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This baby limosa harlequin frog will probably grow to only a little longer than an inch. (Brian Gratwicke, Smithsonian)

A Big Hop Forward

Scientists are helping save an inch-long endangered frog from extinction

By Jennifer Marino Walters | April 12 , 2013
Amphibians begin their lives in water, but later grow lungs and live on land. (Angie Estrada, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project)
Amphibians begin their lives in water, but later grow lungs and live on land. (Angie Estrada, Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project)

There’s some very big news for a teeny-tiny frog: Scientists have successfully bred endangered limosa harlequin frogs outside their native habitat, or home in the wild, for the first time.

The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project is raising nine healthy frogs from one pair of parents and hundreds of tadpoles from another pair. It hopes these frogs will help save the species, which has been declining in its native country of Panama in Central America.

“These frogs represent the last hope for their species,” says Brian Gratwicke of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia, one of six conservation groups working on the breeding project.

As a young frog, the limosa harlequin frog is smaller than a quarter. Adults can grow to a little longer than an inch.

AN AMPHIBIAN EMERGENCY

Like the limosa harlequin frog, nearly one third of the world’s amphibian species are at risk of extinction. Amphibians are any cold-blooded animals with backbones that begin their life living in water with gills, but then develop lungs to live on land. The biggest threats to the survival of amphibian species are the destruction of their habitat by humans, water pollution, and climate change. A deadly disease called chytridiomycosis also threatens these vulnerable animals.

Scientists working on the breeding project have successfully bred several endangered amphibian species, including crowned tree frogs, horned marsupial frogs, and Toad Mountain harlequin frogs.

Breeding the limosa harlequin frogs took some careful work. Researchers arranged rocks in a tank to mimic the underground caves in which the frogs like to lay their eggs. They piped in oxygen-rich, gently flowing water from 72 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. And they re-created the tadpoles’ natural food—algae growing on submerged rocks—by painting petri dishes with a solution of powdered algae, then letting it dry.

The scientists will someday release the frogs into the wild, where they will hopefully help increase the population of the species. Says Gratwicke, “This new generation is hugely inspiring to us as we work to conserve and care for this species and others.”

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