Experts


Last week, I was thrilled to be working with Dr. Roberto Ibanez from the Smithsonian Institute and Heidi Ross and Edgardo Griffith, from the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, to administer a three-day husbandry essentials workshop in El Valle de Anton, Panama.

Consulting instructors Allan Pessier (San Diego Zoo), Brad Wilson (Veterinarian, Atlanta), Robert Hill (Atlanta Botanical Garden) and Joe Mendelson (Zoo Atlanta) also attended and participated in lectures and hand’s on demonstrations aimed at training staff and students in the essential husbandry techniques for maintaining assurance populations of endangered amphibians at facilities in Panama.

The collaborative efforts of the Panamanian Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project (www.amphibianrescue.org) being launched at the Summit Zoo outside of Panama city aims to rescue dozens of species utilizing biosecure shipping containers and down the line to provide animals for important chytrid research in situ. Working at this facility, some of the students participating in this workshop will become the next stewards of panamanian amphibians.

Check out this Toledo Blade story about the Toledo Zoo’s plans for a biosecure facility to provide safe harbor for disappearing salamanders and other amphibians. Here’s a telling quote from R. Andrew Odum, the zoo’s herpetology curator: “Researchers are going back to areas [that had] enormous numbers of salamanders, and they’re gone completely.” 

This is the kind of initiative that needs to happen around the world, and Amphibian Ark  with 2008: The Year of the Frog will be the catalyst.

The Amphibian Network of South Asia and Zoo Outreach Organisation (Z.O.O) continue to build awareness in India about the crisis and Amphibian Ark in this nice article on the amphibian crisis …and this one, too.

Have you heard the expression, “It’s like building an airplane while you’re taking off”? That’s a fitting metaphor for the Amphibian Ark. The looming mass extinction of amphibians, and the connection to chytrid, are relatively recent discoveries. You see the problem, you think really hard about what to do, you come up with an emergency plan to avert the disaster — and then you need to basically run for office to raise the money to implement the plan. By money, we’re talking $50-60 million.

So while there are too many heroes behind the story of Amphibian Ark to mention right now, there was one of them, Kevin Zippel, pressing the flesh last week at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. Everybody recognizes that a huge call to action has to be made, to convince corporations, foundations, and governments to write the big checks needed to do the job. The wildlife documentary makers, and the networks that broadcast them, must be sirens for the cause. And to that particular crowd, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival is their Sundance.

So, there was Kevin, the Amphibian Ark’s architect who goes by the title of program officer, meeting with gatekeepers for National Geographic, Smithsonian, Discovery, Animal Planet, Nature, and several international media organizations. Armed with a one-page overview of Amphibian Ark, Kevin stumped for frogs. His opening line? “Hi, I’m Kevin, and I’m building an ark.” If Kevin were single, I bet that would be a very effective pickup line.

Thankfully, there was a tremendous outpouring of support at Jackson Hole for what the Ark will do.

The big finale was when Kevin was one of just a handful of people invited to present their cause at the Global Environmental Summit event on Saturday. Reminiscent of Al Gore and his “Inconvenient Truth” presentation, Kevin provided a primer on the amphibian crisis supported by a simple PowerPoint slide show. We’re working with the incredibly generous executive director of the Festival, Lisa Samford, to soon offer a video podcast of Kevin’s presentation.

With the “almost Hollywood” experience behind him, Kevin’s back at work coordinating the logistics for what will be one of the largest conservation efforts ever.

Here in St. Louis, the mosquitoes seem to buzz around longer into the fall than they used to. West Nile virus cases (see cool map from Centers for Disease Control) have been reported often over the past month. Meanwhile, frogs are eerily going silent aa they face a mass extinction (the aversion of which is the mission of Amphibian Ark). Is there a connection?

