Kuwait University Business Management Presentation

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0 – 20
Are we in the midst of the sixth mass extinction?
A view from the world of amphibians
David B. Wake*† and Vance T. Vredenburg*‡
*Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-3160; and ‡Department of Biology,
San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA 94132-1722
Many scientists argue that we are either entering or in the midst
of the sixth great mass extinction. Intense human pressure, both
direct and indirect, is having profound effects on natural environments. The amphibians—frogs, salamanders, and caecilians—may
be the only major group currently at risk globally. A detailed
worldwide assessment and subsequent updates show that onethird or more of the 6,300 species are threatened with extinction.
This trend is likely to accelerate because most amphibians occur in
the tropics and have small geographic ranges that make them
susceptible to extinction. The increasing pressure from habitat
destruction and climate change is likely to have major impacts on
narrowly adapted and distributed species. We show that
salamanders on tropical mountains are particularly at risk. A new
and significant threat to amphibians is a virulent, emerging infectious disease, chytridiomycosis, which appears to be globally
distributed, and its effects may be exacerbated by global warming.
This disease, which is caused by a fungal pathogen and implicated
in serious declines and extinctions of >200 species of amphibians,
poses the greatest threat to biodiversity of any known disease. Our
data for frogs in the Sierra Nevada of California show that the
fungus is having a devastating impact on native species, already
weakened by the effects of pollution and introduced predators. A
general message from amphibians is that we may have little time
to stave off a potential mass extinction.
chytridiomycosis 兩 climate change 兩 population declines 兩
Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis 兩 emerging disease
iodiversity is a term that refers to life on Earth in all aspects
of its diversity, interactions among living organisms, and,
importantly, the fates of these organisms. Scientists from many
fields have raised warnings of burgeoning threats to species and
habitats. Evidence of such threats (e.g., human population
growth, habitat conversion, global warming and its consequences, impacts of exotic species, new pathogens, etc.) suggests
that a wave of extinction is either upon us or is poised to have
a profound impact.
The title of our article, suggested by the organizers, is an
appropriate question at this stage of the development of biodiversity science. We examine the topic at two levels. We begin
with a general overview of past mass extinctions to determine
where we now stand in a relative sense. Our specific focus,
however, is a taxon, the Class Amphibia. Amphibians have been
studied intensively since biologists first became aware that we are
witnessing a period of their severe global decline. Ironically,
awareness of this phenomenon occurred at the same time the
word ‘‘biodiversity’’ came into general use, in 1989.
Five Mass Extinctions
It is generally thought that there have been five great mass
extinctions during the history of life on this planet (1, 2). [The
first two may not qualify because new analyses show that the
magnitude of the extinctions in these events was not significantly
higher than in several other events (3).] In each of the five events,
there was a profound loss of biodiversity during a relatively short
The oldest mass extinction occurred at the Ordovician–
Silurian boundary (⬇439 Mya). Approximately 25% of the
11466 –11473 兩 PNAS 兩 August 12, 2008 兩 vol. 105 兩 suppl. 1
families and nearly 60% of the genera of marine organisms were
lost (1, 2). Contributing factors were great fluctuations in sea
level, which resulted from extensive glaciations, followed by a
period of great global warming. Terrestrial vertebrates had not
yet evolved.
The next great extinction was in the Late Devonian (⬇364
Mya), when 22% of marine families and 57% of marine genera,
including nearly all jawless fishes, disappeared (1, 2). Global
cooling after bolide impacts may have been responsible because
warm water taxa were most strongly affected. Amphibians, the
first terrestrial vertebrates, evolved in the Late Devonian, and
they survived this extinction event (4).
The Permian–Triassic extinction (⬇ 251 Mya) was by far the
worst of the five mass extinctions; 95% of all species (marine as
well as terrestrial) were lost, including 53% of marine families,
84% of marine genera, and 70% of land plants, insects, and
vertebrates (1, 2). Causes are debated, but the leading candidate
is flood volcanism emanating from the Siberian Traps, which led
to profound climate change. Volcanism may have been initiated
by a bolide impact, which led to loss of oxygen in the sea. The
atmosphere at that time was severely hypoxic, which likely acted
synergistically with other factors (5). Most terrestrial vertebrates
perished, but among the few that survived were early representatives of the three orders of amphibians that survive to this day
(6, 7).
The End Triassic extinction (⬇199–214 Mya) was associated
with the opening of the Atlantic Ocean by sea floor spreading
related to massive lava floods that caused significant global
warming. Marine organisms were most strongly affected (22% of
marine families and 53% of marine genera were lost) (1, 2), but
terrestrial organisms also experienced much extinction. Again,
representatives of the three living orders of amphibians survived.
The most recent mass extinction was at the Cretaceous–
Tertiary boundary (⬇65 Mya); 16% of families, 47% of genera
of marine organisms, and 18% of vertebrate families were lost.
Most notable was the disappearance of nonavian dinosaurs.
Causes continue to be debated. Leading candidates include
diverse climatic changes (e.g., temperature increases in deep
seas) resulting from volcanic floods in India (Deccan Traps) and
consequences of a giant asteroid impact in the Gulf of Mexico
(1, 2). Not only did all three orders of amphibians again escape
extinction, but many, if not all, families and even a number of
extant amphibian genera survived (8).
A Sixth Extinction?
The possibility that a sixth mass extinction spasm is upon us has
received much attention (9). Substantial evidence suggests that
an extinction event is underway.
This paper results from the Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium of the National Academy of
Sciences, ‘‘In the Light of Evolution II: Biodiversity and Extinction,’’ held December 6 – 8,
2007, at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center of the National Academies of Sciences and
Engineering in Irvine, CA. The complete program and audio files of most presentations are
available on the NAS web site at www.nasonline.org/Sackler㛭biodiversity.
Author contributions: D.B.W. and V.T.V. designed research, performed research, analyzed
data, and wrote the paper.
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
†To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: wakelab@berkeley.edu.
© 2008 by The National Academy of Sciences of the USA
When did the current extinction event begin? A period of
climatic oscillations that began about 1 Mya, during the Pleistocene, was characterized by glaciations alternating with episodes of glacial melting (10). The oscillations led to warming and
cooling that impacted many taxa. The current episode of global
warming can be considered an extreme and extended interglacial
period; however, most geologists treat this period as a separate
epoch, the Holocene, which began ⬇11,000 years ago at the end
of the last glaciation. The Holocene extinctions were greater
than occurred in the Pleistocene, especially with respect to large
terrestrial vertebrates. As in previous extinction events, climate
is thought to have played an important role, but humans may
have had compounding effects. The overkill hypothesis (11)
envisions these extinctions as being directly human-related.
Many extinctions occurred at the end of the Pleistocene, when
human impacts were first manifest in North America, in particular, and during the early Holocene. Because naive prey were
largely eliminated, extinction rates decreased. Extinctions were
less profound in Africa, where humans and large mammals
coevolved. Most currently threatened mammals are suffering
from the effects of range reduction and the introduction of exotic
species (12). In contrast to the overkill hypothesis, an alternative
explanation for the early mammalian extinctions is that humanmediated infectious diseases were responsible (13).
Many scientists think that we are just now entering a profound
spasm of extinction and that one of its main causes is global
climate change (14–16). Furthermore, both global climate
change and many other factors (e.g., habitat destruction and
modification) responsible for extinction events are directly related to activities of humans. In late 2007, there were 41,415
species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature
Red List, of which 16,306 are threatened with extinction; 785 are
already extinct (17). Among the groups most affected by the
current extinction crisis are the amphibians.
Amphibians in Crisis
Amphibians have received much attention during the last two
decades because of a now-general understanding that a larger
proportion of amphibian species are at risk of extinction than
those of any other taxon (18). Why this should be has perplexed
amphibian specialists. A large number of factors have been
implicated, including most prominently habitat destruction and
epidemics of infectious disease (19); global warming also has
been invoked as a contributing factor (20). What makes the
amphibian case so compelling is the fact that amphibians are
long-term survivors that have persisted through the last four
mass extinctions.
Paradoxically, although amphibians have proven themselves
to be survivors in the past, there are reasons for thinking that
they might be vulnerable to current environmental challenges
and, hence, serve as multipurpose sentinels of environmental
health. The typical life cycle of a frog involves aquatic development of eggs and larvae and terrestrial activity as adults, thus
exposing them to a wide range of environments. Frog larvae are
typically herbivores, whereas adults are carnivores, thus exposing
them to a wide diversity of food, predators, and parasites.
Amphibians have moist skin, and cutaneous respiration is more
important than respiration by lungs. The moist, well vascularized
skin places them in intimate contact with their environment. One
might expect them to be vulnerable to changes in water or air
quality resulting from diverse pollutants. Amphibians are thermal-conformers, thus making them sensitive to environmental
temperature changes, which may be especially important for
tropical montane (e.g., cloud forest) species that have experienced little temperature variation. Such species may have little
acclimation ability in rapidly changing thermal regimes. In
general, amphibians have small geographic ranges, but this is
accentuated in most terrestrial species (the majority of
Wake and Vredenburg
salamanders; a large proportion of frog species also fit this
category) that develop directly from terrestrial eggs that have no
free-living larval stage. These small ranges make them especially
vulnerable to habitat changes that might result from either direct
or indirect human activities.
Living amphibians (Class Amphibia, Subclass Lissamphibia)
include frogs (Order Anura, ⬇5,600 currently recognized species), salamanders (Order Caudata, ⬇570 species), and caecilians (Order Gymnophiona, ⬇175 species) (21). Most information concerning declines and extinctions has come from studies
of frogs, which are the most numerous and by far the most widely
distributed of living amphibians. Salamanders facing extinctions
are centered in Middle America. Caecilians are the least well
known; little information on their status with respect to extinction threats exists (18).
Amphibians are not distributed evenly around the world.
Frogs and caecilians thrive in tropical regions (Fig. 1). Whereas
caecilians do not occur outside the tropical zone, frogs extend
northward even into the Arctic zone and southward to the
southern tips of Africa and South America. Salamanders are
mainly residents of the North Temperate zone, but one subclade
(Bolitoglossini) of the largest family (Plethodontidae) of
salamanders has radiated adaptively in the American tropics.
The bolitoglossine salamanders comprise nearly 40% of living
species of salamanders; ⬇80% of bolitoglossines occur in Middle
America, with only a few species ranging south of the equator.
The New World tropics have far more amphibians than
anywhere else. Fig. 1 shows the number of species in relation to
the size of countries (all data from ref. 21). The Global Amphibian Assessment completed its first round of evaluating the
status of all then-recognized species in 2004 (18), finding 32.5%
of the known species of amphibians to be ‘‘globally threatened’’
by using the established top three categories of threat of
extinction (i.e., Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered); 43% of species have declining populations (17). In
general, greater numbers as well as proportions of species are at
risk in tropical countries (e.g., Sri Lanka with 107 species, most
at risk; nontropical New Zealand has an equivalent proportion,
but has only 7 species) (Fig. 2). Updates from the Global
Amphibian Assessment are ongoing and show that, although new
species described since 2004 are mostly too poorly known to be
assessed, ⬎20% of analyzed species are in the top three categories of threat (22). Species from montane tropical regions,
especially those associated with stream or streamside habitats,
are most likely to be severely threatened.
We present a case study from our own work to explore the
reasons underlying declines and extinctions of amphibians.
Rana in the Sierra Nevada of California
One of the most intensively studied examples of amphibian
declines comes from the Sierra Nevada of California. The
mountain range spans thousands of square kilometers of roadless habitat, most of which is designated as National Park and
Forest Service Wilderness Areas, the most highly protected
status allowable under U.S. law. The range contains thousands
of high-elevation (1,500- to 4,200-m) alpine lakes, as well as
streams and meadows, that until recently harbored large amphibian populations. Biological surveys conducted nearly a
century ago by Grinnell and Storer (23) reported that amphibians were the most abundant vertebrates in the high Sierra
Nevada. Because large numbers of specimens were collected
from well documented localities by these early workers, the
surveys provide a foundation on which current distributions can
be compared. Of the seven amphibian species that occur ⬎1,500
m in the Sierra Nevada, five (Hydromantes playcephalus, Bufo
boreas, B. canorus, Rana muscosa, and R. sierrae) are threatened.
The best studied are the species in the family Ranidae and
include the Sierra Nevada Yellow-legged Frog (R. sierrae) and
PNAS 兩 August 12, 2008 兩 vol. 105 兩 suppl. 1 兩 11467
1 – 30
31 – 100
101 – 250
251 – 450
451 – 761
Fig. 1. Global amphibian species diversity by country visualized using density-equalizing cartograms. Country size is distorted in proportion to the total number
of amphibian species occurring in each country relative to its size. (Inset) Baseline world map. Brazil (789 species) and Colombia (642) have the largest number
of species. China (335) has the largest number of species in the Old World. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (215) has the largest number from continental
Africa. However, 239 species are recorded from Madagascar. Australia has 225 species, and Papua New Guinea has 289. In North America, Mexico has the largest
number of species (357). There are 291 species in the United States. Prepared by M. Koo (see Acknowledgments).
Southern Yellow-legged Frog (R. muscosa) (24). In the1980s,
field biologists became aware that populations were disappearing (25), but the extent of the problem was not fully appreciated
until an extensive resurvey of the Grinnell-Storer (23) sites
disclosed dramatic losses (26). Especially alarming was the
discovery that frogs had disappeared from 32% of the historical
sites in Yosemite National Park. Furthermore, populations in
most remaining sites had been reduced to a few individuals.
The yellow-legged frogs, which had been nearly ubiquitous in
high-elevation sites in the early 1980s, are ideal subjects for
ecological study. Their diurnal habits and their use of relatively
simple and exposed alpine habitats make them readily visible
and easy to capture. Typically these frogs occurred in large
populations, and rarely were they found ⬎2 m from the shores
of ponds, lakes, and streams. Censuses throughout the Sierra
Nevada began in the early 1990s and intensified in this century.
Although most of the frog habitat in this large mountain range
is protected in national parks and wilderness areas, yellowlegged frogs are now documented to have disappeared from
⬎90% of their historic range during the last several decades (24).
The most recent assessment lists them as Critically Endangered
(18). Factors implicated in the declines include introduced
predatory trout (27), disease (28), and air pollution (29, 30).
Experiments that extirpated introduced trout led to rapid recovery of frog populations (31). Thus, for a time, there was hope
that, simply by removing introduced trout, frog populations
would persist and eventually spread back into formerly occupied
habitat. Curiously, multiple attempts at reintroduction in the
more western parts of the range clearly failed (32). Hundreds of
dead frogs were encountered at both reintroduction and many
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other sites in the western part of the range (28), and it became
apparent that predation was not the only factor affecting the
frogs’ survival.
In 2001, chytridiomycosis, a disease of amphibians caused by
a newly discovered pathogenic fungus [Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd)] (33) was detected in the Sierra Nevada (34).
Subsequently, a retrospective study disclosed that Bd was found
on eight frogs (R. muscosa, wrongly identified as R. boylii)
collected on the west edge of Sequoia and Kings Canyon
National Parks in 1975 (35). Infected tadpoles of these species
are not killed by Bd. When tadpoles metamorphose, the juveniles became reinfected and usually die (36). However, tadpoles
of yellow-legged frogs in the high Sierra Nevada live for 2 to 4
years, so even if adults and juveniles die, there is a chance that
some individuals might survive if they can avoid reinfection after
The disease is peculiar in many ways (37, 38). Pathogenicity is
unusual for chytrid fungi, and Bd is the first chytrid known to
infect vertebrates. The pathogen, found only on amphibians,
apparently lives on keratin, present in tadpoles on the external
mouth parts and in adults in the outer layer of the skin. The life
cycle includes a sporangium in the skin, which sheds flagellated
zoospores outside of the host. The zoospores then infect a new
host or reinfect the original host, establishing new sporangia and
completing the asexual life cycle. Sexual reproduction, seen in
other chytrids, is unknown in Bd (39). Much remains to be
learned about the organism (38). For example, despite its aquatic
life cycle, Bd has been found on fully terrestrial species of
amphibians that never enter water, and the role of zoospores in
these forms is uncertain. No resting stage has been found, and
Wake and Vredenburg
0% – 4%
5% – 10%
11% – 20%
21% – 40%
41% – 100%
Fig. 2. Percentage of amphibian fauna in each country in the top three categories of threat (Critically Endangered, Endangered, and Threatened) (22). (Inset)
Baseline world map. Visualization based on density-equalizing cartograms prepared by M. Koo.
no alternative hosts are known. Vectors have not been identified.
It is relatively easy to rid a healthy frog of the fungus by using
standard fungicides (40). Yet the fungus is surprisingly virulent.
Finally, and importantly, how the fungus causes death is not
clear, although it is thought to interfere with oxygen exchange
and osmoregulation (41).
