Amphibians—frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts—are vanishing. In fact, 42 percent of the world's 6,000 frog species are declining rapidly and are in danger of extinction in our lifetimes. Since 1980, 122 amphibian species are thought to have gone extinct, compared to just five bird species and no mammals over the same period. This is an unprecedented rate of species loss and deserves an unprecedented conservation response. Brian Gratwicke leads the National Zoo's response to this global extinction crisis.
When amphibians started disappearing from protected areas, some people thought disease might be responsible for the mysterious declines. In 1999, National Zoo scientists working with a researcher at the University of Maine described a new amphibian chytrid fungus that causes the deadly amphibian skin disease chytridiomycosis.
Since then, our understanding of amphibian declines and this disease has improved greatly. Scientists now suspect that amphibian chytrid fungus originated in Southern Africa. African clawed frogs from this region, probably carriers of the disease, are popular lab animals and were exported around the world in the 1940s.
The spread of this disease in now thought to be responsible for amphibian extinctions on several continents, including gastric brooding frogs from Australia, golden coqui frogs from Puerto Rico, Wyoming toads, Monteverde golden toads from Costa Rica, and more than 70 species of colorful harlequin frogs from Central and South America.
While there has been much research on declining amphibians, it is becoming clear that unless we take specific actions to save them, we will lose as many as half of all amphibian species on the planet. In response to this crisis, the National Zoo has embarked on a major amphibian conservation effort to stop the biodiversity loss. Our efforts have two primary focal areas:
Chytrid fungus is spreading east from Western Panama and is causing massive amphibian declines. Scientists estimate that at least 50 species are at risk and in need of rescue. The National Zoo is home to a rescued breeding population of Panamanian golden frogs, a species that the chytrid fungus wiped out in the wild.
You can learn more about this animal and the National Zoo’s efforts to save amphibians from extinction as the result of chytrid by visiting the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. The Zoo, along with seven other institutions, formed the project in 2009.
The Appalachian region is a biodiversity hotspot for salamanders. Thirty-five endemic species of salamanders live there. (Endemic species are species that live in only one location and nowhere else in the world.) Yet we know very little about how to conserve this biodiversity treasure. The National Zoo monitors populations of highly endangered Shenandoah salamanders in the Shenandoah National Park, plans to create a captive breeding facility for Appalachian salamanders.
After recognizing potential risks to Appalachian salamanders and evaluating our current knowledge of their biology and conservation status, researchers are planning the next steps to be taken to understand and preserve these unique species. Read more about the connection between Appalachian salamanders and climate change, as well as some of the research going on now through the National Zoo. Learn more.
Salamander education and monitoring programs at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal teach critical math and science skills to students in the field.
Text FROG to 20222 to give $5 to the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. The Zoo is one of nine partners working to stop a deadly disease from wiping out nearly one-third of the world’s amphibians in the largest extinction event since the time of the dinosaurs. This money will go specifically to help the Zoo save more than 20 frog species unique to eastern Panama, which is one of the last strongholds for amphibian biodiversity. The rescue project is also working to find a cure for the disease, chytrid, which is killing amphibians around the world.