Frogs and toads, salamanders and newts, wormlike (and little-known) caecilians—these are the class Amphibia: cold-blooded, creeping, hopping, burrowing creatures of fairy tale, biblical plague, proverb, and witchcraft. Medieval Europe saw frogs as the devil; for ancient Egyptians they symbolized life and fertility; and for children through the ages they have been a slippery introduction to the natural world. To scientists they represent an order that has weathered over 300 million years to evolve into more than 6,000 singular species, as beautiful, diverse—and imperiled—as anything that walks, or hops, the Earth.
Amphibians are among the groups hardest hit by today's many strikes against wildlife. As many as half of all species are under threat. Hundreds are sliding toward extinction, and dozens are already lost. The declines are rapid and widespread, and their causes complex—even at the ravine near Limón the bulldozer is just one hazard of many. But there are glimmers of hope. Rescue efforts now under way will shelter some animals until the storm of extinction passes. And, at least in the lab, scientists have treated frogs for a fungal disease that is devastating populations around the world.
In Quito, Coloma and his colleague Santiago Ron have established a captive-breeding facility for amphibians at the zoological museum at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador.They admit it's a drop in the pond, offering safe harbor to a select few in hopes of stemming national losses. The facility houses just 16 species, although Ecuador is home to more than 470. And that's just what's on the books. Despite heavy deforestation across this country, every year new species are discovered. Coloma's lab has about 60 recently discovered species still awaiting scientific names—enough to keep ten taxonomists hard at work for a decade.
Coloma and Ron, who have also initiated land purchases for habitat protection, hope to add room at the captive facility for more than a hundred species. But the pool of wild animals is shrinking fast. Where field scientists once had to watch their step to avoid crushing frogs moving in mass migrations, now counting a dozen feels like a victory. "We're becoming paleontologists, describing things that are already extinct," Ron says. At the Quito lab the evidence is stacked high. Coloma holds up one jar from a cabinetful. Two pale specimens bob in alcohol. "This species," he says, his face distorted through the glass, "went extinct in my hands."