The Golden Age of Amphibian Discovery

Did you know that currently we are living through the Golden Age of Amphibian Discovery? Since 2000 we have discovered over 2500 new species of amphibians and since the 1980s we have more than doubled the total number of amphibian species know to science. On average 160 new amphibian species are described every year, approximately one every couple of days. So what exactly is driving this huge rate of discovery? There are a number of factors and we’re going to explore them together, in the hopes that it helps get you excited both about amphibians and their conservation.

One of the main drivers behind the discovery of new amphibian species is technology, specifically DNA technology. The cost of sequencing genes or other DNA components is always coming down, this can easily be seen in the expansion of domestic sequencing kits from companies such as 23&Me and Ancestry DNA. This all means that the comparison of DNA between different populations of the same species is becoming every more affordable and helping to show that different populations may be different species. This is know as cryptic diversity, when species look morphologically the same but genetics helps to reveal they are in fact different. This may be with a combination of nuclear genes and mitochondrial genes.

Natural history collections are also playing their part in the discovery of new species. Back in the Victorian times, collectors would travel the globe to find new species of birds or mammals and send their skins back to London (for example) where they were later described. So much focus was put on these two taxonomic groups that it is quite rare for new mammal or bird species to be described. So how do amphibians come into this? During those same expeditions, amphibians and reptiles were caught as by-catch and sent to the taxonomists across Europe’s museums and institutions to be classified. After all this time, some specimens are only just giving up their secrets and being described as new species. How cool is that?

The next point seems quite paradoxical – deforestation. With deforestation comes access to areas that were once inaccessible and so some researchers have focused on trying to inventory the remaining fragments of rainforest before they are gone, sometimes finding new species in the process. Some of you may have also heard about the Google forest in Mozambique. Satellite imagery is helping to locate new areas of untamed wilderness that also hold new species, with taxonomists and ecologists dispatched to these areas to find out what inhabits them, finding even more species along the way!

Why is all of this important? Well over 41% of the world’s amphibians are threatened with extinction, with new species likely being listed as Endangered by the IUCN upon discovery. Habitat loss is the biggest threat facing amphibians followed by disease, over-exploitation and the introduction of invasive species. It is likely that a number of new species have unfortunately gone extinct before we’ve had the chance to discover them or recognise them as such from within cryptic species groups. Whilst most new species are being found in the tropics (where most amphibian species are found), some are even being found in North America and Europe where amphibian species are the most well known and studied.

Another important factor is that there are more people working with amphibians than ever before. If you’re thinking about becoming a zoologist, why not become an amphibian taxonomist? Current models suggest there may be 12,000 to 15,000 amphibian species out there so we’ve got a long way to go! There are huge gaps in our knowledge and whole continents such as Africa are currently in a sorry state of affairs. The chances are that you’ll describe dozens of new species throughout your career no matter where you end up. If you want to find out more about newly discovered amphibian species, you can do so here. If amphibian taxonomy is your thing, you can check out the latest taxonomic updates here, which also incorporates newly discovered species.

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Steve Allain

Steve Allain

Chairman at Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Amphibian and Reptile Group
Steve is a current Master's student at Imperial College London and zoology graduate from Anglia Ruskin University. He has a particular passion and focus on British amphibian and reptile species. He is the current chairman of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Amphibian & Reptile Group (CPARG) and helps to organise and coordinate a number of amphibian and reptile surveys around the county, to map the distribution of herpetofauna within Cambridgeshire. Recently he has become interested in the amphibians of the tropics, especially South-East Asia after a trip to Borneo in 2015. Steve was an intern with the IUCN’s SSC Amphibian Red Listing Authority where he specialised in the red listing of South-East Asia’s amphibians. Steve is also a member of the SAVE THE FROGS! Task Force and a former blogger for The Wandering Herpetologist.
Steve Allain

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