Aug. 26 - A website devoted to amphibian discovery has just recorded its 3,000th new species, an achievement that belies the crisis facing frogs, salamanders and other amphibians around the world. Set up by scientists in California, Amphibiaweb aims to keep track of the creatures in an effort to avert their continued extinction in the face of climate change, habitat destruction and disease. Ben Gruber reports.
Frogs are a source of fascination for Professor David Wake..but he loves salamanders too. He's dedicated his life to studying them. Back in 2000 he and his colleagues at the University of California Berkeley started AmphibiaWeb, an online database where scientists can post pictures and write descriptions of newly discovered amphibian species. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DAVID WAKE, PROFESSOR OF INTEGRATIVE BIOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA BERKELEY, SAYING: "We began tracking the descriptions of new species. And we saw that there were quite a few. And so then we started doing it formally in 2004 and then we got a real shock they were coming in at a rapid rate." But recently with each new discovery has come a report of extinction. Species are being wiped out at an alarming rate through either habitat destruction or a mysterious fungal disease called chytridiomycosis which is causing mass extinction's all over world. As a consequence, AmphibiaWeb has taken on a new level of importance. Since the online database was launched, 3000 new species of amphibians have been discovered - raising the total recorded number to just over 7000. But conservationist Dr. Robin Moore who spends months of every year trekking through remote rainforests in search of new or endangered amphibian species, says 41 percent face imminent extinction. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DOCTOR ROBIN MOORE, CONSERVATION INTERNATIONAL, SAYING: "You know, I have seen with my own eye pools of frogs lying belly up and I have seen the impact of this deadly fungus that has been sweeping throughout the world killing amphibians." Moore says tools like AmphiaWeb allow scientists to focus on amphibian populations facing the biggest threat and keep tabs on them in a real time, online forum. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DOCTOR ROBIN MOORE, CONSERVATION INTERNATIONAL, SAYING: "Obviously, if you are going to do conservation you need to know what species are where. So to have a comprehensive database with all of those species and new species as they are being discovered is really vitally important and then it is really a powerful resource to have at your fingertips." Moore is one of countless frog lovers - both professional and citizen scientist - using AmphibiaWeb. In his wildest dreams, David Wake never imagined how popular or important his online experiment would become. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DAVID WAKE, PROFESSOR OF INTEGRATIVE BIOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA BERKELEY, SAYING: "Amphibians are far more popular than I had any idea. Nobody hates the amphibians. They are benign organisms, they're nice, Kermit the frog is known to everybody. Our kids play with them, they like them, they grow tadpoles. We don't want them to disappear." But according to Wake and Robin Moore, that is just what they're doing. Wake says every new discovery brings mixed emotions. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DAVID WAKE, PROFESSOR OF INTEGRATIVE BIOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA BERKELEY, SAYING: "It's an elusive thing. It is a paradoxical relationship, you know. On the one hand they are disappearing and on the other hand we are finding them. But we are finding the last of them. That's what's sad. A couple of years ago 50 species of frog were described from Sri Lanka alone. Sri Lanka, just a small island. But the truth of it is that 95 percent of the forest in Sri Lanka is gone. SO how many were there? We are looking at the last 5 percent of the forest and finding all of these new species. How many might there have been. That is what we will never know."