By Mark Wanner, Zoological Manager, Reptiles & Amphibians

So, what do you think killed the dinosaurs? That topic has stirred theories and debates for generations, and no one will ever know the real answer. However, it's very possible that people in the future will also be asking, "So, what do think killed the amphibians?"

Today, the Earth is potentially facing the single largest mass vertebrate extinction in the history of our planet, comparable only to the disappearance of dinosaurs. Amphibian species are vanishing at an alarming rate -- studies estimate that 122 species of amphibians have probably gone extinct since 1980, while an additional 435 species have declined into a category of greater threat (Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, CBSG). In Panama, whole species and even whole assemblages of amphibians are going extinct in the blink of an eye.

Ironically though, the net number of amphibian species is actually increasing! The recent discovery of twenty new species of frogs in New Guinea means there are now 5,897 known species of amphibians on the planet. With the expected number of amphibians yet to be discovered, many say that we will surpass 6,000 species in the next decade. This is truly a very odd time we are living in.

Despite that growth, amphibians are experiencing a very real crisis. Due to habitat destruction, pollution, global warming, introduced species and pathogens (diseases), the world could potentially lose all of its amphibians. Ecosystems are generally strong and adaptive, but when such dangerous factors are imposed, amphibians -- which are extremely important in all ecosystems as both predator and prey -- are the first to be affected.

That's why biologists refer to amphibians as "nature's indicators." When they show a decline, this serves as a warning to other species, including humans. The risk of losing the world's amphibians represents a threat to losing entire ecosystems and damaging our planet beyond repair. It would be ridiculously short-sighted to think that humans would not be affected by the catastrophic loss of amphibians and entire ecosystems. The amphibians are sending the rest of the world a vital alert!

As evidence of the global concern about these threats, wildlife biologists around the world are appealing to the zoo community to develop emergency responses to the looming amphibian crisis.

At a meeting in September, 2005, the World Conservation Union's (IUCN) Global Amphibian Assessment made it clear that 1/3 of all amphibian species are threatened with extinction. The CBSG believes we have already lost a unique reproductive strategy with the extinction of the two species of gastric brooding frogs. It became clear at this meeting that the only way to face such a significant crisis would be to involve all amphibian experts, worldwide. In response to this challenge, the IUCN and World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) organized a workshop in El Valle, Panama.

El Valle was selected for a number of significant reasons. For one, Panama is the first country to have definitive data showing the movement of the horrible chytrid fungus. This fungus has already decimated entire amphibian populations, and biologists are racing against time to determine the cause and effect of the problem. Sadly, El Valle is predicted to be the next site of the fungus' damage.

Another reason for choosing El Valle is the desire to bring additional ecotourism to the area. Thanks to the efforts of many local people to save their indigenous amphibians, including the famous Panamanian golden frog, tourists from all over the world come to El Valle hoping for a glimpse of this rare animal.

In February, 2006, amphibian experts from the United States, Canada, Panama, Ecuador, South Africa, Colombia, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, Russia, Asia, Singapore and France convened in Panama for the workshop. The meeting was an intense, four-day session intended to produce a "Best Practices" document and then to take the first step to implementing ex siti (away from the native habitat) components of the global Amphibian Conservation Action Plan -- a plan developed by the IUCN Species Survival Commission, its Amphibian Specialist Group, and many partners.

The CBSG had organized this meeting and laid out a "floor plan" to tackle such an overwhelming job. Once the workshop started, the assembled experts were split into four distinct working groups: Species Selection, Organization, Rapid Response and Husbandry. The idea was that the members of each working group would create their specific section of the overall Best Practices document. The completed document would then lead us into the future of ex situ management of the World's amphibians.

As a contributor in the CBSG/WAZA Amphibian Ex Situ Conservation Planning Workshop, I believe everyone in attendance left El Valle feeling like a major conservation initiative was underway. There is still much work to do and a lot of money to be raised, but at least the first steps have been taken.

Here at the Saint Louis Zoo, within the Charles H. Hoessle Herpetarium, there is currently a great deal of work already going on to support amphibians. First, we have the Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation -- a multi-faceted in situ and ex situ program looking at husbandry, propagation, systematics, water quality and reintroduction of our native giant salamanders.

Missouri is the only state which has both subspecies of hellbenders, making the in situ aspect of the Center more applicable. We are also working with Puerto Rican crested toads and have been active with many institutions in breeding and reintroducing these amphibians back into the wild. Other species the Herpetarium has been successful with include the Surinam toad, the emperor newt, the golden mantella, the blue-tailed fire belly newt, and the European fire salamander.

As we move forward and face this massive amphibian crisis, the Saint Louis Zoo's WildCare Institute has a new collaboration with Ecuador. On my way to Panama, I was sent to Quito, Ecuador, to assess a facility at the Pontificia Universidad del Catolica. This was in response to a proposal sent to the WildCare Institute addressing Ecuadorian capacities for research, management and conservation of Andean amphibians at risk of extinction. In Quito I met with Dr. Luis Coloma and his colleagues to learn about their programs and future plans.

Referred to as a "mega diverse" country, Ecuador is said to hold 70% of the animal and plant species of the Earth, with approximately 441 species of known amphibians and more being discovered. Remarkably, 40% of those species are endemic (found nowhere else on the planet).

In 2005, Dr. Coloma and his staff organized a live exhibit of amphibians to generate public awareness and promote the importance of activities to support their conservation and natural habitat. The exhibit entertained and educated 105,000 people in 90 days! I was impressed and humbled by the work of Dr. Coloma and the University's entomologist, molecular biologist, virologist and geneticists. They are all committed and willing to work hand-in-hand to see that Ecuador's amphibians survive for future generations.

This sort of collaborative effort is exactly what the Saint Louis Zoo and the WildCare Institute are all about. Through our work in Ecuador and other places, we are making giant strides toward protecting and saving the world's amphibians . . . and the rest of us in the process.