Atelopus zeteki - The Golden Frog

Rana Dorada


In March of 2008, I took a trip to Panama with three friends: two Dutch and one Swede. I had already traveled with my two Dutch friends to Costa Rica in 2006, but this was the first time my Swedish friend would see poison dart frogs in their natural habitat. 
The primary reason we travelled to Panama was to see the many color variations and morphs of Oophaga pumilio and Dendrobates auratus in the wild. We also wanted to observe various types of birds, such as the well-known but secretive Quetzal. We were also hoping to find the purportedly extinct species Atelopus zeteki 

In 2006, after a BBC crew finished filming this species in the wild, biologists from the Smithsonian Institute (as well as other institutions) collected the few surviving animals they could find in the area in order to maintain them in captivity. A number of zoos (including institutions in Panama and the United States) placed them into captive breeding programs, many of which have succeeded.  Since this extraction, from what I’ve been told by several sources, biologists from the Smithsonian Institute have unsuccessfully attempted to locate more.  Because of this, Atelopus zeteki was declared extinct in the wild in 2007. I was also informed that the last living animals in the area were most likely a few toads held at Hotel Campestre in El Valle de Antón, Panama, where they are kept in an outdoor vivarium beneath the roof next to the reception office. 

We began planning our search for A. zeteki after arriving in Bocas del Toro. We talked with people who knew where Atelopus could previously be found in the area between El Valle and Campaña, but were told that chytrid* had devastated amphibian populations in this area over the last few years. One of the people we met knew about a “secret” project for conserving A. zeteki in the wild. Our hope was that we could somehow get permission to visit this project and, if we couldn’t manage find it on our own, could do so with the help of local people. We had the name of a person who knew where you could still, at least the previous year, find Atelopus in the area. We hoped to find him and have him come with us. 

 * Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis  is a fungus infection that in the end causes the deadly chytridiomycosis. I will call this disease short for chytrid  in this article just to not complicate things.


Our Trip to El Valle
While in Cerro Punta, near Volcàn Barú in western Panama (also known as Volcàn de Chiriqui), we succeeded in reserving rooms at the Hotel Campestre via telephone.  This way we would at least have a chance to see A. zeteki alive, even if not in the wild. It was not easy to find vacant rooms on such short notice, and we where lucky to find any, especially since none one of us spoke Spanish.

The next day we left the highland forest of Barú and made our way to El Valle by way of David, Santiago and Penonome.  Although Cerro Punta had been comfortably chilly, the temperature in the lowlands was between 30-35°C (86-95°F).  We were glad that our car, a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, had air conditioning.   

Many of the areas we passed through seemed very dry, even desert-like, making it unbelievable that these wonderful toads can exist here.  However, it’s the many rivers and streams in the region that make it possible for them to survive.  Once we reached Antón, we turned off the main road and headed up toward El Valle.

After seven long hours of driving we arrived at El Valle. We were tired, even though the three of us had taken turns of driving.  We immediately checked into the Hotel Campestre and unloaded our bags, then left to find Mario at the Serpentario, a place where he kept terrariums with various kids of snake on display.  When we arrived, however, he was nowhere to be found.  We did manage to talk to his neighbour, a very drunk man (bottle in-hand) who we finally understood to be telling us that Mario could usually be found there around 7 a.m.

While driving back through El Valle, we stopped at a park you could visit for an entrance fee. We talked with one of the employees there who confirmed what we had heard in Bocas: there was, in fact, a conservation project for A. zeteki in the wild. We were also able to get the names of places that weren’t on our maps, including the name of the river and area where the project was located.  Although this seemed to be good information, we were disheartened that we couldn’t find someone who could give us more details about the area and project…or perhaps even take us to the project.


