Tuesday, July 14, 2009

When Frogs Go Missing ...

We finally got around to reading a long, couple-of-months-old New Yorker article by environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert on “The Sixth Extinction?” [reg. required]—the notion that our planet is currently experiencing another mass die-off of animal species and has been for maybe 50,000 years, this one thought to be unwittingly caused by the spread of a Chytrid fungus by human, um, civilization—and were surprised to learn that a Houston municipal operation plays a role in trying to preserve the variety of frogs that are rapidly vanishing* (without question mark) from the forests of Central America. The Houston Zoo, Kolbert reports, is the prime mover and funder of The El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center in central Panama, which, as noted elsewhere, is sort of a Noah’s Ark for such going-going-but-not-quite-gone species as the horned marsupial frog:
EVACC is financed largely by the Houston Zoo, which initially pledged twenty thousand dollars to the project and has ended up spending ten times that amount. The tiny center, though is not an outpost of the zoo. It might be thought of as a preserve, except that, instead of protecting the amphibians in their natural habitat, the center’s aim is to isolate them from it. In this way, EVACC represents an ark built for a modern-day deluge. Its goal is to maintain twenty-five males and twenty-five females of each species—just enough for a breeding population.

The first time I visited, [EVACC director Edguardo] Griffith pointed out various tanks containing frogs that have essentially disappeared from the wild. These include the Panamanian golden frog, which, in addition to its extraordinary coloring, is know for its unusual method of communication; the frogs signal to one another using a kind of semaphore. Griffith said that he expected between a third and a half of all Panama’s amphibians to be gone within the next five years. Some species, he said, will probably vanish without anyone’s realizing it: “Unfortunately, we are losing all these amphibians before we even know they exist.”
At first glance this sounds like a much more agreeable extracurricular overseas activity for a city of Houston-connected operation than those engaged in by, say, the Houston Airport System Development Corporation.

*As Kolbert notes--for all you Darwinists who’ve never read Darwin (like us!)--Darwin himself rejected the concept of “catsrophism,” that is, sudden mass extinctions caused by such events as an asteroid smashing into Earth, a concept now embraced by most scientists.

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