In June and July of 2016, Phoenix Zoo Senior Reptile Keeper Matt Tietgen was fortunate to have the opportunity to help establish a new frog conservation facility, The Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center (HARCC).  Below is his account of the project.


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The project was started by Jonathan Kolby, a National Geographic Explorer. Kolby collaborated with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium to create a frog conservation facility consisting of two, 20-foot insulated shipping containers (known as “pods”) at the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens in Tela, Honduras.

This conservation facility will focus on three species of frog native to Cusuco National Park in Northwestern Honduras: the mossy red-eye frog (Duellmanohyla soralia), the Cusuco spike-thumb frog (Plectrohyla dasypus) and the exquisite spike-thumb frog (Plectrohyla exquisita). The two spike-thumb frog species are endemic to Cusuco and critically endangered. The mossy red-eye frog extends into Guatemala and is currently listed as endangered, and populations are heavily fragmented with declining numbers. All of these frogs have shown great susceptibility to the chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which has devastated frog populations around the world.

This facility will combine two different conservation techniques. The first is a head-starting program to take tadpoles and morphlets from the wild, treat them for chytrid, raise them to adulthood and then release back into Cusuco National Park.

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The other approach will be captive breeding to establish assurance colonies, whose offspring will be released once they become adults. The idea is to increase the number of adult frogs in the wild in hopes they will reproduce at a rate fast enough to outcompete the number being lost.

We started the trip with a two-week stay at the facility site in Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, and were excited to inspect the pods as this would be the first time they were opened since leaving Omaha six months earlier!

One of the pods was loaded with well over 100 aquariums, and we were anxious to see how they fared during the shipment. Luckily, only a few had been cracked during the process.

The other pod had all of the equipment and accessories for the facility. It was also already setup with the shelving and plumbing. Unfortunately, moisture inside this pod caused mold to grow all over everything inside.

All-in-all, the damage could have been much worse; we were pleased with the transport of the pods and immediately began cleaning them out.

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We emptied the pods, scrubbed and bleached the walls, and applied sealant to the pod’s interior and exterior to prevent excessive moisture from getting in. Once the pods were sealed, we started installing shelving and plumbing in the second pod. We also installed electricity and air conditioning.

Once all of the installations were complete, we moved the aquariums in to get a glimpse of what this facility will look like once it’s complete.

Looks pretty darn good! We were able to get a good start on the facility during our first two weeks in Honduras. The only work that remains (aside from minor details) is installing water storage containers and plumbing to the pods.

smriverAfter our stay at the facility, we moved on to Cusuco National Park to look for and study the three frog species that HARCC will be working with. Cusuco is a beautiful cloud forest up in the Merendon Mountain

We spent a week camping in the forests of Cusuco studying and examining the natural history of the frogs. We wanted to answer questions like: What temperatures do they prefer? What kind of plants do they like? Do tadpoles prefer fast rapids or slow pools? What do they eat? This information is necessary to provide the best husbandry and care possible. Only by obtaining this knowledge can we successfully replicate their preferences in the managed setting in the pods. We were able to collect a good amount of data on the frogs. We examined a fecal sample under a microscope to determine diet and provide information on what types of insects to propagate at the facility.

During our stay in the forest, we saw every life stage of all three of the target frog species except eggs. Researchers have not been able to determine where these frog species lay their eggs. We surveyed for frog eggs, but were not able to find any.

This was a very exciting trip, and I am honored to have been able to assist with getting this conservation center started. harccWe accomplished a great deal of work in a very small amount of time at the facility. We also learned some vital information about these frogs during our stay in Cusuco. This information will be applied during the setup and care of the frogs at the facility. HARCC is the first of its kind in Honduras, and could prove to be a very important blueprint for in situ frog conservation centers worldwide. I had a blast helping the HARCC team, and look forward to continuing my support for this organization and the frogs of Cusuco National Park!