With associates, we have been studying frog populations in
alpine watersheds within Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon
National Parks for over a decade. We recently showed that
yellow-legged frogs are genetically diverse (24). Mitochondrial
DNA sequence data identified six geographically distinct haplotype clades in the two species of frogs, and we recommended
that these clades be used to define conservation goals. Popula-
tion extinctions, based on historical records, ranged from 91.3%
to 98.1% in each of the six clades, so challenges for conservation
are daunting. In the last 5 years, we have documented mass
die-offs (Fig. 3) and the collapse of populations due to chytridiomycosis outbreaks (28). Although the mechanism of spread is
unknown, it may involve movements of adult frogs among lakes
within basins or possibly movements of a common, more vagile,
and terrestrial frog, Pseudacris regilla (on which Bd has been
detected), ahead of the Rana infection wave. Mammals, birds, or
insects also are possible vectors. We have followed movements
of R. muscosa and R. sierrae using pit tags and radio tracking
from 1998 to 2002 (42), and we believe that movement between
local populations may be spreading the disease. The environ-
Sixty Lake
Fig. 3. Distribution of the critically endangered yellow-legged frogs in California. Chytridiomycosis outbreaks have had devastating effects (Rana muscosa
photographed in Sixty Lake Basin, August 15, 2006).
Wake and Vredenburg
PNAS 兩 August 12, 2008 兩 vol. 105 兩 suppl. 1 兩 11469
ment in this area (2,500–3,300 m) is harsh for amphibians, with
isolated ponds separated by inhospitable solid granite that lacks
vegetation. Small streams join many of the lakes in each basin.
The maximum movement of frogs, (⬇400 m) was in and near
streams; most movements are ⬍300 m. Our results are compatible with those of another study (43), which included a report of
a single overland movement event. If chytridiomycosis sweeps
through the Sierra Nevada the way it has through Central
America (44), then population and metapopulation extinctions
may be a continuing trend; we may be on the verge of losing both
It might be possible to arrest an epidemic. Laboratory treatments have shown that infected animals can be cleared of
infection within days (40); if the dynamics of the disease can be
altered or if animals can survive long enough to mount an
immunological defense, then survival might be possible. Survival
of infected frogs after an apparent outbreak has been seen in
Australia (45), but is unknown in the Sierra Nevada frogs. The
yellow-legged frogs of the Sierra Nevada are an ideal species in
which to test this because they live in discreet habitat patches, are
relatively easy to capture, and are highly philopatric.
Common Themes in Amphibian Declines
In the early 1990s, there was considerable debate about whether
amphibians were in general decline or only local fluctuations in
population densities were involved (46, 47). A definitive 5-year
study that involved daily monitoring of a large amphibian fauna
at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve in Costa Rica showed
that 40% (20 species of frogs) of the species had been lost (48).
These instances involved some extraordinary species, such as the
spectacularly colored Golden Toad (Bufo periglenes) and the
Harlequin Frog (Atelopus varius). Particularly striking about this
case is the highly protected status of the Preserve, so habitat
destruction, the most common reason for species disappearances
in general, can be excluded. The start of this decline was
pinpointed to the late 1980s. At about the same time, disappearances of species from protected areas in the Australian wet
tropics were recorded (49). Both species of the unique gastric
brooding frogs from Australia (Rheobatrachus) disappeared.
Declines in other parts of the world included most species of the
generally montane, diurnal frogs of the genus Atelopus from
South and lower Central America, and species of Bufo and Rana
from the Sierra Nevada of California (20, 25, 44). At first all of
these declines were enigmatic, but eventually two primary causal
factors emerged: the infectious disease chytridiomycosis and
global warming (20, 44).
Chytridiomycosis was detected almost simultaneously in Costa
Rica and Australia (33). From the beginning, it was perceived as
a disease with devastating consequences. It quickly swept
through Costa Rica and Panama, leaving massive declines and
local extinctions in its wake (44). More than half of the amphibian species in lower montane forest habitats suffered declines on
the order of 80%, and several disappeared. This extinction event
had been predicted on the assumption that chytridiomycosis
would continue its sweep southward from Monteverde, in northwestern Costa Rica (see below), to El Cope in central Panama
(44). Attention is now focused on eastern Panama and northwestern Colombia, where chythridiomycosis has yet not had
evident impact.
