Every morning when Mark Mandica opens the door, he feels a pit in his stomach. He knows that today could be the day that he discovers the last Rabbs' Fringe-limbed tree frog has passed away. When that day comes, his species will be extinct forever - another in a long and growing list of animals that are disappearing at an alarming rate. He will close his eyes, and his kind will vanish from the face of the Earth forever. Many of these species will disappear without even a mention from the media.
"It's kind of nerve-racking taking care of him, knowing he's the last one of his kind," says Mark, the Amphibian Conservation Coordinator at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. He admits he was not much of a conservationist when he first became fascinated with amphibians. "I was more interested studying how fast their tongues move to catch prey, not much to do with conservation. Since then it has become harder and harder to find frogs and amphibians and so now I feel obligated to help conserve these amazing and vital creatures. It's sort of an 'all hands on deck' situation."
It was Mark's young son Anthony who nick-named the frog "Toughie." When asked why he picked that name, six-year-old Anthony exclaims, "Because he's the only one that made it!"
Toughie is originally from the lush rainforests of Panama, where he used to spread his large webbed hands and could glide for up to 30 feet from his home in the forest canopy above. Toughie must have felt like he was flying. But Toughie's gliding days are long gone. He will spend his last days here, in this unassuming grey shipping container called the FrogPOD, set in the back southwest corner of the Atlanta Botanical Garden. He is far from his home, and he is utterly and completely alone in this world.
The shipping container is bio-secure, protecting eleven rare species of frogs saved from Panama on the same rescue mission in which Toughie was collected. All the species are critically endangered, but none more than Toughie. After changing our shoes to slippers kept in the lab so as not to introduce any dangerous bacteria or fungus, we enter the FrogPOD. It is warm and humid, consistently kept at a temperature near 70 degrees Fahrenheit. I make a beeline straight to Toughie's small home.
As I look at this frog resting in his log, I try to imagine Toughie gliding through the air, high above the floor of the rainforest, steering his way down with outstretched arms like Superman. Now, he sits in this log perhaps wondering where his forest went, where his family is. I wonder if he can even remember. It's been almost ten years since he saw his real home.
In the wild, Toughie would have raised his own young - the males are the stay-at-home parents for these frogs - but being a father in the rainforest canopies of Panama was not in the cards for Toughie. The fate of his species was written when the last female in captivity passed away in 2009.
Toughie now sits silent in his log; he stopped calling shortly after being taken into captivity. He had already been silent for years before Mark first began caring for him in 2009. The call of the Rabbs' Fringe-limbed tree frog was lost forever when Toughie silenced his voice. Their call was never recorded, and the only people who ever heard it cannot describe or imitate it. The last time one was heard in the wild was 2007. It was a male whose calls were heard, but he was never seen. He may have been calling for a female that was never to come.
Most of Toughie's relatives were wiped out by a fungus in Panama in 2005. Researchers went in to rescue as many of the rare frogs as they could and collected a handful of adults and a handful of tadpoles. The rest have all died of natural causes, and the tadpoles never fully developed in the lab. Toughie is the only survivor. He must be the loneliest frog on Earth.