They've been around for almost 400 million years, surviving the extinction of dinosaurs, ice ages and many other massive environmental changes. Incredibly resilient, frogs, toads and other amphibians have a remarkable ability to overcome virtually every challenge thrown their way.
Under a mounting barrage of environmental pressures, one in four amphibian species in the United States is now imperiled and worldwide, 122 species have gone extinct since 1980. Equally troubling, a just-published study finds that 82 percent of amphibians that need help aren't protected under the Endangered Species Act and efforts to save those that are protected are woefully underfunded.
While the Act has had unparalleled success saving some of America's most iconic species, from grizzly bears and gray wolves to bald eagles and peregrine falcons, the news for amphibians only gets worse with each passing year.
The story is much the same for reptiles.
In the U.S., scores of amphibian and reptile species are at risk. Yet, reptiles and amphibians make up just 58 of the 1,400 species protected under the Act.
After decades of unrelenting habitat destruction, pollution, introduced diseases, and a host of other threats, the situation for herpetofauna or "herps," as amphibians and reptiles are known to biologists, is dire.
That's why scientists at the Center for Biological Diversity are taking a close look at the most stressed herps across the U.S. to see which are most in-need of new protections.
There's clearly much to be done.
For example, the Cascades frog has been lost from half its range in California and is declining elsewhere in the face of habitat destruction and introduced trout, and in Arkansas, scientists warn that extinction of the Illinois chorus frog may be imminent.
In the Pacific Northwest, logging is threatening the clouded salamander causing steep declines. In the Southeast, the prehistoric-looking alligator snapping turtles that patrolled southeastern waterways for tens of thousands of years have declined by 95 percent, thanks in part to overharvest for Asian food, pet and medicinal markets.
Our amphibians and reptiles are at a critical stage. Fortunately, here in the U.S., we have the Endangered Species Act, which has averted extinction for 99.9 percent of the plants and animals that it protects. The Act works and it's time that herps finally get the help they deserve.
Like all wildlife, amphibians and reptiles are worth saving for their own sake, and for the sake of preserving the rich biological diversity and balance necessary for a healthy planet.
And the dramatic decline of our herpetofauna populations offers a broader warning.
Because amphibians breathe through their skin, lay their eggs in water and live on land, over the course of their lives they're subjected to every major environmental threat, making them the true "canary" in our biosphere.
The quality of their health offers us a remarkably accurate snapshot of the health of the planet, and of our own.