Surviving the Century: Amphibians

15 November 2012

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Amphibian by Night Heron, on Flickr

On 21 November, Surviving the Century at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) asks how dependent human health is on the health of the animal populations around us. Four speakers will each put the case for an animal species that we simply can’t survive without. HereHelen Meredith puts the case for amphibians. What do you think? Add your comments at the bottom.

In a world where one in three amphibians is threatened with extinction, why should we care if there are fewer frogs, toads, newts, salamanders and caecilians around? Sure, some of them are pretty cute and brightly coloured, but what have they ever done for us, aside from providing an unusual appetizer and a bit of pond life in our gardens?

In fact, amphibians have already provided us with countless health benefits and have huge potential to continue doing so. We owe many of our greatest scientific discoveries in physiology to experiments that have used amphibians as test organisms – something like 10% of Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine have relied on frogs, including studies into metabolism, the nervous system and the vascular system.

Their contribution to both traditional and modern medicine has been invaluable, as many species have been found to secrete and contain therapeutic compounds that can be used in the treatment of a huge range of maladies. They provide a plethora of biomedicines, including compounds currently being refined for painkillers, antibiotics, stimulants for heart attack victims and treatments for depression, strokes, seizures, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and HIV infection. Research suggests that glues extracted from frog skin secretions may one day help repair human internal organs. Amphibians are therefore walking (or hopping) pharmacies and general medical allies, and we have only touched the tip of the iceberg. For example, studying regenerative abilities in newts may someday allow us to regrow, among other things, lost limbs.

Aside from countless medical mysteries they may yet help us to unravel, a world without amphibians would be a very different place. They are used internationally as food, with hundreds of millions being traded each year, and they are an important source of protein in many parts of the world. They are crucial components of global food chains as both predators and prey, consuming countless invertebrates (including many of our most vilified pests), and sustaining countless other species, especially birds, fish, mammals and reptiles.

Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, they have become important model organisms to help us understand ecological change and are useful indicators of adverse impacts upon our environment. Their current decline may well forewarn us of our own future if we continue to ignore their plight. The first vertebrates to colonise the land, it is deeply troubling that they are rapidly becoming the first to be driven from it in a wave of extinction that may someday claim our own species. As the first custodians of the land, they are symbols of the sustainable future we must put into effect to ensure the Earth we have wrestled from the amphibians is one that we can someday share for mutual benefit.

Helen Meredith is an amphibian conservationist based at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). She launched and coordinated a project that seeks to conserve some of the world’s most unusual, threatened and neglected amphibian species as part of ZSL’s EDGE of Existence Programme. Raising awareness of amphibian conservation issues through EDGE Amphibians, she has worked on a wide range of species around the world, including the Chinese giant salamander, Darwin’s frog in Chile, Kenya’s Sagalla caecilian and the Seychelles frogs, establishing and supporting initiatives that seek to guarantee a sustainable future for threatened species. She speaks regularly on the subject of amphibians and their conservation, contributing to the media on matters relating to amphibians and the environment. Helen started a PhD on the subject of improving the impact of amphibian conservation programmes in 2011, jointly working with the Institute of Zoology and the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, and continues to be involved in a number of conservation programmes globally.

Noah’s Ark is a collaboration between Welcome Collection and ZSL. Book tickets for Surviving the Century online on the ZSL website.