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Crisis for the world’s amphibians

6 October 09 14:11 GMT

Helen Meredith

It is a time of crisis for the world's amphibians, says Helen Meredith. In this week's Green Room she says we may be facing our last chance to save this important group of animals.

A third of all species of amphibian are threatened with extinction; nearly half are in decline, and they are the most threatened of all the vertebrate groups.

If allowed to continue, the projected losses would constitute the largest mass extinction since the disappearance of the dinosaurs.

But first things first; what are amphibians and why should we care about their decline?

Amphibians are one of nature's less familiar groups - an issue that presents major challenges to establishing the conservation action they so urgently require.

They have been around on the planet for about 360 million years, arising over 100 million years before the first mammal and 200 million years before the first bird.

Great survivors

Modern amphibians comprise frogs, toads, salamanders, newts and caecilians (limbless amphibians), and number in excess of 6,000 species to date.

More than 20% are not understood well enough to be assigned any conservation status and it is estimated that up to 10,000 species may exist in total.

They are found on every continent except Antarctica, ranging from the Arctic Circle to the tropical deserts.

Of all the vertebrates, amphibians lead some of the strangest lives. Various species can survive partial freezing, 10 years without food, long droughts and temperatures of up to 40C (104F).

They are among life's great survivors, enduring mass extinction events that have wiped out the dinosaurs and whole swathes of mammals and birds. In this light, their current extinction crisis seems all the more troubling.

Although they may not seem to have an impact upon the daily lives of many cultures, they provide numerous essential services to mankind.

They consume huge quantities of invertebrates, including humanity's most vilified pests.

Their crucial role in global ecosystems, both as predator and prey, helps maintain healthy functioning environments. Frogs are an important protein source in many subsistence cultures and are traded in their millions as food and pets.

The skin secretions that protect amphibians against predation and infection have been found to contain important pharmaceutical compounds that show potential in treating a variety of illnesses from HIV to cancer.

The most famous case is that of the phantasmal poison frog (Epipedobates tricolor). Skin secretions from this frog yielded the compound epibatidine, which is a painkiller 200 times more effective than morphine.

Amphibians are repositories of potentially life-saving chemicals and are key model organisms in scientific research.

Witnessing the precipitous decline of the amphibians is sobering. Why now, after hundreds of millions of years of survival, are they bowing out?

As always, the reasons are diverse and complex. The usual suspects of habitat destruction, climate change, invasive species, environmental contaminants and overexploitation represent key interrelated factors.

Additionally, a disease called chytridiomycosis or "chytrid" (caused by the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) infects a wide range of amphibians globally and is capable of driving species to extinction.

Exacerbated by the other issues impacting amphibians, chytrid has emerged as one of the major threats to their survival. This disease can kill amphibians in otherwise pristine habitats or provide the final nail in the coffin for species already pushed to the brink of extinction.

The fight to save the world's amphibians shouts into a howling gale of climate change, war, overpopulation, economic crises, and countless other global disasters, rendering their plight (just like many other aspects of biodiversity) somewhat low on the agenda of global priorities; they are slipping away almost unnoticed.

What can be done?

A recent IUCN amphibian conservation summit held at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) highlighted plans to launch the Amphibian Survival Alliance, which will unite existing organisations and projects working on amphibian conservation (like ZSL's EDGE Amphibians Project), creating a mutually supportive network.

This initiative is still woefully underfunded given the urgent need for action, but represents a major step towards consolidating worldwide conservation activities to protect as many species as possible.

We hope this will improve and expand the movement to protect amphibians, boosting the fundraising and publicity drive necessary to raise concern over amphibian declines and put vital conservation strategies into practice.

To lend perspective, the original cost of the global Amphibian Conservation Action Plan was equivalent to about one and a half Boeing 747 aeroplanes.

The latest plans drawn up at the summit would cost just one tenth of this sum, and would at least make progress towards saving a third of the world's amphibians.

Initially tackling the two main threats to amphibian survival, disease and habitat destruction, the Amphibian Survival Alliance will require major political backing and financial support if it is to achieve its objectives.

It represents the best hope for amphibians at this most critical and desperate time.

Amphibians are widely viewed as the "canaries in the coalmine" for environmental change.

Despite their glorious past, they simply cannot withstand the current onslaught.

Tellingly, the very same factors that threaten amphibians also endanger all other life on Earth, not least humans.

If we cannot rectify the amphibian extinction crisis, then what does this mean for the future of mankind?

Saving the world's amphibians is a crucial part of the puzzle in guaranteeing our own sustainable existence.

I hope we will act before it is too late for us all.

Helen Meredith is a conservation scientist from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL)

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Helen Meredith? Should we take action to prevent the decline of amphibian species? Does their survival matter? Who should provide financial support for their conservation?

