Amphibian anxiety

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Amphibian anxiety
ENLARGE

Frog with mostly red body and bluish-green legs sits on brown leaf

Courtesy © Matthias Dehling
The Oophaga granuliferus frog is listed as vulnerable on the Red List of Threatened Species, mainly because its small range in Costa Rica and Panama is riven by agriculture, logging and human settlement.

Among all animals, amphibians are in the worst shape; fully 30 percent are classified as threatened or endangered. Amphibians – including frogs, toads and salamanders — are under attack by a deadly fungus. They are losing habitat to farms and cities, and collected as food or pets. Amphibians are suffering from chemical pollution and the warming climate.

The present is harsh enough, but the future seems worse.

This week, Nature publishes the first global attempt to forecast the impact of three big threats to amphibians by 2080 – a year chosen to be one century after the study’s baseline data.

By comparing areas with plenty of amphibian species with projections of climate change, land use change and the chytridiomycosis fungus, the researchers forecast a grim future for these cold-blooded, four-legged vertebrates. “The bad news is that more than two-thirds of all high-richness regions will probably be affected, to a high intensity, by one of these three threats,” said lead author Christian Hof, who did the work as a Ph.D. student and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Copenhagen.

The geographic study of data on 5,527 amphibian species found little overlap between the cool, moist areas afflicted by fungal serial killer chytridiomycosis, and the places likely to suffer the worst effects of changes in climate and land use.

Map 1: Courtesy Christian Hof and Nature Map 2: Courtesy WWF/TNC 2008.
This map shows where biodiverse regions may feel the impacts of the three threats: changes in climate and land-use, and fungal disease. Rollover to view the species richness of amphibians worldwide, with centers in the tropics.

And the losers win!

In forecasting the future of amphibians, the study coined two technical terms: “losers” — species that are expected to suffer due to disease or changes in climate or land use, and the less numerous “winners,” which are expected to prosper by 2080.

The projection hinged on whether an expected change would make a habitat more or less suitable to the species, says Hof, who’s now at the Biodiversity and Climate Research Center in Frankfurt, Germany. “We ran a number of climate-change models and based on them, calculated a change in climate suitability for each region across the globe.”

Based on these changes in suitability due to climate, land use and disease, Hof adds, “We calculated the number of species that would probably decline due to a decline in habitat suitability. We classify the species as a loser in a particular region, but that does not mean it will decline across its whole range.”

Overall, the researchers found an increasingly dire future for amphibians. For example, 54 percent of frogs are likely to be “climate losers” in the average grid cell of their model. And heavy impacts are projected for about two-thirds of the regions with the highest species richness in frogs and salamanders.

In fact, the future could be even worse, since the study ignored a number of potentially damaging factors, including chemical pollution from cities, factories and agriculture.

Lizard-like salamander with smooth, black skin and yellow spots crawls in the grass

Photo: Robert Fletcher, Ohlone Preserve Conservation Bank
Tougher times might await this prowling California tiger salamander, an endangered California native.

Going down!

It’s frustrating but understandable that the study could not predict rates of decline among amphibians. “For many species, we are not sure about the actual distribution, many have tiny ranges and we don’t know where they occur, so we can’t relate historic changes to, say, climate change. We were very careful not to predict extinctions, based on these uncertainties.”

Data are scarce in the study of amphibians, agrees Anna Pidgeon, an assistant professor of forest and wildlife ecology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s frustrating, amphibians are out at night, often in remote areas, they are small and many are cryptic, so it’s a huge challenge” to understand their populations and ecologies. “We work with the best data we have all the time … and try to make inferences from what we know about close relatives.”

Pidgeon, an expert on habitat needs of vertebrates, says predicting 70 years into the future is always dicey, but that the study’s analysis of multiple threats and global scope are major accomplishments. “They did a lot of things to make sure they were using consensus data, and that makes it a pretty solid approach.”

Although the study looked at overlapping threats, it did not actually look at interactions between those threats, Hof says. “What needs to be done, and we could not do that with our model, is to look at, for example, how climate change would affect susceptibility to the fungus. How would habitat fragmentation affect susceptibility to climate change?”

Although the study does not suggest practical changes that could sustain amphibians in the short run, “The general conclusion is that it’s very important, when thinking about the future for amphibians, to consider different threats together,” says Hof. “Just looking at one threat will not give us the whole picture.”

– David J. Tenenbaum

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Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

Bibliography

  1. Additive threats from pathogens, climate and land-use change for global amphibian diversity Christian Hof et al, Nature, published online 14 Nov. 2011.
  2. International amphibian conservation.
  3. Threatened amphibians.
  4. Chytrid fungus FAQ.
  5. More about the chytrid fungus.
  6. Arkive: multimedia of life of earth.
  7. List of amphibian resources on the web.
  8. Rising temps, vanishing frogs.
  9. Getting a lift to survive climate change.