Scientists Search For Endangered Amphibians

Frogs and toads are among the planet's most endangered creatures. Many species are thought to be extinct, but scientists hope they may be hanging on. Claude Gascon of Conservation International and the Amphibian Specialist Group talks with Renee Montagne about the hunt across 18 countries for frogs and toads thought to be extinct.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Some genes are fast being lost - those of frogs and toads, which are among the planet's most endangered creatures. Still, among the many species now thought to be extinct, scientists hope a few are actually hanging on. Those scientists have launched a hunt for them across 18 countries. One of the researchers is Claude Gascon of Conservation International. He co-chairs the Amphibian Specialist Group. Welcome to the program.

Mr. CLAUDE GASCON (Conservation International): Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Why have frogs in particular, and maybe amphibian populations in general, been declining?

Mr. GASCON: Well, amphibians over the past several decades have suffered pretty much from every impact that humans have had on the environment, from habitat loss to filling in wetlands to the use of pesticides, the hole in the ozone which created UVB radiation that killed off populations, and finally sort of the last straw in the camel's back has been the emerging disease, which is a fungus, and it kills them off mainly because they've been stressed by other environmental impacts.

MONTAGNE: So what gives you hope that some of these species that are thought to have been extinct might still be out there?

Mr. GASCON: Well, every couple of years there's always a rediscovery of either an amphibian species, a bird species, a species essentially that was thought to be lost and is found again in a small patch of habitat somewhere. We are sending out teams of researchers in the hope of finding some of these long lost frog species.

MONTAGNE: And just an example of a particular species that would give us a sense of how interesting these creatures are and maybe even - I know in some cases that they may be valuable to humans.

Mr. GASCON: One which really summarizes in my mind what we potentially have lost is a gastric brooding frog that occurs in Australia. This is a frog that amazingly would ingest the eggs once they were fertilized into the female's stomach. Now, the stomach of a frog is somewhat like our stomach. It creates a lot of acid to digest food. These animals were able to shut off the production of acids while they were incubating the eggs in the stomach and the eggs would come out from the stomach into the mouth and essentially jump out of the female's mouth and be young adults.

Now, you can imagine that just the wonder and the masterpiece that evolution has created is reason in itself to want to preserve that. But the importance, or potential importance, of that physiological mechanism for curing ulcers in people is lost forever. We will never know how that frog species was able to shut off its own physiology.

MONTAGNE: Well, there's also the charm factor, which is, there's a photograph of that frog and there's a little teeny frog - it's got its mouth open and there's a little teeny baby frog just sitting on its tongue, basically.

Mr. GASCON: Exactly. And if that's not enough to want to cuddle up to one of these, I don't know what is.

MONTAGNE: And so you're off over the next couple of months to what kinds of areas, and what's your best hope? What are you hoping to find?

Mr. GASCON: There are a couple of other species of frogs that are in a particular group of animals that have been perhaps the most threatened by all of these different impacts that we've had on the environment: the spadefoot toads. And there are a couple of species in Colombia that we think have a great chance of being rediscovered. These are species that are associated with natural habitats and in many cases areas that are still fairly intact. But these are species that have been impacted by this disease. We have hope that we can find perhaps one or two of these species in Colombia.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. GASCON: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Claude Gascon is with Conservation International.

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