Wet hot Panamanian frogs! (and other rare creatures at the National Zoo)

Yellow frogs
Critically endangered Panamanian golden frogs, Reptile Discovery Center, National Zoo


Animal photos can be cute and fun, but they might also end up as historical documents for future generations. This is because some species might not be around that long. According to this National Geographic article, a quarter of mammal species, a fifth of reptile species, a sixth of bird species, and more than a third of the world’s frog, toad, and salamander species are at risk of extinction. Many biologists argue that the world is experiencing a mass extinction event, with vertebrate species disappearing at up to 100 times the normal rate. (Before this, the last mass extinction event was 65 million years ago; it wiped out the dinosaurs).

Take the Panamanian golden frogs pictured above. This species hasn’t been seen in the wild since 2009, and may be functionally extinct. Fortunately, several zoos, including DC’s own National Zoo, are working to breed them in captivity, with the hope that they can someday return to their native habitat. (This Scientific American post has a cool video on the National Zoo’s Panamanian golden frog breeding program). Apparently our zoo’s ambience is quite romantic, because the couple above is totally getting it on.

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The endangered Grand Cayman iguana, Reptile Discovery Center, National Zoo. The wild population is estimated to be just 443 adults.

[divider line_type=”Small Line” custom_height=””]Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) Photo Club events are a great way to learn about and to photograph the zoo’s rare animals. One morning earlier this month, Photo Club members got exclusive access to the Reptile Discovery Center for two hours before it opened to the public. Staff thoughtfully cleaned the glass for us, and we could set up tripods and take photos without the distracting crowds. (We were advised to wear black, like ninjas, to avoid unsightly reflections).

Reptile house biologist/snake-wrangler Matt Evans answered all our questions, discussing everything from the Species Survival Plan Program to reptiles’ sensitivity to vibrations (which is why you should never tap the exhibit glass). But the coolest part of the event was when he led us into the tortoise yard for close-ups!

All images by angela n.

For now the Aldabra tortoise population is large enough that they are not “endangered,” thanks to many years of conservation work (by Charles Darwin himself, among others). But they are still considered vulnerable (meaning they face “a high risk of extinction” in the wild), in part because their homeland is threatened by rising sea levels.

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These Aldabra tortoises treated the photo club to some X-rated action. However, this will not propagate the species, as they are both male. At the bottom is Alex, the National Zoo’s oldest animal, who came to the zoo in 1956. No one knows his exact age, but keepers estimate he is “about a century old.”

[divider line_type=”Small Line” custom_height=””]Not interested in geriatric tortoises? The FONZ Photo Club also hosts members-only sneak previews of the zoo’s adorable babies!


The FONZ Photo Club got to preview the Andean bear cubs a day before their public debut this spring. Andean bears are considered to be vulnerable and “among the Carnivores that are most likely to move toward extinction.”

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Last year the FONZ Photo Club got sneak peaks of both lion cub litters before their public debuts. Lions are classified as vulnerable. The wild population has decreased 42% in the last 21 years; there may be fewer than 20,000 left in Africa.

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This shot was from a FONZ members-only preview, a week before giant panda cub Bao Bao’s official public debut. Now that Bao Bao has two newborn siblings, we can look forward to doubly-cute scenes this like this in the future! [Update: Sadly, one of the newborn panda twins died this afternoon.] Giant pandas are endangered, with an estimated wild population between 1,000 and 2,000.
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Sumatran tiger cubs, National Zoo, 2013. There are fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild.

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Micronesian kingfishers are extinct in the wild but you can see this cutie in the National Zoo’s bird house.

[divider line_type=”Small Line” custom_height=””]For terrific overviews of the current “mass extinction” and how zoos are trying to help, check out Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sixth Extinctionand “Building the Ark” (National Geographic, October 2013).

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