A new age of amphibian conservation
Amphibians across the world are slipping away and the time to act is now. Despite the regular attention received by charismatic species such as tigers, elephants, pandas and many types of bird, relatively few people are aware that amphibians are actually the most threatened group of vertebrates in the world today.
Over a third of all amphibians are threatened with extinction, compared to approximately 25% of mammals and 14% of birds. What is more amazing still is the rate of discovery, with new species regularly being found and described, and potentially thousands more to be added to global amphibian lists.
Although habitat loss is the primary cause of decline, emerging infectious diseases are also high on the list of threats. Of particular concern are fungal pathogens. In the 1980s and 90s Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis swept through Australia and the Americas, wiping out large populations of amphibians and even leading to some extinctions. Now it appears there might be further wave of devastation on its way with another fungus, this time called B. salamandrivorans which kills many different salamander species. In addition, mounting pressures from pollution, exploitation and climate change, as well as significant synergies between threats, have led to declines experienced by over half of all amphibian species. We must therefore work together as a matter of great urgency to save amphibians around the world.
Amphibians benefit for humans
The incredible sensitivity of amphibians to environmental changes makes them great indicators of a deteriorating environment; they are in all essence our early warning system. As if that isn’t enough, we are also learning about the important roles they play in maintaining clean water and controlling pest species. Amphibians inform our understanding of human physiology through their use as model organisms - their study has led to several Nobel Prizes in physiology, increasing our knowledge of musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, renal, respiratory, endocrine, reproductive and sensory systems.
We are increasingly benefiting from their contributions to human medicine, with powerful pharmaceutical agents - from novel antimicrobial compounds to potential cancer treatments - regularly being found in amphibian skin secretions. Despite the importance of these species and the threats that face them, there were no dedicated international meetings to bring together amphibian experts to share knowledge, experience and resources dedicated to practical conservation efforts until ACRS was established in 2012.
In April, the 2015 Amphibian Conservation Research Symposium (ACRS) met in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge. The 2015 meeting was the largest largest ACRS in the conference’s four-year history, with more than 100 researchers and practitioners from around the globe in attendance. But there was something else that was special about this year’s meeting. ACRS also partnered with two of the world’s leading amphibian conservation organisations, the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA) and the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission's Amphibian Specialist Group (ASG). This partnership is helping to grow the ACRS into a truly global effort and one that will become a mainstream event for the amphibian conservation world.
The hope for ACRS is that it goes beyond just an annual meeting. The ACRS Steering Committee unveiled the start of what we hope will become a huge collaboration between amphibian conservationists from around the globe through the Future Leaders in Amphibian Conservation programme.
This programme seeks to identify up-and-coming researchers in the field and provides them with funding to attend and present their research at the conference, as well as a grant to use towards their research. This year’s Future Leaders were Arun Kanagavel (India), Esther Mathews (South Africa), and Dr Karla Pelz Serrano (Mexico). Arun is an EDGE Fellow working in the Western Ghats on strategies for creating local public interest in preserving amphibians. Esther is developing a new method of detecting elusive amphibians by using sniffer dogs that may have implications for tracking chytrid fungus and Karla is another EDGE Fellow working on saving the Lake Lerma salamander from the brink of extinction in central Mexico.
The goal is to provide funding for Future Leaders in upcoming meetings, with preference given to those who would not otherwise be able to attend the meeting due to financial constraints and who show great promise in their future impact on amphibian conservation and gender balance among the Leaders also a primary consideration.
Beyond the Future Leaders, the Steering Committee is also developing ways to better connect the amphibian research community. One way to achieve this goal will involve moving the conference internationally. ACRS 2016 will be held at North West University in South Africa this coming January and ACRS 2017 will be held at New Zealand’s University of Otago. However, this only solves part of the problem as most academics and practitioners are divided among institutions and have limited opportunities to exchange ideas and information.
We want to allow researchers and practitioners, especially those working in a similar geographic area, to be aware of each other’s work, what data they are collecting and what information is needed so that effective conservation strategies can be implemented. This network, while still very much in its infancy, also promises to be a platform that will allow students to pair up with senior conservationists as part of a mentorship programme.
Ameliorating the amphibian extinction crisis cannot solely be achieved through the establishment of new programmes and networks of conservation biologists and practitioners. However, this will increase global capacity to respond to the challenges faced and will help support the efforts of conservationists working in the field, government representatives and local people to make a crucial difference for threatened species worldwide. It is the hope of the Amphibian Conservation Research Symposium Steering Committee and past, present and future Organising Committees that our work will play a role in achieving this goal by facilitating networks on multiple levels.
Like too many animals in today’s world, amphibians desperately need our help. Through building globally coordinated responses to these conservation challenges, we can work together to save species from extinction and raise awareness of the plight of amphibians. They need our help so we do not risk losing them forever.
*Collin VanBuren  is doing a PhD in Earth Sciences and is a member of the Amphibian Conservation Research Symposium Steering Committee. Picture credit: California National Guard (http://www.army.mil/media/26164) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons