As an amphibian conservation biologist I am often asked ‘why should be bother saving the frogs?’, to which I often give one of two responses. The first is a short summary of the benefits of saving frogs and the second is a detailed reply building on those points I usually mention in the first. This post is going to be somewhere in the middle ground between the two, rest assured that by the end of this too I will have converted you into a passionate amphibian conservationist. This blog post will focus mainly on frogs for the pure fact that roughly 90% of amphibians are frogs and toads, the other 10% being newts, salamanders and caecilians. The first reason we should act to save frogs (and other amphibians) is that they are terribly imperiled. 41% of all amphibian species are currently threatened with extinction due to synergistic effect that Dr Jodi Rowley has described as ‘the perfect storm’. These effects include disease, over-harvesting, pollution, habitat destruction and the introduction of alien species. I aim to focus on a more ecologically based argument to begin with before moving more into a more selfish one with an anthropocentric view which usually manages to help get people on board.
Amphibians play a vital role in many of the world’s ecosystems being the food for many other animals including insects, birds, reptiles and mammals. Amphibians are r-selected species meaning that they produce a large number of young due to increased mortality and a whole host of other factors. I’m sure you may have seen this in your garden pond, common frogs (Rana temporaria) can lay up to 2,000 or so eggs each year. Only 2 of these tadpoles have to reach maturity for the population to remain stable so what happens to the rest of the brood? They are of course eaten by a whole host of animals including their siblings. If amphibians were to disappear, this food source would as well meaning the potential collapse of important ecosystems.
Amphibians are also a great bioindicator. For those of you who are not aware of the term bioindicators, they are a species whose function or population can reveal the status of the environment, in this case it is water quality. Like us, most amphibian species like fresh, clean water of which they use to live and breed in. This makes sense as amphibians can take water up through their skin and unfortunately also toxins dissolved with it. Like with most bioindicators, there are species which are more susceptible to pollution and others that are more hardy. By looking at the proportion of the two, you can make an accurate assessment of the water quality. As frogs have disappeared, we’ve seen a marked decrease in the quality of waterways of which we too depend on. As we’ve lost frogs we’ve also lost some of the environment’s ability to tell us how dirty potential drinking water supplied are – something that will be of growing importance as the world’s population continues to expand.
Moving onto a more selfish reason now, I’m sure many of you are aware that we are currently facing a crisis at the moment in terms of antibiotics. What if I told you that frogs could be the answer? There was news recently that a new antibiotic drug was in the pipeline after being identified from the skin of a frog. This makes perfect sense when you think about it, amphibians in their current form have been around for over 300 million years so it is reasonable to postulate that they would have evolved some form of defense against such pathogens. Scientific discoveries have also been made regarding frog-based drugs in the treatment of cancer, diabetes and stroke. These are but a small portion of the potential that is out there hiding in plain sight. If we allow species to go extinct then we may lose the benefits that they hold forever. If that doesn’t help win you over then maybe this will. More than 10 per cent of Nobel Prizes in Physiology and Medicine have resulted from scientific investigations that used frogs as their model species.
Please take a moment to imagine a world without frogs. You may think of a pond that is silent, a forest stream empty of lots of wriggling tadpoles or dystopian future where ecosystems and the economy have collapsed. All of those are very real possibilities (to a certain extent) but one thing not many people think about is the ecosystem services that amphibians can play in the environment. Think of the amount of flying insects and other pests that would proliferate if frogs were to disappear. This could potentially cause havoc for agriculture and also lead to increased cases of preventable tropical diseases such as malaria. Why you may ask? Without the predators to keep insect numbers down, they would go through population explosions which could seen very disastrous consequences for ourselves as species due to the fact, that collectively, we were complacent about loss of a group of animals not many thought much of. With the loss of amphibian species we could very much be signing our own death warrants by causing an irreversible shift in ecosystems, leading to more disease and crop failures etc. Of course we won’t know for sure until it happens, this is all just speculation based on empirical evidence we’ve already collected.
I can trace back my awe for the natural world to a moment in time when I was between the ages of 4 and 6 years of age. My grandparents had recently dug a pond in our back garden for both myself and my younger brother and stocked them with goldfish. Unfortunately the fish didn’t last long due to the large number of cats in the area despite my parent’s best efforts to protect them. After the fish left, the frogs moved in. I remember the shock on my mothers face when a frog first jumped out of the grass surrounding the pond, to me that moment meant that the frogs had chosen our small holding above all others. I was of course familiar with the circle of life taught in schools at that age with frogs and butterflies being the two relatable and text book. In conserving frogs we aren’t just protecting the environment, we’re preserving a small part the natural world and all it’s wonder to inspire the next generation of custodians to care for our planet.
From bioindicators, pest control and biomedicines – frogs do a lot more than just sitting on lily pads. We have both a moral obligation and a selfish drive to do more to conserve them for future generations. The next major medical breakthrough may come from amphibians, one that may very much one day save your life.
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