Understanding and saving poison frogs
D. pumilio, Escudo de Veraguas
A group of Ngobe tribe children at an outreach visit to promote biodiversity.
D. pumilio, Isla Colon
D. pumilio, Isla Colon
D. pumilio, 'Nicky'
D. pumilio, 'Uyama'
D. pumilio, Isla Popa
D. pumilio, Isla Bastimentos
D. pumilio, Cayo de Agua
D. pumilio, Aguacate Peninsula
An example of the diverse color forms of D. pumilio in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago of Panama
Justin and Sir David Attenborough filming in Panama (2006)
About the project

***Wow guys/gals, this is truly fantastic. In such a short time together we've already crossed the threshold to fund this project! This is truly exciting news. Thanks you all for your incredible generosity! Please see my note at the bottom of the section "What your money can do" for an explanation of the $2,000 threshold for funding to start the project, and where we're hopefully headed next with continued support!

Again, many thanks to all of you and please keep sharing this project!

Research questions being asked

Amphibians are the most threatened of all vertebrates with land use being the most grave of their immediate threats. The species I study, Dendrobates pumilio is well known for its impressive diversity in color variants throughout the Bocas del Toro region of Panama. This area is literally a tropical paradise that mixes beautiful Caribbean islands with tropical rainforests.

We as scientists have been working in this area for years now trying to understand why one species of poison frog can have so many different color varieties in such a small region. As I've returned to the region every summer I’ve noticed more and more habitat destruction and disturbance. While frogs are still present, something does not seem right.

The goal of this research is to fundamentally understand the impact that anthropogenic (human) land use has on biodiversity. By specifically focusing on traits for a poison frog (like coloration) that has direct inputs from the ecosystem (dietarily acquired carotenoids and alkalkoids) we are able to measure fine scale differences attributable to heavily disturbed habitats.

What does this sciencey-talk mean? Most basically, I want to measure how land development and land-use practices can hurt the frogs. The coloration of frogs is used to deter predators, because the frogs are toxic. However, their toxicity comes from their diet. Some of the frogs colors (red, orange and yellow) also likely augmented from their diet as well (birds and fish do this). Ambient lighting also changes as the forest is destroyed. While I certainly look my best in dim bar lighting, frogs coloration has evolved to be viewed in certain conditions as well. Changing that can alter how other species view them, not to mention the frogs themselves.

So as you can see there are multiple traits that can change, all due to habitat disturbance. I will be measuring a number of such characteristics on a fine scale, measuring how attributes of the forests and frogs vary due to land use. Combined these data will provide evidence across a wide spectrum of traits for the impact that habitat disturbance has on frogs.

What you need to know

Too often we are made aware of threats to biodiversity when the damage has already begun, or is too far established. It is my goal to use this fantastic opportunity to collect data for evolutionary studies, and directly and immediately apply it to the context of conservation as well. Because several evolutionary pressures are working to shape the coloration of D. pumilio, the effect that disturbance has can be measured almost in real time. We are poised to make a difference, and do it for the least cost possible.

Another component of this work is to continue and expand current outreach to the people living in the Bocas del Toro region of Panama. For the past few years I have been actively traveling to remote villages, giving talks at the Smithsonian biodiversity fair, and speaking with landowners. (Check out the photo below of some really cool kids we met last year!) Last summer many of our undergraduate researchers also participated in such events, not only sharing their research experiences, but also adding their perspectives. Using some of this funding, I would like to increase the documentation of these efforts and be able to produce and supply more educational opportunities to students, and provide more exposure to this work.

Why this matters

Amphibian conservation has remained a top agenda internationally since I was in high school. The catastrophic loss of biodiversity in amphibians is akin only to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Despite ubiquitous reports of threats to amphibian populations, I believe that thoughtfully planned research, and a receptive government can mitigate a specific amphibian threat.

The data collected in this study will allow me to measure the impact that habitat degradation and/or loss has on a charismatic species of poison frog. This matters because we are poised to fairly easily elicit small scale change that will have a large impact in a species well-being.

Moreover, I will collect data for many other projects as I conduct this research, thus maximizing any money donated to extend not only for this project, but also for future work.

What your money can do

By donating to this project you will be directly contributing to a project whose main goal is to promote conservation. Not all science is undertaken for this explicit purpose. I will answer questions of broad evolutionary interest, but use them to inform and promote sustainable land-use practices which will better protect native Panamanian flora and fauna. This project is already supported by a fellowship from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (short term fellowship) which provides my housing and research station fees for the summer of 2012.

