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The last known member of a rare tree frog species died last week at the Atlanta Botanical Garden causing many to fear his species is now extinct.
The male Rabbs' fringe-limbed tree frog, staff nicknamed "Toughie," was found dead in his enclosure during a routine daily inspection Sept. 26. They believe he was about 12 years old.
Toughie was found during a 2005 frog rescue mission by the Atlanta Botanical Garden and Zoo Atlanta. He was one of many frogs scientists raced to collect as the deadly chytrid fungus closed in on central Panama.
Toughie's species, unknown to scientists at the time, was formally described three years later by Zoo Atlanta herpetology curator Joseph Mendelson III as Ecnomiohyla rabborum. He named the frog, the Rabbs' fringe-limbed tree frog, for conservationists George and Mary Rabb.
The species was found in a very small area at an elevation where the fungus proved especially deadly. National Geographic reports field studies suggest up to 85 percent of all the amphibians in that area were wiped out, and it's unlikely that any of his kind survived in the wild.
"Science had a very short window to learn about the species in the wild before this disease struck the only known locality for the frog and the species vanished," Mary Pat Matheson, president and CEO of Atlanta Botanical Garden, told The Atlantic Journal-Constitution.
The only other Rabbs' frog known in captivity died at Zoo Atlanta in 2012, and that one was also a male.
The staff at the Atlanta Botanical Garden tried to save the species and successfully bred Toughie with a female, Matheson said, but the tadpoles did not survive.
Toughie had quite a following, according to garden staff, and he definitely left his mark on the world.
"A lot of attention had been paid to him in captivity, so he even has his own Wikipedia page," Mandica said.
Last year, his image was even projected onto St. Peter's Basilica, and his call—captured by Mandica in 2014—played so that the world could see and hear him, National Geographic reported. He also met race car drivers and movie directors.
Toughie's death highlights the ongoing battle frogs face around the world to survive. According to a 2015 study, "About 200 frog extinctions have occurred and hundreds more [frog species] will be lost over the next century, so we are on pace to create a mass extinction."
The study's author, John Alroy at Macquarie University in Australia, looked at salamanders, snakes and lizards, but "he found that frogs seemed to be the most vulnerable to extinction—the results suggested that more than 3 percent of all frog species have disappeared, largely since the 1970s," according to The Washington Post.
So what's causing these mass extinctions? While Alroy said there is a tendency to "focus very strongly on the potential future impacts of climate change, specifically," he said we shouldn't point the finger solely at climate change.
"I'm not saying we should stop looking at climate change," he said. "I'm saying there should be additional focus on other causal factors like habitat destruction and invasive species in particular."
What if I told you there was an entire underground world below you right now? The frogs you may see in your backyard are a tiny portion of the amphibian world surrounding you.
According to Mark Mandica, amphibian conservation coordinator at the Atlanta Botanical Garden (ABG), "If you weighed all the spotted salamanders they'd weigh more than all the mammals and birds combined in a healthy ecosystem." Some salamanders on average live 50-51 weeks underground, until they emerge for their breeding season. Frogs and salamanders come in many shapes, sizes and colors and are critically important to ecosystems around the world.
Toughie is the last known Rabbs' Fringe-Limbed Tree Frog in existence. He is named after George Rabb, one of the world's most eminent herpetologists.Mark Mandica
Unfortunately, amphibians are dying off in huge numbers in a global mass extinction. Reasons are varied, but chief among them are habitat loss and the chytrid fungi. In the mid-90's, then amphibian conservation coordinator of ABG, Ron Gagliardo, started what is now one of the oldest amphibian conservation programs in the U.S. He and several botanists started working with frogs as a way to illustrate plant and animal relationships at the garden. From there the program gained momentum and started safeguarding rare amphibians.
Their work reached a crisis level in 2005 when the chytrid fungus was sweeping through South and Central America. Gagliardo from ABG and Joe Mendelson, director of Herpetological Research at Zoo Atlanta, swooped in urgently ahead of the fungus and collected as many frogs as possible. After the collection, that same year the fungus killed up to 85 percent of amphibians in the region.
