In Panama, Griffith is the local face of the sprawling international emergency rescue effort, which has involved 26 research institutions, two El Valle hotel rooms to house the frogs for the better part of a year, the dizzyingly complex process of building a high-tech conservation and exhibition center in a low-tech Central America village, and the even more daunting prospect of re-creating the delicate natural balance of conditions for many species that have never before been studied, let alone held in captivity.
EVACC is considered the world model for rapid response when [the fungus] hits an area with many endemics, [species that occur nowhere else], says Kevin Murphy, animal curator at the Buffalo Zoo, one of the many institutions that have helped with the emergency collection of the frogs around El Valle.
It may be difficult to understand why so many are willing to do back flips to save a frog. After all, many of us can go months and months without seeing or even hearing one. But if you put all the amphibians in North America -- frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, and the like -- on one side of a balance scale, they would weigh more than all the mammals and birds on the continent. Thats a lot of biomass.
Ever mindful that people get more motivated when their personal interests are at stake, the United Nations Environment Programme released a report in 2008 saying that with the frogs dying, we could be losing a whole new generation of antibiotics and other drugs. Frogs produce peptides on their skin that have potent antibiotic power, and some believe the South American leaping frog could yield a germ- fighting pharmacopoeia. Panamanian poison frog secretions might strengthen contractions of the heart muscle, Ecuadorian frogs could yield new painkillers, and the Australian frog produces a natural adhesive that might repair cartilage and tissue tears, says the report.
People dont think about frogs, but theyre everywhere, and theyre a keystone species, Griffith explains as we rumble back toward El Valle over a newly cut road of red volcanic soil. The tadpoles scrape algae off the rocks, cleaning the water. Adult frogs eat mosquitoes and insects that damage crops. And then, they provide food for other animals: snakes, spiders, kinkajous, monkeys. Take the frogs out, he seems to be saying, and the whole thing comes unraveled, like a sweater with a loose yarn.