The Zoological Society of London is to build a new centre for the conservation of frogs, toad and other amphibians.
By Richard Black
Environment Correspondent, BBC News website
The £2.2m (US$4m) project will include a public exhibit at London Zoo, laboratories for disease research, and captive breeding facilities.
Scientists involved say it will be the first integrated amphibian conservation centre in the world.
Amphibians are possibly the most threatened animals on Earth, with a third of species at risk of extinction.
One of the scientists involved is Andrew Cunningham, head of wildlife epidemiology at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), whose team announced in September the first discovery of the fatal disease chytridiomycosis in British amphibians.
"That discovery certainly brings it home that this is a serious issue, a global issue, not confined to far-flung tropical places," Dr Cunningham told the BBC News website.
"In Spain, the midwife toad is declining really fast, going extinct in fact, because of chytridiomycosis; and the disease has the potential to do the same thing in Britain.
"We know that the common toad is killed by chytridiomycosis, because we've seen that in Spain, and it also kills the natterjack toad, one of our threatened species."
Like many other groups of animals, amphibians are threatened by human encroachment onto their territories, by pollution, climate change and hunting.
The disease chytridiomycosis is killing amphibians (Image: Forrest Brem and Roberto Brenes>)
The emergence in the last few decades of chytridiomycosis, an often fatal fungal disease, is the additional factor which has led to the current crisis, which sees almost a third of the 5,743 known amphibian species heading towards oblivion.
There is no cure, no means of preventing its spread, and no way of protecting animals against its deadly embrace.
In September, a summit of conservation experts in Washington concluded that captive breeding programmes should be established as a matter of urgency for some of the most endangered species.
One of the key components of the ZSL project will be to run these breeding programmes, both at Whipsnade Zoo, which it owns, and abroad.
"We have a building which we may adapt," said Richard Gibson, ZSL's Curator of Herpetology, "but we may possibly do it in shipping containers.
"This is something that's been pioneered in Australia; the containers come ready insulated, you just put in a water and electricity supply.
WHAT ARE AMPHIBIANS?
Group includes frogs, toads, salamanders and caecilians
First true amphibians evolved about 250m years ago
Adapted to many different aquatic and terrestrial habitats
Present today on every continent except Antarctica
Undergo metamorphosis, from larvae to adults
"It's very easy to maintain high standards of hygiene and biosecurity, plus you can ship them around if you need to."
Biosecurity is crucial; if parasites jump from one captive species to the next, it would quickly become impossible to re-introduce any of them into the wild, which is the long-term goal.
Captive breeding is one part of ZSL's three-pronged plan; the other arms involve a laboratory to research interactions between amphibians and Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, their fungal nemesis, and a public exhibit and information centre at London Zoo, tentatively entitled Frog World.
"I would envisage exhibits demonstrating the range and diversity of amphibians and their habitats," said Richard Gibson, "but I would be keen to have some sort of interactive experience, with people able to peer through a microscope at tadpoles, and experience what it's like to be an embryo.
"The problem is that most people don't understand how serious the situation is regarding amphibians - to be honest, many of my colleagues who work with other kinds of animals don't fully understand it either."
ZSL believes that its centre will be the first amphibian unit in the world to combine public awareness, laboratory science, field research and captive breeding.
"A good model of what we'll be able to do is what we're already doing with the mountain chicken frog," said Andrew Cunningham.
"It's the national dish of Dominica, and so it was already under threat from hunting before chytridiomycosis came and knocked it on the head. Now, numbers have gone down by 50% in just a few years.
"We're running an awareness programme in Dominica. With the Dominican government we're building a pathology and molecular diagnostics lab which will serve the whole Caribbean region, and we're setting up a captive breeding programme in Dominica with satellite programmes at Chester and London zoos."
How many species ZSL can include in its Amphibian Research and Conservation Centre depends on how much of the £2.2m it is able to raise.
It is already a third of the way there, with money coming from its own coffers and from grant programmes such as the Darwin Initiative, a UK government fund aimed at conserving biodiversity worldwide.
The first public view may come in 2007, when ZSL hopes to have Frog World up and running.