El Nispero
We decided to visit El Nispero, which is a local zoo that had vivaria containing A. zeteki. We were suspicious that these might be “new” animals that were on display (I don’t actually know if these Atelopus came from the different projects here and were provided by biologists, or if they were animals they had caught themselves.  We had previously heard about the A. zeteki at El Nispero, but were told they were very old animals and were no longer alive, so we were surprised to see these ones on display).

In addition to the beautiful pair of Atelopus, they also had many different birds such as owls, parrots, and peacocks (including albinos), as well as tapirs, monkeys, jaguars and many more. The unfortunate thing was that the animals were in small cages and didn’t appear healthy, even though the personnel probably did their best for the animals—I assume they just didn’t have the resources to provide better care and enclosures for the animals.

There was also a large concrete cage where the zoo had previously kept A. zeteki, but it was no longer in use. Perhaps this was because the risks of animals being infected by chytrid where a lot higher than in a regular glass vivarium? I assume it was most likely because it is easier to clean and treat the animals in a glass enclsoure if do happen to get infected.

Planning the Search
After observing the animals at El Nispero, we left to find a restaurant where we could eat dinner and discuss plans for the following day (the restaurant at the hotel wasn’t available to us because the hotel, except from the two rooms we were renting, had been reserved for a French school). The food we ate at the restaurant was delicious, although it probably would have been a lot better if we spoke Spanish and had ended up with the food we thought we were ordering.

We took out our maps and started planning where we might find some Atelopus, looking for distant places where people didn’t seem to live or perhaps hadn’t looked before. Along with our plans, we also need a little bit of luck, making sure we get started early enough before the temperature got to high: in some places in this region it can get above 30°C (86°F), even if the temperature in windy El Valle was only around 24°C (75°F). After a while we decided that this would be our reserve plan if we weren’t able to contact Mario and receive his help in finding the project we were looking for. 

We finished the meal with a banana split and, after a couple of tries, succeeded in getting four cups of black coffee, after which we made our way back to the hotel to shower and get a couple hours of sleep before it would be time to get up again.


No Help
We rose with the sun the next morning around 6 a.m., eating breakfast at the same restaurant we had eaten dinner the night before. We wanted to find Mario as soon as possible so we could find some Atelopus before it got too hot. So, after a very tasty omelette and freshly made pineapple juice, we went back to the Serpentario…only to find that no one was there. We waited around for a half-hour, just to see if someone might show up. The garden there was very nice and there was a small stream running through it.  Small green basilisks (Basalisca plumifrons) where running around—we even managed to see one run across the water when it got scared, which was very interesting to witness.

After the half-hour had passed we decided to give up waiting and attempt the seemingly hopeless mission to find the amphibians ourselves. We had  at least had some idea as to where to start looking, and even if we couldn’t find any Atelopus, we were convinced that it was going to be an interesting day and that we would no doubt find many other interesting animals.


A Search of Our Own
We took off in the car heading toward our previously decided location. When we got there (which took a while since it was quite some distance away) we couldn’t even find the river. We asked some kids in a village where it might be, and they asked which river we meant.  Evidently there were several rivers in the area, so we decided to visit whichever one was closest.   

The area was very dry and hot and the vegetation wasn’t what we where looking for, so we followed the river upstream to find more suitable Atelopus habitat.  We eventually found a more suitable spot upstream and stopped to watch some type of beautiful red bird.  At this location we found a tiny, dried-out streambed that lead into the main river channel. I only had one pair of dry shoes left, and even though I hate wearing rubber boots, I decided to put them on anyway. 

Even though it was the dry season and the water level in the river was low, the current was still flowing strong and fast.  The river was about 10-15 meters wide with stones and gravel along its edges. At some places the gravel almost looked like sand.  Large rocks and boulders were everywhere, both in and around the river. Along the shores were larger, older trees mixed with palms.

