Researchers in Canada have found, for the first time ever, a photosynthetic symbionts in a vertebrate. A unicellular green alga,was found living INSIDE the cells of developing Spotted salamander embryos while still in the eggs! How these algae get inside vertebrate cells has not been determined. However, previous research showed that eggs that did not contain algae in the surrounding jelly mass were slower to develop than those which had algae present.
There are ways in which vertebrate cells eliminate foreign material and this discovery could help scientists explore what regulates this process.

Read more at:

In February I facilitated an amphibian Conservation Needs Assessment workshop for Guatemalan species, at the Museum of the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City. Participants at the workshop were Carlos Vasquez, Jonathan Campbell (Guatemalan Regional Chair of the IUCN/SSC Amphibian Specialist Group), Ted Papenfuss , Manuel Acevedo, Roderico Anzueto , Liza García, Jacobo Conde, Alejandra Zamora and Gustavo Ruano. 

During the workshop, 142 Guatemalan species were evaluated by the participants to assess actions that are required to ensure their survival, with species falling into one or more of six different conservation roles:

  • 34 species requiring rescue – Species that are in imminent danger of extinction (locally or globally) and requires ex situ management, as part of an integrated program, to ensure their survival.
  • 42 species requiring in situ conservation – Species for which mitigation of threats in the wild may still bring about their successful conservation.
  • 58 species requiring in situ research – Species that for one or more reasons require further in situ research to be carried out as part of the conservation action for the species. One or more critical pieces of information is not known at this time.
  • 12 species requiring ex situ research – Species undergoing specific applied research that directly contributes to the conservation of the species, or a related species, in the wild (this would include clearly defined ‘model’ or ‘surrogate’ species).
  • 12 species suited to conservation education – Species that are specifically selected for management – primarily in zoos and aquariums – to inspire and increase knowledge in visitors, in order to promote positive behavioural change. For example, when a species is used to raise financial or other support for field conservation projects (this would include clearly defined ‘flagship’ or ‘ambassador’ species).
  • 37 species which do not currently require conservation action

Workshop participants assessing the conservation needs of Guatemalan amphibians.

At the end of the workshop, participants discussed the results, and the next steps that are required. Further in situ research work is currently underway, with a number of universities currently involved in field research. Interest is high in holding an amphibian husbandry workshop in Guatemala over the coming months to increase the in-country capacity to establish successful ex situ conservation programs.

A proposal is currently being drafted to seek support for a small amphibian conservation breeding and display facility, with display facilities for one or two common frog and salamander species, and an off-display area where husbandry skills can be increased, and several species can be established for captive breeding.

Funds for the workshop were generously provided by the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Fund, and we are grateful for their support for this workshop.

The detailed results from the workshop can be found on the Amphibian Ark’s data portal.

If you’re familiar with the amphibian crisis, you know that between one-third and one-half of all species could disappear in our lifetime unless efforts like Amphibian Ark can rally the planet to avert what would be the most significant mass extinction since the dinosaur. But this statistic reported in, about the decline of salamanders in Central America, is particularly sobering and alarming: “Overall the average number of salamanders documented by researchers per visit … fell from nearly 80 in the 1970s to 1.8 between 2005 and 2007, a drop of 98 percent.” For the full story, click HERE. It was great to post recently about new amphibian species discoveries in Colombia and India, but this story jolts us back to the grim trend.

Dr. Jeffrey Bonner, CEO of the St. Louis Zoo, was published in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article Saturday that connects the endangered Hellbender salamander’s reproductive problem to something in the water that also may be lowering the sperm count of men living around the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in the middle of the United States. Fascinating read. Here’s link to story, and here are excerpts:

About 12 years ago, scientists realized that our native hellbenders had virtually stopped reproducing. The mature ones were doing fine, but offspring were not being born in substantial numbers. In laboratory tests, trace amounts of herbicides (which are present in the bodies of rural Missouri men) can cause male frogs to turn into hermaphrodites, creatures with male and female sex organs. Worse, the herbicides can cause those changes at concentrations of about one-tenth of a part per billion — 30 times lower than those deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Of equal concern is many of the common drugs we consume. Their contents pass through our bodies, into sewage treatment plants and back into our rivers and streams. Estrogen, the active ingredient in many birth control pills, is one of these. In frogs, low levels of estrogen cause exposed tadpoles to become female; under normal conditions, half develop female and half develop male.

