The Last Ones?

Panamanian golden frog

If you sat next to me on the plane traveling home from Panama this past February, you probably thought that my tote bag was full of souvenirs from a grand, tropical vacation. Instead, I was carrying the carefully preserved and packaged bodies of endangered frogs from captive survival-assurance populations. This was a trip that required months of careful planning and lots of red tape in obtaining and using the complicated permits needed to transport wildlife samples. Far from being morbid, icky, or gross, these specimens were extremely valuable for scientific efforts to save amphibian species from extinction. So why would anyone willingly travel with dead frogs?

Does Allan's yellow tote bag hold hope for amphibian species?

To explain, I should tell you that I’m a veterinarian who specializes in pathology. Therefore, my day-to-day responsibilities are focused on using laboratory techniques, including necropsies (animal autopsies), to accurately diagnose disease in animals at the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park as well as our field conservation programs. Through these activities, our Wildlife Disease Laboratories have a mission to remove disease as a roadblock to wildlife conservation. By bringing these deceased frogs to our laboratory and sleuthing out their parasites and disease problems, we hope to make useful recommendations that can help improve things like animal diets or aid veterinarians in selecting the very best treatments. Ultimately, this helps to ensure that the captive populations can be sustained and thrive until they can someday return to the wild.

Promoting the success of amphibian survival assurance populations is no trivial matter: more than one-third of the world’s approximately 6,000 amphibian species are in decline because of introduced disease, loss of habitat, environmental change, and human exploitation. Although sometimes I get wrapped up in dry scientific and technical details, this group of frogs from Panama now in my bag really reminded me of why I do what I do.

Allan holds some of the carefully preserved frog specimens for study.

Among these specimens were species like the Panamanian golden frog, which soon may survive only in captive survival assurance populations, and the fringe-limbed tree frog, for which only a single individual is still known to exist. It is difficult to describe the feeling of holding what may be the last individuals of an entire species in your hand, but I can tell you that it hit hard for me, and I know that it is worse for friends and colleagues on the front lines of the amphibian decline who don’t have the luxury of retreating into the laboratory.

I am privileged to work for a unique organization that recognizes the importance of what might seem like an unusual scholarly activity. Collaborating with colleagues nationally and internationally really makes amphibian conservation happen! I also have the support of an amazing team in the Wildlife Disease Laboratories who will move mountains if they think it will help animals in need.

If you’d like to know more about the amphibian extinction crisis and what you can do to help, please visit the Amphibian Ark® online at Some of the most important actions for saving amphibian species, like protecting the environment and raising awareness of the plight of animals, can happen from within our homes.

Allan Pessier, D.V.M., is a senior scientist for the Wildlife Disease Laboratories, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

2 Responses to The Last Ones?

  1. How interesting! Thank you for all your hard work to help save amphibians around the world. Try to get into First Class next time. 😎

  2. Thank You so much, The San Diego Zoo and all of it’s conservation work is so heartening and impressive. I am auditioning to become a lecturer for the Docent program at the Los Angeles Zoo. My Topic is Salamanders, We have just opened a new exhibit at the zoo “The LAIR” I am assuming that our Zoo and your Zoo cooperate with many conservation programs. If this is not the case for amphibians I will get on it at some point. We have the Axelodl and the Giant Chinese Salamander at the Zoo both critically endangered in the wild. Thank you again for all you do and for helping me feel hope in a world that often seems silent when it comes to the needs of our beautiful flora and fauna..