Amphibian Extinction: Climate change isn’t the only problem

For scientists studying life on this planet, the question is no longer whether global warming is having an effect, but rather how much it’s affecting a given ecosystem. With that understanding, it’s not hard to jump to the conclusion that a given problem is due to the rise in temperature, and the changes that follow from that. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into more than once, and it’s not just a problem because I want to speak the truth. It’s also a problem because it’s important to remember that while the destabilization of the global climate is possibly that most dangerous side-effect of human activity, we’re causing other problems as well.

Case in point: The ongoing decline of amphibian species around the world. A study focused on North America found that while climate change is a factor, it’s just one of many.

Based on the relationships we measure, recent changes in climate cannot explain why local species richness of North American amphibians has rapidly declined. However, changing climate does explain why some populations are declining faster than others.

For the ones not being directly affected by an unstable climate, our other destructive behaviors do plenty of damage on their own. Direct destruction of habitat, pollution of “intact” ecosystems, and spread of disease through human traffic could eventually wipe out most amphibians on the planet, if not all of them.

Erin Muths, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey and a co-lead on the project, believes that the cause of declines comes down to a suite of local factors.

“It depends on the location whether habitat loss, disease, contaminants, climate, or a combination of these local factors is the culprit,” she said. “Amphibians are challenged by a range of stressors that may be unique to location but in combination are leading to wide-range declines.”

To better understand the causes of declines, Miller and colleagues from the USGS have initiated new work studying emerging pathogens that affect amphibians. A major concern for amphibian populations are new and deadly pathogens, mostly spread around the planet by humans — likely propelled by the pet trade.

Of course, as with everything, the looming end of amphibian life on earth has an effect on humanity. It has been established over and over again that we benefit in clearly measurable, material ways from having a healthy, and diverse global ecosystem, and amphibians are not an exception. If this is a new idea to you, take a little while to browse a google scholar search for “amphibian ecosystem services”, and you’ll see what I mean.

And, as with turtles, modern amphibians represent the last of an ancient lineage that once boasted  creatures 9m/30ft long

Image shows silhouettes of a human standing next to the prehistoric amphibian Prionosuchus, laid out on a grid marked with meters. The green, smaller Prionosuchus is the

I’ll probably spent more time on the presence of animals in human culture in the future, but I can remember hearing stories from all around the planet. Our past is a rich tapestry that weaves our own stories in with the grander tale of life on Earth. As time goes on, and we continue driving species after species to extinction, I can’t help but feel that they’re not just leaving us with a less diverse, interesting, and supportive landscape – they’re leaving us less than we were before.

Humanity is very contextual – we understand ourselves through the world around us. That includes other humans, yes, but it also includes the rest of our very extended family tree. How many stories, or quips, or proverbs can you think of relating humanity to animals? How many times have you seen people described in animal terms?

What happens as those points of reference around us fade away? What is humanity without frogs? What were we when passenger pigeons still darkened the sky? In some ways it feels like we’re just starting to grow up, as a sentient species. We’ve reached the stage of childhood in which we’re starting to realize that the world isn’t all about us, and that we can cause real harm – harm that can even come back to bite us.

If you consider all of humanity to be one single child, then each of us is a neuron in our collective head. Currently, the part of us that wants what they want, consequences be damned, is running things, and while we’re starting to learn that we can’t act with impunity, I’m left with an unpleasant question – if we carry the metaphor all the way to its conclusion – can a child raise itself to become a responsible adult, without any parents to raise it?

We’re raising ourselves, and maybe we’ll be able to do it well, but right now it looks more like we’re going to end up killing ourselves with some stupid teenage stunt that probably involves alcohol and explosives.

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