In Madagascar, scientists have discovered up to 221 new species of frogs. Here’s the CNN report. This has led the research team to wonder if the count of 6,000 amphibian species we have assumed are on the planet are, in truth, 12,000. Excerpt:

“The diversity of species in Madagascar is far from being known and there is still a lot of scientific research to be done. Our data suggest that the number of new species of amphibians not only has been underestimated but it is spatially widespread, even in well studied areas,” said Professor David R. Vieites, CSIC researcher to the press at the Spanish National Natural Sciences Museum in Madrid.\

That should not create any false sense of security, or relief, about the plight of amphibians. Applying the new, suggested number of 12,000 species, that just means 4,000-6,000 of them could disappear in our lifetime, instead of 2,000-3,000.

Here’s a guest article by Kevin Zippel, program director for Amphibian Ark. He’s the guy who controls the operational rudder of Amphibian Ark, helping to coordinate amphibian rescue efforts of conservation groups around the world. The impetus for this article is that the Public Library of Science asked him to comment on a recently published paper in PLoS Biology (The Challenge of Conserving Amphibian Megadiversity in Madagascar):

“We are at a unique point in the history of the planet. This is not the first time one group of organisms has brought on a mass extinction event. One can look, for example, to the “oxygen holocaust” created by the first photosynthetic bacteria when the earth was half its current age. But this is the first time it is being done by organisms who, “by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence,” quipped Gould, comprehend the impact of their actions. We can either continue utilizing the short-term survival instincts that served us well in the past but are now maladaptive—growing our population exponentially and consuming the planet’s precious resources unsustainably, jeopardizing biodiversity, entire ecosystems, and the earth’s very ability to support life—or we can use our intellect to reveal long-term survival instincts, looking beyond our immediate desires to consider our long-term needs, voluntarily limiting our growth and consumption and so becoming responsible stewards of all life on earth.

“In terms of biodiversity loss, nowhere is this issue more poignant than with the Amphibia (Stuart et al. 2004). Of the ~6000 described species, 32% are threatened with extinction, likely in our lifetimes. Another 23% are so poorly known, and likely also threatened, that we can only call them Data Deficient. And with estimates of another 3000-6000 undescribed amphibian species so rare as to have avoided our detection to date, the anticipated losses in this single clade are staggering, on par with those faced by the Dinosauria 65 million years ago, an event the amphibians survived. Recent estimates suggest that the background extinction rate amphibians currently face is, on the conservative end, 200-2700 times higher than anything they have seen in their 360-million-year history (Roelants et al. 2007), and perhaps as much as 25-45 thousand times higher (McCallum 2007). This is the greatest extinction event in the history of amphibians and the greatest taxon-specific conservation challenge in the history of humanity.

“And in terms of hotspots of amphibian diversity, the new study published in PLoS Biology today by Andreone et al. rightly focus on the significance and uniqueness of the Malagasy amphibian fauna. Habitat destruction and global warming are already straining Malagasy amphibians. And with a susceptibility of at least some Malagasy amphibians to the chytrid fungus, Bd, in captivity (pers. obs.), this precious jewel of biodiversity is an open Petri dish waiting for the first spore to land. Thus the call of Andreone et al. for conservation action that is “pro-active, rather than reactive, or simply post-mortem” could not be more timely or wise. We have watched Bd impacting amphibians on every continent where they are found, and in almost every case, even when we knew where it was going and when, our response has been a salvage operation after the outbreak because we lacked the timely resources to do otherwise. This is unconscionable and unethical. As responsible stewards we must act now to safeguard biophilic havens like Madagascar, protecting key habitat areas and safeguarding in captivity those species that would otherwise succumb to threats that cannot be controlled in the wild. ACSAM is the recipe for how to proceed.

“Although as individuals we lack the money to effect the requisite changes called for by Andreone et al., we have something more powerful than money—a vote. We must demand action from the governments of the world, to support addressing this conservation crisis and all environmental ills. And if they refuse, then we must use our vote to replace them with someone who will respond appropriately. There is no political issue more paramount that protecting the future of all life on earth. The current amphibian extinction crisis in the perfect test: if we cannot perform an act so simple as saving the frogs, then what hope do we have for ourselves? Like the frogs of Madagascar, we have only one home, we are endemic to planet earth. It is time for us to start using our superior intellect for the long-term benefit of the world, of ourselves. Onward!” (Article courtesy of PLoS.)

Fascinating story on Mongabay.com about the frogs of Madagascar, including an interview with Dr. Franco Andreone, described by Mongabay as the “Renaissance-man of herpetofauna.” He is the Madagascar chair of the Amphibian Specialist Group, a major backer of Amphibian ArkDr. Andreone has written before that “Madagascar holds the potential to become a worldwide model region for a concerted and collaborative effort of researchers, institutions and NGOs to set up a system of efficient protection, study and long-term monitoring of amphibians.” Excerpts from the Mongabay story:

Mongabay: Amphibians have begun to receive increased attention from conservation organizations due to their great vulnerability–programs like EDGE and the Amphibian Ark are working specifically on amphibians. Do you think enough is being done to stave off massive amphibian extinction?

Franco Andreone: Difficult to say. In general, I believe that we will observe repeated and sometimes small local extinctions. Only the species with very small distribution areas will suffer heavily from habitat alterations and pathologies. I am thinking, for example, of high altitude endemics and species that live next to human pollutions. In other cases it will be difficult to understand the loss in terms of amphibian biodiversity. In Madagascar it’s necessary to increase collecting data in the wild, since for many species we do not even have information about the sexual dimorphism, simply because the species is known from a limited number of individuals held in natural history museums. Anyhow, amphibians will decrease in numbers all around the world, excepting, as usual, for the introduced and exotic species. I am thinking, for example, of the big cane toad (Bufo marinus), introduced in Australia; the huge bullfrog Lithobates catesbeianus, that is also a vector of the amphibian chytrid fungus; and of the African clawed frogs Xenopus laevis. These species, where introduced, have proven to be real pests. But the small and tiny frogs of the Malagasy rainforests are really next to catastrophic declines if — for example — the amphibian chytrid fungus (currently said to be absent in Madagascar) is accidentally introduced.
 

Mongabay: What can the public do to help conserve biodiversity, especially herpetofauna?

Franco Andreone: First of all it is important to increase public awareness. Education plays an important role for the public to learn that frogs, toads and salamanders are not only beautiful and interesting animals, but are part of the great diversity of life. Their protection and conservation is, in the end, the protection of our common world. Then it is important to do our best to save not only the big forests of the tropics where huge amphibian diversity is present, but also the small natural habitats that we still have in our countryside. The conservation of a small pool and the natural environments surrounding it is often a way to save important amphibian populations. Better information and a careful management of the natural habitats are the best way to conserve biodiversity all around the world. Donations to the Amphibian Specialist Group (JEFF’S NOTE: ASG is one of Amphibian Ark’s main backers.) and associate programs will help to conduct field surveys on the threatened batrachofauna, and to purchase the last fragments of focal areas for amphibians.

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