The article explains what may be happening as we go to the bathroom near Missouri’s streams, which are popular places for canoeing. But how does what’s in the water affect us, directly?

In 2003, the authors of a study of Missouri men found a strong link between trace amounts of herbicides in the men’s urine and the quality of their semen. The authors concluded that men were exposed to the herbicides through public drinking water. We need to pay much more attention to what we’re putting into our water, whether they be small streams or mighty rivers. We need to be careful of how we dispose of our waste oil, paint and solvents, careful of how much water we consume, careful to practice the best agricultural practices possible. We need to consider that a tiny bit of something that someone has poured (or excreted) into the water upstream can easily enter our bodies. And a tiny bit of something we put in our water can be ingested by someone in New Orleans.

You learn something every day. I didn’t know that the Great Smoky Mountains in the U.S. are regarded by many to be the salamander capital of the world. No wonder the Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Zoo, and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources agency are concerned, to say the least, about the spread of chytrid and pressures on amphibian species in the state. Full story from Chattanooga Times Free Press is here. Key excerpts:

The fungus has been documented in Tennessee salamanders, but not yet in frogs, though surveyors have found the fungus in frogs in Georgia within the last year…

Pandy English, a wildlife diversity coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said frogs and salamanders are the new “canaries in the coal mine.” “They are bioindicators,” she said. “If they are dying off then there could be toxins or other things going on that we need to know about.” 

Tennessee’s 56 species of salamanders, a close cousin to the frog, “are in a way really more of a concern than the frogs because we have many species that are found nowhere else in the world,” said herpetologist Lisa Powers, owner and operator of Frog Haven Farm near Nashville.

Contrary to the report, though, the source of chytrid fungus really isn’t a mystery. It’s indigenous to southern Africa and was accidentally exported around the world in the mid 1900s. Here’s previous post on that.

I came across this terrific article by St. Louis Zoo President and CEO Jeffrey Bonner. Jeffrey has helped pull together the whole Year of the Frog campaign and is one of the top three overseeing activity of Amphibian Ark.

What do we lose if we lose the frogs?

