So, how did we get here? No one is absolutely sure, but the biological unraveling may have started with something as simple as a pregnancy test. In the 1930s, a frog was used to determine whether there would be an impending arrival of a bundle of joy. It turned out that the South African frog Xenopus laevis worked best for the test, so the frogs were exported all over the world. When more high-tech methods of determining pregnancy came along, many of the frogs were released or used for immunology and embryology research.

The problem, though, according to a 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is that the X. laevis carries a fungus with the tongue-twisting name Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, known now by researchers simply as chytrid or Bd. The fungus, which is spread through streams and through mist, covers an amphibian’s entire skin surface, essentially sealing it off. Since amphibians exchange water and oxygen through their skin, this is lethal -- causing them to suffocate and dehydrate. X. laevis is resistant to the deadly fungus, but when the frogs were exported all over the world, chytrid was exported right along with them.

Griffith’s
original career plan didn’t have anything to do with saving frogs -- in fact, early in his studies, he didn’t really know much at all about frogs. A mere 10 years ago, he was quietly living in Panama City, studying microbiology and parasitology. Then, a friend asked him to come along on an amphibian night survey in the cloud forests near Santa Fe, Panama, a coffee town about four hours west of El Valle. That night, he saw hundreds and hundreds of frogs, dozens of species. It blew him away. “There were so many frogs, so many species -- they amazed me,” he says, remembering.

Griffith returned to school, changed his major to zoology, and set about becoming an expert on frogs. He would often spend weeks hiking in the cloud forests around El Valle, doing amphibian censuses. “I used to work until two or three in the morning, following the frogs around, watching them just being frogs. After about 10 or 15 minutes, they’d get used to me and just go about their business as if I weren’t there. I never felt alone or afraid in the forest as long as the frogs were there.”

Griffith slowly became known as something of a frog whisperer. In 2000, he began helping out with Project Golden Frog, an effort that began in 1999 and works to save the national symbol from extinction by establishing breeding populations in North America. After that, he joined forces with the Amphibian Recovery and Conservation Coalition, a coalition of zoos led by Zoo Atlanta that used the same approach to save other endangered Panamanian frogs. Griffith was also an associate research assistant with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s TADS (Tropical Amphibian Declines in Streams) project. It was February 2006 when Griffith, hiking along the Rio Maria, found a large group of dead frogs. He scooped up some bodies to send to the United States for testing, but he was pretty sure chytrid was the cause of death: Their skins were peeling, and their arms and legs were splayed, a sign of their last desperate attempts to expose more skin to the air. Then, he went home and cried.

“I felt so horrible, so sad,” he says. “I’m only 31 years old, and I’ve seen so many populations disappear.”