Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Amphibian extinctions may not be uniquely high, say scientists

The global extinction crisis facing amphibian populations around the world may be as severe for reptiles like snakes, lizards, turtles and crocodiles.

The findings have been put forward in a scientific review in the journal Diversity.

The scientific review also cites evidence that recent scientific research into amphibian declines far outweighs research into reptile declines, even though both groups of species may be facing a similar extinction threat.

The authors of the paper, based at the University of Sussex and the UK wildlife charity Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, argue that future research should be more equally balanced, so that the investment in research mirrors the extinction risk of each group.

Reptiles in decline

The fragile state of the world’s amphibians was widely recognised in 2004, after release of the IUCN Global Amphibian Assessment. This report found that amphibians were facing a greater number of extinctions and declines than any other taxonomic group for which data were available at the time, with one third of all amphibian species worldwide threatened with extinction.

A Global Reptile Assessment is as yet incomplete but already research is indicating that a similar extinction risk may be facing reptiles too.

In May 2008, studies commissioned by the European Commission and carried out by IUCN, found that Europe’s reptiles and amphibians were in similar degrees of trouble. 22.9% of Europe’s native amphibian species were categorised as threatened with extinction, and 19.4% of reptiles. The study also reported that 4.3% of reptile species in Europe were listed as Critically Endangered, the most serious of the Red List categories. This is double the number of amphibians in the same category.

“It is increasingly clear that amphibians are not alone in facing a major biodiversity crisis,” said lead author Professor Trevor Beebee of the University of Sussex. “Other groups of ‘cold blooded’ vertebrates, notably reptiles and freshwater fishes, are in the same boat.”

The research bias toward amphibian decline studies

In the new study, the authors undertook searches of scientific publications between 2005-2009 under the theme of ‘biodiversity and conservation’, comparing the numbers that contained amphibian-related search terms (such as “frogs or toads") with those containing reptile-related search terms (such as “lizards or snakes”).

The results showed that published scientific papers covering amphibian declines outnumbered papers covering reptile declines by four to one (153 papers to 42 respectively), even though there are substantially more species of reptiles than of amphibians in the world ( 8,734 and 6,347 species respectively).

Similar findings emerged when looking solely at published studies relating to native amphibians and reptiles in the UK. There were, during 2005-2009, 69 “biodiversity and conservation” papers on the seven native British amphibians, compared to just 20 papers on the six native terrestrial reptile species.

“Evidently there has been a significant bias towards study of declines in the amphibians…,” say the paper’s authors. “…the question arises as to whether the bias in favour of amphibian decline research is justified on the basis of risk.”

Though amphibians and reptiles differ in their anatomy and life-histories, the causes of declines and extinctions are similar for both groups of species. They include: habitat loss, invasive wildlife species and disease, pollution, climate change and the impact of roads. Disturbance and persecution (particularly of snakes) are an added cause of concern to reptiles.

Future research into amphibian and reptile declines

To reduce risk of extinctions, the authors suggest that research should focus on the impact that the UK’s changing habitats and landscapes may be having on populations of amphibians and reptiles. This requires detailed ‘baseline’ knowledge about where these species occur, and how individual populations are faring.

In 2007, the National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme (NARRS) was launched to improve understanding of the status of British amphibians and reptiles. The scheme is coordinated by Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and encourages volunteers to survey selected 1km squares for amphibians and reptiles.

“We can base conservation decisions only on robust information,” said NARRS Coordinator Dr. John Wilkinson of Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. “So if you’re looking at getting out and seeing some wildlife, learning new skills and helping protect some of our most threatened creatures, why not take part in NARRS?”

For more information visit: www.narrs.org.uk or join your local Amphibian and Reptile Group www.arg-uk.org

PAPER CITATION: Beebee, T.J.C.; Buckley, J.; Wilkinson, J.W. Amphibian declines are not uniquely high amongst the vertebrates: trend determination and the British perspective. Diversity 2009, 1, 67-88.

Online copy: http://www.mdpi.com/1424-2818/1/1/67/pdf

Friday, 16 October 2009

Will our wildlife be celebrating Natural England's third birthday?

Three years ago last weekend, Natural England was born. Formed from the merger of three organisations, it emerged into the expectant glare of England’s wildlife charities. Organisations like Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, who make it their job to create, manage and campaign for a healthy natural environment.

