For the love of the poison frog Ephrata native uses innovative approach to fund research trip to Panama

By on May 2, 2012

By: LESLIE PENKUNAS Review Correspondent, Staff Writer



Ephrata grad Justin Yeager is shown with school children from Bocas del Toro, Panama, during a previous research visit.

Ephrata grad Justin Yeager recalled the first time he became passionate about poison frogs.

It was during a childhood visit to the National Aquarium in Baltimore with his family. He was four.

His mother, Ann, laughed from her home in Ephrata when reminded of that trip. She said that he begged her and her husband, Chuck, for a pet poison frog right then and there.

"We said, ‘No. They’re poisonous.’ So we bought him a little plastic one and that appeased him for a few years." Still, she recounted that her son had plenty of other pets, including bearded dragons, iguanas, geckos, sugar gliders and chinchillas.

"On our trips to Florida to visit his grandparents, he would smuggle back anoles," she said. "But I put my foot down on any snakes in the house."

When Justin was 8, he learned that poisonous frogs lose their toxicity in captivity. His parents finally relented and got him some, and he’s been raising the exotic amphibians ever since.

Now 29, and a Ph.D. candidate at Tulane University in New Orleans, Yeager is studying "a very charismatic species of poison frog," the Dendrobates pumilio. Growing only to an inch in length — just a bit bigger than a stink bug — the frog is well known for its diverse colors and is native to the Bocas del Toro region of Panama. According to Justin, the area is a tropical paradise that blends stunning Caribbean islands with tropical rainforests. That has made the region ripe for development, putting the frogs in danger.

"A lot of my research is looking at how colors and patterns have evolved into an anti-predatory defense," he explained, taking a break from work in his lab at the university. The bright colors of poisonous frogs deter predators, signaling to them that they are toxic. The frogs accumulate their toxins from their diet; some of their colors –red, orange and yellow –most likely are bolstered by their diet, too.

As the Bocas del Toro region is developed, Yeager is focusing new research on how the resulting environmental disturbances are affecting the frogs’ toxicity and colors. He also is trying to engage people and build outreach in the indigenous communities.

"We tell them about the frog –tell them how we’ve come from so far away and how we’re so interested in what they, and only they, have," he said. "And because we’re so interested, they should appreciate it and try to take care of their great resource."

On May 18, he leaves for Bocas del Toro. Thirty-seven people who have read his story on a website have mostly financed his trip.

It is a new "movement" in scientific funding: crowd sourcing. Justin explained that he did receive a grant from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which will provide his housing and research station fees for the summer. But that grant fell short of covering most of his expenses. When he got an invitation to submit his project to petridish.org, a new online community allowing scientists to promote their work directly to potential investors, he agreed to give it a try.

He set his minimum goal at $2,000 to cover his expenses, including airfare. He reached that within the first week. As of this writing, He now has 38 backers, and has raised $3,611; he welcomes more.

"There’s always something you can do with the extra money," he said. "I have dreams of hitting that $7,000, that $12,000 funding level."

Supporters of Justin’s research project (which can be found at petridish.org/projects/understanding-and-saving-poisonous-frogs) can give at various levels (from $5 up), with a variety of acknowledgments offered depending upon the size of the donation.

For $25, donors receive a high-resolution photo; for $50, they receive a magnet; for $1,000, they will get "naming rights" to a baby Dendrobates pumilio born in Justin’s captive colony and inclusion in the acknowledgments of any publications resulting from his research. Or, for the same amount, the donor can receive a guided tour of three of Justin’s study sites in Bocas del Toro (airfare not included).

The top donation spot? It goes for $12,000 and in exchange for the gift, Justin will provide all of the other "prizes" plus he will have the following "(donor’s name) funded my research when I was in need" tattooed on his own body.

So far, there have been no takers. But it is the least he will do to help save his beloved frogs. More FROG, page A6

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