Researcher: New Panama lab a boost to conservation efforts

Jorge Guerrel, a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Tropical Institute, works on the frogs in one of the research pod shipping containers.  Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian

Jorge Guerrel, a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Tropical Institute, works on the frogs in one of the research pod shipping containers. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian

A new research lab in Panama will give researchers of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation  Project an extra leg up in its conservation efforts.

Project Leader Brian Gratwicke, a researcher based at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, expressed excitement over the facility’s opening.

“Everything we’ve been working on in the last five years has been completed and we can close this chapter of the book and open a next exciting chapter,” Gratwicke said.

During the last five years, Gratwicke and researchers in the Panama project have been in the middle of an “emergency response” to save amphibians from the deadly chytridriomycosis [chytrid] fungus.

Gratwicke and many researchers in this area have noted that the chytrid fungus has caused the extinction of numerous frog species worldwide, and is a threat to many more.

“Now that we have the facilities to save the frogs, we can start really ramping up our research significantly,” Gratwicke added.

The newly opened lab, which is called the Gamboa Amphibian and Research Conservation Center, will give researchers the capacity to house 10 frog species.

Gratwicke noted that the lab will be “dedicated entirely to research projects” that will include “husbandry, finding a cure for the [chytrid] disease and developing vaccines.”

The new labs were basically retrofitted for the project’s needs from seven shipping containers donated from the global shipping company Maersk Line.

“Everyone expects you to do more with less, especially when you’re doing amphibian projects,” Gratwicke said.

Gratwicke explained that, prior to the new labs, researchers had been working on breeding captive populations in the confines of one shipping container.

“Operating a whole facility out of  a shipping container is just a little bit like camping,” Gratwicke added.

The completed Gamboa project has provided six additional containers as well as a new building featuring modern amenities such as toilets, telephones and Internet connection.

“So you wanna keep frogs in a shipping container? It’s not like it’s a flowing stream with birds singing in it,” Gratwicke explained.

In order to adjust the containers for their needs, Gratwicke said they installed air conditioners as well as water filtration units to filter chlorine and potential chytrid contamination.

Gratwicke added, “We then have biosecurity mechanisms at the door, where we have to remove our shoes and use alcohol gel on our hands.”

Since they are made out of steel, Gratwicke noted, “Things aren’t supposed to get in and out those shipping containers.

“We can really have very high control over what comes in and what goes out … in a way that you couldn’t using a regular kind of building.”

With this level of control, Gratwicke and the research staff can essentially carefully tailor the environment within each container.

For example, Gratwicke explained that they “like to maintain the temperature in these pods at” about 75 degrees Fahrenheit, given that a lot of the species they house come from cooler mountainous habitats.

They can also manage the individual habitats within each pod to fit the needs of a specific frog species.

“We set up racks and racks of tanks, and each tank has its own automated misting system, its own UV lighting system and false bottoms,” that Gratwicke said, allows waste to “flush out of the system.”

In addition, the facility comes complete with an office building that will allow researchers to closely document the amphibians’ genetic records.

“When you are keeping these amphibians for multiple generations … you need to really keep track of who’s who,” Gratwicke said. “You have to know who each parent is and how closely related all the individuals are.”

Since the species housed at the Gamboa facility are all from Panama, Gratwicke said that it makes the genetic management easier “because we [have] all of these animals in one place.”

“There will probably come a time where we have too many animals,” He said. “We will need to bring other facilities into this network, if we can.”

The ultimate goal, of course, is to release the captive frog populations back into the wild. The immediate goal is to create stable captive populations, Gratwicke said.

With a capacity to house 10 species of Panamanian frogs, Gratwicke said the “realistic” goal for the lab is to be successful with “about 70 percent” of those species.

In having this new facility at their disposal, Gratwicke said, “We don’t have any excuses for not figuring this stuff out.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or

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