When Dan Costell holds a Panamanian golden frog in his hand, he might as well be holding gold. Stunning yellow, the little frogs have long been Panama's national symbol of good luck, but they are disappearing.
A lethal fungus called chytrid is killing off the Panamanian goldens, and other frogs across the world. The fungus attaches to the frogs' skin and prevents them from breathing and taking in water, said Costell, a reptile and amphibian keeper at Lowry Park Zoo. "Frogs are indicators of how our environment is going," he said. "They're the first species to be affected because they absorb the environment into their skin."
One-third to one-half of the world's 6,000 amphibian species are estimated to be facing extinction. This leap year has been designated the Year of the Frog by conservation organizations. Zoos and aquariums across the country will hold events Friday, which is Leap Day, and through the weekend.
The Florida Aquarium in Tampa will recognize Leap Day and the Year of the Frog with reduced admission and exhibits on frogs from Florida, South America and Africa.
Lowry Park Zoo plans to celebrate Saturday, when more families are likely to visit the zoo. Costell and other herpetologists will give presentations throughout the day. Costell has spent his week turning the zoo's discovery center into an amphibian center. Coqui frogs, tadpoles and the Panamanian golden frogs will replace the green tree pythons, sea horses and Schneider's skinks that now inhabit the center. The new center will feature interactive displays where zoogoers can learn about Florida's native and non-native frogs and listen to the sounds they make.
Frogs are important for the environment because they consume tremendous numbers of insects, helping prevent crop damage and disease. Frogs also are an important food source for other species, and amphibians have a huge role in medicine and research.
"Many medical compounds have been found because of the secretions in their skin or the microbial communities on their skin," says Shelly Grow, conservation biologist with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Frogs are considered an early-warning system for problems that affect humans. "If chemicals in the water cause mutations and reproductive problems in frogs, think what it could be doing to the rest of us," said Vicky Poole of the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
One of the most basic ways people can help protect frogs is not to use fertilizer in their lawns. Because frogs take in water through their skin, they are especially sensitive to water quality and can die from fertilizer runoff that ends up in streams and rivers.
If pollution and fungus continue to plague frogs, the remaining amphibians will soon only be found in captivity at zoos. And only some, like the Panamanian goldens, have been successfully bred in captivity.
Few people seem to realize this, Costell said, and even fewer understand what a world without frogs would entail.
"Some people come here to the zoo and they say, 'Man, it's only a frog,' " Costell said. But when he holds his charges in his hands, he knows better.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story. Freelance writer Mallary Jean Tenore is the James N. Naughton fellow at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists that owns the Times.