At this location was some type of grasshopper that called quite loudly, and when multiple grasshoppers started to call, it created an extremely high and noisy chainsaw-like sound. While my companions were walking downstream—they didn’t have rubber boots on and the shoreline was drier in that direction—I managed to find one of the grasshoppers.   As I stood there photographing it, changing lenses and moving slowly so as not scare it, my Swedish friend came back up to watch what I was doing.  Later on I discovered he thought I was photographing the beautiful Atelopus zeteki that was hopping around just in front of me (I had noticed that there was something moving around, but was so focused on taking pictures of the grasshopper, didn’t bother looking more closely at it).  

It was a big, beautiful female. She was mostly yellow with a few black spots along her back (it’s primarily the males that have the characteristic arrow-shaped markings on their backs.  They are also quite a bit smaller in size than the females).  It’s surprising how much they look like skin and bones, but this is exactly how they should look.  We didn’t expect them to be as fast as they ended up being: toads normally tend to crawl, but A. zeteki is very good at jumping. They weren’t at all afraid to dive straight into the cold, fast-flowing water of the river, even though you would think they wouldd try to avoid it so as not to be caught up and drowned by the swift curren. When they leap into the water, they go straight to the bottom like a dry, yellow leaf—it’s almost impossible to distinguish them with their yellow coloration and black markings.  Their coloration serves as both a perfect camouflage for avoiding discovery as well as a strong warning to predators of the toxins contained in their skin.  The temperature was surprisingly warm: around 33-35°C (91-95°F) by the river and 37°C (99°F) at the car.

I let my friends take their pictures first since I wanted to make sure I got good photographs, and for that I would need more space.  I decided to leave the group for a little while to see if I could find some more Atelopus, desperately hoping my friends wouldn’t lose the one we had found. I thought that it would be nice to see two males meet and “wave” at each other. Atelopus zeteki, as well as A. varius, has developed a sort of hand-waving signal as the noise of the streams they inhabit make it almost impossible for their vocal calls to be heard.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any more Atelopus, even though I was convinced there should have been more of them. If it had been raining or the temperature was little cooler there might very well have been, because it seemed like the perfect place with all the proper conditions for Atelopus.

I eventually went back and took my photos, and afterward let the beautiful A. zeteki crawl beneath some dry leaves. After this I crossed the river, which wasn’t easy, regardless of how low the water seemed. It was deeper and more slippery than I had thought it would be, but I managed to cross without getting soaking wet. Once on the other side, I found quite a few spiders sitting on the rocks in the sun. Some of them had a grey-marbled coloration, looking exactly like part of the rock.

We didn’t find any more Atelopus here, but I’m one-hundred percent positive that this was the perfect habitat and conditions for Atelopus zeteki and that there should had been more present. Many of them could have been hiding because it was so dry and hot.  Perhaps the one we found was one of the very last surviving A. zeteki in this location?  This was hard for us to believe: the dry surroundings had been something we had dealt with in previous dendrobatid trips, and during the dry season many frogs tend to seek cover or congregate around rivers and streams, which provides a much smaller area for you to search.  Our hope was that other Atelopus in this area were simply hiding under cooler cover.


No More Atelopus Found
We continued to make our way upstream where we found species of both Colostethus and Eleutherodactylus. There were many different animals in this area and plenty of beautiful insects: butterflies of all colours, grasshoppers, as well as different types of dragonflies.

After a couple more unsuccessful hours of searching, we decided to finally give up and head back to El Valle.

Male Atelopus zeteki live year-round near the rivers, while females inhabit the forest, only venturing to the rivers to find a mate and breed.  It’s most often the males that get infected by chytrid and they seem to be more sensitive to it than females. This is what worried us most when we found just one female, but the heat and extremely dry area made it very hard to know for sure. It could be that the female we found had been a juvenile in 2006-07 when all the other animals disappeared, and had returned to the river to mate.  I hope that I’m wrong, and that A. zeteki can still be found there.

