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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

We Discover Gold!

The children anxiously assemble outside, waiting for the reveler to begin. All eyes rise as the colors of their national flag makes its bold ascent across the darkening sky. We close the trunk of our rented vehicle and quickly don our gear. What began in Panama City has terminated here, near the Continental Divide, where we could drive no further. We have come in search of a ‘tiny’ little gem called the Snowcap – one of the smallest birds in the world. The trumpet is silenced, whistles blow, and a miniature stampede of tiny feet ensues toward sanctifying quarters. Soon it begins to rain.

The drops are large and hurried. Quickly the grooves cut deeper into the weathered road, channeling the water into miniature streams. A heavy fog drops suddenly allowing us to see only a few meters ahead. Our ponchos snap in protest under the gale force winds. If I raise my arms out to my sides, I feel I would become airborne! My partner rhetorically questions our efforts, “Should we continue on?” He knows all too well that some of our most memorable trips were under such conditions. We reach the sight of an abandoned sawmill, atop this magnificent ridge, the Central Cordillera, that runs through the entire length of the country. The fog slowly disperses as the lush montane forest beckons for our presence below.

Under the canopy, in a shroud of mist, tiny invertebrates initiate the chorus and are joined by frogs and an occasional avian songster. I am amazed at the activity encountered alongside the many streams crisscrossing the trail. Dendrobatid frogs seem to magically

appear from beneath the leaf litter. I soon discover one of these “nurse” frogs, Colostethus panamensis, heading for the nearest body of water. Amazingly, it transports its wriggling brood atop its back. It will submerge itself upon the discovery of an acceptable pool of water. Here, the tadpoles release their grip and let destiny determine their outcome.

Just off the trail, a flash of color. Slowly we approach, not knowing what to make of this sight before us.

“It is beautiful!” comments my colleague. Its basic color is an intense orange with several large black spots following the contour of its legs. On its backside it carries a large black “ink spot” with a curious teardrop mark slung across its shoulder. I move closer. “It is, isn’t it?”

As it crawls across the path with slow and deliberate movements, it takes on a more animated quality – surly this creature cannot be alive! We had not discovered our Snowcap, but another living jewel called the *Panamanian Golden Toad {Atelopus zeteki}.

This rare and endangered neotropical toad genus is listed under the family Bufonidae. They are diurnal, stream-breeding toads generally found at higher elevations. However, individuals can be found in the lower valleys within their range which cover northern and northwestern South America on up to south Central America. What makes this genus Atelopus so intriguing is its allopatric distribution within these wet tropical ecosystems.

Anurans [frogs, toads, and tree frogs] from around the world have recently been studied for their changing patterns in population behavior because of external, manmade impacts on their environments. These obscure, little global indicators are sensitive to various atmospheric contaminants that create acid rain and deplete the ozone layer, as well as pollution from a variety of biocides, and deforestation that contributes to silting and erosion not to mention its effects on global warming. However, an even worse assault has come in the form of the **chytrid fungus; the skin starts to slough off so gas exchange and movement of fluids is compromised which usually results in death.

A rather disheartening example is the disappearance of the ***Golden Toad {Bufo periglenes}, an explosive breeder, found only within the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica. As recent as 1987, over a thousand individuals could be found scattered at temporary condensation pools. Today the species is presumed extinct! This may have been a natural catastrophe [shifts in El Nino?] that aided the onslaught of atmospheric contaminants. Whatever the causes, time is of the essence. Unfortunately, this has not been favoring the challenges that confront researchers as they collect the necessary data for understanding amphibian population behavior.

Case in point, ‘categorizing’ Atelopus taxonomically and phylogenetically is difficult due to the lack of sufficient data. Some schools of thought believe that the difference in larval morphology is a sufficient characteristic to determine a species. A. zeteki, formerly considered A. varius zeteki, was given full species status based on its skin toxins and vocalization differences. However, bioacoustic comparisons within the genus Atelopus are not as reliable as it is for other anurans. So, I see this quandary between observation and research but, time is running out! Let us use what data we have on this species to assist in understanding A. zeteki behavior and how best to give it a fighting chance for its survival, now - before it becomes but an apparition!

Under the incessant dripping of moisture, we delight with this chance encounter of such an exquisite little creature. Slowly it ambles on and soon becomes engulfed under the sanctifying clutter of leaves. Such an unexpected encounter with this living jewel has left us in awe. We continue along the rain-sodden trail with renewed vigor. It is difficult to express the feelings of unrestrained euphoria while under the canopy of a pristine cloud forest - a place where the outside world ceases to exist and one becomes enthralled in the moment, embracing a sense of security, one of serenity. Let us help to preserve these sanctuaries so that creatures like Atelopus zeteki can persevere.

Note: Sadly, Atelopus zeteki has not been seen in the wild since 2008. Fortunately, captive breeding programs were undertaken prior to the extinction of naturally occurring animals.

Location: El Cope’ (Central Cordillera) region, Panama

Date: April 1994

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