I’m sure most Froglife supporters and Croaking Science readers will be aware that the world’s amphibian species are in crisis. However, you may not know just how bad the crisis is, and how we know about it. This Croaking Science article aims to show how strong the evidence is, how it is gathered, and how difficult it is to keep up to date.
Herpetologists began to become aware in the 1990s that, although all kinds of wildlife were in trouble all over the world, amphibians were a special case. Simon Stuart and colleagues put numbers to this feeling in 2004. Their Global Amphibian Assessment estimated that 32.5% of amphibian species were globally threatened (i.e. they fitted into the IUCN Red List categories Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable: see later for definitions) compared to 12% of birds and 23% of mammals. Further, 22.5% of amphibians fell into the Data Deficient category i.e. too little was known about their status to make an assessment, a substantially higher proportion than for birds and mammals whose status tends to be better known. This meant that only about 44% of amphibian species could be classed as of Least Concern. Stuart and colleagues discussed possible reasons for amphibians being in worse shape than the other mainly terrestrial vertebrate groups (at that time, too little was known about the status of reptiles to make a similar estimate for them). Although anthropogenic habitat loss and change were the underlying main causes for all wildlife declines, amphibian populations seemed to be declining even in good quality habitat, for what Stuart et al. called ‘enigmatic’ reasons. Within a few years, it was clear that the main cause of the ‘enigma’ was the spread of the fungal disease chytridiomycosis against which many amphibian species had no or only very limited resistance. It is interesting in a time of a global pandemic affecting the human population to reflect on the causes and effects of a novel disease affecting wildlife.
Stuart et al.’s assessment was based on the then total number of described amphibian species, 5743. However, James Hanken (1999) had earlier noted the irony that, at a time when amphibian species were in severe decline, the number of known species was rapidly increasing. This trend has continued. The Amphibian Species of the World website (Frost, 2020) currently (October, 2020) lists 8226 species, a 43% increase on the number assessed by Stuart et al. in 2004. Over the last 10 years, the number of described species of amphibians (mostly anurans: frogs and toads) has increased on average by 150 per year.
How has this happened? The biggest discoveries of new species are in the tropics where amphibian diversity is highest, and where, until recently, resources and expertise for amphibian research were very limited. Amphibians are mostly small, mainly active at night, and often quite localised, all of which create difficulties in cataloguing biodiversity. It also turns out that external appearances can conceal underlying differences, so that it is only recently, with the availability of DNA sequencing, that herpetologists can work out that some species, previously thought to have extensive ranges, should really be split into several distinct species. Over my time studying the frogs of Trinidad and Tobago, new species descriptions of this kind have occurred in several cases. For example, the stream frogs of northern Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago (see Croaking Science September 2020 for an account of colour changes in these frogs) were earlier thought to belong to one species: now they are three, Mannophryne trinitatis, M. olmonae and M. venezuelensis. Will this process of finding new amphibian species come to an end? Presumably it will, but currently there is no sign of the new discovery trend slowing down.
How do we establish the conservation status of a species? The task of keeping tabs on amphibians falls to the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Amphibian Specialist Group (ASG). Their aim is to ‘provide the scientific foundation to inform effective amphibian conservation around the world’. A key part of their work is the compilation and revision of the Amphibian Red List i.e. an assessment of all species relative to their status in the wild. The main Red List categories (IUCN, 2001), with their definitions, and the current proportions of amphibian species in each category (from a total of 6932 species) are shown below:
Category, definition, percentage of amphibian species
Critically endangered (CR): extremely high risk of extinction in the wild, 8.9%
Endangered (EN): very high risk…, 14.4%
Vulnerable (VU): high risk…., 9.8%
Near threatened (NT): close to qualifying as threatened, 5.6%
Least concern (LC): widespread and abundant, 41.5%
Data deficient (DD): inadequate information available to make an assessment, 19.3%
There is a final category of ‘not evaluated’: these are mainly newly identified species for which information on their population status is often very limited. Where new species have been named from the splitting of a widespread species, this causes a particular problem for the Red Listing process. For example, the widespread small tree frog Dendropsophus minutus is an abundant neotropical LC species; the population in Trinidad is now classed as a Trinidad endemic, D. goughi, so its status now needs assessed separately.
