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Jewels of the Rainforest
Photo Credit: Yuri Huta © Finding Species
by Sarah Gannon-Nagle
In late spring of 2008, a small contingent of biologists and policy makers from Washington, D.C., including three representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), made its way to the rainforests of Costa Rica, intent on visiting some of the country’s smallest but most potent residents. They were in pursuit of a frog, but not any ordinary species – the search was for brilliantly colored poison dart frogs, named for the toxins they secrete through their skin. Known as the jewels of the rainforest, what these tiny frogs lack in stature (most are about the size of a quarter), they more than make up for in color.
Poison dart frogs, members of the family Dendrobatidae, have long been used by humans. The indigenous peoples of Latin America learned centuries ago that rolling a dart or arrow tip over a live frog’s skin creates a coating of toxins that can paralyze any animal, making it easier to hunt. While scientists still seek answers to questions about the biochemistry of poison dart frogs, apparently the frogs accumulate toxins based on their diet of termites, ants, and other invertebrates. Chemicals contained in the microfauna eaten by the frogs are excreted through their vibrant skins.
Recently, toxins isolated from poison dart frog skin samples have been found to have valuable medicinal uses. Toxins produced by the phantasmal poison dart frog (Epipedobates tricolor), a species native to Ecuador, enabled researchers to develop a synthetic compound that shows promise as a pain killer more effective than morphine, but non-addictive. In another example, the skin of the strawberry poison dart frog (Oophaga pumilio) contains compounds that have been reproduced in the laboratory for use as a cardiac stimulant. It is one of seven poison dart frog species that can be found in the tropical forests of Costa Rica.
Poison dart frogs and other amphibians have declined in numbers and range because of habitat loss, climate change, pollution, and disease. Forest habitat in Costa Rica was disappearing at an alarming rate until the 1970s, when a growing environmental awareness led the country to establish a network of conservation lands. Today, approximately 25 percent of Costa Rica lies within a world-renowned system of protected that contains more than 30 national parks and wildlife refuges. The rich habitats now conserved include nesting beaches for leatherback sea turtles, high-elevation havens for birds such as the resplendent quetzal, corridors for migratory species like the jaguar and Baird’s tapir, and sanctuaries for reptiles and amphibians, including green iguanas and poison dart frogs.
It is partly for this reason that the FWS delegation from the Wildlife Without Borders - Latin America and Caribbean (WWB-LAC) regional programs visited Costa Rica: the hope for a glimpse of Latin America’s incredible biodiversity, including an opportunity to see poison dart frogs. But the delegation also had a broader conservation mission: to help Washington policy makers better understand Latin America’s biodiversity and the region’s successful strategies for protecting it.
In 2001, we began taking up to 15 U.S. policy makers to Costa Rica each year for a week-long, intensive course focused on tropical ecology and conservation policy. It has come to be known as the "U.S. Decision Makers Course," and has historically been jointly facilitated by the FWS and various conservation partner organizations including the Organization for Tropical Studies and the International Conservation Caucus Foundation. The course allows decision makers to experience first-hand the conservation impacts of the policies they create. In addition, it is designed to expand their appreciation for the importance of capacity building among natural resource managers throughout the Latin America and Caribbean region.
The course itself becomes a migration of sorts as participants travel among protected areas throughout Costa Rica. Along the way, they acquire knowledge about the goods and services provided by various tropical ecosystems. For example, last year’s participants toured the mangrove estuary at the mouth of the Terraba River in southern Costa Rica. Local scientists and guides pointed out the different mangrove species, illustrating how they buffer communities against intense storms while the underwater roots serve as a nursery for fish that are important to the regional economy. Guest lectures by leading conservationists in the region explain some of Costa Rica’s greatest conservation successes: its national climate change strategy, its innovative approach to managing wildlife refuges as public-private partnerships with local landowners, voluntary conservation incentive programs that dramatically increase forest cover, and the implications of U.S. trade policies in tropical countries.
Photo Credit: Kristina Alexander
The course is one of several projects aimed at capacity building and knowledge exchange as part of WWB-LAC. While there are other projects that the program supports, it is unique in that it is the only ongoing WWB-LAC initiative that focuses on a U.S.-based audience. To learn more about the program, visit the FWS Division of International Conservation’s website at http://www.fws.gov/international/DIC/dic_home.html. For more information about the course, e-mail WWB_LAC@fws.gov.
Sarah Gannon-Nagle, the outreach coordinator for the Branch of Latin America and the Caribbean, FWS Division of International Conservation, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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