Santa Fe, Panama to M139PL


This guest post from Andrew Gray, our Curator of Herpetology, offers an update on the new display being constructed in the Vivarium. Andrew also shares the news he recently received from colleagues in Panama that reinforces the importance of the conservation work that goes on behind the scenes.

People know how much I care about animals, and that I think keeping wild ones in captivity shouldn’t be considered lightly. I believe they belong in the wild, but that if they must be in captivity, then there must be a good reason. If that is the case, then we must try our utmost to meet the species’ needs and requirements as fully as possible. To that end we strive to provide the best possible conditions for all the animals we keep in the Vivarium at Manchester Museum. It’s our duty.

Man holds yellow and black frog
Andrew Gray holding a Harlequin during Panama trip

My last field trip was an expedition to a remote area in the Santa Fe National Park, Panama. The going was tough, but the objective was clear – to establish a monitoring programme for the unique Harlequin Frogs that live there and to work with and support local people to help study and preserve them, and their associated habitat.

Man kneeling down at the edge of a stream surrounded by tropical forest
Andrew Gray in the field, carrying out a survey of the streams

We also had special permission to collect just 6 young specimens for the museum from one section of the study area where one side of the stream abutted pastureland, created due to deforestation. The other half was pristine rainforest, where the critically endangered harlequins had been forced to live. But that side was a beautiful area, which lead on to our main study site of white-water cascades and thunderous waterfalls, a special place few humans would ever experience.

A stream flowing around mossy rocks
The natural environment of the Harlequin frogs

From an ethical perspective, collecting those few specimens was a difficult call for me at the time, but training the locals in research techniques and supporting the children’s environmental education was just a pleasure.

Toad eggs like a small string of pearls draped over a rock
Harleqin frog eggs

Most wild tadpoles and small frogs never make it to adulthood, but I am pleased to say all those we collected safely made it to Manchester, and have been reared to adults. We put so much effort into replicating their natural environment within their bespoke, heavily-planted 5 foot vivariums that we hardly wanted to disturb them. But they developed to be very healthy, and when first reproducing in our deep and highly oxygenated cascade set-up, with the tadpoles being so successfully reared, we knew all our detailed hard work was paying off (see Andrew’s previous blog for more on this success).

Tank with lots of plants in and a photograph of a frog
The holding tank for Harlequin frogs in the vivarium

We consider our Harlequin specimens to be true ambassadors for Panama Wildlife, and they are totally treated as such – we really appreciate how special they are and feel so honoured and grateful to be able to work with them.

Fake rock being constructed by a man
Rockwork in the new exhibit

However, we think it is only right that everyone should have an opportunity to see these special amphibians, which belong to the most endangered group on the planet. So, construction began during lockdown on a new public exhibit, to be the largest and most lovingly considered that Manchester Museum could produce. It would be inspirational in its construction to specifically replicate the unique habitat of the frogs, using the footage taken at the Santa Fe site, to incorporate only natural flora and fauna for the area, and creating a an environment that would mimic the wild place these frogs occur to such an extent that even the frogs wouldn’t know any better! That was our aim.

Fake rock being sculpted by a man
Constructing the rockwork for the new exhibit

However, during the exhibit construction and the ongoing fundraising to support the in-situ research aspects that had been established, we had a huge blow that I must share with you. The site in Panama, which we were working so hard to conserve, had not been visited by our co-ordinator, Eric Flores, for several months due to Covid-19 lockdowns in Panama. When he was finally able to visit that part of the site, he was devastated. People had been there in his absence and the primary forest both sides of the breeding stream had been totally destroyed, completely deforested beyond recognition. It was a stab to the very heart of him, and our project, which mainly focuses on conserving the frogs in the wild.

Man with blue gloves on holding five yellow and black frogs
Andrew Gray holding the young Harlequins produced in captivity

We then realised that the individuals we had collected, if left to their fate in Panama, would no longer have been with us. The thought was sickening, but strengthened our resolve in reproducing and showcasing them, their offspring, their habitat, and highlighting the painful plight which was unfolding before us.

Today marked a significant day in our efforts to provide the exact environment for our new frogs to go on public display: new eco-friendly specialist lighting was installed and a new cooling system that will help us create the exact conditions for the animals to thrive in the new vivarium exhibit, was finally commissioned. State of the art monitoring will remotely match the exact conditions within the enclosures, including temperature and humidity levels, with those at the specific site in Panama. As such, the visiting public will be able to witness these stunning creatures behaving naturally alongside a fully authentic tropical watercourse habitat created in Manchester. It will be the only place in the world outside of Panama you will be able to witness these incredible frogs, a critically endangered species being maintained in near natural conditions thanks to the latest technological developments and through a continued commitment to monitoring the species in the wild.

We will be sure keep you updated on the development of the new exhibit for our amphibious Panamanian ambassadors, which will be unveiled by the (human) Panama Ambassador at the opening of our new Manchester Museum in February 2023. Plans for the open evening are already underway, sponsored by myself and a Panamanian Rum company so I guarantee it will one be worth waiting for!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Cesar Vasquez says:

    Gracias Andrew por tu apoyo a la onservacion de especies en peligro… excelente trabajo en Panamá.


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