The Amphibian Extinction Crisis: Will Humans Rise to the Challenge? Guest Blog by Kevin Zippel

In a new PLoS Biology article, “The Challenge of Conserving Amphibian Megadiversity in Madagascar,” Franco Andreone et al. argue that governments and conservation organizations should invest in proactive efforts to protect amphibians in Madagascar, which harbors some of the richest groups of amphibian fauna in the world, before the populations go into decline. We asked Kevin Zippel, program director of the Amphibian Ark, created to keep “threatened amphibian species afloat” through captive management programs, to explain the value of the authors’ approach.

The Amphibian Extinction Crisis: Will Humans Rise to the Challenge? Guest Blog by Kevin Zippel

We are at a unique point in the history of the planet. This is not the first time one group of organisms has brought on a mass extinction event. One can look, for example, to the “oxygen holocaust” created by the first photosynthetic bacteria when the earth was half its current age. But this is the first time it is being done by organisms who, “by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence,” quipped Gould, comprehend the impact of their actions. We can either continue utilizing the short-term survival instincts that served us well in the past but are now maladaptive—growing our population exponentially and consuming the planet’s precious resources unsustainably, jeopardizing biodiversity, entire ecosystems, and the earth’s very ability to support life—or we can use our intellect to reveal long-term survival instincts, looking beyond our immediate desires to consider our long-term needs, voluntarily limiting our growth and consumption and so becoming responsible stewards of all life on earth.

In terms of biodiversity loss, nowhere is this issue more poignant than with the Amphibia (Stuart et al. 2004). Of the ~6000 described species, 32% are threatened with extinction, likely in our lifetimes. Another 23% are so poorly known, and likely also threatened, that we can only call them Data Deficient. And with estimates of another 3000-6000 undescribed amphibian species so rare as to have avoided our detection to date, the anticipated losses in this single clade are staggering, on par with those faced by the Dinosauria 65 million years ago, an event the amphibians survived. Recent estimates suggest that the background extinction rate amphibians currently face is, on the conservative end, 200-2700 times higher than anything they have seen in their 360-million-year history (Roelants et al. 2007), and perhaps as much as 25-45 thousand times higher (McCallum 2007). This is the greatest extinction event in the history of amphibians and the greatest taxon-specific conservation challenge in the history of humanity.

And in terms of hotspots of amphibian diversity, the new study published in PLoS Biology today by Andreone et al. rightly focus on the significance and uniqueness of the Malagasy amphibian fauna. Habitat destruction and global warming are already straining Malagasy amphibians. And with a susceptibility of at least some Malagasy amphibians to the chytrid fungus, Bd, in captivity (pers. obs.), this precious jewel of biodiversity is an open Petri dish waiting for the first spore to land. Thus the call of Andreone et al. for conservation action that is “pro-active, rather than reactive, or simply post-mortem” could not be more timely or wise. We have watched Bd impacting amphibians on every continent where they are found, and in almost every case, even when we knew where it was going and when, our response has been a salvage operation after the outbreak because we lacked the timely resources to do otherwise. This is unconscionable and unethical. As responsible stewards we must act now to safeguard biophilic havens like Madagascar, protecting key habitat areas and safeguarding in captivity those species that would otherwise succumb to threats that cannot be controlled in the wild. ACSAM is the recipe for how to proceed.

Although as individuals we lack the money to effect the requisite changes called for by Andreone et al., we have something more powerful than money—a vote. We must demand action from the governments of the world, to support addressing this conservation crisis and all environmental ills. And if they refuse, then we must use our vote to replace them with someone who will respond appropriately. There is no political issue more paramount that protecting the future of all life on earth. The current amphibian extinction crisis in the perfect test: if we cannot perform an act so simple as saving the frogs, then what hope do we have for ourselves? Like the frogs of Madagascar, we have only one home, we are endemic to planet earth. It is time for us to start using our superior intellect for the long-term benefit of the world, of ourselves. Onward!

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