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Save the frogs

Two scientists rescue frogs from the impact of global warming before they croak

Dr. Joe Mendelson says he has discovered roughly 40 species of frogs in 16 years as a herpetology expert. Today, about half of those species are thought to be extinct.

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"You can't not take that personally," he says.

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Mendelson, a curator of herpetology at Zoo Atlanta who wears a hearing aid because of years of playing bass in a punk band, is doing something to try and stop the onslaught.

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Along with Ron Gagliardo, curator of the amphibian conservation program at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Mendelson has spent the last year collecting frogs in Panama and bringing them to Atlanta. The pair is trying to get as many different species as possible out of Panama before they disappear. So far, the scientists say they've imported more than 600 frogs representing 34 species — all of them endangered.

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The men are breeding the frogs in captivity so that they can later repopulate their natural habitat — undoing the damage mankind may have done.

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Last week, Mendelson and Gagliardo's work took on a more heightened profile when a study published in the journal Nature found evidence of a link between global warming and the loss of 70 species of the colorful harlequin frogs in Central and South America — a sign of what could be the first mass extinction due to climate since the dinosaurs. The story was picked up by the New York Times, NPR and the Associated Press, among others.

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The effect that a mass amphibian extinction could have is unknown. But scientists speculate that it could lead to the extinction of larger animals that feed on those amphibians. Mendelson also says fewer frogs could mean more mosquitoes, putting humans at greater risk for disease.

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"As somebody who has suffered through two separate bouts of dengue fever, I want those frogs to stick around," Mendelson says.

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Today, about a third of the world's 5,743 known species of amphibians are classified as threatened, according to the Global Amphibian Assessment. Traditionally, habitat destruction has been the greatest threat, but over the last 25 years a new foe has emerged: a lethal fungus, chytrid, that's decimated the frog population in Central and South America, among other areas — and which, according to some scientists, is rapidly spreading because of global warming.

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Paradoxically, the fungus thrives in cooler climates. Scientists claim global warming increases evaporation, creating clouds that make days cooler by blocking sunlight, and makes nights warmer by trapping heat — optimal conditions for the fungus.

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Dr. George Rabb, director emeritus of the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, says that what Mendelson and Gagliardo are attempting is hugely important but too big a job for just two men.

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The fungus "is clearly moving at a rate that is almost equivalent to frog-to-frog contact," Rabb says. "There is no way they can do it on their own. The maintenance of the populations is going to require additional facilities and additional people trained."

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Still, every attempt to save a species is crucial — especially when frogs are dying off at the rate they are. Because of the time crunch, Mendelson and Gagliardo say there simply isn't time to employ the traditional scientific approaches. So they're taking on an institutional problem and fighting it their own way.

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"There are some folks in the scientific community that believe that the only way to do this is ... to set up a committee for each endangered species," Gagliardo says. "Well, there just wasn't that kind of time."

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"This has never been 'Operation: Get Cool Frogs to Atlanta,'" Mendelson says. "We don't want to export these frogs. We just want to do whatever is necessary to save them."

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What it takes, according to the two rebel scientists, is an anti-establishment solution.

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A photo from Mendelson's long-haired youth shows him posed with a snake around his neck and a guitar in his hand. Gagliardo has dug up an almost identical photo of himself. These days, the two scientists carry their punk-rock sensibilities to work.

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"This whole project was inspired by the Ramones," Mendelson says. "It's just three chords, over and over. If you're looking at this and thinking, 'Gee, that's awfully simple,' well, that's the whole point."

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Mendelson was chosen to spearhead the effort to rescue frogs from Central and South America because he is a frog expert and, as a former professor at Utah State, has ties to both the academic and conservationist communities. He asked Gagliardo, who has years of experience working with amphibians, to be his partner.

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Mendelson and Gagliardo say they've spent $30,000 relocating frogs and working to promote frog rescues in other countries. The funding has come from zoos in St. Louis, Houston and Chicago.

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Limited time and resources have meant some creative approaches to transporting the frogs. On their first trip to Panama, the Panamanian government supplied the scientists with a pair of hotel rooms — stripped of beds and furniture, and lined with empty tanks. "We had some frogs that lived in deli cups for three months," Gagliardo says.

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Before Mendelson and Gagliardo bring the frogs back to Atlanta, they treat them with a fungicide that removes the chytrid. To be safe, the frogs are wiped with a cotton swab and DNA samples are sent to a North Carolina lab. Once the two scientists are sure that the frogs are fungus-free, they pack them up and bring them to Atlanta.

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Mendelson and Gagliardo use black luggage bags to transport the tiny frogs, some of which are the size of a nickel and are packed with sphagnum moss into test tubes, Tupperware containers and empty plastic soda bottles.

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Many of the frogs that the team has rescued are on display at the zoo and botanical garden. They include the marsupial frog, with spiky horns over its eyes, and the minyobates, an orange-striped dart frog that's less than a half-inch long.

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Scientists in some countries are following Mendelson and Gagliardo's lead, while other countries are dragging their feet. Australia has announced it's making progress toward establishing a chytrid-free preserve to house green and golden bell frogs. Columbia, on the other hand, hasn't created a sanctuary and has an export policy that prohibits Mendelson and Gagliardo from taking frogs out of the country.

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In February, the duo will travel to Ecuador to help set up an amphibian conservation program. This spring, they'll start sending the frogs back to Panama, to a new facility designed to house disinfected frogs. Later this spring, they'll travel to Cameroon to survey the amphibian population and decide whether it's at risk from chytrid.

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And this summer, the scientists will take another trip to Panama, this time to document frog deaths in one of the areas from which they've extracted the majority of their frogs.

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"Literally, when you walk through the forest," Mendelson says, "we expect you'll see dead frogs lying everywhere on the ground and floating in the water."

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Get involved: Mendelson and Gagliardo will lead a lecture, "Revisiting Declining Amphibian Populations," on Tues., Jan. 24, 6:30-8:30 p.m., at Zoo Atlanta, 800 Cherokee Ave. $7. Rescued Panamanian frogs will be on display.