While many of New York's snow birds head south to Puerto Rico for time in the sun, a recent batch of first-time fliers--born and raised in the city--are heading down for a different reason: to save their own species. And tadpoles generally do not fly, unless they are part of a reintroduction program to save the Puerto Rican crested toad, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which has joined an ongoing effort to save the island's only native toad.
Specifically, animal husbandry experts from WCS have successfully reared nearly 500 tadpoles at the Central Park Zoo and recently released them in Puerto Rico's Guanica State Forest.
"The release went well, and we're hoping that this new generation of toads can help secure a future for this species" said Bruce Foster, Collections Manager for WCS' Central Park Zoo, where he and other curatorial staff successfully reared some 475 healthy tadpoles for the reintroduction effort. "Puerto Rico is an island of great natural beauty, and protecting the natural inhabitants of the island is an important part of preserving that beauty."
Foster flew down to Puerto Rico with his precious cargo and made the rendezvous with other participants at the release site: a manmade pond in Guanica State Forest. Combined with contributions from the Fort Worth Zoo, the Buffalo Zoo, and the Sedgwick County Zoo, a total of 2,700 tadpoles were released into the pond. The project is also supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Puerto Rican Department of Natural Resources.
"Only a small percentage of tadpoles reach adulthood, so releasing huge numbers of tadpoles is key to a successful reintroduction effort," said Diane Barber, Curator of Ectotherms at the Fort Worth Zoo and Coordinator of the Puerto Rican Crested Toad Species Survival Plan (SSP), a project founded in 1984 under the auspices of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). "The good news is we're starting to see evidence of success. Last year we witnessed the largest breeding event in 20 years at another site, and the current wild population estimate is 1,000 toads, up from only 300 from a few years ago."
Unlike the coqui, a small and widespread tree frog that is Puerto Rico's most popular amphibian (as well as the island's unofficial mascot), the Puerto Rican crested toad--with its distinctive, upturned snout, warty skin, and gold-colored eyes--has declined dramatically in number. Formerly a denizen of both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the toad is now only found in Guanica State Forest. The reasons for the decline: loss of habitat, and threats from introduced species such as the mongoose, rat, and the giant marine toad, the last of which competes with the Puerto Rican crested toad for the same resources. The species is now listed as Threatened on the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and as Critically Endangered according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN). "Participating in SSP initiatives like the Puerto Rican crested toad project is one way that zoos are helping to stop the global loss of amphibian species," added Foster. "To date, over 200 species of frogs, toads and salamanders have disappeared with another 1,000 species threatened with extinction."
Congressman José E. Serrano (D-Bronx) applauded WCS for playing a lead role in the federally supported initiative that is saving Puerto Rico's natural heritage. "We commend the Wildlife Conservation Society, its partners, and U.S. and Puerto Rican agencies for working to save Puerto Rico's only native toad species. A healthy environment is important for people and animals alike. What's good for the environment is good for Puerto Rico."