Global Action Plan Created to Fight Amphibian Extinctions

WASHINGTON, DC, September 23, 2005 (ENS) – Amphibians are the canaries in the global coal mine - and they are dying. In an effort to halt the disappearance of species after species of frogs and salamanders over the past 25 years, dozens of scientists this week mapped out a plan of action, including emergency responses to save species under the greatest threat.

The Amphibian Conservation Summit held in Washington concluded Monday with proposals to deal with the impacts of humans on amphibians - habitat loss, pollution, over-harvesting of species, and climate change. These patterns of human activity often act in combination to worsen the declines, the specialists said.

In addition, a new threat is the chytrid fungal disease Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis that kills amphibians by attacking their sensitive skins. The little known fungus was first identified six years ago and so far cannot be controlled in the wild.

To address these issues, more than 60 specialists convened by the Species Survival Commission of IUCN-The World Conservation Union Monday issued the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan declaration.

The summit was called, the scientists declared, "because it is morally irresponsible to document amphibian declines and extinctions without also designing and promoting a response to this global crisis."


Now extinct, the Southern day frog of Australia disappeared in the 1980s for reasons unknown. (Photo © Hal Cogger courtesy Frogs Australia)
The declaration responds to findings in last year’s Global Amphibian Assessment that nearly a third of the world’s amphibians are in serious trouble, with dramatic declines since the 1980s signaling one of the worst extinction crises of our time.

"We still have time to save these threatened species if appropriate conservation action is taken now," said Claude Gascon, chairman of the IUCN Global Amphibian Specialist Group and senior vice-president of Conservation International, based in Washington, DC.

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 1,856 of the 5,743 known amphibian species - almost one in three - are threatened with extinction. By comparison, one in eight birds face a similar level of threat, and one in four mammals.

The sharp decline in amphibian populations could be ominous for all life on the planet, said the scientists. Because their porous skins absorb oxygen and water, amphibians could be the first group to feel the effects of environmental degradation from pollution and climate change that are affecting humans too.

In their declaration, the scientists said that 122 species, perhaps many more, appear to have gone extinct since 1980. Further research may increase this number, since 23 percent of all species were classified as data deficient.

At least 43 percent of all amphibious species have undergone population declines, but less than one percent is increasing in population size, the scientists state.

"As a short-term response to prevent extinctions, the establishment of captive assurance colonies for the 200 or so most threatened species appears to be a promising option," said Simon Stuart, senior director of the IUCN Biodiversity Assessment Unit and leader of the Global Amphibian Assessment research.

"The good news is that the fungal disease can be eliminated from captive colonies," Stuart said.

The action plan calls for research into the control and elimination of the fungal disease in the wild, as well as greater habitat protection to maintain or re-establish viable wild amphibian populations in the future.


The eternal fascination of boy for frog show in this New Zealand pairing. (Photo courtesy University of Otago)
"Habitat destruction still remains the main threat to amphibians worldwide, and habitat conservation must continue as a priority," said Jim Collins, chair of the Declining Amphibian Population Task Force. "Amphibians often occur in relatively small areas and are more susceptible to extinction due to habitat loss or degradation than most other vertebrates."

The extinctions show a weakness in current strategies for biodiversity conservation, the scientists declared, "that habitat conservation is essential but not sufficient. Existing protected areas alone are not sufficient to protect amphibians from a growing array of threats."

The action plan adopted at the summit is divided into four key strategies - understanding the causes of declines and extinctions, documenting amphibian diversity and how it is changing, developing and implementing long-term conservation programs, and delivering emergency responses to crises.

Of the diseases known from amphibians, the fungal disease, chytridiomycosis, is clearly linked to population declines and extinctions, the scientists declared. "This fungal disease is appearing in new regions, causing rapid population disappearances in many amphibian species."

"It is the worst infectious disease ever recorded among vertebrates in terms of the number of species impacted, and its propensity to drive them to extinction," they warned.

To implement this research on disease, the scientific group decided to establish regional centers for disease diagnostics in Latin America, North America, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa.

The centers will provide free testing to field research groups, and will manage the logistics for regionally based Rapid Response Teams. A seed funding system should be created to support imaginative approaches to stopping outbreaks from spreading and preventing extinction by infection.

Captive breeding has been used successfully to conserve other species, such as the Hawaiian goose and Mallorcan midwife toad. The action plan proposes a major expansion of such programs in countries where species are the most threatened by the fungal disease.

"This is kind of a Noah's Ark situation for amphibians, particularly because of the fungus," Gascon said. "It is so deadly where it occurs, there really is no hope of saving a lot of these species if we leave them in the wild."

The IUCN Species Survival Commission now conducts three programs for amphibian conservation. At the summit, the scientists declared that in view of "the extraordinary nature of the crisis facing amphibians," the IUCN/SSC should bring these three programs together under a Amphibian Specialist Group that is focused on conservation, research and assessment with enough financing to lead implementation of the Amphibian Conservation Action Plan.