Of the nearly 200 species of amphibians in Panama, the best loved and studied are the frogs and toads. Bocas del Toro is especially well known for its many different morphs, or forms, of strawberry poison-dart frogs.
Most Red Frogs Aren’t Red
What is locally called the red frog in Panama is more widely referred to as the strawberry poison-dart frog. But neither name does justice to a species that comes in a jewel box of colors.
Though in its best-known form it is red with blue legs, the tiny frog can be green, yellow, purple, orange, black, white, or a combination of these and other colors, with or without spots.
A safer bet is to call it by its scientific name, Oophaga pumilio. (It was reclassified in 2006, before which it was known as Dendobates pumilio.) It lives along the Caribbean coast from Nicaragua to Panama. Though its common throughout Bocas del Toro, Isla Bastimentos is famous for containing a remarkable number of forms, or morphs, on a single island.
The frogs can be hard to spot because of their small size: just 18–25 millimeters, or less than half as big as a man’s thumb. They live in the forests of the islands and mainland but don’t mind disturbed areas and are easiest to spot in dry leaf litter or near the forest edge. The males have a surprisingly loud call.
Though its skin produces toxins for defense, Oophaga pumilio doesn’t pose a threat to humans, particularly those who don’t eat one. It’s nowhere near as potent as the golden poison-dart frog of Colombia, the aptly named Phyllobates terribilis. The skin of a single specimen of these is said to have enough toxin to kill 20,000 mice or a gruesome number of humans. Indigenous hunters of the Colombian rainforest traditionally tipped their blowgun darts with the deadly stuff.
Compared to these formidable creatures, Oophaga pumilio is positively cuddly. But their own poison, or pumiliotoxin, is still potent. A group of visiting researchers discovered in 2004 how they get it: from munching a type of small ant.
Waving Goodbye to the Golden Frog?
Panama’s famous golden frog (Atelopus zeteki) is native to El Valle. Seeing these frogs is supposed to bring good luck, and they have a special place in the heart of Panamanians. They’re practically a national symbol, and golden frog huacas (ceremonial figurines buried with the dead) are common in pre-Columbian graves.
It’s hard to believe something this color can exist in nature. Sadly, it may not.
Golden frogs were endangered even before the chytrid fungus, which is devastating amphibian populations throughout Central America, came to El Valle in 2006. The fungus coats the skins of frogs, suffocating them.
In 2007, David Attenborough’s BBC series Life in Cold Blood came to El Valle to film them and their “semaphoring” behavior — they are believed to communicate by waving one arm.
At the end of the shoot, scientists collected the wild specimens for their own protection; Attenborough declared that this would be the last time the frogs would be filmed in nature, as they are believed to be extinct in the wild. Let’s hope not.
For now, they’re being kept alive in zoos and rescue projects. This includes the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, El Valle’s little El Níspero zoo. Hopefully one day they can be returned to the wild to thrive again.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition