studbook—a compendium of genealogies, maintained to ensure the best possible genetic pairings. Until now, the Old Man has not been called on to mate, primarily because of a dearth of ideal females. But even at 15, he could still become a father before he croaks. Longevity might even be in his genes: The Old Man’s dad was around 17 when he died. “We need to find him a suitable female,” says Matthew Evans, assistant curator of herpetology at the National Zoo. “We want to continue to pass along these very valuable genes to the benefit of the whole golden frog program.”