Funding from petridish will provide the additional funds to cover supplies, transportation (international and national) for myself as well as students/collaborators. Aside from data collection, part of our goal is to promote conservation through multiple presentations to local indigenous students as part of my outreach done in collaboration with the Smithsonian.

The Panamanian government and it’s national environmental authority (ANAM) have been pro-active partners in amphibian conservation programs such as El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC) and Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project demonstrating their concern with declining amphibian populations.

With the data collected from this study, it is my hope the Smithsonian and Panamanian government can team up to provide incentives for farmers and landowners to promote sustainable practices. Additionally, by conducing local outreach programs, we will provide a strong case for more judicious, less invasive, land use practices.

Based on previous trips, I anticipate data collection for this project can be accomplished for around $2000, which I've set as the 'Minimum Required For Funding" amount. However, the costs of further processing the data (such as carotenoid and alkaloid samples) is much higher. Additionally and ideally, it's my hope to include more outreach to the local community, including educational material on biodiversity and conservation for local indigenous groups. All combined this project has a target goal of $15,000. Should more money be pledged, it will also be directly put into the project. That would allow for the inclusion of more students (both Panamanian and US students) to contribute to the research as well as allow us to do more expensive genetic analyses (which are currently cost-prohibitive). Again, I can't thank everyone enough for their enthusiastic and generous responses.

Potential discoveries

I have preliminary evidence from last summer that has supports some of my fears-- that there are real differences between adjacent frog populations due to habitat destruction. What I need now is more time and financing to allow me to collect more data so I can present a complete picture of the effect .

By focusing my efforts on a charismatic species closely associated with the region (Red Frog Beach is a popular tourist destination) I feel that there is an excellent chance to use my findings to promote more pro-active conservation of the area. While I am studying a species of poison frog, there will be broader impacts from this study, benefiting far more than just the frogs.

My goal is to make the science resulting from this research the top quality possible and disseminate it through high caliber peer-reviewed journals. Additionally, working with a team of friends we will use our grass-roots DIY backgrounds to disseminate the message far and wide-- while never losing sight of the local people who will ultimately need to make the changes.


I am a researcher hailing from a small town of South Central Pennsylvania. Over the course of the past decade I managed to trade the view of Amish-tended fields for tropical rainforests as I’ve lived and studied throughout much of Central and South America. Studying Wildlife Conservation in my undergraduate studies (University of Delaware) prepared me to pursue a lifelong interest of conservation. During my masters (East Carolina University) and PhD (Tulane University) I have focused on the evolutionary processes that shape aposematic (warning) coloration. To this end, I’ve focused my studies on organisms such as bioluminescent millipedes, wasp-mimic mantisflies, but I focus mainly neotropical poison frogs.

This project links my previous and current work in evolutionary theory with my long-standing interest in conservation. In years past, I have been involved in a number of popular television shows for the BBC and Animal Planet, including filming D. pumilio on several occasions. I’m hoping the findings of this work will be highlighted in such venues in the near future!

Working out of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Bocas del Toro Panama provides an ideal platform for not only conducting cutting edge research, but also an opportunity for working more closely with governments and local communities to bring about real change. For the past three summers I have been involved in conservation outreach with the Smithsonian both at the research station as well as traveling to remote villages to teach children and provide educational tools.

For more information on me and my research please visit www.justinyeager.org

Sunday July 08, 2012
Backer only update
Monday June 18, 2012

Hey guys, Without further adieu here's the blog I'll be updating to keep you all posted with the progress of the project:




Please check it out as that's where I'll be posting updates/photos/jokes/etc.  


Thanks again so much for your support!


Thursday May 31, 2012
Backer only update
Saturday May 19, 2012

Hey guys, only 9 hours left.  If anyone you know was waiting until the last minute to contribute, well that last minute is here!  

I've arrived here at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Isla Colon and we're getting all set up in the labs and will begin this work tomorrow.  It's really exciting to get this project started!

Many thanks again to all for the exceedingly generous donations, we'll put them to great use and keep you posted!

Friday May 18, 2012

Greetings all from Panama City, Panama.  We just arrived to the city to begin this work, tomorrow early morning we head to Bocas to settle in at the Smithsonian.  Thanks to all of you for your continued support and enthusiasm.  I'll need a few days to build things up in the lab but soon photos and updates will continue to follow.  