I posed the question to entomologist Joseph Conlon, who is a technical advisor to the American Mosquito Control Association. His take? There isn’t much of a connection:

“There have been a few anecdotal reports of tadpoles consuming mosquito larvae in containers, probably a result of having no other food sources.  I’m aware of no published field studies that would establish this as a norm, though.  Adult frogs, as you are aware, will consume anything that comes their way and, no doubt, mosquitoes sometimes fall prey to them.  Whether they constitute even a marginal control on mosquito populations is rather problematic.  An overnight camping visit to the Florida Everglades, which has a burgeoning amphibian population, would tend to convince anyone (who has been nearly exsanguinated) to downplay their role in mosquito population dynamics. That being said, frogs are cool – and beautiful in their own right.  Whatever is causing their decline should be studied with an eye toward finding a way to reverse their fortunes.  Unfortunately, anti-pesticide activists are using this issue as a way to (quite wrongfully – and without a shred of scientific merit) advance their agenda.  Hopefully, cooler scientific minds will prevail and a way will be found to reestablish amphibian roles in the eco-community.”

But Kraig Adler, PhD, in a comprehensive article about amphibians, writes that:

“The international trade in frogs’ legs is enormous and mostly originates in southern Asia and the East Indies. The wild capture of so many frogs, which are insectivores, has resulted in growing populations of mosquitoes and other insects in these countries.”

So, the anecdotal answer from the Everglades is that the connection is slight; the evidence from Asia is, yes, there’s a connection. And just when you want to call it a stalemate, you learn that the amazing skin of frogs could hold the key to new, powerful mosquito repellents. Talk about changing the debate. The University of Adelade tested the  secretions from the dumpy tree frog on mice; those mice were bite-free four times longer than mice that were offered no protection.  The researchers summarized: “The discovery highlights the potential of the unsung properties of amphibian skin.” Here’s the full story.

Captive breeding is nothing new, but it’s become a bigger, hotter topic now that the amphibian crisis has emerged. You’ll be introduced below to Richard Frankham, a top researcher from Australia. He wrote last year:  “For terrestrial vertebrates alone, it has been estimated that approximately 2000–3000 species may have to be captive-bred. The recent amphibian crisis has approximately doubled this number.”

A rush of articles, including one a few hours ago on the BBC News site, is exploring the question: can captive-bred wildlife survive when reintroduced into the wild? This is a fundamental question for a program like Amphibian Ark. Before I review the scholarly discussion, let’s review the four hops to the Amphibian Ark plan:

  1. Amphibian Ark arranges for about 50 of a near-extinct species to be placed into “protective custody.”
  2. After the species is plucked from the rainforest, or the mountain, the amphibians are placed in biosecure facilities in different parts of the globe (so that an outbreak of disease in one facility can’t deliver a species coup de grace).
  3. The frogs are bred, and multiply. At the same time, now that they’re in protective custody, scientists can methodically search for an answer to amphibian chytrid fungus.
  4. Once the external threats are neutralized — i.e., the scourge of chytrid has been neutralized somehow, and habitat has been protected from, well, “us” — the species is returned to the wild.

But what if it takes two, five, ten generations before the outside world is fit again for the amphibians? Will the species have lost its survival gene?

The first article on this I came across is from David T Suzuki, PhD, chair of the David Suzuki Foundation,  and Dr. Faisal Moola, the foundation’s director of science.  First of all, you need to know the article is about captive breeding in general, not amphibians specifically. But the article states, “Saving a species from extinction may well require captive breeding. But it’s really a Hail Mary pass to the future. Without habitat, a species is a mere caricature of what it is in the wild. The longer creatures are in captivity, the less likely they will be to ever survive on their own, even if we manage to stop destroying their homes. And that makes saving their homes all that more important in the first place.”

Dr. Suzuki referenced in his paper an article in Molecular Biology by the aforementioned Richard Frankham, emeritus professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University in Australia. Here is the full text of Frankham’s paper.  The upshot is that he was studying the impact of captive breeding for all sorts of animals — fish, wild rats, amphibians, turkeys, plants, etc. 

