Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

“You can put a Panamanian golden frog in the same basket as a panda.”

In Finer Points, Interviews on January 21, 2010 at 11:29 pm

Ailuropoda melanoleuca

When you speak with some amphibian conservationists and ask them directly why people should care about extinction threats, many of them will tell you that frogs are valuable because they are an “indicator species.” This term can have various meanings but among them is that it refers to a species that is sensitive to changes in the ecosystem and can therefore be a gauge of environmental degradation. The favored analogy is that frogs are the “canary in a coal mine.” This phrase has been used by countless news outlets including NPR, The Washington Times, and The New York Times (all the way back in 1992), and time and again the source of the analogy is not the clever journalist but the scientists being interviewed themselves. It has become so ubiquitous that it feels almost sacrilegious to read Martha Crump (who may have one of the greatest natural history book titles in existence to her name: Headless Males Make Great Lovers, a tour of sexual cannibalism and other incredible behaviors from sea cucumbers to bats) and James Collins’ section of their 2009 book, Extinction in Our Times, that disputes the scientific premise behind the whole canary-in-the-coal-mine analogy.

In order for amphibians to truly qualify as ecological indicators they would need to meet at least ten criteria, according to Crump and Collins. These range from “background variation in species diversity and population density of the indicators should not be so great as to mask significant variation…” to “the group’s characteristics…should change quickly with environmental changes that might also affect the remaining biota and the ecosystem as a whole…”. According to the authors and a handful of other researchers, amphibians don’t meet any of the criteria and there is no evidence to suggest that frogs are any better than other species at indicating biodiversity or ecological health.

So why is this analogy still around, haunting nearly every article on amphibian declines? The truth seems to be that it has found continued use by amphibian conservationists because it’s been a pretty great marketing tool for their cause. According to Kathryn Phillips, author of Tracking the Vanishing Frogs: An Ecological Mystery, “By linking the frog to this classic story, scientists not only captured journalists’ and their readers attention, but managed to elevate the lowly frog’s status from simple hairless creatures to benevolent and important herald.”

This issue opens up a much wider one about the major role that communications plays in conservation efforts. For better or for worse, conservationists are dependent on people like you to care about an animal or place in order to get money for their research and initiatives. Can this lead to compromising behavior or exaggerations on their part? As the recent global-warming-email-fiasco or decades long amphibian/canary campaign seems to indicate, sometimes it can. But there’s still no way to get around the symbiotic nature between conservation and communications even if this relationship will sometimes challenge the integrity of a handful of scientists.

During a recent interview at the National Zoo, Zimbabwean wildlife biologist Brian Gratwicke articulated this relationship and the unique struggle to find funding and grants for amphibian conservation. “We’ve never ever before been in a situation like this as a conservation community where we’re talking about whole members of an assemblage vanishing. But from a grant perspective, we’re in the same place as everyone else: elephants, pandas, the fluffy stuff. Some people want to put all frogs in the same basket but there are 6,000 species of frogs. If you want to compare apples to apples, you can put a Panamanian golden frog in the same basket as a panda,” he said. “A lot of it depends on really good communications because conservation is a human values based endeavor. We can call it science but it’s not. It’s a battle for the hearts and minds of people.… People don’t care about things they don’t know about.”

“It began in the sea…”

In Evolution on January 13, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Chrysaora fuscescens © 2007 Patrick Coin

David Attenborough describing 3,000 million years of evolution in six minutes here.

