Biodiversity: Amphibians ‘not evolving fast enough’

New study finds wide array of causes for sudden extinction wave

The Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki) is a critically endangered toad which is endemic to Panama. PHOTO BY BRIAN GRATWICKE VIA THE CREATIVE COMMONS.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The alarming global decline of amphibian species is probably caused by a number of factors rather than any single cause. Natural factors include competition, predation, reproduction and disease.

Man-made factors include habitat destruction, environmental contamination, invasive species and climate change, according to an international team of researchers who recently published findings from a comprehensive amphibian study in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

“An enormous rate of change has occurred in the last 100 years, and amphibians are not evolving fast enough to keep up with it,” said Andrew Blaustein, a professor of zoology at Oregon State University and an international leader in the study of amphibian declines. “We’re now realizing that it’s not just one thing, it’s a whole range of things. With a permeable skin and exposure to both aquatic and terrestrial problems, amphibians face a double whammy,” he said. “Because of this, mammals, fish and birds have not experienced population impacts as severely as amphibians – at least, not yet.”

The research team said that the search for a single causative factor misses the larger picture. Addressing the amphibian crisis may fail — or even make things worse — if the totality of causes aren’t addressed.

Altogether, the scientists said signs point to a major extinction episode similar to five other mass extinction events in the planet’s history. And amphibians are leading the field – one estimate indicates they are disappearing at more than 200 times that of the average extinction rate.

Efforts to understand these events, especially in the study of amphibians, have often focused on one cause or another, such as fungal diseases, invasive species, an increase in ultraviolet radiation due to ozone depletion, pollution, global warming, and others.

“Given that many stressors are acting simultaneously on amphibians, we suggest that single-factor explanations for amphibian population declines are likely the exception rather than the rule,” the researchers wrote in their report. “Studies focused on single causes may miss complex interrelationships involving multiple factors and indirect effects.”

One example is the fungus B. dendrobatidis, which has been implicated in the collapse of many frog populations around the world. However, in some populations the fungus causes no problems for years until a lethal threshold is reached, studies have shown.

And while this fungus disrupts electrolyte balance, other pathogens can have different effects such as a parasitic trematode that can cause severe limb malformations, and a nematode that can cause kidney damage. The combination and severity of these pathogens together in a single host, rather than any one individually, are all playing a role in dwindling frog populations.

Studies at Oregon State University have found a synergistic impact from ultraviolet radiation, which by itself can harm amphibians, and a pathogenic water mold that infects amphibian embryos. And the research linked the whole process to the water depth at egg-laying sites, which in turn is affected by changes in winter precipitation that is related to climate change.

The problems facing amphibians are a particular concern, scientists say, because they have been one of Earth’s great survivors – evolving about 400 million years ago before the dinosaurs, persisting through ice ages, asteroid impacts, and myriad other ecological and climatic changes.

Their rapid disappearance now suggests that the variety and rate of change exceeds anything they have faced before, the researchers said.

“Modern selection pressures, especially those associated with human activity, may be too severe and may have arisen too rapidly for amphibians to evolve adaptations to overcome them,” the researchers concluded.

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Other collaborators on the study were from the University of Colorado, University of Georgia, University of Pittsburgh, and Pepperdine University.

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