Frogs, toads and salamanders may be funny creatures, but their situation in the world is no laughing matter.
They are threatened, like so many other animals, but the seriousness of their plight should make humans sit up and take notice, said Jessi Krebs, 41, curator of reptiles and amphibians at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.
“They are the proverbial canary in the coal mine,” he said. What happens to them can have consequences for many species.
After an IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Global Amphibian Assessment in 2004 found that amphibian species were becoming extinct at an alarming rate, a concentrated effort to study their conservation began.
Krebs said 120 species have been lost in the past 20 years. “For every one rediscovered, three disappear.”
In 2005, the Henry Doorly Zoo, then led by longtime director Lee Simmons, soon was among the zoos and animal organizations that launched the Amphibian Conservation Initiative. Today, the zoo is known internationally for its pioneering work with several endangered amphibian species.
The zoo started from scratch to create a conservation and research area — all on a shoestring budget. Space was found in an empty hallway.
“The (hallway) wasn't built for animals. There was no water, no drains, no temperature controls,” Krebs said.
He and other zoo workers had to make a space where species wouldn't mingle because pathogens on one species could be fatal to another. So each species had to have its own contained section. The builders also had to devise a water system that wouldn't cross-contaminate at the zoo or carry any of the pathogens out into public waters.
The first room of the amphibian conservation area was opened in 2006. Now the facility has 12 rooms and space to expand.
“Jessi and his crew jumped right in,” said Shelly Grow, senior conservation biologist for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “They found a way to respond within the constraints of budget, staff and resources. And they were careful and cautious about biosecurity.”
The level of cleaning in this area is intensive and continuous. Mistakes can wipe out a researcher's work — not to mention a species.
Early on, there was the problem of food. The zookeepers have to raise their own bugs, such as pinhead crickets and flies, to have a steady food source.
“Diet was a big challenge,” Krebs said. In the wild, the animals have 100 to 200 insect species to pick from for their meals. “We could offer them maybe six.”
The conservation area now has eight species: the Panamanian golden frog, Puerto Rican crested toad, Mississippi gopher frog, Kihansi spray toads, Wyoming toads, blue-spotted salamander from Iowa, striped newt from the southeastern United States and Utah boreal toad.
Until recently there had been nine species — the zoo successfully released 12 eastern hellbenders, large members of the salamander family, to the wild in Ohio.
Work with hellbenders doesn't end with that release, Krebs said. The Toledo Zoo, a partner in the hellbender project, has 750 eggs. After they hatch, Omaha's zoo will receive up to 500 of them. Not every species that the zoo works with can be released into the wild, he said. Some of the species have been dying in their native environment, from disease or environmental reasons.
“Sometimes you can't put something back in nature if you haven't fixed the problem,” he said.
One of the biggest enemies of amphibians worldwide is the chytrid fungus. It seems to be able to infect almost all of the world's more than 6,000 amphibian species with a disease the IUCN called “the worst infectious disease ever recorded among vertebrates in terms of the number of species impacted, and its propensity to drive them to extinction.”
This disease causes changes in the skin that are deadly to amphibians, because they rely on their skin for breathing or for the absorption of water. A few amphibian species can survive; however, if they are infected, they become carriers, meaning they can infect other species.
Even if a species can't be repatriated, it can be bred and the offspring go to other zoos or aquariums for exhibits or more research. At the rate species are disappearing, zoo exhibits may someday have the only specimens.
The zoo has 57 species of amphibians, many in exhibits in the Desert Dome, Scott Aquarium and Lied Jungle. It's only a special few that are tucked away in the conservation center.
Saving amphibians is important because they breathe and drink through their skin, making them a harbinger of dangers in the environment, Krebs said. They also provide food for other species. If they are ill or poisoned by a strange pathogen, they are a danger for other animals in their environment.
“It's all tied together,” he said. “We need them.”
“(The Henry Doorly) Zoo's efforts are well-known in the zoo and conservation worlds,” said Grow of the AZA. “It puts words into action.”
Krebs stressed the need for worldwide cooperation, that it's not up to one organization to save the amphibians of the world. “No one zoo can do it alone.”
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