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Often overlooked and misunderstood, amphibians are perhaps the single most endangered group of animals on the planet. The plight of frogs, toads, salamanders, and their relatives may not receive as much attention as more charismatic animals but fully 40% of the world's approximately 8,000 amphibian species are threatened with extinction. The major causes of amphibian decline are complex and interrelated, but all are linked to human activity. This should worry us, because not only are amphibians beautiful living creatures important in their own right they are also indicators of the health of the overall environment. The disappearance of amphibians is an ominous sign for other species, humans included.
Amphibians exist at the intersection of land and freshwater environments. With a few exceptions they require a moist habitat to survive, and most have a two-part life cycle, one portion of which is spent underwater. Most of us are familiar with "tadpoles" who turn into frogs. What you may not know is other amphibians, including newts and salamanders, have a very similar juvenile stage during which the legless young live underwater and breathe through gills. Almost all adult amphibians have lungs and breathe air, and most species spend a substantial amount of time out of the water. However, even adults absorb oxygen, water, and essential minerals like electrolytes through their moist skin, which has to stay wet for these processes to take place. It's for this reason that you will very rarely find amphibians far from a source of clean water.
Unfortunately, amphibians' special habitat needs make them especially vulnerable to environmental degradation. Because their life cycle includes both land and water phases, they are susceptible to harm when either environment is polluted or destroyed. Their delicate, oxygen-absorbing skin can also easily absorb pollutants from their environment. These and other factors put amphibians at especial risk.
There are six major threats to the survival of amphibian species and in many cases they compound one another to make the animals even more vulnerable. By understanding what is causing the decline of frogs, toads, salamanders, and their relatives, we can better understand how to help them.
From the rain forests of Brazil to wetlands in the United States, amphibian habitats are under attack. Deforestation, damming of rivers, and draining of swamps and marshes are all activities that destroy the homes of amphibians and countless other animals. Some of the highest concentrations of frog species are in the tropics, where rain forests are cleared for timber or to make room for agriculture. Meanwhile, the United States is home to more salamander species than any other country in the world. Among the most diverse salamander habitats are the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern U.S., where unique species are threatened by destructive activities like mountaintop removal mining. Curbing such practices is one of the best ways we can secure a better future for amphibians.
Pesticides, industrial chemicals, and pollutants from burning fossil fuels all have potential to poison amphibians and make their habitat unlivable. Fully enforcing laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act can help imperiled amphibians by forcing polluters to clean up their messbut unfortunately, today these laws themselves are in danger. In September 2019, the Trump administration announced the official repeal of the Waters of the United States Rule, which formerly guaranteed Clean Water Act protections for many wetlands. This has left amphibians exposed to even more risk at a time when they need as much help as possible. Advocating for stronger pollution laws is one of the best things we can do for amphibians.
Amphibians are among the thousands of animal species threatened by the climate crisis caused by burning fossil fuels. In some areas, changing weather patterns have led to more frequent droughts and the drying out of moist habitats which amphibians need to survive. These include the lower-elevation cloud forests of Central and South America, which support some of richest frog diversity found anywhere on the planet. The decline of cloud forests could doom many frogs and other amphibians to extinction.