A Picture of Success


Adult Male Hypsiboas picturatus © Matthew O’Donnell

One of our latest additions to the collection here in the Vivarium at Manchester Museum is a fascinating species of tree frog from South America, Hypsiboas picturatus. Commonly known as the Pictured or Imbabura tree frog, it occurs in the humid tropical rainforest of the pacific lowlands of Columbia and Ecuador.

Very little is known about this species, including its breeding habits, which brings the excitement of a new challenge. Over the last few months we have been conditioning our adult group in order to attempt to breed them, as preparation is key to all of our breeding successes.


Rainforest stream setup at Manchester Museum  © Matthew O’Donnell

Once we were happy that the frogs were in excellent shape we introduced them to our large stream vivarium which we had adjusted especially for them. In this setup we were able to replicate the conditions of a steamy rainforest in northern Ecuador, in the midst of the rainy season (the time when a lot of frogs breed).


One of our adult female Hypsiboas picturatus exhibiting stunning pattern and colours © Matthew O’Donnell

After a few fine adjustments and a few anxious days we finally got some spawn! The tadpoles have now hatched and are growing well on a broad diet of algae and insect protein. We will be monitoring their development closely and will hope to publish our findings to further develop current scientific knowledge of this stunning species.


Hypsiboas picturatus tadpole at the Vivarium, Manchester Museum © Matthew O’Donnell

Ecuador – Raising the rarest         Patience is a virtue           Matt’s Page



Hornbeam Tree, Brockholes (c) Andrew Gray

I recently visited Brockholes, a local Nature Reserve run by the Lancashire. Manchester, and Merseyside Wildlife Trusts. It’s a place I have been meaning to visit for quite some time and was very pleasantly surprised by what I found – it really was a great place, a proper wildlife haven and excellent environmental education centre that really impressed me.

Brockholes has been established for 10 years, and during that time has developed into a very special place. There is so much to see there, whether you are a wildlife novice or a birding expert. Recent months have had exciting new bird sightings, including a Pallid Harrier and an Osprey.

Water Lily in full bloom at Brockholes (c) Andrew Gray

The really wide variety of habitats, including lakes, streams, mature woodland, and of course the River Ribble, which also flows through Brockholes, makes for some great wildlife watching – otters are also regularly seen on this stretch of the Ribble too!

The ever expanding amount of wildlife that calls Brockholes home evolves throughout the various seasons, and at the moment the reserve is full of colour, with the many wildflowers that attract different types of dragonfly and butterflies, such as the Gatekeeper and Common Blue.

Toad on his toadstool at Brockholes (c) Andrew Gray

I saw lots of Peacock butterflies during my visit, one of my favourites, as well as coming across 3 species of amphibian within the first half an hour.

You wouldn’t think for a minute Brockholes is just next to a major motorway junction (where the M6 and M61 meet), but that just makes it even more accessible. For anyone wanting to experience wildlife in the heart of Lancashire I highly recommend a visit, its packed with things to see and do for literally everyone!



The Inside Story

Frogs represent 88% of living amphibians and have a skeletal shape unique among land-dwelling vertebrates. Although frogs seem to be specially adapted to jumping, they actually engage in a wide range of locomotion styles – walking and running, climbing, swimming, and burrowing, in addition to jumping and hopping.

Laura Porro, a post doc researcher at the Royal Veterinary College, part of the University of London, is an evolutionary biomechanist and palaeontologist investigating the link between form and function in living and extinct vertebrates. She studies the evolution of feeding and locomotion in a wide range of taxa – primarily fossil and living amphibians and reptiles, and early tetrapods – through medical imaging and 3D visualisation, biomechanical modelling and experiments.

First Laura uses micro CT (computed tomography) scanning at the University of Cambridge to capture skeletal shape. CT scans produce a series of digital slices of the specimen – essentially, a 3D X-ray. She uses specialised imaging software to digitally separate the skeleton from the surrounding tissues, producing 3D skeletal models.

CT scan showing skeleton of the Lemur Leaf Frog, Agalychnis lemur

On its own, CT scanning is a great tool to capture skeletal shape – however, the X-rays have a difficult time distinguishing different soft tissues from one another. Newly-developed staining methods now permit Laura to visualise and separate soft tissue masses – individual muscles, nerves and organs – allowing her to see all of the internal structures in place without any destructive dissections. Combined with 3D PDF technology, these digital dissections – including those of rare taxa – can be shared with students and researchers around the world.

