At her desk in blue scrubs, her curly hair escaping from a ponytail in humid wisps, Heidi Ross ’99 swipes a hand across her brow and sits up a little straighter as her FaceTime connectivity sticks. A minute ago she was elbow-deep in an aquarium, working alongside fellow staff at the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC) to disinfect the tanks that hold eight of the most critically endangered species of frogs on the planet. In the background, a coworker flits back and forth, walking individual frogs across the lab to a scale, recording their weights in order to separate larger adult frogs from lighter specimens.
What they do at this small laboratory on the grounds of a sleepy private zoo in central Panama sounds simple, but in the realm of international amphibian conservation, it’s as rare as the species they protect: EVACC successfully breeds frogs.
“Well, that’s not quite right,” Ross—ever the precise technician—explains. “Frogs breed frogs. We just provide them the conditions that make it successful in captivity.”
Her modesty is both native-Midwestern and intentional. Ross has felt the pressure of dire circumstance for so long she doesn’t trifle with recognition—and there’s been a lot of it, starting with front-page coverage in the Washington Post soon after EVACC’s inception. In 2012, their work won the international Conservation Award from San Diego Zoo Global, a distinction shared by pioneering biologists such as Jane Goodall.
EVACC also comprises a full chapter of the New York Times best seller The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, and appears in both Goodall’s book, Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species are Being Rescued from the Brink, and 100 Heartbeats: The Race to Save Earth’s Most Endangered Species by Jeff Corwin. In addition, multiple documentaries have been filmed at EVACC, including one for the program PBS Nature, Frogs: The Thin Green Line.
Why frogs? “After Luther, I joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to a small village in Omar Torrijos National Park in Coclé Province, Panama—a three-hour hike-in location—and happened on my first trip out of my village to meet up with a group of American university students studying amphibians on the Caribbean coast,” Ross writes. Their professor was Karen Lips, then of Southern Illinois University, whose tracking of die-off in wild amphibian populations contributed to international recognition of the deadliest threat to biodiversity in recorded history: Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd.
Likely gaining momentum in wild populations since the 1970s, Bd flourishes in cool, moist climates and causes fatal chytridiomycosis, or chytrid, obliterating whole amphibian communities within just weeks or months of infection. Chytrid kills frogs by crippling the condition and function of their permeable skin, essentially starving them of nutrients and oxygen, while causing lethargy and loss of righting reflex—dead frogs are found “frozen,” sitting in the last position they could muster as their organs gave out.
A full one-third of the world’s amphibian species are affected by this fungus, with an estimated 200 previously healthy species on the cusp of extinction in fewer than 30 years. There is no known way to eradicate the fungus from wild habitat, and its effects appear unprecedented. “Once amphibians are eliminated from an ecosystem, everything else changes,” Lips explains in a University of Maryland interview. “Snakes disappear, algae grows, sediments accumulate and affect water quality. We don’t know yet how many of these changes are irrevocable.”
Ross, a biology major with research interests in entomology, started working with Lips and her students each year in the field, hiking at night to document populations. Eventually she stayed on in Panama just to work with visiting scientific expeditions.
“It got eerie,” Ross says. “When we started, you could easily spend four or five hours traveling just 200 meters—the mere distance from Valders to the library parking lot at Luther—documenting 20 species or more, calling, eating, and carrying on. After the fungus moved through—I remember the first time I encountered this—a familiar, busy area would be silent. Silent! Except for the rushing of water and the wind blowing through the trees or the occasional call from a night bird or mammal. It was real, and from that moment on, I dedicated my life to doing whatever I could to help keep these voices from disappearing from the planet altogether.”
By the time Lips had good data, it revealed that chytrid was moving eastward across Panama at a rate of 22 kilometers per year. “We knew it was too late to try to save populations in Coclé, and that’s actually really hard to admit—to give up on an area and move on,” Ross says. “But it wasn’t too late for El Valle Anton, farther east.” Long known as the mountain retreat of Panama City’s elite, El Valle sits in the caldera of an inactive volcano of the same name, with thick jungle fringing its steep rim. It seemed close enough to infrastructure and resources to host a laboratory, while wild populations still thrived within hiking distance.
Ross was not alone in leaping to action. On her last day of Peace Corps service in her Coclé village—after extending her contract twice—she met, by chance, Panama’s foremost field biologist in frog research, Panamanian native Edgardo Griffith.
“It was love at first sight, literally, for me, anyway,” Ross says with a grin—the two are now married—“but that’s a whole other story. What matters is that Edgardo has spent his entire adult life in the field. There is literally no one else as familiar with Panama’s wildlife, especially amphibians, anywhere. He knew something had to be done. I knew something had to be done. And we couldn’t wait for research to catch up or issue some kind of protocol. We either went out and collected genetically viable frogs while we still could, or they’d be gone.”
So in 2006, patching together funding from international conservation initiatives, including the Houston Zoo, Buffalo Zoo, Henry Doorly Zoo, and many others, Ross and Griffith set up a system of sterilized tanks and equipment for their first mating pairs in the rooms of a local hotel. Soon they needed not only more space but a cottage industry to grow the fruit fly colonies, crickets, and cockroaches to feed their residents. Through a working partnership with El Nispero Zoo in El Valle, EVACC built a laboratory, educational exhibits, office space, and modest living quarters on the zoo grounds for visiting biologists and technicians.
“There was a lot we didn’t know, initially,” Ross says, “but then, we had to try. We knew, for example, that lots of frog species eat crickets of various stages of development, as they themselves develop. Now we know those crickets should be gut-loaded with vitamin A and calcium to help frogs’ tongues stay sticky for the optimal catching of food.”
Beginning in 2007, EVACC found success. At the time of this writing, eight species have successfully reproduced in captivity, their swarms of tadpoles obscuring whole panes of their aquariums’ glass. Among them is Atelopus zeteki, or the Panamanian golden frog, a cultural icon and national emblem for wildlife conservation in Panama—now extinct in the wild. More than 200,000 people visit its featured exhibit in EVACC’s educational center each year.
But the work has just begun. “The next questions are big ones,” Ross says. “Can we identify habitat that’s not saturated with the fungus in which to reintroduce these species? Should we spin off revenue streams that generate actual cash flow—like farming insects for the pet industry? Can we illustrate the value of saving species from extinction?
“I get asked all the time why frogs are such a big deal, why people all over the world should care about us, here, counting and weighing frozen crickets for a frog with some cool spots on it,” Ross says—shaking a container of crackly frozen crickets toward the camera as she talks.
“My knee-jerk reaction is to say you don’t have to care about frogs. Banging the ‘environmental’ drum isn’t my thing.
“Instead, I’ll tell you why I care about frogs: Going out in the forest, any forest, you walk among hundreds of species, all living together, sharing the same space. Certain species of glass frogs, for example, lay their eggs on the bottoms of leaves, leaving room for other species to utilize the top of the leaf. For me, the best moments ever are seeing these guys in the wild. Yeah, every day at EVACC is work and sometimes feels far removed from that forest, but you hold it in your mind’s eye—because everything is connected, and realizing that is what we’re moving toward.”
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