“Kings Play Chess On Fancy Glass Stools.”
Anyone know that sentence? It’s a mnemonic device, a shorthand way of remembering the categories scientists use to classify all life on Earth. The first letters of each word are the keys: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species.
Now, if I said that half of an entire kingdom was going to become extinct in the next five years — say, the animal kingdom — there would be widespread global panic. Little wonder, as it would be the end of life on this planet as we know it.
On the other hand, if I told you that we just lost another species, you might shrug your shoulders. You might figure that losing a single species is a little like popping a rivet on an airplane. Planes have oodles of rivets. You wouldn’t want to lose too many, and you wouldn’t want lose an important one — like the last rivet holding the wing on. But losing an occasional rivet isn’t exactly catastrophic.
Where we have problems is toward the middle of our categories. For example, what if we only lose half a “class” of animals? A class isn’t as broadly encompassing as a kingdom or a phylum, but it takes in a lot more than a species or a genus. Is losing half a class a catastrophe, or is it just another popped rivet?
Well, we’re about to find out. In the next five to ten years, about half of the different kinds of animals that make up the class known as amphibians probably will become extinct.
There are about 6,000 known species in the class of amphibians: frogs, toads and salamanders take in most of them. As I write this, 32 percent of those 6,000 are threatened, and another 23 percent are believed to be threatened. (We don’t have quite enough data to make the call with absolute certainty.)
Amphibians face many of the same problems that other threatened species face: habitat loss, climate change, pollution and so on. But they also face a unique challenge. There is a fungus, which was born in Africa, that is sweeping our planet. It’s called the chytrid fungus, and wherever it arrives, it kills about 80 percent of the amphibians in the area within a year. It is lethal only at certain altitudes, so it won’t destroy all of the world’s amphibians, but more than half is a pretty conservative estimate.
Scientists working with the St. Louis Zoo just confirmed that it’s here in Missouri. The fungus cannot be stopped in the wild. Our only hope is to get to the amphibians before the fungus arrives and bring them into zoos and aquariums for breeding and safe-keeping. The hope is that the fungus subsequently will run its course, after which the animals can be released again. Call it “protective custody.”
We do not know what the assault of the chytrid fungus means for the web of life that sustains us. Frogs and their kin are both predators and prey. They are critically important in sustaining the delicate balance of nature. But are they just another rivet or do they keep the wings on the plane?
The skin of amphibians is more permeable than ours — things pass through it fairly easily — so they have developed some unique biological strategies to protect themselves. For example, their skin produces a wide variety of substances that kill microbes and viruses.
Last year 14 of these substances, taken from just a handful of different frog species, were tested in a lab; three of the 14 showed a remarkable capacity to completely inhibit HIV infection. I was surprised that a discovery that shows such promise for inhibiting the mucosal transmission of AIDS didn’t make the news, but maybe I shouldn’t be: The fact that we’re going to have some very silent nights on this planet in just a few short years hasn’t attracted much attention, either.
Contemplating the silence that will replace the thunderous evening chorus of amphibians’ calls is bad enough. Even worse is that with the loss of those species, we will lose so many cures for so many things. And it is worse still to imagine what losing half of the world’s species of amphibians may mean as we struggle to keep our living airplane from disintegrating.
When I studied biology in high school, I had a delightful mental image of those Kings Playing Chess while sitting On those Fancy Glass Stools. Now it turns out that we are very much like those kings: idling away our time when we should be responding to a horrible threat to our kingdom.
It is not too late to save many — perhaps most, maybe even all — of the amphibians. They are comparatively easy to find and keep healthy in zoos and aquariums until it’s safe to release them back into the wild.
The Saint Louis Zoo, for example, has returned thousands of Puerto Rican crested toad tadpoles to the pools of their homeland. We also are working in Ecuador to create a survival center in Quito, and we have teamed up with other zoos to create a survival center in rural Georgia for amphibians of North America.
And right here, at one of the centers of the zoo’s WildCare Institute, we are working to save Missouri’s rapidly declining population of hellbender salamanders.
In this struggle, time is short, and we need your awareness and support. Call us at the Zoo, and we’ll tell you how you can help.
Jeffrey P. Bonner is president and chief executive of the St. Louis Zoo.
Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Copyright 2006 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Courtesy of

This story out of San Francisco says salamanders have survived past periods of global warming, but perhaps not do so well this time. It is interesting that salamanders represent four of the 10 highest priority species of amphibians that need to be rescued in Europe and the Middle East, according to Amphibian  Ark.

Amphibian Ark has started providing me with lists of the species most in need of being placed in protective custody — meaning, they can’t be saved in the wild and need to be placed with zoos and other host locations before they disappear. Here’s the first installment — the European “highest priority” list.

As funds become available, the species listed below will be among the first to hop onto the Ark. Click on the species name and you’ll go to a page that tells more. 


Neurergus kaiseri (Luristan newt) — Iran
Rana cf. holzi (Taurus frog) — Turkey
Alytes muletensis (Mallorcan midwife toad)– Spain
Neurergus microspilotus (salamander) — Iran/Iraq/Turkey border
Batrachuperus gorganensis (Gorgan salamander) — Iran
Liciasalamandra billae (salamander) — Turkey
Pelobates varaldii (Varaldi’s spadefoot toad)  – Morocco
Euproctus platycephalus (Sardinian brook salamander) – Italy
Proteus anguinus parkelj (Black olm) — Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Italy, Slovenia
Discoglossus montalenti (Corsican painted frog) — Corsica

Once in their biosecure facility, their new home, the species will be bred under the care of experts. Amphibian Ark falls under the auspices of the IUCN Amphibian Conservation Action Plan, so as each species multiplies, the root problems for its near extinction will be analyzed by a bigger scientific team, hopefully resulting in breakthroughs so that the species can return to the wild.

