MOUNTAINSIDE—The death and near extinction of countless species of frogs and other amphibians may all stem from a pregnancy test developed in South Africa, a research biologist working in Honduras told an audience recently at Union County’s Trailside Nature and Science Center.
Jonathan Kolby, who is currently studying amphibians in Cusuco National Park in Honduras, spoke one recent evening as part of Trailside’s on-going speakers program. Trailside is located in the center of the Watchung Reservation, the county’s 2,060-acre preserve.
Kolby, who grew up in Union, explained how reptiles and amphibians play major roles in the stability of an ecosystem, with not the least of their functions, to control insect populations.
Of the estimated 6,000 species of amphibians in the world, 30 percent are in jeopardy, with 2,000 heading towards extinction. Such a massive elimination has not happened since the time of the dinosaurs.
While there are an estimated 8,000 species of reptiles, which includes snakes, lizards and turtles, much less known about the status of reptiles because they are not studied as much. But reptiles play no less a vital role, Kolby said, citing the way snakes control rodent populations.
One of the main reasons why amphibians, such as frogs, are an important indicator of environmental health is because they live in a wide variety of habitats. Even their life cycle involves transversing ecosystems, he said, noting how frogs start out their lives as tadpoles, living in a water environment.
“Their survival depends on the quality of each environment,” he said, noting that amphibian population declines may be early warning signs of deeper environmental problems.
Studying amphibians and reptiles has also led to pharmaceutical breakthroughs, he said, citing how there are types of snake venom that are used to treat high blood pressure and heart disease, he said.
But the assault on habitats, even supposedly protected ones, is relentless, Kolby said. Commercial logging continues to reduce the remaining rainforests, while neighboring commercial agriculture adds to the toll as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers contaminate once pristine ecosystems, he said.
Cusuco National Park, where Kolby is doing much of his research work, was established in 1987. In 2006, scientists were aware of only 53 known species of reptiles and amphibians, in the park. Continued research has since revealed the existence of 103.
“That’s pretty amazing, considering how small it is,” he said.
What is troubling, however, is that many of the populations of amphibians in Cusuco and around the world are suffering dramatic population declines, he said. Scientists believe the cause may well be chytrid fungus.
“It’s a parasite, but parasites are not supposed to kill their hosts,” Kolby said. “The disease moves in a wave like pattern and most animals have little or no resistance.”
The fungus is believed to have originated in South Africa and was dispersed globally through the international trade of the African clawed frogs, which were used for pregnancy tests.
In the United states, the disease does not seem to be affecting species in the northeast. “But out west there are species nearing extinction,” he said.
Kolby said that when people ask why they should care about the loss of these species, he makes an analogy to an airplane.
“An airplane wing has a certain amount of redundancy in its design, as does much of nature,” he said. “You can pop off some of the rivets and the wing will still hold together and the plane will still fly. But at some point, you will have removed one too many rivets and the wing will give out and the plane will crash.”
THOSE RED EYES ARE REAL…but facing extinction. Research biologist Jonathan Kolby stands next to his photograph of a Duellmanohyla soralia, which he found during his research in Honduras. Kolby spoke recently about the dangers facing amphibians and reptiles around the world. He spoke at Union County’s Trailside Nature and Science Center, located in the heart of the Watchung Reservation, the county’s 2,060-acre preserve. More information about this endangered frog is available at: http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/55313/0.
AFTER HIS TALK…about the dangers facing countless species of amphibians and reptiles around the world, research biologist Jonathan Kolby, left, spoke with some of the attendees who had more questions for him, including Gil Hawkins from the Overpeck Preserve, which is part of the Bergen County parks system. Kolby spoke recently at Union County’s Trailside Nature and Science Center, located in the heart of the Watchung Reservation, the county’s 2,060-acre preserve.
Connect with NJTODAY.NET
Join NJTODAY.NET's free Email List to receive occasional updates delivered right to your email address!