Back to El Valle
When we got back to El Valle, we went to the market to buy some souvenirs before they closed for the day. I bought some souvenirs of rana dorada (“golden frog” in Spanish). We also talked with some Americans that had moved to the area and lived there throughout the year. We showed them some of our photos and they were very interested in us telling them where the exact location was we found the Atelopus, but we had already decided to keep quiet about it and talk only with the scientists that work in the area and with this project. After a very inexact and short description that they would never be able to decipher, they told us that sometime in the following weeks a film team from Animal Planet was going to attempt to find the “golden frog” again. I learned later that they did succeed, but I don’t know how many animals they found or the exact spot in which they found them—if it was the same spot, then I hope it remains a secret. I also heard that there were many articles written about this in the newspapers and that it was blown up big in the media. It’s devastating for the last Atelopus zeteki, but perhaps the authorities will open their eyes and try to better conserve this threatened species.

After a shower and change of clothes we still hadn’t had enough from A. zeteki, so we took the car and drove to the area where we thought the project we had heard about might be.  We had to ask about names that weren’t on our maps, and eventually we got a good idea as to where the project was.

To get there we had to drive up an extremely steep road. After an unsuccessful attempt to navigate the gravel road over the mountain we decided to give up, mostly because we were worried that we might damage the rental car, but also because we were content with what we had already seen and experienced that day.  The fact that we were all hungry also helped make the decision to head back into town.

More Atelopus Habitat
On our way back we stopped by one of the small streams which, at least in an area further downstream, is known to formerly be habitat for A. zeteki. We saw quite a few tadpoles in some of the protected areas of the stream and managed to catch some with a net, but it was difficult to see exactly what kind of a tadpole they were.  There were many houses here, and figuring that we were most likely on someone’s private property, we chose to go back to the car.  But right at that moment I saw some sort of leaf—or tree frog—leap into the grass.  Like a reflex, I swung my camera onto my back to and caught the frog.  I immediately regretted catching it: the frog’s skin was more or less falling off and some of its entrails were hanging out of its side. I had never seen anything like it. I was so shocked and disgusted by it that I just let go. I didn’t take any photos of the fro, but thinking back, regret that I hadn’t.

When we finally arrived at a restaurant in El Valle, I washed my hands before eating as I was still disgusted by the malformed frog. After enjoying a very nice meal we returned to our hotel, where I noticed on one of the walls a framed article with a photo of the same species of frog I had caught…and it was also loosing its skin. It looked almost as horrible as the one I had found. Unfortunately, the article was in Spanish and I could only understand small parts of it. (If someone reading this knows what this condition is, please contact me as I would appreciate knowing more about it.)

The End of the Road
Back at Hotel Campestre we had a few beers to celebrate our successful day. Around us was an entire school of French kids running around and playing, teasing and making a lot of noise, but it was fun. Our Panama trip had only a day and a half left, which meant we would drive to Panama City the next day, where we would stay the night before flying back home.  During that drive we ended up having time to find a couple more species of dendrobatids along the way, but that is a different story…


Due to the risk of adventuring any part in the science and conservation project that is active for Atelopus zeteki in the area around El Valle de Antón, I have chosen to omit some details regarding specific names of places and people. The scientists that work with Atelopus zeteki, both in situ and in the USA, have received our information and my photos—it will hopefully serve as a bit of help to keep the species alive in the wild.

The biologists I talked to said they had not seen any Atelopus zeteki in the area we visisted since the extraction project in 2007.

There have since been new reports about methods that could be used to treat or mitigate the effects of chytrid on amphibians in captivity, but as of yet there still remains no safe way to stop the fungus in the wild.  The only method currently seems to be catching wild amphibians and treating them in captivity, then releasing them back into the wild…but upon reintroduction, their chances of re-infection are extremely high.  There are new theories regarding limited areas being treated with certain types of bacteria that may inhibit the growth of chytridiomycosis, but we still have a long way to go before we have something that is both effective and safe to use in the wild.


Photos and article: Copyright @ Dennis Nilsson



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Thank you Ron Skylstad for helping me out with my english in some parts