Senckenberg Research


Biodiversity, Ecology, and Zoogeography of the Herpetofauna inhabiting the Cordilleras of Western Panama

Institutions and organizations involved (apart from Senckenberg Research Institute):
Department of Ecology and Evolution, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University, Siesmayerstraße 70-72, 60323 Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí (UNACHI), Davíd, Chiriquí, Panama

Panama is situated within the geologically youngest part of Central America. Approximately twelve million years ago, several islands, driven by tectonic movements, entered the gap between South America and Central America, called the Panamanian Portal. About three million years ago, the present land bridge of Lower Central America was finally established. Since then, animals and plants have dispersed via this connection in both directions, resulting in today’s presence of North, South, and Central American-originated biota in this region. Nowadays, Panama is part of the Mesoamerican biodiversity hotspot.

Unlike its neighboring country of Costa Rica, Panama’s biodiversity remains scarcely explored. This applies especially to the remote mountainous regions in the western part of the country, whose slopes rise to almost 3500 m a.s.l. and still support vast, intact stretches of cloud forest. A perspicuous indication of the extremely high species richness of these highlands - simultaneously revealing the extent of our ignorance thereof - is the discovery of four new species of lizards within a 24-hour period during a Senckenberg expedition in 2006.


In the context of their respective dissertation projects initiated in autumn 2007, Andreas Hertz (amphibians) and Sebastian Lotzkat (reptiles) investigate the herpetofauna along a transect approximately 250 km long and 30 km wide (the green area in the map above) that comprises the western Central Range at elevations from about 1000 m a.s.l. upwards. Questions regarding taxonomy, systematics, and biogeography are the main focus, necessitating a preferably complete species inventory as a primary result. Several descriptions of species formerly unknown to science are to be expected, as well as first records of known species for Panama. On this foundation, taxonomic and zoogeographic analyses based on morphology, anatomy, and molecular genetics will be conducted, providing new findings regarding relationships, distribution, ecology, evolution, and conservation of the encountered populations. The calculation of diversity indices allows for the identification of so-called biodiversity hotspots, which should be given priority in the course of future conservation efforts.

In the face of the present extinctions, which seem to be primarily driven by human impact, such fundamental measures of biodiversity research are critically important. This applies particularly to the amphibians, which are exceptionally exposed to various environmental influences. For them, anthropogenic habitat destruction - although being the gravest - is by far not the only serious threat. Their highly permeable integument is not much of a barrier against environmental toxins. Thus, their generally aquatic larvae are at the mercy of water pollutants, while the adults suffer from air pollution and climatic changes. These traits allows amphibians to be excellent bioindicators. Furthermore, the EIDs (Emerging Infection Diseases) specific to amphibians have manifested themselves during the past 30 years. Since the 1980s, substantial decreases as well as total losses of frog species have been documented in the highlands of southern Central America. These declines, affecting even those populations inhabiting protected areas with primary vegetation, are most commonly attributed to the chytrid fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. In the context of this study, various populations of severely declined or supposedly extinct species could be discovered in the Cordillera Central of western Panama (see press release in German), and samples from selected populations have been tested for the presence of the fungus with different results.

Bolitoglossa jugivagans

The first fieldwork period in the context of this project took place between May and August 2008. During this time, Andreas Hertz, Sebastian Lotzkat, and the undergraduate students Leonhard Stadler and Nadim Hamad, under the initial direction of Dr. Gunther Köhler and subsequent occasional accompaniment of the Panamanian biologist Arcadio Carrizo, visited selected localities within the western highlands. During 2009, two more research trips to Panama, each of two and a half months, were conducted. Again two undergraduate students, Joe-Felix Bienentreu and Frank Hauenschild, added to the team. Several expeditions were enriched by the participation of the Panamanian counterparts Rosalba De Leon, Abel Batista, Arcadio Carrizo, Marcos Ponce and Juan Castillo. The hitherto last research travel to Panama took place between May and August 2010.

Sibon noalamina

These four research trips to Panama have yielded a collection of approximately 80 amphibian and 114 reptile species. Preliminary analyses of these collections have already produced some very interesting findings. Among these are new species, like the tiny salamander Bolitoglossa jugivagans that is known from a single individual, or the snail-eater Sibon noalamina (see press release) that has recently been declared one of the "Top 10 New Species 2012". Moreover, several species known from neighboring Costa Rica could for the first time be documented to occur in Panama. In view of several specimens with still unsolved specific identities, further interesting results may be expected from exhaustive examination of the material.

Photos:   expeditions   2008   2009      amphibians      reptiles


Visual guides to the amphibians and reptiles of western Panama