Amphibians are important components of foodwebs, but they also can tell us a lot about how healthy the ecosystem they live in is. The same permeable skin that helps them to breathe also makes them extremely sensitive to contaminants (pollutants, chemicals, etc.) in the environment. Furthermore, because most amphibians require both water and land to survive and reproduce, changes to either habitat can have big negative impacts on their populations.
Amphibians have been likened to a canary in the coal mine in that their sensitivity can alert us to unhealthy environmental conditions. If true, we need to start paying them closer attention, for our own sake as well as theirs.
Amphibians are declining worldwide. They currently are considered the most threatened vertebrate class in the world (Stuart et al. 2004, Hof et al. 2011). Thirty-two percent of all amphibian species are threatened with extinction or are already extinct (Stuart et al. 2004).
Populations of several amphibian species are known to be declining in the Rocky Mountain region. One-quarter of Wyoming’s amphibians have recently been petitioned for listing or are listed under the ESA, including the Wyoming Toad, a state endemic and one of the world’s most endangered amphibians.
Known threats to Rocky Mountain amphibians include:
More concerning is that as these threats accumulate, their impacts on amphibians get exponentially worse. For example, scientists have found that climate change is linked with amphibian declines due to chytrid fungus (Pounds 2006, Rohr et al. 2008, Rohr and Raffel 2010, etc.). This tells us that the interplay between these threats could lead to significant losses in amphibian biodiversity in the Rocky Mountain region.
Monitoring amphibians allows us to collect data on what species exist in this area, where they live, and how healthy their populations are. We can also see if there are factors causing those changes, such as pollution or disease.
Over time, as we continue to monitor these species, we can track how many of these factors change. Without knowledge about what is currently out there, we will have no idea if amphibians are disappearing, bouncing back, or staying the same - or how our actions can impact these trends.
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