Emerging Disease Putting Amphibians at Risk: Samford Earth Day Speaker Mendelson
By Cassady Weldon
More than 30 percent of the world's approximately 7,000 species of amphibians are either recently extinct or in catastrophic decline, Zoo Atlanta herpetological research director Joseph Mendelson said at Samford University April 15.
"The scope and scale of what is happening to amphibians is completely beyond our comprehension," said Dr. Mendelson at a Samford Earth Day program. "These numbers qualify as a mass extinction event."
The cause of the mass extinction is an emerging infectious disease caused by the Amphibian Chytrid Fungus.
"We didn't know this existed until 1988," said Mendelson. "This is the first pathogen known to directly cause extinction. We have never seen that before."
While all 7000+ species of amphibians are likely susceptible, they are differentially tolerant, he said. Some may come in contact with the pathogen and fight it off, while others are completely wiped out.
A nationally respected expert in his field, Mendelson is responsible for the naming of more than 30 new amphibian and reptile species. In 2012, Telmatobius mendelsoni, a previously undescribed species of frog native to the Peruvian Andes in South America, was named in his honor.
Mendelson said he had no intention of becoming a conservation biologist, but says he "fell into it." He began as a taxonomist, but realized that many of the amphibians that he was discovering and naming were already extinct.
There is no easy way to combat the pathogen in the wild, he said. "The history of conservation has been to control humans and nature will recover, but in regard to emerging infectious disease, we have no idea what to do."
While there is not yet a specific solution to the amphibian extinction, Mendelson suggests that the route may be tolerance. He believes there is much to learn from the amphibians that are still alive, rather than implementing an artificial resistance to the fungus in the wild.
Cassady Weldon is a senior journalism and mass communication major and student writer for the Samford Office of Marketing and Communication.