Panama in Central America


Rain forest and cloud forest streams

Once upon a time...

Not so long ago, on a mountain in a forest on a small spit of land, there lived a beautiful little frog. The frog was bright golden yellow with inky black patches and lived near a swiftly flowing river. He spent his days climbing trees or ambling to the water’s edge and waving to his friends. Even though he was brightly colored, the frog was well hidden in his forest home.

The people who shared the frog’s forest believed him to be a sign of good luck, so if they spotted the little frog crawling along the riverbank, they took him home with them. But one day, the people noticed that the little frog had gone. They looked and they looked, but they found only silence. The good luck charm of the forest had disappeared.

The real scoop

Panamanian golden frogs are at home in both wet rain forests and dry cloud forests in the Cordilleran Mountains of Panama. A fast-flowing stream suits them best. They are out and about during the day, hunting for small insects to eat. You might think it would be dangerous to be a bite-sized animal parading about in the sunlight, but the Panamanian golden frog is brightly colored to warn potential predators that it is very toxic and would be dangerous to eat. Its distant relatives, the poison frogs of South America and the mantellas of Madagascar, also use their bright colors to announce to the world that they are toxic.

Adult males and females have similar coloring: light yellowish green to bright gold. They usually also have one to several black splotches on their back and legs, though sometimes there is no black at all. The females are much larger than the males: up to 25 percent longer and heavier.

The nerve toxin produced by the Panamanian golden frog is called "zetekitoxin” after the frog’s scientific name.
People in Panama form small frog objects called huacas of gold and clay to resemble and honor their native golden frogs.
San Diego Zoo Global has donated money to help establish a breeding facility for these frogs in their native country, Panama.
Project Golden Frog connects conservation organizations in both Panama and the U.S. in an effort to help these amazing little frogs.

The San Diego Zoo received its first Panamanian golden frogs in 2003. They came from the Baltimore Zoo in Maryland as part of a collaborative effort among scientific, educational, and zoological institutions in the U.S. and Panama. Known as Project Golden Frog, the idea is to create assurance colonies for the species, should they become extinct in the wild. We have had a lot of success with the little frogs, and some of them can be seen on exhibit in the Zoo’s new Reptile Walk.

A national good luck charm?
The Panamanian golden frog is Panama’s national animal. Pictured on everything from T-shirts to lottery tickets to magazines, the tiny frog represents good fortune. For many years, the frogs were captured and taken into hotels and restaurants to promote tourism, as well as placed in people’s homes for good luck. But the frog's good luck seems to have run out with the spread of a fungal disease called chytridiomycosis, or chytrid fungus, which has wiped out golden frog populations. Sadly, the species is now at critical risk in the wild.

Leaping to the rescue
The tiny Panamanian golden frog may be gone from its native forests, but it is found in managed-care facilities throughout North America that hope to keep the species alive and healthy. San Diego Zoo Global is working closely with the Panamanian government and other zoos to ensure the survival of this species. In fact, the Zoo has been so successful in its breeding efforts that we have been selected to house some extremely important “founders,” or wild-caught members, of the managed-care population as a safeguard for the species. These frogs are of great importance genetically to the breeding program, and it is an honor to be selected to work with them.

Since 2003, when we received 20 young Panamanian golden frogs, we have had almost 500 hatch here. However, no frogs will be released into the wild until the threat of disease has lessened. Here's a blog post about the program.

If you’d like to know more about the amphibian extinction crisis and what you can do to help, please visit the Amphibian Ark®. Some of the most important actions for saving amphibian species, like protecting the environment and raising awareness of the plight of animals, can happen from within our homes.