Educational Series: We Are In The Middle Of An Amphibian Crisis

By Nick Engelfried
Often overlooked and misunderstood, amphibians are perhaps the single most endangered group of animals on the planet. The plight of frogs, toads, salamanders, and their relatives may not receive as much attention as more charismatic animals–but fully 40% of the world’s approximately 8,000 amphibian species are threatened with extinction. The major causes of amphibian decline are complex and interrelated, but all are linked to human activity. This should worry us, because not only are amphibians beautiful living creatures important in their own right–they are also indicators of the health of the overall environment. The disappearance of amphibians is an ominous sign for other species, humans included.

Amphibians exist at the intersection of land and freshwater environments. With a few exceptions they require a moist habitat to survive, and most have a two-part life cycle, one portion of which is spent underwater. Most of us are familiar with “tadpoles” who turn into frogs. What you may not know is other amphibians, including newts and salamanders, have a very similar juvenile stage during which the legless young live underwater and breathe through gills. Almost all adult amphibians have lungs and breathe air, and most species spend a substantial amount of time out of the water. However, even adults absorb oxygen, water, and essential minerals like electrolytes through their moist skin, which has to stay wet for these processes to take place. It’s for this reason that you will very rarely find amphibians far from a source of clean water.

Unfortunately, amphibians’ special habitat needs make them especially vulnerable to environmental degradation. Because their life cycle includes both land and water phases, they are susceptible to harm when either environment is polluted or destroyed. Their delicate, oxygen-absorbing skin can also easily absorb pollutants from their environment. These and other factors put amphibians at especial risk.

There are six major threats to the survival of amphibian species–and in many cases they compound one another to make the animals even more vulnerable. By understanding what is causing the decline of frogs, toads, salamanders, and their relatives, we can better understand how to help them.

Habitat destruction: From the rainforests of Brazil to wetlands in the United States, amphibian habitats are under attack. Deforestation, damming of rivers, and draining of swamps and marshes are all activities that destroy the homes of amphibians and countless other animals. Some of the highest concentrations of frog species are in the tropics, where rainforests are cleared for timber or to make room for agriculture. Meanwhile, the United States is home to more salamander species than any other country in the world. Among the most diverse salamander habitats are the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern U.S., where unique species are threatened by destructive activities like mountaintop removal mining. Curbing such practices is one of the best ways we can secure a better future for amphibians.

Pollution: Pesticides, industrial chemicals, and pollutants from burning fossil fuels all have potential to poison amphibians and make their habitat unlivable. Fully enforcing laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act can help imperiled amphibians by forcing polluters to clean up their mess–but unfortunately, today these laws themselves are in danger. In September 2019, the Trump administration announced the official repeal of the Waters of the United States Rule, which formerly guaranteed Clean Water Act protections for many wetlands. This has left amphibians exposed to even more risk at a time when they need as much help as possible. Advocating for stronger pollution laws is one of the best things we can do for amphibians.

Climate change: Amphibians are among the thousands of animal species threatened by the climate crisis caused by burning fossil fuels. In some areas, changing weather patterns have led to more frequent droughts and the drying out of moist habitats which amphibians need to survive. These include the lower-elevation cloud forests of Central and South America, which support some of richest frog diversity found anywhere on the planet. The decline of cloud forests could doom many frogs and other amphibians to extinction.

Invasive species: Moving wild animals from one part of the world to another is almost never a good idea–and the introduction of exotic species has been disastrous for amphibians. A case in point is in the western United States, where native frogs and salamanders are being gobbled up by a fellow amphibian: the American bullfrog, originally introduced from the eastern part of the country. With their wide mouths and voracious appetites, bullfrogs have eaten their way through populations of vulnerable native species. Unfortunately, bullfrogs and other invasive species continue to be introduced to new areas, in part by pet owners who release them after finding they can no longer care for the animals. Educating the public about the harm posed by invasive species is an essential step for saving amphibians.

Over-harvesting: The amphibian pet trade isn’t only a problem because of the release of exotic species like bullfrogs. Many amphibians sold in pet stores–especially tropical species like the red-eyed tree frog–were taken from the wild, often from countries where there are few enforceable rules in place to protect them. Animal lovers should never buy an amphibian from a pet store unless you can be absolutely sure it was bred in captivity. Even then it is likely a bad move, for reasons described below.

Disease: Disease has always been a factor influencing animal populations, but human activity has led to wildlife diseases spreading quickly in areas where they never existed before–especially among amphibians. Indeed, perhaps the biggest immediate threat of all to amphibian survival is the parasitic fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, often simply referred to as “Bd.” While it has likely long existed in certain areas, including parts of Africa and the eastern United States, Bd began rapidly spreading around the world in the late 1990s. Especially prevalent among frogs, the fungus infects the skin of its animal victim and interferes with the ability of the skin to absorb minerals and water. Some frog species have already been driven to extinction by Bd, while many others have been decimated with only small remnant populations surviving. It remains to be seen if these species will eventually recover their numbers, but in the meantime we must work to stop the spread of Bd. The fungus is believed to have first been transported around the world by the global trade in amphibians sold as pets, food, or laboratory animals.

While the global outlook for amphibians appears grim, there is still time for many species to be rescued from the brink of extinction. Everyone can play a part in securing a better future for amphibians–whether by caring for your local stream or wetland, avoiding the use of pesticides around your home, or refraining from participating in the global amphibian pet trade. Perhaps most important of all, you can become an advocate for amphibians by calling or writing to your members of Congress and other elected officials, urging them to defend and strengthen laws like the Clean Water Act. By working together, we can end the human-caused crisis that has engulfed the world’s amphibian species.

Photo credit: Ron Cogswell

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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