Why we should treasure the diverse world of amphibians

Dr. Karen Haysom is species programmes manager at Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust in Bournemouth, U.K. 

Amphibians are at risk worldwide. Environmental
pressures, including habitat destruction and climate change, push many of these
animals — frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, caecilians — toward extinction. But
if we were to lose amphibians, we would lose a staple of our ecosystems — and a
much-loved group that holds a unique place in our hearts.

Today, amphibians feature widely in
children’s literature, as well as film and television: the Frog and Toad
children’s books, Kermit the Frog in The
, the frogs in the Budweiser commercials.

This fascination with amphibians extends
back thousands of years and across a myriad of cultures. Amphibians feature in
the Bible, and in the art, myths and legends of ancient peoples like the Aztecs.

The lifecycle of a frog. Image credit: Katie Wood and Lauren Sisk, Earth Day Network

In these frames, amphibians are often
symbolic of rain and fertility, though this can vary depending on the order of
amphibians. For example, salamanders are associated with rain and fire in some
cultures. In places where they are abundant, like the tropics, amphibians’
calling can dominate the soundscape, contributing strongly to a community’s
sense of place.

About 8,000 species of amphibians
inhabit our Earth, and they’re all similar in that they are vertebrates with
variable body temperatures, permeable skins and a lifecycle that usually includes
an aquatic larval stage. The larvae, often called tadpoles, undergo an
incredible transition — metamorphosis — in which their bodies physically
transform for life on land.

Amphibians live in all but the coldest
and driest countries and in all sorts of habitats, including in trees and even
underground. For example, Itambe’s bromeliad frog (Crossodactylodes itambe),
an extremely rare frog found at only a single location in Brazil, lives its
entire life in bromeliads — a special kind of plant that collects water in its
leaf structure. Some frogs, such as the waxy monkey tree frog (Phyllomedusa
) have a special waxy coating to help protect their skins from
drying out.

Monkey frogs are found throughout much of South America. These ones, found in a wetland area in Parque Nacional del Manu, Peru, are mating on a branch. The male tightly grips the female from behind, ready to fertilize her eggs. Photo credit: Rob Ward, ARC

And, of course, amphibians are
invaluable to ecosystems. They regulate prey species, recycle natural materials
and, because they move between land and water, move energy and nutrients
between these environments. They are also food for other animals, and in some
parts of the world, for people.

Sadly, amphibians are one of the most
threatened groups of animals in the world, with over 40% of species threatened
with extinction. This is mostly due to habitat loss, disease, pollution,
exploitation for food or pets, invasive species and climate change.

Amphibians are especially threatened
because of their habitat requirements and complex life cycles. Also, their
permeable skins make them vulnerable to contaminants and pathogens and the weather
extremes that are more prevalent in a warming world.

But we can all help. If you have a
backyard or a garden, make a pond and other wildlife habitat and avoid the use
of pesticides. Support an organization, such as Amphibian and Reptile Conservation
.  Above all, share your
love of amphibians with others to inspire the next generation and pressure
leaders to vote policy that preserves amphibians’ natural habitats. Learn more
at the Amphibian
Survival Alliance

Image at top: Tree frogs, like this one from Italy, were often used in folk remedies. Some believed that the fat from these frogs could treat rotten teeth. Photo: Jim Foster/ARC

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Source: Earth Day Network