In 1975, scientists trekking through the wet forests of Guatemala's Cuchumatanes Mountains found two yellow-and-black salamanders under the bark of a fallen tree. Believing they had discovered a new species, the researchers brought one of the amphibians – eventually named Jackson's climbing salamander (Bolitoglossa jacksoni) – back to California, where it soon disappeared. The animal is believed to have been stolen. No member of its species has been seen since.
We will probably never know the fate of that one salamander, but the plight of the entire species is an even greater mystery. Have all the other Jackson's climbing salamanders perished in the years since the discovery? Or have they persevered, hidden under rocks in that remote, rarely-visited patch of forest?
Amphibians are the most threatened of all vertebrates, yet much of what we know is based on limited and outdated data. Over the next few months, Conservation International (CI) is supporting teams of scientists as they travel to the world's most threatened places in the hopes of rediscovering species not seen in over a decade – and fighting to keep them alive.
What Do Amphibians Do for You?
The class Amphibia encompasses frogs, toads, newts, salamanders and the rarely-mentioned caecilians, many of which exhibit characteristics that may seem more fitting in a sci-fi movie than the natural world. Some species use their eyeballs to swallow their prey; others contain toxins potent enough to kill over 90 people; and still others can regenerate lost limbs.
In addition to these fascinating traits, frogs and other amphibians also provide irreplaceable services for humans. They help to regulate pests that destroy crops and spread dangerous diseases like malaria. They constitute a vital link between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, aiding in nutrient cycling that keeps ecosystems functioning smoothly. These species are also an asset to biomedical research; by studying the permeable skin of amphibians, scientists have made advancements towards potential painkillers, HIV and skin cancer treatments.
This unique class of species is also a key indicator of ecosystem health, acting as the proverbial "canary in the coalmine" for growing threats like habitat destruction and climate change.
Habitat Loss, Disease Threaten Entire Species
By the latest estimates, one-half of the 6,000 species of amphibians are currently in decline, and one-third are at risk of extinction.
A number of factors are contributing to this decline. Habitat loss is playing a huge role; the entire range of many species, including numerous harlequin frogs (Atelopus sp.), is contained within a single stream or patch of forest. Disease – particularly the catastrophic chytrid fungus – has also caused massive population crashes in amphibian populations around the world, often reducing an entire species population from thousands to dozens of individuals in a single breeding season. To top it off, the impacts of climate change are exacerbating these threats, putting the future of many species further in doubt.
Very little data exists about the whereabouts and population numbers of many of these species. In some cases, a written description of one individual is the only record of an entire species. Drawings rendered from that description – similar to a police sketch – may provide the only clue to a species' appearance.
LEARN MORE: See photos (or drawings) of some "lost" species and learn more about these elusive amphibians.
"Rediscovering species thought to have vanished is an exhilarating antidote to witnessing pools littered with dead frogs. Good news stories such as these are as important as sobering statistics in inspiring people to care about the plight of our vulnerable friends."
- Robin Moore, CI's amphibian conservation officer
Experts Take Action
Between now and October, CI will be sending members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Amphibian Specialist Group to sites across the globe to help fill this information gap. These experts will visit 15 countries spanning Asia, Africa and Latin America in search of around 30 species whose whereabouts are currently unknown.
Although there is no guarantee of success, CI's amphibian conservation officer Robin Moore is optimistic about the prospect of at least one rediscovery. Two years ago, Moore was part of a team in Ecuador that found a species of harlequin frog not previously seen for a dozen years.
FEATURE: Who Are You Calling Extinct?
"Rediscovering species thought to have vanished is an exhilarating antidote to witnessing pools littered with dead frogs," says Moore, who is also the program manager of the Amphibian Specialist Group. "Good news stories such as these are as important as sobering statistics in inspiring people to care about the plight of our vulnerable friends."
Only through assessing the current status of amphibians around the world can we succeed in securing protection for these globally-important species – both for their benefit and for our own.
JOIN THE SEARCH! Sign up to get updates from the amphibian expedition teams about their findings.