The Rescue Mission

In Interviews on January 2, 2010 at 6:26 pm

The Lower Kihansi Hydropower Dam and Reservoir Project/ Courtesy of

Biologist Jason Searle traveled from New York City to the Udzungwa Mountains in Eastern Africa in November 2001 to airlift 500 Kihansi spray toads out of their habitat and bring them back to the United States for safety. Still an ardent conservationist and a banker by day in Boston, Searle recently talked about the 2001 rescue mission and reflected on the significance of the toad’s future return to Tanzania. Here’s an edited version of our conservation:

“When the biodiversity study was done by the World Bank before the dam was built, they found a lot of new species–both animal and plant–in the Kihansi gorge in Tanzania. But the toads haven’t been found in any other area and are thought to be endemic to this small wetland habitat. The conservation community focused on saving the area and all the species there while the toad became the one species the Wildlife Conservation Society specifically focused on, probably due to its unique life history. Because it turned out that these toads gave birth to live toadlets and for that reason it’s a very unusual and exciting species. In a way they became the poster-child for the effort to save the waterfall and the ecosystem. Conservationists were up in arms: ‘This is a unique species and now we’re going to destroy it’s habitat!’ There was uproar in the international community that we need to save this species and the diversity supported by this extraordinary environment.

The dam, however, was already going to be built and eventually it was determined that Tanzania didn’t have the experience or facilities to set up a captive breeding program for the toads. So it was decided that WCS would spearhead the conservation and captive breeding efforts. The United States was an attractive candidate in general because we had more resources and experience to deal with problems with breeding the toads as they came up. There’s fairly strong institutions in the US when it comes to amphibian husbandry and veterinary care. If the project was done in Tanzania and it failed and the toad went extinct, then fingers would be pointed at the World Bank and people would be asking, “Why didn’t you do this right?!” The thinking was: If we could transport them back to our program, our resources were pretty strong.

The plans to bring the toads to the US was a year in the making. The biggest challenge was getting Tanzanian government officials comfortable with the fact that we were there for conservation purposes only, not to release the toads into the pet trade, and that the Tanzanian government would retain ownership. The concern that the government had with WCS taking control of the population was that there may be some financial benefit to WCS should the toads prove to be a valuable commodity in the pet trade. They understandably didn’t want another institution to benefit from a Tanzanian resource. We need to convince and prove to Tanzania that our interests in the toads were purely conservational and educational in nature. We did this by allowing Tanzania to maintain ownership of the toads as well as requiring their approval to send the toads to any of the institutions outside of the handful we initially included in the captive breeding program.

On top of this, there was the matter of coordinating schedules because there were so many groups involved. There was WCS reps, NORPLAN, the World Bank, a couple of different Tanzanian ministries, and three or four other governments who were under a lot of pressure because they were helping to fund the dam. Finally, we went the week of Thanksgiving. We were there for two weeks and the first week was all meetings. The first thing the [government ministers] asked was, ‘We want to hear from Jason.’ They wanted to know what kind of experience the Bronx Zoo had, what was the protocol for transferring the toads? I was only in my late twenties and I was nervous. I had spoken with different amphibian curators about the methods for transferring amphibians so what we had brought were cardboard boxes lined with Styrofoam so they were like coolers. The plastic containers inside were drilled for ventilation and had paper towels in them. We would put ten frogs in each container and four containers per box. We also had rolls of tin foil in case the areas during transport were sunny and didn’t have air conditioning. The tin foil could act to reflect sunlight and keep the containers cooler. We made sure that we placed crumpled paper toweling, soaked with water from the toad’s natural habitat in the containers to allow them to stay hydrated and find places to hide from one another, reducing the stress levels from crowding during the trip back.

The government meetings were a little tense. I can understand it too. Here we show up and they’re thinking, ‘The US is coming in and solving our problem.’ We would be the same way if someone came in and said, ‘We’re going to solve this for you.’ It was also such a highly public project. A lot of Tanzanian politicians wanted to know, ‘What’s the big deal? You are weighing these tiny little toads against power to our people.’ I don’t think anyone is going to argue that these toads are more important than providing electricity. I’m certainly not going to argue that.