Wednesday May 16, 2012

Four days left!  Thanks again to all the hundreds of you who have supported the project by 'liking' on facebook, sharing to friends, tweeting, etc.  The project begins on Friday as we head to Panama!  In the last few days any more support we can garner would be fantstic!

Wednesday May 09, 2012

Today I got one of the most exciting letters to date.  Sir David Attenborough wrote me a letter and among other things said: ".. and I wish you every success with the project."  


The support from every one of you has been amazing, thanks to you all for making this a great experience.  I look forward to sharing the results of this project soon. 


P.S. We still have a few days left, please help me do a huge push to publicize this before time runs out.  I'll send an update from Panama some time after I arrive on the 18th. 

Thursday April 19, 2012

The one and only Carl Zimmer has promoted the project-- check out his tweet!:

"Extreme science tattoos: biologist will tattoo names of top Kickstarter sponsors for poison frog research."


Saturday April 14, 2012

Quick update for everyone.  With how well things are going I purchased tickets for the trip (while the flights are cheap!).  Anyone who's thinking about joining me in the field (the $1,000 funding level alternative reward) should plan on coming between May 18 and August 8.  Hope to see some of you in Bocas!

Monday April 09, 2012

Got some really nice press on the project... Check it out:


Thursday April 05, 2012

Greetings ladies and gents. Once again, every time I sign on here I'm greeted with a smile to see the collective interest and support, thank you again! There's been some talk of "what would I have to do to join Justin in the field" type questions. Well that answer is easy, those who pledge to at least the $1,000 level can trade their prize for them joining me in the field! You will need to provide your own way to/from Isla Colon (where I'm based), but I will take you with me in the field and show you around. I'll even bring you your very own bandana, and you can use both my suntan lotion AND bug spray. Wow. I'll also treat you to your first 10 Panamanian beers... oh my!

Tuesday April 03, 2012

Wow guys/gals, this is truly fantastic. In just a week we've already crossed the threshold to fund this project! This is truly exciting news. Thanks you all for your incredible generosity! Please see my note at the bottom of the section "What your money can do" for an explanation of the $2,000 threshold for funding and where we're hopefully headed next!

Again, many thanks to all of you!

Saturday March 31, 2012

Thank you guys so much for those who have spent the time reading about the project, and those who have donated so far! It's been wonderful to see the support for this project so far from people far and wide. World famous herpetologist Mark O'Shea even helped promote the project!

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This project was successful!
$5 +
I don't need a reward, I just want to support the project
$25 +
A personalized email with a high resolution photograph of a Dendrobates pumilio in situ. Awesome!
$50 +
A custom magnet featuring a photograph of a D. pumilio and the project name. All your friends will know you’re down with nature! You’ll also get the personalized email and photos.
$150 +
You’ll receive all of the above, PLUS a t-shirt designed specifically (by a professional) for this research project featuring a poison frog and a map of the Bocas del Toro region of Panama. Sweet!
$1,000 +
I will name a baby D. pumilio from our captive colony after you or the person of your choice. This honor has only been bestowed on a very limited number of people directly involved in the lab, join their ranks! You will receive a photograph of your baby and information on it and its pedigree. I'll also include you in the acknowledgements of any publications resulting from this research, and all of the above. ---------------------------------------------------- Due to popular request you may trade the baby-naming rights for a guided tour of of 3 distinct populations (Islands and mainland) of D. pumilio. I'll take you to a least three of my study sites, show you the sights and sounds of the rainforest AND take you to one of my favorite restaurants on Isla Colon. I can't guarantee you'll see dolphins, but they're likely too! (Fine print: You must supply your own travel to and from Bocas town, and lodging/food not part of the reward. I'll cover all between island travel expenses and your first 10 Panamanian beers *subject to Happy Hour prices)
$7,000 +
I will personally visit you (limited to the US, unless you live in a cool place that I want to visit anyway), give a seminar on the research you’ve supported at your local university/school/garden club/etc. After the talk, I will cook you dinner or take you to a nice restaurant. I’ll even dress up! Plus you’ll get everything above-- what a deal!
$12,000 +
I will tattoo your name on a visible part of my body with the caption: “(Your name) funded my research when I was in need.” I’m not kidding about this. You’ll also receive all the above goodies!
and 17 others