All Creatures Great and Small

As pollution, habitat loss, global warming, and disease increase the number of threatened and endangered species, attempts to protect them are more crucial than ever. That’s where the Frozen Zoo comes in.

By Alisa Opar

Illustration by Bill Mayer

The threat of extinction is not the only reason Ryder feels compelled to add new samples as soon as possible. Environmental disturbances can cause species to change over time, so studying older samples and comparing them to new ones help scientists understand those changes and develop conservation strategies. “No one sees the Frozen Zoo as a substitute for keeping the natural world intact,” says Dan Wharton, head of the Central Park Zoo in New York City who is not affiliated with the Frozen Zoo. “But when you think of the potential options that are inherent in this kind of storage, really, it is the responsible thing to do right now, because there is so much uncertainty as to how many other conservation strategies are going to unfold.”

The Frozen Zoo is also pushing to diversify the types of species in its collection. For the most part, the samples stored there come from mammals, which regularly receive the most conservation dollars, due in no small part to their cute-factor. But in the past few years, the bank has been stocking up on bird and reptile samples. And this year, pending a grant, Ryder and veterinary pathologist Allan Pessier will begin adding more cells from amphibians, which are particularly vulnerable to extinction right now.

Pessier, who speaks softly and quickly and often flashes a shy smile, is admittedly biased when it comes to amphibians. “I prefer them to most humans,” he jokes. In a more serious tone, Pessier explains that amphibians, while not “cute and fuzzy like pandas,” play a vital role in the food chain by keeping insect populations in check. They’re also important indicators of environmental health because they absorb water and oxygen through their skin.

Amphibians are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine: If they start dying, it’s a red flag that the environment they live in is changing.

Since 1980, more than 110 species of frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts have gone missing in the wild and are believed to be extinct, and populations of 435 species are in decline. Fully one-third of the more than 5,700 amphibian species known today are considered to be threatened, according to the IUCN. Not all of the problems are being caused by pollution and habitat degradation, however: One particular threat is an infectious disease called chytridiomycosis, caused by the chytrid fungus, which is found everywhere from the Australian outback to the Rocky Mountains to the rainforests of Central America. The disease has been causing sporadic deaths in some amphibian populations and complete mortality in others.

Pessier, who has studied the disease for more than 10 years, has seen up close the damage it has caused. Last year, he traveled to Panama and visited an area known as El Valle, which had clearly been hit by the fungus. “It took us twenty minutes to find one frog,” says Pessier. Yet in another region, about 100 miles away in a rainforest outside Panama City, Pessier and colleagues encountered hundreds of frogs from 20-odd species. “We were literally slipping on them, there were so many,” he says. “I had no idea what declines associated with the fungus really meant until I saw the differences between infected and uninfected areas of forest.”

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Issue 25

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