A male Gastrotheca cornuta (Marsupial Frog) at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

On the way home from an Amphibian Ark Conservation Needs Assessment workshop in Guatemala, I stopped by Atlanta for a few days, primarily to work with Atlanta-based internet marketing agency, Moxie Interactive (Moxie is helping to redevelop AArk’s web site, but more about that in a future post), but I also took advantage of being in Atlanta to visit the botanical garden.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden (ABG) has been involved in a number of breeding programs for endangered Central American frog species since the late 1990s. They have been successful breeding speices such as Gastrotheca, Anotheca etc. and currently maintain over a hundred animals in various enclosures, both on display in the Fuqua Conservatory, and in off-display breding facilities.

The ABG also makes use of a specially designed “pod” for much of it’s breeding efforts. The pod has been created from an un-used shipping container, and was modelled closely on the original amphibian pod designed by Gerry Marantelli from the Amphibian Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia. You can read more about amphibian containers on the AArk web site.

The inside of the frog pod at the Atlanta Botanic Gardens

I’d like to thank ABG Amphibian Specialist, Robert, for taking the time to show me around the amphiban facilities, and I would strongly encourage people to pay a visit to the ABG to learn more about their very successful amphibian conservation program.

There are about 6,000 species of amphibians on the planet today. By the time we pass on and leave the world in our children’s hands, one-third to one-half of the species will have gone extinct. It’s projected by scientists to be the most significant mass extinction since the dinosaur. Maybe you’ve heard about this. Maybe not. But following is a straightforward accounting of the tectonic changes behind the massive, global disappearance of frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, and caecilians.  The way to act is to read up and help Amphibian Ark at www.amphibianark.org.

Chytrid, the AIDS of amphibiaChytrid is a fungal borne disease that is toxic to 80% of amphibian species. For thousands of years, it was confined to a section of Africa. The African Clawed Frog was one of the lucky 20% of species that was immune to the disease. But when the medical industry discovered African Clawed Frogs could be used as an ingenious pregnancy test for humans, they shipped the frogs out of Africa to all parts of the world. The species carried the Chytrid fungus with it, and the disease exploded. Most recently it has decimated the chicken frog population of Montserrat, and crossed the Panama Canal. Here are links to more information:

Watch for future posts that complete the five reasons:

Habitat destruction -

Pollution -

Global Warming -

Indifference -

It’s well chronicled that Panama’s amphibians are dying off because of chytrid (background on chytri click HERE). But there are steps that humans can take to slow the spread of chytrid as scientists search for a cure. Here’s a great article from Julie Ray of Examiner.com. In a nutshell, her advice is to take special steps to make sure your boots and wheels don’t accidentally spread chytrid after you visit an infected location.

Figuring out the “why”, “how”, “how fast” and “where next” behind the mass extinctions facing amphibian species is what Dr. Karen Lips does for a living. Now with the University of Maryland (previously with Southern Illinois University), Dr. Lips is a forensic ecologist. Cool job description. She has been charting the path of the spread of the killer fungus chytrid, and helping people understand what happens to ecosystems when frogs disappear. Here’s a new story about her work: read HERE. Excerpts I found interesting:

Once chytrid hits a region, the amphibian population can be wiped out within four months.”The rate of spread is about 22 km/year, so we have less than five years before they are all gone,” Lips says, referring to the remaining frog populations in Central America where she has been working as a”forensic ecologist” to predict the spread of chytrid throughout Costa Rica and Panama over the past 10 years.

“Once amphibians are eliminated from an ecosystem, everything else changes,” she explains. “Snakes disappear, algae grows, sediments accumulate and affect water quality, we don’t know yet how many of these changes are irrevocable.”

I just got an email message from Jeff Corwin (OK, a lot of people got the same email) on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife. Jeff has been a great friend to Amphibian Ark. He’s taped PSAs you can find on YouTube. He talked about Amphibian Ark and held up a Panamanian Golden Frog on the Ellen Degeneres show. Here’s the email message from him:

Dear Jeff,

Yesterday, I was in Washington, DC to testify on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

My message was simple and urgent: Within my youngest daughter’s lifetime, 20-30% of the world’s known species may be on the brink of extinction if we do not act now to address the impacts of global warming on our wildlife.

Congress has heard from me. Now they need to hear from you, Jeff.

Please send your U.S. Representative a message today and urge him or her to dedicate just 5% of the anticipated revenue from new global warming cap and trade legislation to safeguard wildlife and ecosystems in a warming world.

As a wildlife biologist and host of my own show on Animal Planet, I’ve seen the devastating effects that global warming is already having on our world’s wildlife and their habitat.

I have been to the North Pole to study the iconic polar bear, whose habitat is melting away before our eyes.

I’ve traveled the world studying the decline in the planet’s already-vulnerable amphibians – a decline that threatens up to one-third of our amphibian species. And scientists fear that climate change could dramatically accelerate these devastating losses.

But you don’t have to go to the ends of the Earth to find the effects of global warming on our wildlife. The pika and the wolverine in the Rockies, our nation’s waterfowl, even fish, shrimp and oysters are already in trouble.

