Conserving Amphibians Worldwide

Amphibian Conservation

Why save amphibians? What is the scope of the problem, what are the causes, and what can be done?

Update in progress by AmphibiaWeb's Conservation Working Group, March 2021
Originally posted February 13, 2014, Vance Vredenburg, Kellie Whittaker, Michelle Koo
  1. Why Save Amphibians?
  2. Introduction- Scope of the Crisis
  3. Maps of Global Declines
  4. Why are Populations Declining?
  5. Factors of Amphibian Decline and Conservation Action Links
  6. Literature Cited
  7. Recent Scientific Publications (updated MONTHLY)

Why Save Amphibians?

Written by Julianne Oshiro, 15 March 2021

While these little creatures may go unnoticed by most of us, amphibians have greatly influenced our society and planet’s ecosystems. Amphibians have helped to advance the field of medicine, are integral to the ecosystems on which we rely, and are central to many cultural stories and beliefs.

Much of the fascinating biology of amphibians have applications beyond understanding their evolution and ecology. The valuable chemicals that amphibians exude from their skin have already been used in medicine to combat drug-resistant bacteria, cardiac problems, and HIV (Song et al. 2010). For example, amphibians are a valuable model for researchers to study regenerative tissue (Garg et al. 2007). Salamanders, such as the Ambystoma mexicanum, have the ability to regrow limbs, which brings hope that one day doctors will be able to help those with amputated limbs to regrow tissue (Voss et al. 2009).

Siren as a
Great Blue Heron's meal
Amphibians are central to maintaining a healthy and resilient ecosystem. And because of their permeable skin, amphibians are extremely vulnerable to environmental and water quality degradation. Thus, their decline is an important indicator that an entire ecosystem may be in peril. Amphibians play a crucial role in an ecosystem’s nutrient cycles. For example, salamanders help to spread out the release of essential minerals found in leaf litter by consuming decomposers, thereby allowing for soils to retain their nutrients for a longer period of time (Davic and Welsh 2004). Many species migrate between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and thus serve as an important connection through which energy and matter can flow between ecosystems, and thereby, enhancing the resilience of both ecosystems (Best and Welsh 2014). Amphibians regulate the food chain. Many other animals, such as lizards, birds, fish, and snakes, to name a few, rely on amphibians for food. It has been shown that a decrease in amphibian populations can lead to a decline in species diversity and overall health for the amphibian’s predator populations (Zipkin et al. 2020). Amphibians, especially as tadpoles, consume algae, which helps to clean lake water and prevent eutrophication, and insects, which helps to control the population of mosquitoes and limit the spread of disease in humans (Rubbo et al. 2011). It is clear that the rapid extinction of amphibian species will have rippling, negative consequences all throughout an ecosystem and its food chain.

Poison Dart Frogs' multicolor palette
Lastly, amphibians are beautiful creatures that have been celebrated in many cultures for thousands of years. The bright, colorful patterns of the poison dart frog (family Dendrobatidae) are awe-inspiring and the translucent skin of the glass frog (family Centrolenidae) is fascinating. For this reason, frogs are often kept as pets and depicted in art. In Peru, archaeologists have found toads portrayed in a mural dating back nearly 4,000 years ago as symbols for rain during a period of scarcity and famine (BBC News 2019).Across the world, frogs are both consumed as a delicacy, like in France and China, and as a central part of a culture’s diet, as with the people of Burkina Faso (e.g., Mohneke et al 2011). Frogs are found in popular media today, with characters such as Kermit the Frog from The Muppets and Disney’s movie adaptation, The Princess and the Frog. Protecting these creatures will not only benefit our society but also ensure that future generations will enjoy the wonders of amphibians and a healthy planet.

I. Scope of the Crisis

Amphibians, a unique group of vertebrates containing over 8,000 known species, are threatened worldwide. A 2004 global assessment (Baillie et al (eds) 2004) found that nearly one-third of the world's amphibians are threatened, representing 1,856 species. Amphibians have existed on earth for over 300 million years, yet in just the last two decades there have been an alarming number of extinctions, nearly 168 species are believed to have gone extinct and over 43% more have populations that are declining. This indicates that the number of extinct and threatened species will probably continue to rise (Stuart et al. 2004).

