A disturbing trend of population declines and birth deformities in amphibians has prompted a US federal agency to launch an ambitious research programme.
The national Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative (ARMI) has been set up by the US Department of the Interior with $5 million to study why frogs, salamanders and toads are in such trouble. An additional $2 million is being sought for next year's budget.
Initially, ARMI will examine amphibians on the nation's extensive federal lands, but officials hope to expand the programme to other habitats. Coordinated by the US Geological Survey (USGS), the scheme was created after scientists captured the attention of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt with reports of amphibian distress.
"This is now a front-burner issue," says James Hanken, herpetology curator at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology. "This is not just a plan; things are happening."
Hanken was among a group of scientists who met early last month in West Virginia to design ARMI. Officials from various federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency, also took part.
Under ARMI, the nation has been divided into seven regions of particular amphibian characteristics, says Daniel James, a USGS wildlife biologist who is coordinating the programme. Government agencies had strong herpetological staff in four regions, but not in the Mississippi River Valley or the Northeast, so the department is seeking new scientists to augment its resources.
Initially, researchers will survey many sites in large sections of National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges and Bureau of Land Management areas. They will then focus on a few species at a limited number of locations in an attempt to determine what ecological factors are contributing to the declines and deformities.
The ARMI effort is taking place at a time when scientists around the world are seeking better understanding of the broad declines taking place in global amphibian populations. Pollutants, increased amphibian susceptibility to disease, and decreases in the ozone layer are all being considered.
An international group of scientists, the Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force, has played a major role in spurring amphibian research. ARMI is to become the permanent home of an amphibian atlas that is now being developed, officials said.
In addition, federal officials have hired an amphibian pathologist at the National WIldlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, to focus on the role of disease. ARMI also complements an on-going three-year amphibian study bythe NSF,which is already providing $3 million to 13 universities to study the causes of species declines.