National Geographic : 2009 Apr
HE GRIPS HIS MATE, front legs clasped tight around her torso. Splayed beneath him like an open hand, she lies with her egg-heavy belly soaking in the shallow stream. ey are harlequin frogs of a rare Ate- lopus species, still unnamed and known only in a thin wedge of the Andean foothills and adja- cent Amazonian lowlands. e female appears freshly painted---a black motif on yellow, her underside shocking red. She is also dead. Above this tableau, at the lip of the ravine, a bulldozer idles. Road construction here, near the town of Limón in southeastern Ecuador, has sent an avalanche of rocks, broken branches, and dirt down the hillside, choking part of the forest-lined stream. Luis Coloma steps gingerly over the loose rocks, inspecting the damage to the waterway. The 47-year-old herpetologist is bespectacled and compact in a yellow shirt dotted with tiny embroidered frogs. He hasn t bothered to roll up his khaki pants, which are soaked to the knees. Poking a stick into the debris, he says, " ey have destroyed the house of the frog." Frogs and toads, salamanders and newts, wormlike (and little-known) caecilians---these are the class Amphibia: cold-blooded, creep- ing, hopping, burrowing creatures of fairy tale, biblical plague, proverb, and witchcra . Medi- eval Europe saw frogs as the devil; for ancient Egyptians they symbolized life and fertility; and for children through the ages they have been a slippery introduction to the natural world. To scientists they represent an order that has weathered over 300 million years to evolve into more than 6,000 singular species, as beauti- ful, diverse---and imperiled---as anything that walks, or hops, the Earth. Amphibians are among the groups hardest hit by today s many strikes against wildlife. As many as half of all species are under threat. Hundreds are sliding toward extinction, and dozens are already lost. e declines are rapid and widespread, and their causes complex--- even at the ravine near Limón the bulldozer is just one hazard of many. But there are glimmers of hope. Rescue e orts now under way will shel- ter some animals until the storm of extinction passes. And, at least in the lab, scientists have treated frogs for a fungal disease that is devas- tating populations around the world. In Quito, Coloma and his colleague Santiago Ron have established a captive-breeding facil- ity for amphibians at the zoological museum at Ponti cia Universidad Católica del Ecuador. ey admit it s a drop in the pond, o ering safe harbor to a select few in hopes of stemming national losses. e facility houses just 16 spe- cies, although Ecuador is home to more than 470. And that s just what s on the books. Despite heavy deforestation across this country, every year new species are discovered. Coloma s lab has about 60 recently discovered species still BOREAL TOAD Anaxyrus (Bufo) boreas At the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado UP TO 5 INCHES • WESTERN UNITED STATES • DECLINING COMMON FIRE SALAMANDER Salamandra salamandra At the St. Louis Zoo, Missouri UP TO 10 INCHES • EUROPE • DECLINING Jennifer S. Holland is a senior writer for National Geographic. Joel Sartore is a frequent contributor to the magazine, o en photographing threatened species.