Running out of reptiles

National attention has been riveted on the issue of amphibian declines for years and has intensified with each new report of vanishing populations or deformities. However, according to an article in the August 11th issue of the journal BioScience, reptiles are in even greater distress worldwide than their better known cousins.

These two vertebrate classes are collectively referred to as the herpetofauna but the focus of general concern has been almost exclusively on amphibians. Now, however, scientists are hoping that the general public will recognize what they have long known: that reptiles across the globe are affected by many of the same forces as amphibians but with even greater impact.

The article's lead author, Dr. Whit Gibbons, a herpetologist and professor of ecology at the University of Georgia, said, "Although the amphibian decline problem is a serious threat, reptiles appear to be in even greater danger of extinction worldwide." He said that while studies on both amphibians and reptiles have not been as rigorous as scientists would like, the existing documentation points to a coming crisis situation.

The problem is multifaceted. Habitat loss and degradation may be the largest single factor in reptile loss. For even when part of a habitat is protected, such as a wetland, the surrounding terrestrial habitat needed by semiaquatic reptiles often is not. Conservation biologists hold as a basic tenet of ecology that intact habitat is necessary for species persistence and well-being. But habitat destruction is just the beginning of the problem.

Invasive species introduced to new areas can spell real danger for reptiles. One example is the Galapagos tortoise, now near extinct due largely to introduced rats which destroy the tortoise eggs. Other problems include environmental pollution, disease and even the simple presence of humans among a fragile population. Cars kill animals; predators are attracted by human food wastes; cats an

Contact: Rosemary Forrest
DOE/Savannah River Ecology Laboratory

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