Naturalists launch amphibian website

Social media — the face of a changing culture where a YouTube video can start sweeping revolutions — could also be the savior of some of the oldest animals in the world: amphibians.

A collaboration between AmphibiaWeb — a comprehensive database of the 6,814 known species of amphibians — organizations devoted to the conservation of amphibians and iNaturalist, a Bay Area social network for naturalists, created the Global Amphibian Blitz — a social networking site where anyone with a camera can upload photos of amphibians they have seen around the world for scientists to identify and study, aiding in the conservation effort. The collaboration includes scientists from UC Berkeley, Stanford University and San Francisco State University.

By making use of the eyes of millions, rather than just the comparatively few scientists in the field, scientists can gather a more complete picture of amphibian distribution and, as time passes, how that distribution changes as a result of climate change and human activity.

“The major way this is going to change things is by tapping into a whole new human resource, which is the tens of thousands or millions of people around the world that are interested in amphibians,” said Vance Vredenburg, an assistant professor at San Francisco State University and co-founder of AmphibiaWeb. “Right now, we’ve got at most a few hundred people who are collecting information on amphibians, so it’s really a matter of numbers. It could incredibly expand the amount of information coming in on amphibians.”

Amphibians were around long before the dinosaurs, originating about 400 million years ago. They lived on after the dinosaurs perished, surviving every mass extinction since. With the advent of human activity and global warming, however, almost a third of amphibian species have become endangered, and in the past 20 years alone, about 168 species have gone extinct.

“One of the biggest problems with these species is that they’re going extinct faster than we can keep track of them,” said iNaturalist co-director Scott Loarie, a postdoctoral researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University. “The first step to knowing why these species are going extinct and to coming up with a management strategy is knowing where these things are.”

iNaturalist began in 2008 as a master’s project by Ken-ichi Ueda — who currently serves as the organization’s co-director — and two other students at UC Berkeley’s School of Information.

Ultimately, collaborators would like to locate an amphibian from each species, some of which have never been seen before, Loarie said. In its first day open to the public on May 25, the Global Amphibian Blitz site received and confirmed photos of about 150 species of amphibians from 18 different countries, including a Yellow-lemon Tree Frog found in a latrine of Joint Base Balad, an American military base in Iraq.

Most of the entries so far have been of common amphibians, Loarie said. But scientists are constantly scouring the submissions for rare and endangered species on which they do not have much data. If an endangered amphibian is spotted, its exact location is obscured so the information does not fall into the wrong hands, such as those of a collector.

“There is a real risk of this information getting out to the wrong people, in terms of collectors,” Loarie said. “These rare, endangered species can go for $1,000. It’s really important that we protect this sensitive data.”

In the hands of the scientific community, however, the hope is to gather as much data as possible on the numbers and whereabouts of the remaining amphibian species so that conservationists know how and where to concentrate their efforts.

“It’s a real win-win,” Loarie said. “We’re engaging the public, we’re educating them about amphibians and getting them involved. And then the other side is we’re really gathering some very important data on rare species in distinct and unusual locations.”

Claire Perlman is the lead research and ideas reporter.

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