Famed National Geographic photographer and creator of the Photo Ark, Joel Sartore, likened this to rescuing precious items from a burning house. Thank goodness they did because the frogPOD at ABG is now home to some of the world's rarest frogs. Shortly after Gagliardo and Sartore returned from their rescue mission I took my three young children to observe the magnificent menagerie. Laura Elizabeth, my then 9 year-old daughter was truly moved. She befriended Gagliardo and Sartore and wrote a children's book with their help, Our Friends the Frogs. It was important to her to educate others on the tragic plight of the amphibians and offer pointers on how anyone can help. Laura Elizabeth is now 18 and, sadly, the crisis still looms large.
My then nine year-old Laura Elizabeth with Ron Gagliardo visiting the frogs for her book, Our Friends the Frogs.
The Atlanta Zoo and ABG's conservation programs are centered around Captive Assurance Colonies which are collections of endangered animals kept safely in captivity and bred with the hope they may one day be returned to the wild. For some like Toughie, the last Rabbs' Fringe-limbed Tree Frog known in existence, this will probably never be a reality. For other species at the frogPOD there is hope, but currently it is still not safe to re-release.
The chytrid fungus still remains in the area, with no known method of eradication and growing in lethality. According to Mandica, "The more out of balance an ecosystem, the more lethal the disease can become." Prof. Tyrone Hayes, UC Berkeley, released a study in 2006 positing agricultural chemical drift and specifically the most popular herbicide worldwide, atrazine, is compounding the problem. Amphibians exposed to common pesticide mixtures suffer suppressed immune systems, making them more susceptible to the chytrid fungus, among other disorders.
In the U.S. and specifically Georgia, amphibians are becoming increasingly endangered from habitat loss. Georgia is second behind North Carolina for the largest number of amphibian species. For eight years ABG has collaborated with Zoo Atlanta, the University of Georgia and Georgia Department of Natural Resources on a head-start program for their rarest frog, the Gopher Frog. They collect eggs every year, raise the tadpoles up through metamorphosis and release the baby frogs in protected habitats in South Georgia. Their habitat, the longleaf pine ecosystem, has been reduced by 97 percent. Other animals adversely affected by this reduction are the Gopher Tortoise, Indigo Snake and Mandica's favorite, the Flatwoods Salamander.
The Frosted Flatwoods Salamanders, native to Georgia, are critically endangered.Pierson Hill
The Flatwoods Salamander is a peculiar species that has never been kept successfully in captivity. But Mandica and his team are trying to change that. They currently have three adult salamanders which they collected and raised from larvae last year. This season, they acquired 15 more as recently metamorphosed baby salamanders. Flatwoods Salamanders live underground until they emerge to return to the same small pond they were born in to breed. They have not been detected in South Carolina for six years, very few last year in Georgia and none this year. Fortunately a broad coalition is working to restore their habitat. ABG's plant and amphibian conservation efforts have targeted this endangered ecosystem and partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, San Antonio Zoo, University of Missouri, Virginia Tech, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and others.
Visiting the Atlanta Botanical Garden's frogPod with Mark Mandica, Suzanne Barnes, Joel Sartore and Cole Sartore.
Conserving amphibians is important for many reasons. Here in the South, we should be especially grateful for their voracious bug consumption and even better, spotted salamanders are mosquito eating experts! Mandica says a mere 1,000 amphibians can eat five million bugs a year! Due to amphibian's highly sensitive skin they are the first to show imbalances in the ecosystem. At ABG frogs can only be sprayed with filtered "frog water" because if common, highly-treated tap water were used, they would all die. There are some very important lessons there! Amphibians are also a critical part of the food chain as popular prey and bug-eating predator. To humans, amphibians can have big health implications. For example, a pharmaceutical study revealed a compound in the skin of the endangered Phantasmal Poison Frog is 200 times more effective than morphine and non-addictive.
Locals and out-of-town visitors alike can learn more about amphibian conservation from exhibits in the ABG conservatory every day at 11 a.m. They can also join Mandica's hugely popular Metro Atlanta Amphibian Monitoring Program. He gives workshops on how to identify and monitor frogs and salamanders in your backyard. On the website, maamp.us, Mandica has information, call recordings and pictures of each life stage of all 28 species we have in Atlanta. Outside the Southeast, you can visit AmphibianArk.org to learn more about amphibian conservation.