It is our responsibility as a species to help the amphibians, as well as all animal and plant species, to recover as it is mostly our fault for their decline.
Joe Wright, Canterbury, England

'Of course amphibians need to be saved, we treat the world and its other inhabitants in such a cavalier fashion that we have destroyed much of its habitat and, inhabitants. Sooner or later it will no longer be able to support the Human population due to our own greed, and lack of consideration for other life forms. Who should pay to save the amphibians, we should through our governments and taxes. Its about time we started putting things right not talking about it. Big businesses should pay the most because they are the ones who have benefited most from the rape, and destruction of the world's resources.' Totally agreed. Couldn't have put it better myself! And on top of amphibians, there's such crisis in seemingly every animal group [human AND natural] right now. It's almost as if nature itself is taking back everything before we can deal the fatal blow, leaving us to die out alone [which, we kind of deserve by now]. Globally, more money needs to actually go towards people and the environment, and not to war, weaponry, fossil fuels and government / bank's pockets...
Daniel Bevis, Fleet, Hampshire, UK

It's still the same long term solution.Too many people!When will a politician have the guts to break rank and tell it like it is!
steve johnson, whitwick,leics

Obviously,it is very essential to save amphibians in our planet. As an civil engineer I am to count biodiversity while any development of infrastructure works. In view of above contexts, we treat the world and its other inhabitants in such a cavalier fashion that we have destroyed much of its habitat and, inhabitants.We should take action to prevent the decline of amphibian species.Their survival in the world is vulnerable. Richer countries are more responsible for their survival. Its about time we begun putting things right not talking about it. A government or a large business should provide financial support for their conservation.
Engr Salam, Kushtia,Bangladesh

Mankind really is flying without a net. The way we assume we know it all even when a whole class of life like the amphibians is in great distress. Creatures we can hardly list let alone know how they interact and play their part in Nature facing extinction. Dismissed with hardly a thought. We talk a lot here in the US about security. Health care security through medical insurance, security from terrorists by having a strong defense, economic security but how has that worked out? Hasn't it in truth amounted to a failure of the highest order to think small like this and to continue to dump resources into propping up failed policy. Our ability to fund important research and conservation efforts let alone start new businesses is gutted by seeking false security. Investment should be shifted to helping protect nature itself. It's got to be better than having an insurance policy that's hardly worth the paper it's written on, a military that has smart bombs that wind up making enemies or a monetary policy that let derivatives trading run rampant so a few people could get rich.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA

it is important the amphibian [all species] be given the pretective knowledge required. They were here first. so there it is,
gavin hall , wellington new zealand

100% agreed, with the concerns of the Helen. Funding amphibian protection efforts is quite necessary to enhance their numbers and to check their business in the commercial world. It's an important but a temporary solution. Unless we do not protect the wells, ponds, rivers, oceans, fields, forests and atmosphere, we would not be able to give enough space to the amphibians, necessary for their survival. If we allow our population and present form of activities to grow, with the current pace, there wouldn't be sufficient space and healthy environment left for these precious species. It's not an isolated challenge. It is 100% related with the human population and their anti-natural activities. We are relaxed by believing there are different levels of the 'catastrophes'. Those species which have already extinct from the planet, catastrophe 'started and concluded'. For the endangered specie the catastrophe is 'going on' and we are still busy in current trends by not acknowledging the catastrophe trends of the climate change. If, we can sense danger for the amphibians and other species, then, there is absolute need of urgency for human beings too.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India

It remains a mystery to me why it took so long for the scientific community to become aware of this catastrophe. I am not a trained scientist, but I became aware of a severe crash in frog populations during the middle to late 1970's. I only noticed that biologists began to mention this in print sometime in the late 1990's. No matter how many resources, financial and otherwise, can now be brought to bear on the problem, I fail to see exactly what can be done; especially in combating Chytrid fungus. What specific suggestions are there? This is not to suggest that nothing should be done, but what? I hate to be the pessimist, but I fear that humanity has progressed past the point of rescue of our fellow biological travelers upon this earth, and that we are doomed to follow them into oblivion. And it will be deservedly so.
tom, castleton, NY USA

We need to let the wilds become wild again, which means moving all human encroachment: summer homes, boating, vacation lodges. We need to recognize the finiteness of our planet and live accordingly, by recognizing not one of us owns any of the space over anybody else. When we go into the wilds we minimize our footprints, like when they climb Antarctic Mountains, even your excrement must return, and they all do this in hanging tents. At the beginning of the wilderness, we may have structured camping, with walkin as opposed to drive-in. We need an ecologically sustainable Global Societal model, where no one lives in destitution. Check out Let's change our world to show consideration for the quality of life for the next generation. Cheers, Chris Curpen
Chris Curpen, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Of course amphibians need to be saved, we treat the world and its other inhabitants in such a cavalier fashion that we have destroyed much of its habitat and, inhabitants. Sooner or later it will no longer be able to support the Human population due to our own greed, and lack of consideration for other life forms. Who should pay to save the amphibians, we should through our governments and taxes. Its about time we started putting things right not talking about it. Big businesses should pay the most because they are the ones who have benefited most from the rape, and destruction of the world's resources.
Arthur Griffiths, Capel Iwan, Carmarthenshire, Wales

although I am very sympathetic to the plight of amphibians and quite passionate about our "own" newt here, the rough skinned newt, I really cannot see fromthe article how "a mutually suportive network" is going to make much of a difference in a direct sense. It rather reminds me of the money-making "portal" idea of the great internet boom/bust period which was supposed to provide coordinated access to other individual and network sites but contributed very little by itself (and largely became extinct during the bust). More funding for amphibians, yes by all means. But the irony is that, if we include time and effort by e.g. volunteers and concnerned citizens in the $$ figure of money already expended on amphibian rescue, the bulk of it is used (and quite effectively)for amphibians in areas in what we used to call the developed world. And I cannot see that changing through the proposed effort, even if it becomes fully funded.
Paul van Poppelen, Gibsons, BC, Canada

Helen, Great article, please look at our blog, we're in this fight together! Susan
Susan Newman, Jersey City, NJ USA

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