To understand the scope of global declines, an introduction to amphibian biodiversity is useful. Amphibian diversity is highest in the tropics, especially in the Amazon. Brazil has the most described species, over a 1,000 species. By contrast, the United States (or search by State) is nearly the same size as Brazil with about a third of the amphibian species (although it has many more salamanders!).

Click on the image to see a larger version of this map. Updated March 2021
We compiled this amphibian richness map by calculating the overlapping ranges of all known amphibians. Data sources include work from AmphibiaWeb GIS and IUCN range maps.

II. Maps of Global Declines

A global map of threatened species highlights where the most vulnerable and endangered species are concentrated. There are now threatened hotspots on every continent, with particularly alarming increases in the western North America in the California Floristic Province, Mesoamerica and the Caribbean, western Africa in the Gulf of Guinea, Asia and Southeast Asia and southeastern Australia.

Update on threatened maps in progress! Check back soon! March 2021
Click on the image to see a larger version of this map. Cartography by Christina Lew and Michelle Koo, 2017.
Read more about our methods including a list of threatened species.
Download the map as pdf here.

Threatened and Endangered species by Wallacean Biome

Click on the image to see a larger version of this map. Cartography by Michelle Koo, 2014
Download a pdf version here.

Numbers of Critically Endangered and Vulnerable species have increased worldwide as quantified in this map colored by biogeographic biomes defined by Wallace and redefined by Holt et al (2012 in Science).

The tallies of species are: 1) In red: Number of Extinct, Extinct in the wild or Critically Endangered species; 2) In orange, Number of Endangered or Vulnerable species; 3) In white, Total number of species within a biome. Download the map as pdf here. Contact AmphibiaWeb to learn more.

III. Why Are Amphibian Populations Declining?

Clearly, the most important factor leading to amphibian population declines is habitat destruction. When forests are cleared it is no surprise that species that once lived there disappear. What is alarming is that there are many cases where the habitat is protected and amphibians are still disappearing. The causes for recent amphibian declines are many, but an emerging disease called chytridiomycosis and global climate change are thought the be the biggest threats to amphibians. Chytridiomycosis is a disease caused by the fungal chytrid pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. This pathogen is associated with the global loss of hundreds of species of amphibians and represents a spectacular loss of biodiversity, some say the worst in recorded history.

In the table below, we break down all of the hypothesized factors and the links provide more detailed information for each one. Some factors are obviously shared with other types of endangered species on our planet and are part of to the worldwide biodiversity crisis such as habitat destruction, alteration and fragmentation (Fisher and Shaffer 1996, Davidson et al. 2001, Marsh and Trenham 2001), introduced species (Vredenburg 2004, Kats and Ferrer 2003) and over-exploitation (Jennings and Hayes 1985, Lannoo et al. 1994). For these threats, we have a pretty good understanding of the ecological mechanisms underlying declines (Collins and Storfer 2003). However, amphibians have also declined in relatively "pristine" and protected environments (Wake 1991, Crump et al. 1992, Lips 2000). These more complex and elusive mechanisms include climate change (Pounds et al. 1999, Kiesecker et al. 2001, Carey and Alexander 2003), increased UV-B radiation, chemical contaminants (Hayes et al. 2002, Blaustein et al. 2003), emerging infectious diseases (Daszak et al. 2003; see the global distribution map of chytrid) and deformities (or malformations). The underlying mechanisms behind these factors are complex and they may be working synergistically with more straight forward factors, such as habitat destruction and introduced species, to exacerbate declines (Kiesecker et al. 2001, Blaustein and Kiesecker 2002). Researchers are finding that there is not a single overarching cause for global declines, instead all of these factors are threatening amphibian populations and the threat tends to vary depending on the location. If we are going to prevent further extinctions, research must move forward quickly and be used effectively in management by governments and non-governmental organizations around the world.

IV. Factors in Amphibian Declines

Read more about specific decline factors and conservation actions

VI. Literature Cited

Alford, R. A., and S. J. Richards. 1999. Global amphibian declines: A problem in applied ecology. Pages 133-165 in Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. Annual Reviews, Palo Alto.

