Page last updated at 13:37 GMT, Wednesday, 26 August 2009 14:37 UK

Launch for amphibian 'life raft'

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

A world of amphibians

Conservationists have launched a new initiative aimed at safeguarding the world's amphibians from extinction.

The Amphibian Survival Alliance will bring together existing projects and organisations, improving co-ordination, scientific research and fund-raising.

About a third of amphibian species are threatened with extinctions.

A two-day summit held last week in London identified the two main threats as destruction of habitat and the fungal disease chytridiomycosis.

"The world's amphibians are facing an uphill battle for survival," said James Collins, co-chair of the Amphibian Specialist Group (ASG) co-ordinated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

If we want to stop the amphibian extinction crisis, we have to protect the areas where amphibians are threatened by habitat destruction
Claude Gascon, ASG

"By far the worst threats are infectious disease and habitat destruction, so the Alliance will focus on these issues first."

Last week's meeting, held at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), declared that research into possible treatments for the chytrid fungus should be a top priority.

Identified only a decade ago, the fungus now infects amphibians in the Americas, Australia, Europe, Asia and Africa.

How it originated and how it kills are matters of ongoing research.

But in practical terms, finding something that can stop it in open country rather than the laboratory is the big challenge.

Researchers have found that some amphibian species carry chemicals on their skin that provide a natural defence.

Phyllomedusa. Image: Esteban Lavilla
First true amphibians evolved about 250m years ago
There are three orders: frogs (including toads), salamanders (including newts) and caecilians, which are limbless
Adapted to many different aquatic and terrestrial habitats
Present today on every continent except Antarctica
Many undergo metamorphosis, from larvae to adults

The idea is to see whether these chemicals can be turned into something that can attack the fungus in the wild, providing a defence for species that currently have none.

The new Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA) sees this line of research as an urgent priority.

More difficult to tackle will be the ongoing destruction of habitat that is a concern in most continents, but especially in parts of Asia that are seeing rapid expansion of cities, industry and infrastructure.

"If we want to stop the amphibian extinction crisis, we have to protect the areas where amphibians are threatened by habitat destruction," said Claude Gascon, the Amphibian Specialist Group's other co-chair.

"One of the reasons amphibians are in such dire straits is because many species are only found in single sites and are therefore much more susceptible to habitat loss."

As a group, amphibians are considerably more threatened than birds, mammals, fish or reptiles.

Apart from habitat loss and chytrid, issues of concern are:

  • unsustainable hunting for food, medicine and the pet trade
  • chemical pollution
  • climatic change
  • introduced species
  • other infectious diseases

The formation of the ASA was proposed in 2006 but adequate financial and institutional backing did not materialise.

At that stage scientists were divided over how money and resources should be split between conservation in the wild and captive breeding.

Now there is general agreement that both strategies are necessary.

Initial backing emerged at the ZSL meeting in the form of a $200,000 pledge that will fund the ASA co-ordinator's post for two years.

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