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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Coming up, honoring the lion of the Senate and the king of pop. But first, frogs, toads and other amphibians could soon go the way of the dinosaur -that's according to conservation groups who say that worldwide up to half of the 6,000 known amphibian species could disappear in just decades.
Habitat loss is one reason, but there's something else: the amphibian chytrid fungus. It's decimated about 100 species already. Many more are on the decline on every continent.
There are glimmers of hope though. Wyoming Public Radio's Molly Messick has this story about the Wyoming toad.
MOLLY MESSICK: On a Monday morning, herpetologist Val Hornyak is walking a careful zigzagging pattern through a dense marsh at southeast Wyoming's Mortenson Lake. She's looking down, scanning the water and dirt before each step.
Ms. VAL HORNYAK (Herpetologist): This interface of the shoreline and the water, where there's a lot of emergent vegetation, is a good safe place for tadpoles or metamorphs to hang out.
MESSICK: Hornyak is looking for something specific: the Wyoming toad. It's one of the most endangered amphibians in the United States. The reeds here are shoulder-high, and Wyoming toads are small. Full-grown, they're about the size of a golf ball. Finding them isn't easy.
Ms. HORNYAK: Once you've seen one, your eye kind of adjusts to that. You know what it's going to look like in the territory it's in.
MESSICK: Hornyak works for the Toledo Zoo. It's one of nine institutions around the country that's working to save the Wyoming toad.
Ms. HORNYAK: Let's see what's (unintelligible) in the water.
MESSICK: The amphibian chytrid showed up on tests at Mortenson Lake more than five years ago. Allan Pessier is a veterinary pathologist with the San Diego Zoo's Institute for Conservation Research. He's been working with the Wyoming toad for nearly a decade and he co-authored the 1999 paper that named the chytrid fungus.
Dr. ALLAN PESSIER (Institute for Conservation Research, San Diego Zoo): It caused mass mortality events in the Wyoming toad. You know, dead toads being found regularly at Mortenson Lake. We know that it's lethal to Wyoming toads.
MESSICK: Pessier says most people expected the Wyoming toad to die out at Mortenson Lake. But that's not what happened. A lot of toads did die, but some lived and reproduced.
Right now, scientists only know of a handful of species that are recovering after being decimated by the chytrid spread. Allan Pessier points to examples in California and Australia - and the Wyoming toad.
Dr. PESSIER: We don't know what the long-term prognosis is, but at least the fact that it hasn't disappeared like a lot of people said it would, I think is extremely significant.
MESSICK: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to organize surveys to see just how many were making it. Jason Palmer is a wildlife biologist for the agency.
Dr. JASON PALMER (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): First thing that I usually do is I catch the toad. What we're going to be doing is we're going to pinch the skin right here on the side.
MESSICK: Palmer is kneeling in tall grass at the northeast corner of Mortenson lake. He has a Wyoming toad in one hand and a delicate pair of scissors in the other.
Dr. PALMER: Nip it a little bit.
MESSICK: He makes a very small incision in the toad's skin. He's inserting a microchip so they can track this toad over its four to six-year lifespan.
Dr. PALMER: And then you have to find the incision where you nipped it - right there - and you slide it on your skin.
MESSICK: This is the second year of formal surveys at Mortenson Lake. Last year, they turned up a total of 33 toads; this year they found more than twice that many. But they Wyoming toad isn't out of the woods yet. In this year's survey, only one of the toads found had hatched this spring. In other words, the toads are surviving, but it's possible that not many reproduced at Mortenson Lake this year.
That's one reason why several zoos across the country are collaborating with Fish and Wildlife Service to start new populations at lakes nearby.
(Soundbite of splashing)
MESSICK: Sarah Armstrong is with the Omaha Zoo in Nebraska. A few weeks ago, she stood ankle-deep in a wetland with a young Wyoming toad perched on one of her fingers.
Ms. SARAH ARMSTRONG (Omaha Zoo): This guy hatched July 20th as a tadpole and so metamorphed out a few weeks later. And so he's really just a couple weeks old.
MESSICK: The toad is tiny, greenish-brown and maybe half an inch long. It was bred in captivity hundreds of miles away but it was destined for a marsh in southeast Wyoming.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: This guy started out even smaller than this. He's probably almost doubled in size, since he first metamorphed out. We'll wish him well.
MESSICK: It's one of more than 20,000 Wyoming tadpoles and toadlets released this year, but not many will survive. Wild or bred in captivity, only a few out of a hundred are likely to live to adulthood. Everyone gathered here hopes for the best.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: You guys, this one caught a bug already.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yeah.
MESSICK: Go toads.
For NPR News, I'm Molly Messick.
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