Amphibian Crisis in Panama

Amphibians are undergoing a mass extinction event on a scale unprecedented in human history. Habitat loss, human exploitation, and environmental contamination are among the main causes of this threat of extinction.

A deadly new threat has emerged recently. An infectious fungal disease called amphibian chytridiomycosis is having catastrophic effects on amphibians all over the globe. This disease may well be the result of global climate change. Recent events in Panama illustrate perfectly a pattern of amphibian decline clearly associated with this disease and the power of scientific data to that allows scientist to launch pro-active conservation responses.

Recently, Dr. Karen Lips of Southern Illinois University and colleagues offered a model of a wave-like spread of the fungus across Costa Rica and Panama. This model predicted that in 2006 the rich amphibian fauna in the vicinity of El Valle de Antón in central Panama, would suffer a catastrophic decline because of chytrid fungus.

In response, biologists from Zoo Atlanta and Atlanta Botanical Garden launched an unprecedented pre-emptive extraction of amphibians from areas predicted to be devastated by disease. Biologists flew the frogs from Panama to safer environments in Atlanta. Now 35 amphibian species from this region live in colonies in Atlanta, that assure their survival.

As predicted, the fungus recently arrived in El Valle, and the inevitable deaths are now occurring.

All available scientific data indicate that the amphibian fauna of El Valle has begun its terminal decline that will result in a major loss of regional populations and, quite likely, extinction of multiple species. In this case, scientific data regarding the location of the fungus allowed some pre-emptive conservation measures.

Rapid response led by the Houston Zoo, Panamanian government and Atlanta-based institutions have resulted in a permanent in-country facility for safeguarding critically threatened species. Thus, the endemic species of this region have at least some hope of avoiding extinction. We cannot say the same for many populations and species in other parts of the Central America or the World. Directed research such as that by Reid Harris of James Madison University, Virginia and Richard Retallick of James Cook University in Queensland, Australia offer some hope that, with a bit of help along the way, some amphibians may be able to avoid extinction.

On a global scale, all data indicate that the 2006 catastrophe in El Valle, Panama will be played out at remote locations in many regions around the world in upcoming months and years, underscoring the need for rapid implementation of a global amphibian conservation response.

The situation in Panama reinforces the reality of global amphibian extinctions and the fact that emergency responses, based on real data regarding threats, are necessary in some cases. The ecological effects of the rapid extinction of one third or more of the over six thousand known amphibian species on humans and ecosystem are expected to be substantial.

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