September 11, 2005

Captive breeding seen as lifeline for amphibians

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

OSLO (Reuters) - Amphibian experts are likely to urge
captive breeding to slow a catastrophic rate of extinctions
threatening a third of all species of frogs and salamanders, a
leading scientist said.

Amphibians are more vulnerable than many other groups to
pollution or a changing climate because they live both in water
and on land and have a porous skin absorbing water and oxygen.
A fungus is also wiping out many species.

A meeting of about 60 scientists in Washington from
September 17-20 is set to launch an action plan including
captive breeding after a bleak 2004 assessment showed that a
third of all species were under threat of extinction.

It also said that 122 of about 5,700 known species of
amphibians, which also include newts, toads and some worm-like
creatures, had disappeared since 1980.

"In many cases, captive colonies will be our only
short-term way of avoiding extinction," said Claude Gascon, a
senior vice-president at Conservation International who is
convening the talks.

"We've identified about 12 different issues for a global
amphibian action plan," he told Reuters. Apart from captive
breeding, the plan includes extending protected areas, better
management of fresh water and research into the fungus.

Captive breeding, likely in zoos and aquariums in the
United States and Europe, would probably cost tens of million
of dollars a year to save the 200 or so most threatened
species. Funding could come from governments and international

Most threatened species are in Latin America, like colorful
harlequin frogs, but creatures are threatened from the United
States to Madagascar.

Gascon said the sharp decline of amphibians could be
ominous for all life on the planet facing disruptions to
habitats from human activities.

"They are like canaries down the mine," he said. While a
third of amphibian species are under threat, comparable rates
are 12 percent for birds and 23 percent for mammals.

One problem will be to slow the spread of the fungus,
chytridiomycosis, which smothers amphibians' skin.

"The fungus is knocking out species...It impedes the
ability of their skin to absorb oxygen and just suffocates
them. It's the equivalent of us ingesting a fungus that takes
over our lungs," Gascon said.

"We don't know if the fungus has always been present and is
becoming more virulent because of other stresses. Or has it
jumped from another group, like avian flu?" he said.

Amphibians, feted by Shakespeare's witches in Macbeth who
made a broth including "eye of newt and toe of frog," have been
on earth since the rise of the dinosaurs.