Whither Frogs?

by kespeland on February 29, 2008

Last week, I reported on how zoos are adding or changing exhibits to address climate change, with a focus on arctic themes. As global warming threatens, for instance, polar bears, zoos will still have a healthy, well-managed population – or at least, that’s the plan. However, it’s not so feasible to return the bears to the wild after they’ve been in captivity. Not so with frogs.

From the “Year of the Frog” Web siteScientists report that nearly half the world’s 6000+ known amphibian species face extinction. And one of the major drivers of that extinction–a fatal fungus– just isn’t well enough understood to tackle in the wild. So for now, a frog species’ only hope is to be rescued by zoos and bred in captivity until we can figure out what the heck is going on. Think of zoos, if you will, as a frog ark.

This fungus is commonly called “chytrid,” and it seems to be spreading like wildfire, from the jungles of Panama and Java to the mountain forests of Colorado and Wyoming. Scientists are actually using diluted bleach to clean up infected frogs they find. Another threat to frogs is an alarming increase in genetically-driven malformations, which some scientists believe could be caused by pesticides. Frogs have thin skins, and they absorb what’s in their environment. Frogs with three legs are not uncommon.

But efforts are underway to draw attention to the plight of these little guys. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums has declared this – defying the Chinese! – the Year of the Frog. The US Geological Survey has an ongoing frog monitoring project. And even Animal Planet’s Jeff Corwin is devoting some program time to the cause.

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