Blaustein, A. R., and J. M. Kiesecker. 2002. Complexity in conservation: Lessons from the global decline of amphibian populations. Ecology Letters 5:597-608.

Blaustein, A. R., J. M. Romansic, J. M. Kiesecker, and A. C. Hatch. 2003. Ultraviolet radiation, toxic chemicals and amphibian population declines. Diversity & Distributions [print] 9:123-140.

Blaustein, A. R., and D. B. Wake. 1990. Declining amphibian populations - a global phenomenon. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 5:203-204.

Carey, C., and M. A. Alexander. 2003. Climate change and amphibian declines: is there a link? Diversity and Distributions 9:111-121.

Collins, J. P., and A. Storfer. 2003. Global amphibian declines: Sorting the hypotheses. Diversity & Distributions [print] 9:89-98.

Crump, M. L., F. R. Hensley, and K. L. Clark. 1992. Apparent decline of the Golden Toad: underground or extinct? Copeia 1992:413-420.

Daszak, P., A. A. Cunningham, and A. D. Hyatt. 2003. Infectious disease and amphibian population declines. Diversity & Distributions [print] 9:141-150.

Davidson, C., H. B. Shaffer, and M. R. Jennings. 2001. Declines of the California red-legged frog: Climate, UV-B, habitat, and pesticides hypotheses. Ecological Applications 11:464-479.

Fisher, R. N., and H. B. Shaffer. 1996. The decline of amphibians in California's Great Central Valley. Conservation Biology 10:1387-1397.

Hayes, T. B., A. Collins, M. Lee, M. Mendoza, N. Noriega, A. A. Stuart, and A. Vonk. 2002. Hermaphroditic, demasculinized frogs after exposure to the herbicide atrazine at low ecologically relevant doses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 99:5476-5480.

Houlahan, J. E., C. S. Findlay, B. R. Schmidt, A. H. Meyer, and S. L. Kuzmin. 2000. Quantitative evidence for global amphibian population declines. Nature 404:752-755.

Jennings, M. R., and M. P. Hayes. 1985. Pre-1900 overharvest of California [USA] red-legged frogs (Rana aurora draytonii): The inducement for bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) introduction. Herpetologica 41:94-103.

Kats, L. B., and R. P. Ferrer. 2003. Alien predators and amphibian declines: Review of two decades of science and the transition to conservation. Diversity & Distributions [print] 9:99-110.

Kiesecker, J. M., A. R. Blaustein, and L. K. Belden. 2001. Complex causes of amphibian population declines. Nature 410:681-684.

Lannoo, M. J., K. Lang, T. Waltz, and G. S. Phillips. 1994. An altered amphibian assemblage: Dickinson County, Iowa, 70 years after Frank Blanchard's survey. American Midland Naturalist 131:311-319.

Lips, K. R. 2000. Decline of a tropical amphibian fauna. in 166th National Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Science Innovation Exposition., Washington, D.C., USA, February 17-22, 2000.

Marsh, D. M., and P. C. Trenham. 2001. Metapopulation dynamics and amphibian conservation. Conservation Biology 15:40-49.

Pounds, A., M. Fogden, and J. Campbell. 1999. Biological response to climate change on a tropical mountain. Nature 398:611-614.

Stuart, S., Chanson, J. S., Cox, N. A., Young, B. E., Rodrigues, A. S. L., Fishman, D. L. and Waller, R. W. 2004. Status and trends of amphibian declines and extinctions worldwide. - Science 306: 1783-1786.

Vredenburg, V. T. 2004. Reversing introduced species effects: Experimental removal of introduced fish leads to rapid recovery of declining frog. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101(20):7646-7650.

Wake, D. B. 1991. Declining amphibian populations. Science 253:860.

Young, B. E., K. R. Lips, J. K. Reaser, R. Ibanez, A. W. Salas, J. R. Cedeno, L. A. Coloma, S. Ron, E. La Marca, J. R. Meyer, A. Munoz, F. Bolanos, G. Chaves, and D. Romo. 2001. Population declines and priorities for amphibian conservation in Latin America. Conservation Biology 15:1213-1223.