Search for lost amphibians

11 August 2010 | News story

Teams of scientists around the world have launched an unprecedented search in the hope of rediscovering 100 species of "lost" amphibians – animals considered potentially extinct but that may be holding on in a few remote places – Conservation International and the IUCN Amphibian Specialist Group announced today.

This search, which is taking place in 14 countries on five continents, is the first ever coordinated effort to find such a large number of "lost" creatures and comes as global amphibian populations are suffering a shocking decline – with more than 30 per cent of all species threatened with extinction.

Many of the amphibians that the teams of scientists are looking for have not been seen in several decades, and establishing whether populations have survived or not is vital for scientists looking to understand the recent amphibian extinction crisis. Amphibians also provide many important services to humans such as controlling insects that spread disease and damage crops and helping to maintain healthy freshwater systems – the chemicals in amphibian skins have also been important in helping to create new drugs with the potential to save lives, including a painkiller 200 times more potent than morphine.

"Amphibians are particularly sensitive to changes in the environment, so they are often an indicator of damage that is being done to ecosystems," explains Conservation International's Dr Robin Moore, who has organized the search for IUCN's Amphibian Specialist Group.
 
"But this role as the global 'canary in a coal-mine' means that the rapid and profound change to the global environment that has taken place over the last fifty years or so – in particular climate change and habitat loss – has had a devastating impact on these incredible creatures. We've arranged this search for 'lost' species that we believe may have managed to hang on so that we can get some definite answers - and hopefully learn about what has allowed some tiny populations of certain species to survive when the rest of their species has been lost."

The problems amphibians face from habitat loss have been massively exacerbated by a pathogenic fungus, which causes chytridiomycosis, a disease that has wiped-out entire populations of amphibians and in some cases whole species.

Dr Moore and his team have drawn up a list of the "top 10" species of the 100 being searched for that he believes would be particularly exciting to find. He said: "While it's very challenging to rate the importance of one species against another we have created this top 10 list because we feel that these particular animals have a particular scientific or aesthetic value."

The top 10:

Golden toad, Incilius periglenes, Costa Rica. Last seen 1989. Perhaps the most famous of the lost Amphibians. Went from abundant to extinct in a little over a year in the late 1980s.

Gastric brooding frog, Australia. 2 species – Rheobatrachus vitellinus and R. silus, last seen 1985. (Had unique mode of reproduction: females swallowed eggs and raised tadpoles in the stomach. Gave birth to froglets through the mouth.)

Mesopotamia Beaked Toad, Rhinella rostrata. Colombia. Last seen 1914. Fascinating frog with a distinctive pyramid-shaped head.

Jackson's climbing salamander, Bolitoglossa jacksoni, Guatemala. Last seen in 1975. Stunning black and yellow salamander – One of only two known specimens is believed to have been stolen from a Californian laboratory in the mid 1970s.

African Painted Frog, Callixalus pictus. Democratic Republic of Congo/Rwanda. Last seen 1950. Very little is known about this animal which is never thought to have been photographed.

Rio Pescado Stubfoot Toad, Atelopus balios, Ecuador. Last seen in April 1995. May well have been wiped-out by chytridiomycosis.

Turkestanian salamander, Hynobius turkestanicus. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. Last seen 1909. Known from only two specimens collected in 1909 somewhere "between Pamir and Samarkand"

Scarlet frog, Atelopus sorianoi, Venezuela. Last seen 1990. Known from a single stream in an isolated cloud forest.

Hula painted frog, Discoglossus nigriventer, Israel. Last seen 1955. A single adult collected in 1955 represents the last confirmed record of the species. Efforts to drain marshlands in Syria to eradicate malaria may have been responsible for the disappearance of this species.

Sambas Stream Toad, Ansonia latidisca. Borneo (Indonesia and Malaysia): Last seen 1950s. Increased sedimentation in streams after logging may have contributed to the decline.

Dr Claude Gascon, co-chair of the IUCN Amphibian Specialist Group and Executive Vice President of Conservation International said: "This is something that has never been done before, and is hugely significant, not only because of the threats that amphibians face and our need to understand what has been happening to them better, but also because it represents an incredible opportunity for the world's amphibian scientists to rediscover long-lost species.

"The search for these lost animals may well yield vital information in our attempts to stop the amphibian extinction crisis, and information that helps humanity to better understand the impact that we are having on the planet."

To follow the search for the lost amphibians visit: www.conservation.org/lostfrogs