Few humans care about frogs, toads, newts and salamanders—amphibians. If you want humans to care about animals, you've got to show them pictures of what those in the save-the-animals biz call charismatic megafauna. For example, if you want people to give a damn about climate change, and how it will affect other animal species, it is always best to show them a picture, or better yet, a video, of a bedraggled, beleaguered polar bear floating on a shrinking block of ice in a vast sea of clear water (the ice melted).
Then the humans get all weepy and sentimental about the deal. Maybe at that moment they'll write a big check to the World Wildlife Fund or the Environmental Defense Fund or Greenpeace. They need to write the check right there, right then, because if you wait 5 minutes, these humans won't remember they got all weepy about the besieged bears.
Thus it comes as no surprise that a recently released U.S. Geological Survey study which found a precipitous decline in America's amphibian populations got hardly any attention at all.
CORVALLIS, Ore. — The first-ever estimate of how fast frogs, toads and salamanders in the United States are disappearing from their habitats reveals they are vanishing at an alarming and rapid rate.
According to the study released today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, even the species of amphibians presumed to be relatively stable and widespread are declining. And these declines are occurring in amphibian populations everywhere, from the swamps in Louisiana and Florida to the high mountains of the Sierras and the Rockies.
The study by USGS scientists and collaborators concluded that U.S. amphibian declines may be more widespread and severe than previously realized, and that significant declines are notably occurring even in protected national parks and wildlife refuges.
"Amphibians have been a constant presence in our planet's ponds, streams, lakes and rivers for 350 million years or so, surviving countless changes that caused many other groups of animals to go extinct," said USGS Director Suzette Kimball. "This is why the findings of this study are so noteworthy; they demonstrate that the pressures amphibians now face exceed the ability of many of these survivors to cope."
On average, populations of all amphibians examined vanished from habitats at a rate of 3.7 percent each year. If the rate observed is representative and remains unchanged, these species would disappear from half of the habitats they currently occupy in about 20 years. The more threatened species, considered "Red-Listed" in an assessment by the global organization International Union for Conservation of Nature, disappeared from their studied habitats at a rate of 11.6 percent each year. If the rate observed is representative and remains unchanged, these Red-Listed species would disappear from half of the habitats they currently occupy in about six years.
"Even though these declines seem small on the surface, they are not," said USGS ecologist Michael Adams, the lead author of the study. "Small numbers build up to dramatic declines with time. We knew there was a big problem with amphibians, but these numbers are both surprising and of significant concern."
In the few articles about these amphibian declines, like this one in United Kingdom edition of Wired, there were some excellent quotes.
The results show concerning decreases with even the species designated Least Concern experiencing a -2.7 percent average loss. That loss figure goes up to -11.6 percent for the Endangered, Vulnerable, and Near Threatened groups.
Ironically it's the Least Concern group which is causing the most concern in terms of the results. The USGS referred to the losses as "alarming given that these species are thought to be relatively unaffected by global amphibian declines".
When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, even as late as the 1950s and 60s, there were always frogs and salamanders in the backyard garden. They've been gone for decades.
On the other hand, for the humans, how can the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog pictured above, not a particularly attractive species, compete with this guy? Even for five minutes?
You can read similar findings about fresh-water fish. In 2008, the USGS released a study called Silent Streams? Escalating Endangerment for North American Freshwater Fish: Nearly 40 Percent Now At-Risk. And then recently, I read this story about fish in our big rivers.
The study says 60 out of 68 U.S. species, or 88 percent of fish species found exclusively in large-river ecosystems like the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers, are of state, federal or international conservation concern. The report is in the April issue of the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
On the other hand, says lead author Brenda Pracheil, a postdoctoral researcher in the UW's Center for Limnology, the study offers some good news, too.
Some good news? If you want to know what the "good" news is, follow the link provided.
The sad fact is that fresh-water fish and amphibian declines are both literally and figuratively a telling and alarming sign of severe, ongoing environmental degradation in the United States.
Not that anyone gives a shit. It's hard to make a buck caring about frogs and salamanders.