Carcasses of animals from the Monteverde extinction event
are not available, and it is not known whether Bd was responsible
for frog deaths. However, Bd has been detected in many
preserved specimens that were collected at different elevations
along an altitudinal transect in Braulio Carrillo National Park in
1986 (50). The park is in northern Costa Rica ⬇100 km southeast
of Monteverde. Given the high prevalence of Bd in the specimens surveyed, it seems reasonable to assume that Bd also was
11470 兩 www.pnas.org兾cgi兾doi兾10.1073兾pnas.0801921105
present at Monteverde. Of course, there are many more species
present in tropical areas (67 at El Cope, Panama) (44) than in
the Sierra Nevada (seven at high elevations, but three most
commonly, only two of which are aquatic), and hence there are
many more opportunities for the spread of Bd among tropical
species. The average moisture content of the air in the tropical
environments is doubtless much higher, on average, in Central
America than in the Sierra Nevada, where a characteristic dry
summer rainfall pattern prevails and where there is no forest
canopy because of the altitude and substrate. Although we do not
know the mechanism of spread, conditions in Central America
appear more suitable for the spread of an aquatic fungus.
Amphibians tend to have broader ranges in temperate regions
than in the tropics. Despite many population extinctions in
temperate regions, there have been few extinctions. Accordingly,
the tropical species of amphibians are more at risk, but not just
because of their typically small geographic ranges. Because they
occur in rich, multispecies communities, the species become
infected simultaneously.
Climate change has been implicated in declines since the
documentation of disappearances at Monteverde (51, 52). Unusual weather conditions were initially implicated with amphibian declines. Large increases in average tropical air and sea
surface temperatures were associated with El Niño events in the
late 1980s; substantial warming had already occurred since the
early 1970s. Temperature increases were correlated with increases in the height at which clouds formed at Monteverde and
consequent reductions in the deposition of mist and cloud water
critical for maintenance of cloud forest conditions during the dry
season (20). Simulations using global climate models showed
that greenhouse warming could have the effect of raising the
cloud line by as much as 500 m at Monteverde during the dry
season (20, 52).
A more general effect of climate change has been proposed for
the disappearance of 100 species of tropical montane frogs of the
genus Atelopus, which is widespread in southern Central and
northern South America. A detailed correlational analysis revealed that ⬇80 species were last seen immediately after a warm
year (20). Several species disappeared from Ecuador during
1987–1988, which included the most extreme combination of dry
and warm conditions in 90 years (53). Authors of this article
document that the mean annual temperature in the Ecuadorian
Andes has increased by ⬇2°C during the last century.
Pounds and coworkers (20) hypothesized that climate change,
precipitation, and increased temperature have acted synergistically in favor of the growth of the infectious chytrid fungus. They
argue that global warming has shifted temperatures closer to the
presumed optimal conditions for B. dendrobatidis at Monteverde
and the other intermediate elevation areas of the Central and
South American highlands, where most of the extinctions of
Atelopus have occurred. Warming has increased cloud cover in
these areas, which had the effect of elevating already higher
nighttime temperatures, thus favoring fungal growth. The hypothesis has yet to be tested.
Is Global Warming a Real Extinction Threat?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
reached consensus that climate change is happening and that it
is largely related to human activities (15). Estimates of global
warming during the next century vary, but generally fall in the
range of 2°C to 4°C, whereas rises as high as 7°C are projected
for much of the United States and Europe, with even higher
temperatures expected in northern Eurasia, Canada, and Alaska
(15). Such rises would have devastating effects on narrowly
distributed montane species, such as cloud forest and mountaintop salamanders and frogs in Middle and South America. The
physiology of ectotherms such as amphibians and their ability to
Wake and Vredenburg
Fig. 4. A diagrammatic profile of the Sierra Madre Oriental from north-central Veracruz to northern Oaxaca, Mexico. The range extends in a generally
north-northeast to south-southwest direction, but the section from Cofre de Perote to Loma Alta extends mainly east-northeast and has been straightened. This
mountain system is home to 17 described and several unnamed species of Minute Salamanders, genus Thorius. Most of the species are clustered between 1,500
and 3,000 m. All of the species that have been evaluated are Endangered (E) or Critically Endangered (CR) and at risk of extinction, and three have been found
so infrequently that they are categorized as Data Deficient (DD) (22).
acclimate also are important considerations for these species
(54). With climate change (already 2°C changes in temperature
have been recorded in montane Ecuador) (53), altitudinal limits
of plant and animal communities will shift upward and amphibians must either move with them or acclimate until adaptation
occurs. Even small increases in temperature lead to significant
metabolic depression in montane salamanders (55). Impacts of
the different warming scenarios are all dramatic and severe (see
fig. TS.6 in ref. 15). The first event predicted by the IPCC panel,
‘‘Amphibian Extinctions Increasing on Mountains,’’ is now an
empirical fact.