Clearly, a species’ status can change with time, so the Red List needs regular updating. In addition, as noted above, the identification of new species means there is a constant need for new assessments. At present, the ASG is nearing completion of a major re-assessment, due for release in December 2020: it will be fascinating to find how amphibians as a whole have fared since the last major revision in 2010.
What sort of evidence goes into determining a species conservation status? The Red Listing process is as objective as possible and relies on input from experts around the world. Key questions are: have populations changed, and if so, by how much? What is the geographic range of the species, and how much of this range does it occupy? How large or small is the population? These can be quite difficult questions to answer with any degree of certainty. Consider the UK, with its considerable resources and abundant wildlife experts. We only have a small number of amphibian species. How good is our knowledge of their population sizes and trends? Even our presence/absence distribution maps are very variable in quality, and knowledge of populations is very patchy, even for the species that are of conservation concern, like natterjack toads and great crested newts.
Now consider Venezuela: a large country in political and economic turmoil with only a small number of dedicated herpetologists, but over 300 species of amphibians. The task of Red Listing here is immense and likely to be much based on educated guesswork. I have had some involvement over the last year in re-assessing the conservation status of Trinidad and Tobago’s much smaller number (35) of species, including three previously classed as threatened, and which share their ranges with Venezuela. The process has involved several herpetologists knowledgeable about the amphibians of the three territories pooling their information to complete the IUCN’s detailed evaluation forms, and coming to a judgement. The three species are:
- Phytotriades auratus, the golden tree frog (see Figure). Formerly CR on the basis of occurrence only on two separate Trinidad mountain peaks, where it lives among the leaves and in the water tanks of huge arboreal bromeliads. Recent discoveries of populations in northern Venezuela and on another Trinidad mountain have led us to revise the assessment to EN.
- Hyalinobatrachium orientale, the eastern glass frog (see Croaking Science, July 2020). Found along forest streams in northern Venezuela and in north east Tobago, but not Trinidad. Previously assessed as VU. Because of its limited range in Tobago and threats from deforestation in Venezuela, we retain VU as its Red List status.
- Flectonotus fitzgeraldi, the dwarf marsupial tree frog (see Croaking Science October 2020). Found on forest and forest edge vegetation that holds pools of water, such as bromeliads and Heliconia, in northern Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago. The previous assessment was EN, but when we examined the evidence, it became clear that this was a case where the previous assessors had made a judgment based on very limited data. Fortunately, we had been involved in extensive surveys of the presence/absence of this species in Trinidad and Tobago, as well as population estimates at a few locations. Added to data on the species’ range in Venezuela, we have been able to publish a paper (Smith et al. in press) and to assess this species as LC.
In these three cases, we have two reductions in the estimated threats. In both cases, these are not linked to active conservation effort, but rather to better data on the numbers and distribution of species. Much of the hard work has been done, not by experts, but by students and amateur naturalists taking part in actions like Bioblitzes. Mobilising citizens in this way has been important in the UK for taxa likes birds and butterflies. It needs to be done all over the world for more taxa.
Frost, D.R. (2020). Amphibian Species of the World, version 6.0. Available online.
Hanken, J. (1999). Why are there so many new amphibian species when amphibians are declining? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 14, 7-8.
IUCN (2001). IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria, version 3.1. Available online.
Smith, J. et al. (in press). The distribution and conservation status of the dwarf marsupial frog (Flectonotus fitzgeraldi; Anura, Hemiphractidae) in Trinidad, Tobago and Venezuela. Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.
Stuart, S. et al. (2004). Status and trends of amphibian declines and extinctions worldwide. Science 306, 1783-1786.