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The great frog rescue Other amphibians also face extinction due to deadly fungus

As Kermit the Frog lamented, "It's not easy being green."

To that add gold, red, brown or almost any other color.

Many of the world's frogs and other amphibians are in trouble due to a fast-spreading fungus, and Buffalo Zoo staff members are among dozens of U.S. zoologists and biologists jumping to the rescue.

Animal Curator Kevin Murphy and keeper John Kast spent part of last summer in the rain forests of western Panama, collecting healthy Golden Frogs and other threatened species and helping to build an emergency facility they call a modern Noah's Ark. That's where the animals can be sheltered until the danger passes and they are reintroduced into the wild.

The two Buffalo zookeepers also brought back specimens to breed here -- a program that is now yielding its first tadpoles.

Murphy and Kast, who also went to Panama to collect frogs with keeper Penny Danielewicz in 2005, will discuss the global threat to amphibians and its environmental consequences at Canisius College next month.

They spent most nights trudging up mountains in pitch darkness, homing in on the Golden Frog's distinctive call -- one was found 30 feet up in a tree -- and trying to avoid poisonous snakes.

"We did run across a bushmaster," Murphy said, referring to the largest pit viper. And when he settled into his hammock one night, he spied an eyelash viper on a branch overhead.

The risks were worth the potential reward of helping ward off what experts say could become "the biggest extinction of any class of vertebrates in our lifetime," and perhaps the biggest since dinosaurs died out, Murphy said.

Frogs, toads, salamanders and other amphibians might seem to be minor players in the natural world, but they are not, he and Kast pointed out.

The danger to the global ecosystem if they disappeared "is not trivial," Murphy said. Even the smallest creatures represent a building block.

"If you remove enough of them, it will have direct effect on humans," he said. "Take the number of mosquitoes eaten by frogs in a single pond. Remove the frogs, introduce West Nile virus and see what happens."

In Central America, evidence of the "domino effect" from the loss of amphibians includes streams clogged with algae that tadpoles normally consume, and the decline of a snake population that feasted on frogs and toads.

Though global warming, habitat destruction and other factors may have influenced the decline of amphibian species, scientists agree that the leading culprit is chytrid, a fungus that kills by growing on the delicate outer layer of an amphibian's skin, plugging the pores through which water and oxygen are exchanged.

When it enters a habitat, chytrid is extraordinarily effective. It can spread at a rate of 27 miles a year and kills almost every amphibian in its path.

Due to a preference for cool temperatures, chytrid occurs only at very specific elevations. It doesn't do well in the lowlands, so the amphibians at risk are ones that live in hills and mountains the world over.

In Panama, the most comprehensive rescue effort is Project Golden Frog (, aimed at saving a species that has been an icon dating to pre-Colombian times.

In El Valle, where the shelter was built last summer -- Murphy and Kast installed filtration equipment -- pictures, sculptures and wood carvings of the creature are everywhere.

"The whole valley is about the Golden Frog. And now they're not finding the frog," Murphy said.

Though the Houston, Atlanta and Denver zoos have taken the lead in Project Golden Frog, "saving these frogs is really up to Panama," Murphy said.

Saving amphibians is old hat for the Buffalo Zoo, which has worked for two decades to help stabilize the Puerto Rican crested toad, which due to habitat loss became the first amphibian for which the Association of Zoos and Aquariums developed a species survival plan.

The zoo has received several awards for its crested toad breeding program, which in December sent a shipment of 1,000 tadpoles to Puerto Rico for release. Murphy and Kast will speak at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15 in the Regis Room on Canisius' Main Street Campus. For information, call 995-6139 or visit


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