There are, arguably, three great questions about the amphibian crisis. The good news is that all are being researched.

  1. How can we slow down, even neutralize, the ravage of species caused by amphibian chytrid fungus? This naturally occurring fungus broke out of Africa 60-or-so years ago on the backs and littled webbed feet of the African Clawed Frog which was being exported as a human pregnancy test. It’s lethal to most species it contacts, resulting in a thinning of frog families to the  point that the few remaining males and females can’t find each other to mate.
  2. What is the cause-and-effect of global warming on this mass extinction? If chytrid is the cryptonite to frogs, are warmer temperatures a steroid shot for chytrid? Or, are amphibians just getting worn out by the heat and, in such a weakened state, more susceptible to all sorts of diseases and enemies?
  3. What happens to ecosystems when amphibians disappear because of #1 and #2? In other words, what is the role of frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, and caecilians in the food web? When you remove them from an acre of rainforest, or a bubbling brook, what happens to the populations of insects, fish, snakes, lizards, birds. What happens to plant life? Answer this, definitively, and just watch the funds for Amphibian Ark and the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan roll in from foundations and companies that care about general conservation and hunting and fishing. 

(The effects of pollution is probably the fourth big question, I know, but so much has already been figured out about that.)

Let me introduce the research team (the only team?) that is studying The Big Three Questions. The team is led by Karen Lips, an associate professor in the Department of Zoology at Southern Illinois University (SIU Carbondale). She charted the path that chytrid has cut through Central America and presented her insights about the fungus at the recently convened chytrid conference in Tempe, Arizona.  Next summer the team resumes studying climate change impacts, and they’ll even safely remove amphibian species from small ecosystems to chronicle what happens to the food web. Here’s her Web page that toplines some of her research

(Pass this along, please...) It’s a simple idea: Make this a “hop til you drop” holiday shopping season, and set aside a small portion of your spending for a green gift to save frogs and other amphibians that, otherwise, are hopping toward the most significant mass extinction since the dinosaurs. Last month, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) reported that:

“Species are becoming extinct a hundred times faster than the rate shown in the fossil record. Of the major vertebrate groups that have been assessed comprehensively, over 30 percent of amphibians, 23 percent of mammals and 12 percent of birds are threatened.”

The good news is, there is a logical, relatively simple plan to avert the amphibian extinction crisis. It’s called Amphibian Ark. More about that in a second.

Let’s say you’re that mythical, average person who told National Retail Federation pollsters that you plan to spend $923 on gifts this season.  A gift of only $50 to a wildlife cause represents just 5 percent of that amount. (Honestly, would you really miss it all that much?) If 2,000 people did that — let’s see, that’s one of every 151,500 people who live in the United States — it would raise $100,000, or enough to save a species like the Mountain Yellow Legged Frog of California.

Amphibian Ark brings the most threatened amphibian species into “protective custody” before they disappear due to loss of habitat, pollution, and even an “amphibian chytrid fungus” that’s spreading across the planet, possibly exacerbated by global warming (Kermit’s right: it’s not easy being green). Amphibian Ark puts the species in dedicated, biosecure facilities at zoos, aquariums, and other institutions around the world for safekeeping and breeding. These rescued amphibians will be reintroduced into the wild when the original threats have been controlled.

Amphibian Ark is a joint effort of three credible, proven conservation organizations — the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), the IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG), and the IUCN/SSC Amphibian Specialist Group (ASG).

If you’re ready to hop til you drop before you shop til you drop, you can make a donation at this Web site: But if for whatever reason frogs or salamanders aren’t your scene, do some research and give to a wildlife organization that’s making a difference.

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