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‘Ark’ races to rescue jungle frogs

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The facility here is unusual in Central America. In many other places, expansion plans are few and tank space for amphibians is limited.

“There are more species in need of rescue than there are resources to rescue them,” says Kevin Zippel, Amphibian Ark’s program director, who is based in upstate New York. “By an order of magnitude, that’s true.”

The scattered Ark in some ways resembles the well-known California Condor Recovery Program, in which biologists captured the remaining nine wild birds in the 1980s, bred them, and eventually returned them to the wild, where their numbers have risen to more than 300 with supplementation from captive stocks.

The Ark encompasses more than just a single breeding program, and the obstacles it faces are more grave. Dr. Zippel estimates that 500 species need such “escape pods” from chytrid and other environmental threats, yet only 40 to 50 species are involved in such programs. Unlike the condor, amphibians are often mysteries to science, their habits and needs poorly studied. That makes captive programs experiments in trial and error. And before reintroduction efforts can even begin, scientists must find some way to overcome the presence of chytrid in native habitats. These might include vaccines, breeding for resistance, or genetic engineering of the fungus.

Still, many scientists see no other option.

“When you’re talking about insidious threats like disease or climate change,” Zippel says, “threats that can’t be mitigated in the wild, there’s simply no alternative.”

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