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Scientists look for frogs and other amphibians that may face extinction

Wednesday, November 3, 2010; C10

Where are the frogs?

That was the simple question posed by Conservation International. To find the answer, the environmental group launched a worldwide effort to look for 100 types of frogs and other amphibians that may have become extinct.

"Amphibians have been doing particularly badly over the past few decades," said Robin Moore, head amphibian researcher for the organization. A third of the more than 6,300 known species are threatened with extinction, and some have declined very rapidly. "We don't know if they've gone extinct or if they're hanging on," Moore said.

Finding out which species are still out there will help researchers figure out why animals are dying off and what to do about it. Frogs and other amphibians tend to be very sensitive to environmental changes such as climate change and habitat destruction. But they've also been hurt by a fast-spreading fungus that has infected many species around the world.

Researchers from 20 countries signed up for the frog-finding exercise. For the past three months, 33 groups have been trekking into remote areas in places such as the Monteverde forest reserve in Costa Rica and the Western Ghats mountains in India looking for something that may not even be there anymore.

"I went searching in Colombia for a toad that hasn't been seen for almost 100 years," Moore said. "It's a challenge to keep morale high, to really believe that you have a chance of finding these things. Often you're in very remote areas, with steep terrain; there are snakes; you're rummaging through leaf litter. Usually it's in the rainy season, so you're getting wet."

Moore didn't find the Mesopotamia beaked toad last seen in 1914, but he may have found a few new species. (It takes time to confirm that.) And he came across other great animals, including a frog -- it's only slightly bigger than a raindrop -- that hadn't been seen in 19 years.

In the end, the groups found only three of the 100 species they were looking for. But several countries are continuing the search, and research has begun on the amphibians that were rediscovered.

"It's kind of like soccer," Moore said. "You don't score many goals, but each one counts a lot."

-- Margaret Webb Pressler

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