The first week was organizing and arranging equipment. You can either drive or fly to the gorge, but because we had the boxes we had to stay with them and so we had to fly. There was a landing strip near the gorge because of the dam project, a sort of dirt clearing and a small motel built for the workers at the dam. At one point, there had been tens of thousands of toads near the waterfall but when I was there the water was already diverted so the population had decreased in size. We weren’t even sure if there were going to be sufficient toads to collect since the population was continually decreasing in size and so constrained to a small area. A water release form the dam down the river’s natural course could potentially wash the toads downstream as they moved close and closer to the river’s edge as the majority of the natural water flow was diverted to power the hydro plant. When we got there, I was relieved that there were even still toads visible. It had been a year of preparing and we had been getting weekly reports and each time the population would be less. It was sweet when we got there and you could see toads–they were easy to find. There was less spray so they congregated close to the river on the exposed rock or whatever vegetation, moss and ferns that were still growing.

There was no indication that there was chytrid fungus there. Effectively, this toad had no predators in the area, no ants or snakes, the only problem was the decreased spray area. There weren’t that many people in the spray zone either. They had the  misting system up at that time and there was an issue with sediment clogging the sprinkler heads. One person would go up once or twice a day to clean out the sprinkler heads. Since it wasn’t really working as it was intended there was talk of creating a water slide to shoot water at the exposed rock to create spray. It was a laborious, expensive effort to send someone up there to fix the sprinklers and just walking through these places caused some amount of damage. But chytrid wasn’t a problem.

By the third day we got everything set up and the plan was to catch the toads first thing in the morning, bring them back to the motel where there was air conditioning, and then head to Dar the next day. It was an approximate two hour hike from the motel to the toad’s habitat. Part of the team camped at the site while I stayed at the motel to ensure the rooms were set up to house the toads overnight. Everything went according to plan and we flew back to Dar. One of the government ministers had asked me to come and show him the toad before I left so I went to see him with a box. He saw them and said, ‘So this is what all the fuss is about? They’re pretty cute.’

We didn’t leave anything to chance but it wasn’t until we got back to JFK when we opened up the boxes and saw that they were ok that we were like, ‘Thank goodness.’ We only lost one toad. I didn’t know what they ate so we hadn’t even fed them. It was two or three days without food from when we collected them till they got back to the zoo. Once you bring the toads into captivity, it’s a very stressful experience. We didn’t want to put all the toads into one facility, which is why we had chosen eight different places. So, in the beginning we sent them out to four or five zoos.

Then parasites became a problem. The parasites had been there in the wild but it didn’t cause a problem but in captivity it overwhelmed them. There were also problems with the water. We were down to 70 or 72 individuals total and we brought every one of them back to the Bronx. What it turned out to be was the light bulbs we were using and when we fiddled with that, they started breeding. It was cute to see them when the females were pregnant. The skin would actually stretch and become transclucent, you could see them in the tadpole stage under the skin. The males will fertilize the eggs but they stay internal until they’re born.

It was the first and only time I was involved in such an effort and it didn’t feel heroic. But this sort of project is why I got involved in conservation in the first place. It’s my passion and really no other motivation exists. Part of it was that I was naïve about the significance of it. It wasn’t like we were taking the last two toads from the wild. There were still toads there and no chytrid fungus. It was also part of a much larger conservation effort among a number of public and private entities. And I just figured, ‘It’s such a small area, there’s got to be another area where they could show up.’ As it turns out, they haven’t and now they’re extinct in the wild. But we didn’t know that would happen then. The feeling of being a ‘hero,’ of saving the toads, could only come when they are successfully reintroduced and repopulate their habitat.

It’s very promising that the project is continuing and Tanzania is going to start the husbandry efforts. Ultimately, Tanzania will hopefully be able to support all their endemic species, not just the charismatic mega-fauna, like rhinos, elephants, lions etc. as well as well as the smaller species that are often the indication of something being wrong in the environment. It’s extremely important and extremely valuable. They’re only going to be able to do that if they are involved now. It doesn’t really help, nor is it preferable, if it’s just the United States.”