International effort to raise awareness of potential amphibian extinction begins Feb. 29.
Through an international effort, 2008 has been declared the “Year of the Frog,” and it will launch on leap day, Feb. 29. The Year of the Frog is part of a global effort to bring attention to the decline of frog, toad and salamander populations worldwide. Zoos, aquariums and government agencies including the Missouri Department of Conservation are making efforts to educate the public through various programs and exhibits. Nearly one-third of the approximately 6,000 known species of amphibians in the world are in serious decline. If action is not taken, nearly 500 species will go extinct in five years, St. Louis Zoo president Dr. Jeffery Bonner said. “We’ve never seen an extinction this broad before,” Bonner said. Bonner compares this potential extinction of such a vast array of species unequal to anything since the age of dinosaurs. There are 24 species of frogs in Missouri. None are classified as endangered. However, the northern leopard frog, northern crawfish frog, wood frog, Illinois chorus frog and eastern spadefoot frog are considered rare, which is only one classification up from endangered, Missouri Department of Conservation herpetologist Jeff Briggler said. Why should people care? People should be concerned about the broad extinction of species because amphibians are indicators of the environment’s overall health and are important components of ecosystems, Bonner said. Amphibians are contributors to human health, they provide vital biomedicine, including compounds that are being refined for analgesics and antibiotic. As an example of what medicine can be produced and lost, Bonner described the Australian gastric-brooding frogs that became extinct in the mid-1980s. These frogs incubated their offspring in the stomach of the mother. The frogs secrete a chemical that would shut down the mother’s digestive system. This would have huge medicinal benefits for obesity and ulcers among other uses. All medical uses died with the frog’s extinction, Bonner said. Another example Bonner used to describe the incredible medicinal value of frogs is a potential cure for HIV. Fourteen frog species were randomly chosen, four of the frogs produced a peptide that kills the HIV virus without damaging cells, Bonner said. Frogs also play a vital role in the food chain. They are both predator and prey. They help control insect populations and are a food source for many larger animals, Briggler said. What has contributed to this massive decline in such a broad range of species? According to Bonner, one of the main factors leading to the potential extinction of 500 species is chytrid fungus. Chytrid fungus is thought to have originated in South Africa. In the 1930s, it was discovered that the African clawed frog could be used as a pregnancy test for humans by injecting the frog with female urine. If the frog produced eggs within 24 hours, the test was positive. The frogs remained alive after the test and could be reused. Through this discovery, frogs were distributed across the globe by the thousands. The chytrid fungus can not be seen on the frog or in the water, making it difficult to manage. The frogs must be swabbed inside their mouths to discover the killer fungus. Scientists still do not know the exact reason why this fungus is killing frogs in mass numbers, Bonner said. The fungus kills about 85 to 90 percent of a species. This means the survivors are walking dead if they can not find others within their species to breed with. However, this also means that 10 to 15 percent are unaffected or immune to the fungus, Bonner said. The other leading cause to the decline in the worldwide amphibian population is destruction of habitat. Wetlands across the country and globe have been drained or replaced. Wetlands are necessary for frogs to lay eggs, Briggler said. What is being done to save the 500 species that are endangered? Bonner also is the executive chairman of Amphibian Ark. The AArk is a joint effort of three principal partners: the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, and the IUCN/SSC Amphibian Specialist Group. These groups recently met in Washington D.C. to address this pending issue with Congress, Bonner said. This issue crosses the political aisle. Bonner said Republicans and Democrats were receptive to addressing this issue. Bonner said $40 million could ensure the survival of all 500 species by placing them into a global breeding program. “We’ve been very successful with reintroducing frogs,” Bonner said. “They can live for generations in captivity and are just fine when placed back in the wild. They are simple in that way.” What can I do to help? To help with the health of frogs in your immediate area, refrain from using pesticide and herbicides. Frogs absorb everything through their skin and additional chemicals can have adverse effects to their health, Bonner said. People can make a small pond without fish to provide a habitat for frogs to lay their eggs, Briggler said. Bonner recommends expressing concerns about this issue to legislators. Both suggest contributing money to foundations or zoos participating in breeding programs. Beginning Feb. 29, the St. Louis Zoo will open a new comprehensive exhibit called “Awesome Amphibians” that will showcase more than 150 frogs, toads, newts, salamanders and caecilians. The exhibit will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through 2008. The Missouri Department of Conservation plans to kick off the Year of the Frog with special programs and events at nature centers around the state. On the Net: www.amphibianark.org Contact this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.