Complex mystery of amphibian decline calls for a new kind of science

Central American forests that used to throb with the grunts, clicks, trills and chirrs of frogs have fallen eerily silent. Similar change is happening in North America and Western Australia. It is quietly alarming, and no one can explain the cause.

A group of scientists headed by James Collins, professor and chair of the Department of Biology at Arizona State University, has been awarded a grant of nearly $3 million from the National Science Foundation to study "Host-Pathogen Biology and the Global Decline of Amphibians."

Funded by the NSF's Integrated Research Challenges in Environmental Biology program, the project involves a team of 24 scientists from such different areas as evolutionary ecology, immunology, virology and mycology, and further includes specialists in statistical and molecular genetics, amphibian pathology, population biology, population ecology, ecological genetics and veterinary epidemiology, among many others.

The project is clearly not science-as-usual. Why is this research project so large? How tough can it be to find something that is wiping out frogs and salamanders on a global scale?

In familiar film and television scenarios, disaster happens because humanity has done something simple and stupid -- perhaps exploded an atomic bomb or dumped a toxic chemical. The plot is typically resolved by a sleuthing scientist who finds the cause, eliminates it, kills the giant carnivorous worms and generally cleans up the whole mess with something like baking soda -- a simple cause-and-effect problem that can be solved with a simple solution.

Real-life ecological disasters can be as dramatic as science fiction, but understanding what is causing them -- not to mention reversing the damage -- is no simple matter for contemporary science.

"Amphibian decline" is a good example. Beginning in 1989, biologists began to notice a dramatic drop in amphibian populations, in many cases to the point of extinction, in broad geographic

Contact: James Hathaway
Arizona State University

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