EXPERTS at Chester Zoo claim silicone implants might help save one of the smallest and most spectacular frogs in the world.
Conservationists are trialling a technique to tag a population of 80 of the zoo’s golden mantella frogs with a tiny amount of fluorescent silicone gel under the skin on their legs.
They hope the implants will ultimately enable them to identify and track the progress of wild populations in their native Madagascar – which could help protect the species.
Dr Gerardo Garcia, Chester Zoo’s curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates, said: “The technique of injecting a small coloured implant under the skin has never been attempted on these tiny golden mantella frogs before. However, if it works successfully here, then we’ll be replicating this in the wild in Madagascar.
“In the short-term we hope these tags will be allow us identify each of the groups of frogs we have at the zoo – something that’s currently very, very difficult given they are all about the size of a thumbnail and all look the same.
“We need to be able to do [this] so we can easily tell who’s who for our own conservation-breeding purposes. Then, once we’ve assessed how effective the tagging method is on the zoo’s ambassador group and if it proves to be the success we think it will be, we’ll deploy this method in Madagascar with wild populations.
“We have already collaborated with organisations in Madagascar to help to set-up captive-breeding centres in Madagascar, which are now successfully breeding the species.
“If we can tag groups of frogs in this way before we release them, then we’ll be able to track where they go, how long they live and what their survival rate is.
“These frogs are highly threatened in their homeland and this process could play a very important part in their long-term survival.”
The 20mm frogs are classed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), meaning they face a very high risk of extinction in the wild.
A programme devised to protect golden mantellas and all amphibians in Madagascar was set up in 2006. The strategy aims to equip conservationists with the skills to establish safety-net populations of amphibians in captivity, out of the reach of a killer fungus that has devastated amphibian populations worldwide.
Madagascar is one of the few places in the world where the deadly chytrid fungus – a disease which thickens the frogs’ skin and prevents the movement of fluids, causing a chance of heart failure – does not currently exist. But experts fear it is only a matter of time before the fungus arrives there.
Dr Garcia said: “Amphibians already face lots of threats, most notably from the destruction of their habitat.
“However, the chytrid fungus could be the last nail in the coffin. It threatens most of the wild amphibian species around the globe with extinction. It’s probably the first time ever a disease has threatened to wipe out an entire class of animals.
“There’s a very real chance of a new epidemic here. That’s why it’s vitally important careful, professional ex-situ [captive] programmes are in place to buy us more time and give the species a lifeline until the threat of chytrid can be resolved.”
If the tags are a success, Dr Garcia will go to Madagascar to meet with Madagascar Voakaji – a local NGO – to train conservationists on how to inject them.