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

Highland highglights

The University of Manchester’s Field course is fully underway at the moment and we have a really good group of students, who are working very hard and enjoying each day and night here in Costa Rica. Currently we are based in Turrialba, high in the highlands, and staying at lodge that overlooks the Turrialba volcano. Its a wonderful place to work and the past few days we have mainly been investigating the insect, bird, and amphibian fauna of the area.

We have been up early birdwatching, insect collecting, and had nightwalks at the nearby Costa Rican Amphibian Research Centre (CRARC), all of which have bought some wonderful experiences and opportunities for studying highland and mid-elevation species in this highly biodiverse region of the world. Tomorrow we visit the Tropical Agricultural Research Center before heading to the Caribbean lowlands and on to further adventures..


Costa Rica 2016 – A Tropical Expedition

Budding Bioliterates

Currently I am in Central America supporting the University of Manchester’s undergraduate field course in Costa Rica, which offers many of our zoology and biology students their first taste of being in a tropical rainforest. Although many of our students will have had an interest in nature from a very early age, I am sure that over the next few weeks they will all experience some highly individual special moments within this wonderfully biodiverse environment we find ourselves in.

(c) Panama Wildlife Conservation Charity

As with all our environmental education related programmes, and particularly those developed with Manchester Museum, it is fully recognised that the only way to really make a difference in supporting the future conservation of the natural world is to stimulate young people’s interest in it as early and as often as possible. One of our new programmes being developed in Panama is a fine example, and thanks to the support of Professor Amanda Bamford and the Panama Wildlife Conservation Charity’s collaboration with us the conservation-related work in Central America now expands.

PWCC    Print Booklet (English)   Print Booklet (Espanol)   La Selva (OTS)

Elegant Italians

Italian Wall Lizard, P.s. campestris (c) Andrew Gray, 2017

Wall lizards have a very wide distribution across Europe, from northern Spain across France and from Italy to the southern Balkans. They can also be found on many Mediterranean islands and their colouration varies considerably between populations. The Italian Wall Lizard, Podarcis sicula campestris, here in Montalcino, Tuscany, where I’m on holiday, are vivid green and really stunning creatures. This specimen is the most beautiful one I came across today!

These medium-sized lizards are really quite elegant in the way they sit and agile in the way they move. The males’ bright colouration stands out clearly from any stony background, although the females’ brown colouration helps them stay extremely well camouflaged and difficult to spot. These lizards love the sun and dry habitats, so the vineyards and walls of the hilltop town here are perfect for them. This is also the middle of their breeding season, when males go their brightest green to attract females.

Italian Wall Lizard, P.s. campestris (c) Andrew Gray

I do remember seeing these on my last visit, but somehow I had forgotten just how stunning they can be. As in many areas, it seems that cats are the main predators for these lizards and I notice the size of this population has seriously declined since I was last here 12 years ago.  As such, I’ll certainly be keeping my fingers crossed that these beautiful lizards don’t disappear completely from this area in the future, and that hopefully they can even make a real comeback.

With you

At the moment I am on holiday in Italy, and horrified by the news of what has happened back in Manchester. To know of this inhuman cowardly act on innocent young people is absolutely gut wrenching and my heart goes out to all involved.

Today I hiked in the Italian Alps and although the scenery was breathtaking my thoughts were only with all those in Manchester. I think it will take quite some time for all to recover from this terrible act, but the people of Manchester are great people and will stand together to do what is necessary to support each other and not let terrorism win.

Tonight I cannot attend the vigil at Manchester Town Hall, stand with my fine colleagues, friends, and fellow Mancunians, or lay flowers on the steps, but I am there in spirit, and I dedicate these pictures of the alpine flowers I photographed today by way of me echoing my sincere condolences and heartfelt sympathy for all affected back home.


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JustGiving – We stand together Manchester                    Instagram

Answer’s in the eyes

Some amphibians, such as Harlequin toads, pictured right, have highly individual patterning. However, one major problem with surveying amphibians from a non-invasive point of view can be that some specimens lack clear individual markings, so its very difficult to tell them apart. However, quantifying population sizes based on the number of individual is key to understanding and conserving most wild populations. Amphibians are particularly sensitive to being tagged in any way, including the use of some methods that involve even the smallest microchips and elastomer dyes. Elastomer was initially developed to use with fish and is now also used with some amphibians.

We first trialed it over 12 years ago with the wild population of Lemur Frogs in Costa Rica and the method proved to be not at all conducive to the frogs or even a basic survey due the very nature of the frogs sensitivity and elastomer composition.12 years on we still have not been in a position to try and quantify this critically endangered frog’s population status…    That is until now.

During the past couple of months one of our zoology students, Charlotte McMurray, has been working in the vivarium to help develop a new method that could help solve the problem. She has been thoroughly testing some of the latest software that was originally developed for a high-tech security eye recognition program.

Charlie had previously worked on a project with Natterjack toads with an early version but it didn’t work out at all due to the warts and patterning highlights not being in tune with the software requirements. However, the finely spotted patterning found in Lemur frogs in particular was just like the speckling in an eye so the method has worked far beyond our expectations – just perfectly!

Project notes    Charlie McMurray

Proposals are now to be discussed regarding how we best monitor the population using this, but the work represents a huge step forward for our conservation related focus on the species. I would sincerely like to thank Charlie for all her work with us and her commitment to the project over the past months, she’s a star!