Just learning a little about this topic makes a novice, like me, wonder if placing frogs in captivity is just a posptonement of inevitable extinction — after all, wildlife make genetic adjustments to living under house arrest that seem to render them too wimpy to go back to the old neighborhood.

EMAILS FROM THE EXPERTS

 So I was fortunate to have been put in touch with Professor Frankham, who happens to be at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, this week. I asked him to provide some perspective on captive breeding as it applies to amphibians, and the Amphibian Ark project. What he emailed to me was heartening:

“Here are a few observations [from memory, as I am travelling and away from primary sources]:

  1. My populations were in captivity for 50 generations. The decline in wild fitness was relatively linear — e.g., (from an original pool of 500 animals, the wild fitness) declined at an average of 1.7% per generation. They have 14% relative fitness cf wild after 50 generations. 
  2. …(but) the populations rapidly readapted to the ‘wild’ — in 14 generations their fitness rose to 70% of that of the wild population, a 5x increase.
  3. I am strongly in favour of captive breeding as it is the only option to save many species.
  4. What I am trying to do is to provoke an improvement in captive breeding methods so they minimise genetic adaptation to captivity, while retaining as much genetic diversity as possible.”

The chairman of IUCN’s Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, Robert C. Lacy, was quoted in the BBC News story. Here are some additional thoughts he emailed to me:

  • “(Let’s not forget) that Frankham’s studies covered something like 80 generations in captivity. Breed something that long in captivity and it will indeed be genetically unsuitable for release back into the wild. My own work (on Peromyscus mice) shows noticeable adaptation to captivity after just 9 generations. This is faster than I would have expected, but still does not preclude saving something for a handful of generations in protective care.
  • Natural selection (to captive conditions) can indeed be a problem. But it is also the solution. Frankham’s own work suggests that although the captive stocks of his flies had low fitness under wild conditions, within just a few generations back in wild conditions they significantly readapted to the wild conditions. This means that we will need to expect a lot of losses on initial reintroductions. It also means that preserving genetic variation during captive generations is absolutely critical (as that variation is essential for future adaptation).
  • The considerable number of populations and species that have been successfully reestablished from captive stocks (peregrine falcons, Arabian oryx, red wolves, Puerto Rican toads, lion tamarins, etc.) indicates that if captive breeding to prevent extinction is a “hail Mary pass” (and that characterization does have some validity to it), then it is a pass that is often caught for a touchdown. Of course, Suzuki is quite right that the strategy is a last chance (like a Hail Mary pass — but that is what amphibians are facing), and that protection of the wild habitat and reversal or amelioration of the original threats is absolutely essential if there will be any long-term conservation benefit of the short-term captive rescue.
  • Indeed, one point that Frankham emphasized recently was that one reason that we need to do more to learn about and manage the effects of selection in captivity is because captive breeding has become the last chance for so many amphibian species (and some other species).
  • Moreover, it is possible to design breeding protocols that will minimize (but not stop altogether) the rate of adaptation to captivity. Dick Frankham has made some good suggestions for breeding protocols that would help us do this, and he has noted that the protocols are ones (such as maintaining each species subdivided among a number of sites) that should be possible to implement in zoos. I think that we do need to make sure that our captive breeding programs are well designed and scientifically rigorous, so that we don’t end up producing a bunch of animals that have no future.”

Fantastic story a few days ago of a British scientist who found a species believed to be extinct. It’s the brown and metallic-green tree frog (Isthomhyla rivularis).  Zoologist Andrew Gray,  curator at the Manchester Museum, made the miracle discovery in Costa Rica. He heard a frog call he didn’t recognize and climbed a tree to make the astounding discovery. He photographed the frog and released it, but vows to start a breeding program there next year. Hope Amphibian Ark is fully funded next year to help him pay the bills!  It’s great when these discoveries occur — like in May 2006 when the painted frog was reclaimed from the extinct list by Professor Carlos Rocha.

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