We have been watching Natural England intently since its birth, helping and co-operating where we can. Its responsibilities have been clear – to protect and improve England’s natural environment, its wildlife, and the habitats upon which wildlife depends.

But three years on, how well it is doing?

There is no doubt that Natural England has made some impressive progress. And it deserves considerable praise for that. But with the political and economic landscape moving under its feet, what does the future look like? And where do we think Natural England should turn its attentions next?

We joined the Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, The Grasslands Trust, Plantlife, the RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in a snapshot assessment of Natural England’s initial tenure. This is what we agreed…

An ‘A’ for effort

We’re pleased with Natural England’s progress towards the vital goal of improving the condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in England. It’s not all rosy - only 15% of SSSIs include invertebrates as protected features, and considerably more could be done for plants. But great progress has been made with 89% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in a recovering or favourable condition – on track to meet the Government 2010 target.

We’re also impressed by the organisation’s evidence-based input to policy development, such as recent moves related to set aside, and the formation of a government policy that supports environmentally responsible renewables.

Wildlife-friendly farming has undoubtedly benefited under Natural England, with innovative and well targeted agri-environment schemes aimed at halting wildlife declines. The take-up of these schemes by the farming community has been good and wildlife should benefit as a result.

And as the Government’s main conduit into saving species from extinction, we know that Natural England faces a tall order. However, we’ve been collectively impressed by its scientifically based approach to saving endangered species, involving a wide range of NGO partners.

Must try harder

This wouldn’t be a realistic report, though, if it didn’t point out some of the areas into which we think Natural England could put more effort. And as campaigners advocating a bigger voice for nature, we’re sure you’d expect nothing less.

In the next few years, we want to see Natural England became a more vocal champion for nature. We hope our own voices are strong, but a little extra volume would go a long way! We need Natural England to provide impartial scrutiny of Government performance on wildlife conservation, and offer more consistent and well-versed advice to landowners, planners and other bodies so that they can contribute fully to conserving wildlife.

And while the intention has been good, Natural England has been painfully slow in organising systems for administering key agri-environment schemes. This overly bureaucratic approach is really hindering delivery of these schemes, and we want to see all blockages removed.

Finally, Natural England has made only tentative steps on habitat restoration and creation – notably through funding Wetland Vision projects. This really worries us, as larger areas of good habitat and ecological corridors to join them up are essential to help nature survive under a changing climate. We think the slow pace of progress is largely down to a lack of funding, but this area deserves more of Natural England’s resources.

So how should we assess Natural England’s overall progress? There’s no doubt that its vision is good, and its progress is sound in some areas. But could it do more? Of course it could – and because our nation’s wildlife depends on it, it absolutely should.

That’s why we’re pleased to wish Natural England a Happy Third Birthday. We hope that, in another three years time, we can give it an even bigger party – and raise a toast to an even more secure future for England’s wildlife.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Sand lizards given “fighting chance” on One Show

Millions of viewers learnt more about sand lizards and the UK’s disappearing heathlands, thanks to coverage on the One Show last night.

The show’s Miranda Krestovnikoff joined Amphibian and Reptile Conservation to learn more about the coordinated efforts throughout the summer to release 400 rare sand lizards back into the wild at sites across the England and Wales.

The show covered the captive breeding work taking place at Marwell Wildlife and Miranda joined Amphibian and Reptile Conservation’s Nick Moulton in releasing the lizards at Puddletown Forest, a heathland site managed by the Forestry Commission.

“We reckon the animals have got a superb fighting chance for the future,” summarised Nick Moulton.

The coordinated action forms part of a major ‘rescue operation’ to save the UK’s threatened reptiles and amphibians - frogs, toads, newts, snakes and lizards.

To see last night’s show: click here to view I-Player

Monday, 12 October 2009

Joint Scientific Meeting 2009 - details announced

Some of the UK’s top conservationists will be presenting the latest scientific research on amphibians and reptiles, in a special event organised by Amphibian and Reptile Conservation and the British Herpetological Society.

The theme of this year’s Joint Scientific Meeting will be ‘Amphibian and Reptile Biology and Conservation’ and presentations will cover a number of interesting topics including the role of the lunar cycle in amphibian reproduction, the origins of dwarfism in boas and how cattle grazing could be impacting on the conservation of the UK’s rarest snake, the smooth snake.

The Joint Scientific Meeting takes place on the Sunday 6th December 2009 at Bournemouth Natural Science Society, Dorset. To see the programme, and for details on how to register, please click here.