Amphibian populations are declining around the world, and two recent stories caught my eye: one hopeful and one sad.
In 2011, Texas suffered from devastating wildfires. It was feared that the fires in Bastrop County may have killed off the remaining wild population of Houston toads, making the species extinct in the wild. The sole survivors of the species would have been those animals being raised at the Houston Zoo as part of an on-going headstarting and reintroduction program. Since 2007, the Houston Zoo has headstarted 20,000 toads. You can read more about the Zoo’s efforts with the Houston toad here.
Although last year’s historic Texas drought and then the Bastrop wildfires had a devastating impact on the toads, researchers from Texas State University have recently confirmed toad presence in the burn zone. The goal now is to ensure the toads that survived the blazes do not become a casualty of the recovery.
Michael Forstner, a Texas State University biology professor who has spent more than a decade and a half studying and developing management protocols for the Houston toad, and James Dixon, professor emeritus at Texas A&M University with 40-years experience working with the species, are part of the monitoring team.
“The presence of a highly qualified team of Houston toad experts and habitat conservationists will ensure no harm comes to the toad while crews work hard to get Bastrop cleaned of debris and hazardous trees,” said Federal Coordinating Officer Kevin Hannes of FEMA. “In this way, we’re driving citizen recovery forward while protecting a rare native Texan that also happens to be a wildfire survivor, the Houston toad.”
The monitors are accompanying debris removal and public utility crews in Bastrop Countyto determine whether toads are present in their immediate work areas. Should a monitor come across a toad during the removal of debris or hazardous trees, the monitor will coordinate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to safely relocate the toad. The team collectively holds federal and state permits to identify, locate, handle, remove and transport the species.
“The monitoring work is important because it is a continuation of the collaborative efforts, with FEMA as a partner, in getting Bastrop and its Houston toads back to where they were before the fires of last year,” said Forstner.
In some sad amphibian news, following a marked decline in his health and behavior, the Animal Management and Veterinary Teams at Zoo Atlanta made the difficult decision to put one of what is believed to be that last two Rabb’s fringed-limbed tree frogs down. This was to prevent suffering and to preserve invaluable genetic material that may someday be used to study the species, which is now believed to be extinct in the wild.
“Amphibians decompose much more rapidly than do many other classes of animals. Had the frog passed away overnight when no staff members were present, we would have lost any opportunity to preserve precious genetic material,” said Joseph Mendelson, PhD, curator of herpetology. “To lose that chance would have made this extinction an even greater tragedy in terms of conservation, education and biology.”
Named for noted amphibian conservationists George and Mary Rabb, the species was first identified by Mendelson and an international team of colleagues following a 2005 field expedition to Panama where a pathogen known as amphibian chytrid fungus had begun to threaten native amphibian populations. Since that discovery, the fungus has eradicated entire amphibian species in the wild, including the Rabb’s fringe-limbed tree frog, which has not been observed in the wild since 2007. The last known member of this species, another male, resides at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.