The Last Rabb’s Tree Frog Dies

Rabb's Tree Frog

A captive Ecnomiohyla rabborum, now extinct, at the Henry Vilas Zoo in 2006.

The last Rabb’s tree frog died recently at Zoo Atlanta. It was the last of its species.

Known only from forest around El Valle, Panama, the frog lived high in the canopy and bred in tree holes. In 2005, with the infectious chytrid fungus looming and nearby forest being cleared for development, the zoo and aquarium community stepped in to collect what amphibians they could from the area before it was too late.

This included Rabb’s tree frog (Ecnomiohyla rabborum). It was last observed in the wild in 2007 and is now presumed extinct.

The diversity of life on Earth is vanishing at a rate faster than at any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs more than 60 million years ago. Amphibians are at the forefront of this extinction crisis, with zoological institutions working to ensure their survival when a species disappearance is otherwise eminent.

But, these rescue programs do not always work. Captive breeding is limited and more of a last ditch effort than a real save-all solution.

Rabb’s tree frog was challenging to keep in captivity. Within five years, all that remained were two males at Zoo Atlanta. With no hope for breeding, Rabb’s tree frog became an icon of the amphibian extinction crisis and the ex situ conservation action needed to slow it down. With the death of “Toughie” a few weeks ago, the species is now extinct.

This is a good time to reflect on what can be done in face of extinction. Captive breeding and zoo action, though part of a solution, is clearly not enough. But a feeling of futility and a hopelessness will do no good either.

I don’t have an easy answer, a silver bullet that will save other species from going extinct, but part of the solution can be found in our own behavior. As individuals we must be mindful of what we use and where it comes from, especially as amphibian and reptile enthusiasts. This extends to everyday life outside of our hobby and pets—how we travel, what foods we eat, what products we use and purchase.

We can also work to influence policies that will help protect amphibians. Though there was some pushback from U.S. hobbyists against the newt and salamander trade ban earlier this year, clearly halting international trade in caudates is a good thing for native newts and salamanders given the emergence of BSal and its lack of detection so far here in the U.S.

To avoid the risk of sounding preachy, I’ll stop writing here and instead leave you with a few pictures I took of Rabb’s tree frog at the Henry Vilas Zoo in 2005 and 2006. At the time they were known as Hyla fimbrimembra, a really incredible frog, and an iconic species in face of current amphibian extinctions.

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