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Published: Thursday, 4/25/2013

Toledo Zoo hosts 16 experts from around the world for Amphibian Academy

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Wayne Woods of Canada and Barkha Subba of India test water samples at the Toledo Zoo’s annual Amphibian Academy. Researchers are quite concerned about a  fungus that harms amphibians. Wayne Woods of Canada and Barkha Subba of India test water samples at the Toledo Zoo’s annual Amphibian Academy. Researchers are quite concerned about a fungus that harms amphibians.
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Perhaps it’s only appropriate that Frog Town has become one of North America’s hubs for vitally important research into the global declines of amphibians.

Frogs, toads, and salamanders don’t draw people to the Toledo Zoo like the polar bears, penguins, lions, tigers, and elephants do. You don’t hear moms and dads getting their kids to squeal with joy by promising to go see the Kihansi spray toad, a tiny amphibian that nearly went extinct until the Toledo Zoo worked with the Bronx Zoo in New York City to release 2,500 of them into the African nation of Tanzania last fall.

But amphibians are cool. Without them, there would be a lot more insects. They play an important function in our food chain and in the balance of nature. In the world of biology, they’re a sentinel of ecological health — signs of when things are amiss, from water quality to habitat destruction to climate change.

And they’re fascinating from a researcher’s perspective: Some scientists believe neck glands of certain toads produce excretions that medical science will be able to use someday to develop better drugs for battling heart disease and other human afflictions.

“There’s the potential there,” said Allan Pessier, a researcher from the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research who is considered one of the world’s top veterinary pathologists.

Mr. Pessier is a longtime visiting faculty member of what the zoo, in conjunction with its nonprofit sponsor, the Amphibian Ark, calls Amphibian Academy.

The Toledo Zoo has hosted an Amphibian Academy at least annually for almost a decade now, the latest version this week.

Sixteen experts from around the world, graduate students to biologists, are meeting at the South Toledo zoo for lectures and laboratory work. The goal is to network about amphibians, in hopes the information they take back to their respective homelands will go further than simply publishing it on the Internet.

“There’s a bond between amphibian people because we care,” said faculty member R. Andrew Odum, Toledo Zoo assistant director of animal programs and curator of herpetology.

One participant came from India. Another came from Hong Kong. Others came from Canada, Texas, California, and Oregon.

The most traveled attendee is Justin Claude Rakotoarisoa, who came all the way from the island nation of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, off southeast Africa. He said he is the lead technician for a Madagascar frog-breeding facility called Mitsinjo Toby Sahona.

Mr. Pessier, who has traveled throughout the world for his amphibian research, said he was at that Madagascar facility with Mr. Rakotoarisoa in February.

Researchers are especially concerned about chytrid, a type of fungus that has been identified globally as a primary cause for many of the amphibian declines.

It can be spread by not only humans who come in contact with sensitive amphibian habitat, but the creatures themselves as they are transported  around the world. Some frogs are sold as pets; others are sold in restaurants for dishes of frog legs.

“Only a small amount of people know about this fungus,” Mr. Rakotoarisoa said. “We have to teach people about this fungus.”

There are 7,000 known species of amphibians. Thirty to 40 percent are threatened with extinction, Mr. Odum said.

Amphibians are especially vulnerable to changes in air and water quality because they breathe and drink through their skin, said another longtime faculty member, Jennifer Pramuk, animal curator at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

Attendees are studying ways to breed amphibians in captivity. Mr. Odum said that’s how zoos can help.

Kihansi spray toads, known only to exist in Tanzania, disappeared from the wild in 2004. Five years later, their wild populations were declared extinct.

Captive-bred species can serve as a backup to help stave off extinction and rebuild wild populations, Mr. Odum said.

Captive-bred species are better than nothing, he said.

“If you have nothing, it’s gone,” Mr. Odum said.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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