Working with some of the rare frogs from Manchester Museum’s herpetology collection has provided Laura and her research group with access to some of the rarest and most unusual amphibians, such as the the bizarre Crowned Tree Frog, Anotheca spinosa.

Screenshot of 3D fully moveable model produced from a specimen of the Crowned Tree Frog Anotheca spinosa.

Anatomical information gained from staining and scanning these specimens will form the basis of unique biomechanical models used to simulate walking and jumping in these animals for Laura’s project. Our team will also receive highly detailed digital dissections of some of the rarest frog taxa in the world, all providing an extremely valuable resource for both teaching and new cutting edge research.

Digital dissection of the model organism Xenopus laevis

Combat behaviour in Male Anotheca spinosa

Follow Laura on Twitter


Project Report

Project Lemur frog has been an international collaboration between committed individuals and institutions aimed at conserving Critically Endangered Costa Rican Lemur leaf frogs. This model project has used a holistic approach to amphibian conservation, including ex-situ conservation in the form of a professionally managed captive assurance colony, a cutting edge conservation research aspect, and a myriad of highly effective public engagement activities. I am pleased to highlight these in the closing report and would like to take this this opportunity to thank all participants and all who have kindly supported this highly successful amphibian conservation project.

Project Lemur Frog Final Report

What keeps you awake?

Zoos Victoria

Raising the Rarest

Jambato harlequin frog, Atelopus ignescens (C) Luis Coloma

Some of the rarest high altitude-living amphibians are on the very brink of extinction. In fact, some were thought to have already become extinct, but in recent years have miraculously been rediscovered. These rarest species pose conservationist with the greatest challenge and applied dedication in supporting their survival. Any success with their endeavours offer great reward.

High altitude toads are amongst the most severely threatening amphibians on the planet. These include members of the Genus, Atelopus – Harlequin frogs. The Jambato harlequin frog (Atelopus ignescens), which was once widespread in Ecuador, is a very good example.

As with many other highland species, it suddenly disappeared, with a combination of climate change and the fungal disease chytridiomycosis considered the culprit for its extinction. Never to be seen again………….until last year that is!

Amplectant pair of A. ignescens in the lab (c) Luis Coloma

My committed amphibian conservation colleague, Luis Coloma, was the perfect person to take on the task of getting individuals from the wild to reproduce in the lab, in a critical effort to save the species for the future. Luis, had been busy perfecting the breeding of other rare harlequin toads in his lab, with great success.                                                           Even after species such as the famous Golden Toad of Costa Rica became extinct in just one year, after previously being numerous and no one collecting any specimens to ensure their continued survival, some people are still reluctant in acknowledging that captive breeding offers the only real ‘safety net’ for wild populations threatened with imminent extinction. Luckily, captive breeding is now recognised by most people as being an important tool against extinction, and maybe the last resort for some species. For many many months Luis has tried to get A. ignescens to breed in his lab, and also in outdoor enclosures replicating their natural environment.

Developing embryos of A. ignescens (c) Luis Coloma

Well, finally he and his team have succeeded!  A pair laid eggs, the eggs hatched, the tadpoles are doing well, and all are feeding properly until now… The next big step, and tremendous challenge, will be raising the tiny metamorphs that emerge.  We in Manchester share his challenge with some of the rare species we are committed to supporting the conservation of.

Working together, sharing our experiences, and fine tuning the high level of detail of such work is crucial for this exacting area of amphibian conservation. We wish Luis and his team well in their endevour, and honour their dedication to saving one of the world’s most endangered species.

Read more about this story in New Scientist

Centro Jambatu

Organically Caribbean

One of the great places we visit with our students on the Costa Rican Field course is Finca la Isla Botanical Farm in Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast. Its a really wonderful place and the farm has an amazing botanical garden consisting of 10 acres, housing many important tropical fruit and ornamental trees: Their stunning collection contains of over 150 different species of fruit, nut and spice trees, plus diverse collections of tropical palms, heliconias, bromeliads and rare tropical species.

Walking through the forest and enjoying the abundance of bird, animal and insect life you would never know you were walking through a farm. The pure environment and natural farming means that this is one of the best places in Costa Rica to see poison dart frogs, and Kiawe, our host and guide, is so knowledgeable about every aspect and is a wonderful communicator. The farm itself celebrates 30 years of farming organically on the Caribbean coast and is a model of sustainable, commercial, organic farming working in harmony with the rainforest. The students were overwhelmed by their experience here, learning in detail about all the species of plants and associated animals, having new fruits to try, and finding out how probably the best organic chocolate in the world is produced here!


The Chocolate Plant

Finca la Isla