In previous publications, we showed that many tropical plethodontid salamanders have very narrow altitudinal limits and are
often restricted to single mountains or local mountain ranges
(56). With few exceptions, species found above 1,500–2,000 m
have narrow distributional limits. We have surveyed extensively
a mountainous segment of eastern Mexico from the vicinity of
Cerro Cofre de Perote (⬇4,000 m) in central western Veracruz
in the north to Cerro Pelon (⬇3,000 m) in northern Oaxaca in
the south. These two peaks, separated by ⬇280 km, lie along the
eastern crest of the Sierra Madre Oriental, a nearly continuous
range that is broken only by Rio Santo Domingo (Fig. 4).
Otherwise the crest lies above 1,500 m, with many peaks that rise
to ⬇2,000 m or higher. There are 18 species of plethodontids on
both Cofre de Perote and Pelon, but only two species—
widespread lowland members of Bolitoglossa—are shared. To
determine the geographical limits of the other species, we have
been surveying the entire crest area since the 1970s. We have
learned that most of the species on each mountain are endemic
to it. When we searched in the intervening region, expecting to
expand the known distributional ranges for different species, we
instead discovered numerous undescribed species (many since
named) almost every time we explored an isolated peak at
⬎2,000 m. On a single short trip just 5 years ago to the Sierra de
Mazateca, north of the Rio Santo Domingo (Fig. 4), we discovered two new species of Pseudoeurycea and at least one new
species of Thorius (57). We suspect that many species disappeared without ever having been discovered because the area is
heavily populated and has experienced extensive habitat modiWake and Vredenburg
fication. Furthermore, the newly discovered species are endangered and survive in what appear to be suboptimal, disturbed
habitats or in small fragments of forest. The majority of species
along altitudinal transects in this area are found at ⬎2,000 m in
cloud forests that are being forced upward by global warming. On
Cerro Pelon, eight of the species are found only at ⬎2,200 m, and
six of them range to the top of the mountain. Global warming
threatens to force them off the mountain and into extinction.
The section of the Sierra Madre Oriental we have been
studying is home to 17 named and 3–5 as yet unnamed species
of the plethodontid salamander genus Thorius, the Minute
Salamanders. All but four of these species occur exclusively at
⬎2,000 m, often on mountains that rise only a little above that
level. Of the 17 named species, 11 are listed as Endangered and
3 are listed as Critically Endangered; the remaining 4 species are
so rare and poorly known that they can only be listed as Data
Deficient (Fig. 4) (18). We consider this region to be a hot spot
of extinction, and yet it is still very incompletely known. Based
on our studies of altitudinal transects elsewhere in Middle
America, we expect that the situation we have described for
eastern Mexico is typical of mountainous parts of the entire
What Will We Lose?
The amphibians at greatest risk of extinction are likely to be
those with relatively few populations in areas undergoing rapid
habitat conversion because of human activities. Populations that
are already reduced in size are especially susceptible to other
stressors, such as introduced species and disease. Tropical montane species are at special risk because of global warming. These
already stressed species, reduced to a few populations, also are
likely to be hit hardest by Bd. However, a paradoxical fact is that
new species of amphibians are being described at an unprecedented rate. In 1985, the first comprehensive account of all
amphibian species reported ⬇4,000 species (58). That number
has now risen to ⬎6,300, and species are being named at a rate
exceeding 2% per year. Some of these species are cryptic forms
that were found as a result of molecular systematic studies, but
the vast majority are morphologically distinctive species mainly
from tropical regions (Fig. 5). These biologically unique species
PNAS 兩 August 12, 2008 兩 vol. 105 兩 suppl. 1 兩 11471
Fig. 5. Distribution of species of amphibians discovered and named during the period 2004 –2007. Color scale bar indicates number of new species per country.
(Inset) Baseline world map. Visualization is based on density-equalizing cartograms prepared by M. Koo.
often have been found as a byproduct of the heightened interest
in amphibians and consequent field research. Field surveys in
still relatively unstudied parts of the world (e.g., New Guinea and
nearby islands, Madagascar) have resulted in many new discoveries. Among the most spectacular discoveries during this decade
are a frog from India that is so distinct that it was placed in a new
family (59) and a salamander from South Korea that is the only
member of the Plethodontidae from Asia (60). It is impossible
to know what has been overlooked or has already been lost to
extinction, but there is every reason to think that the losses have
been substantial.
