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As amphibians leap toward extinction, alliance pushes “The Year of the Frog”

As amphibians leap toward extinction, alliance pushes “The Year of the Frog”

As amphibians leap toward extinction, alliance pushes “The Year of the Frog”
Rhett A. Butler,
December 31, 2007

With amphibians experiencing dramatic die-offs in pristine habitats worldwide, an alliance of zoos, botanical gardens and aquariums has launched a desperate public appeal to raise funds for emergency conservation measures. Scientists say that without quick action, one-third to one-half the world’s frogs, toads, salamanders, newts and caecilians could disappear.

The coalition, dubbed “Amphibian Ark”, is calling 2008 “The Year of the Frog” in an effort to raise awareness on the plight of dying amphibians, at least 165 types of which are believed to have gone extinct since 1980. Amphibian Ark is seeking to raise $50-60 million as part of a 5-year $400 million Amphibian Conservation Action Plan to establish captive breeding programs for the 500 most threatened species.

While scientists have yet to identify a smoking gun, climate change, pollution, and the emergence of Chytridiomycosis, a deadly and infectious fungal disease which has been linked to global warming and is blamed for one-third of amphibian extinctions since 1980, are the leading suspects for the observed decline.

The giant monkey frog of Peru is known for its mind-altering skin secretions. Shamans in the Amazon rain forest have used this species in hunting rituals. Like other amphibians from around the world, the giant monkey frog is threatened by climate change and habitat loss. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Although researchers don’t yet know the origin of the parasitic chytrid fungus known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, the disease is highly transmissible and spreading fast: the fungus is now found on at least four continents and was recently reported for the first time in Japan. Worryingly scientists are also finding declines in chytridiomycosis-free environments. In fact, some researchers suggest the outbreak of chytridiomycosis is merely a symptom of a much broader problem for amphibians, one that may be linked to climate change, increased UV radiation, or pesticide use.

Nevertheless few scientists dispute that the many amphibians populations are at great risk of extinction unless drastic measures are taken. Accordingly, Amphibian Ark (AArk) is focusing on captive management efforts or “ex-situ” conservation to buy critical time for the most threatened species.

“The AArk program will rescue priority endangered species and place them in ‘protective custody’ in dedicated biosecure facilities at zoos, aquariums, and other institutions around the world for safekeeping and breeding, helping to ensure the long-term survival of amphibians,” stated a report from Amphibian Ark. “These rescued amphibians will be released back into the wild when the original threats have been controlled.”

Tree frog in Peru. According to the Global Amphibian Assessment, a comprehensive status assessment of the world’s amphibian species, one-third of the world’s 5,918 known amphibian species are classified as threatened with extinction.

Tomato frog in Madagascar. This species releases a sticky glue-like secretion that protects it against colubrid snakes, cats, and dogs. The secreted substance can produce an allergic reaction in humans as well. Photos by Rhett A. Butler

Scientists say the worldwide decline of amphibians is one of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns; one that may portend greater threats to the ecological balance of the planet. Because amphibians have highly permeable skin and spend a portion of their life in water and on land, they are sensitive to environmental change and can act as the proverbial “canary in a coal mine,” indicating the relative health of an ecosystem. As they die, scientists are left wondering whether other plant and animal groups will follow.

Amphibian Ark says its effort could help prevent this fate, by saving other endangered animals and demonstrating the role that zoos and other facilities can play in global conservation.

“The crisis provides a unique opportunity to demonstrate to the world that zoos and aquariums are valid and powerful conservation partners. Zoos and aquariums must not stand by and watch hundreds of these exquisite species become extinct in our lifetime — especially when ex situ captive breeding provides a viable, yet simple, solution,” said the alliance in a statement. “If we do not respond immediately and on an unprecedented scale, much of an entire vertebrate class will be lost, and we will have failed in our most basic conservation mission.”

Amphibian Ark

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