Zoos can save amphibians from extinction. Take the Kihansi spray toad (Nectophrynoides asperginis), for example. This rare species disappeared from its only habitat in Tanzania in 2009 but a collective effort by the Bronx and Toledo zoos managed to preserve the toads and re-create a healthy population in the wild.

Such interventions are the exception rather than the rule, however. A new study published July 28 in Conservation Biology suggests that, in general, zoos are failing the world’s most endangered amphibians. A team of researchers from the U.K. examined the collections of more than 800 zoos worldwide and found that more than 75 percent of their amphibian collections included non-endangered species. Even worse, they held just 6.2 percent of the world’s threatened amphibian species.

By comparison, the same zoos had 15.9 percent of the world’s threatened birds and 23 percent of threatened mammals.

This finding doesn’t mean zoos are doing a bad job, just that there are huge gaps in their work. “More can and should be done,” says the paper’s lead author, Jeff Dawson, the amphibian program officer for the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust on the island of Jersey.

The data from this study came from the International Species Information System, which mostly represents the collections of zoos in North America and Europe, so it doesn’t reflect many Asian, African or South American zoos. Those zoos, Dawson says, may do a better job conserving their own regional amphibians than the data suggests, but getting information on their collections and conservation efforts is difficult. That, he says, is the other major finding from their paper: There is no comprehensive and publicly available data about all of the world’s amphibian conservation efforts. “Having this information is vital if the full scale of the response to the amphibian extinction crisis is to be properly assessed and gaps and opportunities in efforts identified,” he says.

Dawson and his fellow researchers are now looking into the issue of why amphibian coverage in zoos is so low. They have noticed a few factors so far: “Cost is one obvious area,” he says. Zoos may perceive endangered species as costlier to keep than other animals. Additional issues may include a lack of husbandry expertise, disease concerns, and zoos’ focus on larger and more beautiful and charismatic animals that attract visitors. “Many threatened amphibians are small and brown, so they’re not conducive to good exhibits,” he points out.

With potentially thousands of amphibians now facing extinction from the chytrid fungus, habitat loss, pollution and other threats, Dawson says this is an important time to examine how zoos and other organizations are working to conserve these endangered species. “The amphibian crisis is a global one, and to be effectively addressed requires efforts and planning at the global scale,” he says. “Achieving effective planning at the global scale is not easy or it would have been done already. From an ex situ perspective it needs commitment and coordinated input from multiple actors including individual organizations such as Durrell, regional zoo associations and global-reaching groups.” He hopes this paper might inspire some of that commitment before too many more amphibian species disappear. “This is an important first step,” he says.

Photo by Jevgēnijs Šlihto. Used under Creative Commons license