The rate of extinction of amphibians is truly startling. A recent
study estimates that current rates of extinction are 211 times the
background extinction rate for amphibians, and rates would be
as high as 25,000–45,000 times greater if all of the currently
threatened species go extinct (61).
Despite these alarming estimates, amphibians are apparently
doing very well in many parts of the world, and many thrive in
landscapes heavily modified by human activities. Species such as
the Cane Toad (Bufo marinus), the American Bullfrog (Rana
catesbieana), and the Clawed Frog (Xenopus laevis) have proven
to be potent invasive species, and they have not yet been shown
to be afflicted by chytridiomycosis. Attempts are being made to
mitigate anticipated losses of amphibian species. Promising
research on bacterial skin symbionts of amphibians suggests that
they may have antifungal properties (62, 63), possibly opening
pathways for research on changing the outcomes of fungal
attacks. Local extinctions have been so profound and widespread
in Panama that a major initiative has been launched to promote
in situ as well as ex situ captive breeding programs. Species will
be maintained in captivity until solutions to problems such as
chytridiomycosis, local habitat destruction, or others can be
mitigated, at which time reintroduction programs will be developed (64). Although amphibians are suffering declines and
extinctions, we predict that at least some frogs, salamanders, and
caecilians will survive the current extinction event on their own
or with help, even as their ancestors survived the four preceding
mass extinctions.
What Is the Principal Cause of the Present Extinction Spasm?
Human activities are associated directly or indirectly with nearly
every aspect of the current extinction spasm. The sheer magnitude of the human population has profound implications because
of the demands placed on the environment. Population growth,
11472 兩 www.pnas.org兾cgi兾doi兾10.1073兾pnas.0801921105
which has increased so dramatically since industrialization, is
connected to nearly every aspect of the current extinction event.
Amphibians may be taken as a case study for terrestrial organisms. They have been severely impacted by habitat modification
and destruction, which frequently has been accompanied by use
of fertilizers and pesticides (65). In addition, many other pollutants that have negative effects on amphibians are byproducts
of human activities. Humans have been direct or indirect agents
for the introduction of exotic organisms. Furthermore, with the
expansion of human populations into new habitats, new infectious diseases have emerged that have real or potential consequences, not only for humans, but also for many other taxa, such
as the case of Bd and amphibians (66). Perhaps the most
profound impact is the human role in climate change, the effects
of which may have been relatively small so far, but which will
shortly be dramatic (e.g., in the sea) (16). Research building on
the Global Amphibian Assessment database (18) showed that
many factors are contributing to the global extinctions and
declines of amphibians in addition to disease. Extrinsic forces,
such as global warming and increased climatic variability, are
increasing the susceptibility of high-risk species (those with small
geographic ranges, low fecundity, and specialized habitats) (67).
Multiple factors acting synergistically are contributing to the loss
of amphibians. But we can be sure that behind all of these
activities is one weedy species, Homo sapiens, which has unwittingly achieved the ability to directly affect its own fate and that
of most of the other species on this planet. It is an intelligent
species that potentially has the capability of exercising necessary
controls on the direction, speed, and intensity of factors related
to the extinction crisis. Education and changes of political direction
take time that we do not have, and political leadership to date has
been ineffective largely because of so many competing, short-term
demands. A primary message from the amphibians, other organisms, and environments, such as the oceans, is that little time
remains to stave off mass extinctions, if it is possible at all.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. We thank M. Koo for producing Figs. 1, 2, and 5 (using
methods from ref. 68 and data from refs. 18, 21, and 22); K. Klitz and R. Diaz
for help with Fig. 4; colleagues who aided in collecting and analyzing data; C.
Briggs, R. Knapp, and T. Tunstall (Sierra Nevada) and M. Garcı́a-Parı́s, G.
Parra-Olea, and J. Hanken (Mexico) for discussion; J. Avise and J. Jackson for
comments on this manuscript; and M. H. Wake for a thorough review of the
manuscript and extensive discussion. This work was supported by National
Science Foundation Grant EF0334939 (to D.B.W.) and National Institutes of
Health/National Science Foundation Ecology of Infectious Disease Program
Grant R01ES12067 [to C. Briggs (University of California, Santa Barbara, CA)].
Wake and Vredenburg
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PNAS 兩 August 12, 2008 兩 vol. 105 兩 suppl. 1 兩 11473

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