From the Magazine

Social Networking Could Help Save Amphibians

Harnessing the Facebook generation’s photo-sharing habits could help track amphibians around the world.

You’ve surely heard how tweeting has connected birders through the social media site Twitter. Well, champions of amphibians are linking up the same way. These creatures are disappearing at alarming rates around the globe, from salamanders losing their forest habitat in Central America to frog populations worldwide threatened by a deadly fungus called chytrid. About a third of all amphibian species face extinction. Even as some species vanish, researchers are enlisting the public’s help to find them—and map their locations through an online social network called the Global Amphibian Blitz.

The online portal, hosted by and cosponsored by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, among others, allows people to upload their photos of frogs, salamanders, and their cousins, tagged with geographic locations. Posters can sign on through Facebook, Google, or even Twitter. Hard-to-identify creatures are flagged with question marks; users, experts, or site curators can then attempt to ID them.

So far the resulting map of amphibian sightings has logged photos capturing more than 500 of the 6,000-plus species across the planet—even one, Holdridge’s toad (pictured above), that was presumed to have gone extinct in 2008. The scientist who posted that sighting intentionally used false coordinates in order to protect the population, which highlights some of the problems of relying on a social network to do science. Just as on Facebook, people can lie about their identities, or the origins of their amphibian photos. “It’s pretty much open source,” says Vance Vredenburg of San Francisco State, a cofounder of the project who studies emerging infectious disease in amphibians. But the network also has “powerful checks and balances” from regular users—just like Wikipedia.

Despite its imperfections, the effort could possibly prove priceless. Citizen scientists can be the eyes and feet on the ground for professional herpetologists, who have limited funding and people power, Vredenburg explains. For his own research, Vredenburg fully expects that someone will report a population of yellow-legged frogs that survived chytrid but his team missed. Clues to how such populations handle the onslaught might help researchers save other amphibians.


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