Join me in urging Congress to protect wildlife threatened by global warming. Please send a message to your U.S. Representative today.

As a biologist, I firmly believe that we should not only reduce carbon emissions that are fueling global warming, but also expand our scientific understanding of global warming’s impacts on the living world.

Without this knowledge, we cannot develop and implement an effective strategy to safeguard our precious wildlife in a warming world. Please urge Congress to take action for our wildlife today.

These are exhilarating and challenging times that we live in. But with the help of caring people like you, I know we can secure the resources, knowledge and action that we need to give our vulnerable wildlife a better chance to survive the threat of global warming.

Sincerely,

Jeff Corwin

What Jennifer Holland has reported in National Geographic is one of the best summaries of the amphibian crisis I have read. The photos are beautiful, the anecdotes fresh and unforgettable. You need to read it. Click HERE.

A terrific story in Friday’s Christian Science Monitor (story HERE) reports on the valiant efforts to stave off amphibian extinctions in Panama. The story details the work of a Panamanian with the tattoo of a toad on his calf who has teamed with a Wisconsin woman who used to be in the Peace Corps. The ravages of chytrid are detailed. A very good read. Good to see the connection to Amphibian Ark, and good to see quotes from the Ark’s Kevin Zippel.

Great to see Dr. Karen Lips comment on the Panama Canal breach of the frog-killing fungus. This is from The Scientist, specifically from a post dated Oct. 17 (full story here):

“The findings are a concern because it means the fungus will continue to move through eastern Panama, and we only have a [limited time] to do what we can to save the frogs, collect data, watch,” Karen Lips, herpetologist at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, who monitors frogs populations in Panama, told The Scientist in an Email.

“There has never been any evidence that anything can stop the spread” of the fungus, Lips said. “It made it through Mexico and the Nicaraguan depression, so the narrow strip that is the canal is no significant barrier, nor did we expect it to be.”

Although the fungus may have spread across the canal on its own, the paper suggests that humans facilitated its jump across the canal, added Lips.

Have to admit it: I’m not a world traveler, and didn’t really appreciate just how short a “jump” that chytrid infected frogs would have had to make to get on the canal’s eastern side. This video does a good job of showing how narrow the channel gets. (Sorry, video takes about 20 seconds to start, but it’s worth it.)

See two posts below for the reason I’m showing this to you.

When the Titanic hit the iceberg, the crew first told the passengers not to worry. And now that scientists have discovered that a frog killing fungus has somehow jumped the Panama Canal into eastern Panama, they’re explaining it to us in calm, collected prose: “Our results suggest that Panama’s diverse and not fully described amphibian communities east of the canal are at risk. Precise predictions of future disease emergence events are not possible until factors underlying disease emergence, such as dispersal, are understood. However, if the fungal pathogen spreads in a pattern consistent with previous disease events in Panama, then detection of Bd at Tortı´ and other areas east of the Panama Canal is imminent.”

Somebody please sound the alarm and get the frogs into the lifeboats. (More on that in a second.) The discovery that the chytrid fungus has hopped the Panama Canal is the equivalent of a stock market crash for amphibians, and it should strike fear in the heart of every conservationist. Central and South America are home to the planet’s critical mass of ampihbian species.

I’ll be writing about the discovery more in future posts, but for now, go to the scientists’ report in EcoHealth here.

Scientists have feared for some time that the canal would not hold back the spread of chytrid, which clogs amphibians’ delicate skin and basically chokes them to death because they breath through their miraculous skin. This disease, which is indigenous to southern Africa, was accidentally spread around the world in the mid 1900s. The African clawed frog, also indigenous to southern Africa, is immune to the disease and when the medical world discovered the species could be used as a pregnancy test — details here – it was shipped around the world, carrying the disease with it. Chytrid is fatal to 80 percent of amphibian species and has vanquished more than 100 species over the past 20 years.

Which brings us to Amphibian Ark, the organization I support that is in charge of the plan to avert the mass extinction of amphibian species. Studies predict that up to half of the 6,000 amphibian species will go extinct in our lifetime unless emergency measures are taken. It’s not just chytrid killing them off, but also habitat loss, pollution, and global warming. Amphibian Ark organizes zoos and conservation organizations to pluck the most endangered species from the wild, before they vanish, and put them into the “protective custody” of biosecure containers (or “lifeboats”) for breeding. Once the species are brought back to a critical mass population, they can be reintroduced into the wild.

It costs $100,000 to do the work and build the facilities to save one amphibian species. It’s a bargain.

I don’t think I’ve written such a “dramatic” post in this blog, but folks, if there was ever a time to get fired up and take action, this is the moment. The Panama Canal jump is a major breach.

Find out how to help at Amphibian Ark’s Web site. Tell other people. Please. More soon. Can you believe this is happening during the year of the frog?

(I’m grateful for the scientists’ discovery of the Panama Canal jump and don’t mean to be critical of the way they’re writing about the discovery. I know these scientists are passionate about saving amphibians. They’ve just been trained to write in science speak. That’s their job.)

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