The world’s amphibians are under siege. More than 2,000 species could be wiped out within the next few decades – and frogs are among the most endangered of all. In the past 10 years alone it is estimated that at least 165 species of amphibians have become extinct.
While loss of habitat, climate change, chemical pollution and invasive species are a significant and growing threat to amphibians, the most immediate danger is the pathogenic chytrid, which is spreading rapidly and wiping out frog populations around the world.
That’s why biologists around the world are banding together to do all they can to save as many species as possible. The goal is to rescue at least 500 of the most threatened species through protection of habitat, conservation and breeding.
The Vancouver Aquarium is playing a key role in the project, called the Amphibian Ark (AArk) and has already become the only facility to ever breed the Oregon spotted frog, the most endangered amphibian in Canada.
Found in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, and listed as “critically endangered” under the federal Species at Risk Act, the three remaining breeding populations include fewer than 300 breeding females in total, says Dr. Thoney.
Historically, Oregon spotted frog populations occurred throughout the Fraser Valley, from South Surrey to Hope. But loss of habitat due to draining of wetlands in the Fraser River floodplain for agriculture and the conversion of agricultural land to housing and urban development coupled to invasive species such as bullfrogs and industrial activity have decimated the populations.
“As part of the Oregon Spotted Frog Recovery Team, a diverse group of biologists and land managers that is coordinating efforts to conserve, manage and recover the Oregon spotted frog in Canada, Aquarium staff are working towards the team’s key goals for the next 10 years, which are to maintain and expand the existing populations and establish six additional self-sustaining populations in B.C.,” says Dr. Thoney, director of Animal Operations at the Vancouver Aquarium.
Since 2007, Aquarium staff have been collecting Oregon spotted frog eggs to establish an aquarium-based assurance population. In 2010, Oregon spotted frogs were bred at the Aquarium for the first time ever in an aquarium environment.
Last year close to 3,000 cultured tadpoles and juvenile frogs were released into natural habitats near established populations in the wild, and this spring Dr. Thoney anticipates that even more will be returned from the breeding program to their natural habitat.
While the Aquarium’s work on saving the Oregon spotted frog is critically important – a fact recognized last fall when it received the 2011 Peter Karsten Conservation award from the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) – the breeding program is only one aspect of its ambitious amphibian conservation effort, which includes the Northern leopard frog, another species at high risk in B.C.
Populations of northern leopard frogs declined sharply across much of western Canada in the 1970s, but not in eastern Canada where they are still fairly abundant. To help improve the chances of survival, the Aquarium has introduced what it calls a program, which entails gathering eggs in the wild, hatching them at the Aquarium and then releasing the young frogs back into the wild when they have a better chance of making it on their own.
“Frogs survived the age of the dinosaurs, but almost half of them are threatened with extinction today in one of the biggest extinction crises we have ever experienced,” says Dr. Thoney. “Amphibians are indicators of environmental health and contributors to human health. As part of AArk, the Vancouver Aquarium has joined forces with zoos and aquariums around the world in a global effort to try to stop hundreds of species from vanishing forever.”
The Aquariums Frogs Forever? exhibit featuring 26 species of amphibians, highlights the diversity and the plight of frogs salamanders and toads from different regions of the world in an effort to raise public awareness of the dangers facing amphibian populations, adds Dr. Thoney.
And until May 6, visit Babies at the Vancouver Aquarium to discover other fascinating breeding stories!