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Global amphibian declines: sorting the hypotheses

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Reports of malformed amphibians and global amphibian declines have led to public concern, particularly because amphibians are thought to be indicator species of overall environmental health. The topic also draws scientific attention because there is no obvious, simple answer to the question of what is causing amphibian declines? Complex interactions of several anthropogenic factors are probably at work, and understanding amphibian declines may thus serve as a model for understanding species declines in general. While we have fewer answers than we would like, there are six leading hypotheses that we sort into two classes. For class I hypotheses, alien species, over-exploitation and land use change, we have a good understanding of the ecological mechanisms underlying declines; these causes have affected amphibian populations negatively for more than a century. However, the question remains as to whether the magnitude of these negative effects increased in the 1980s, as scientists began to notice a global decline of amphibians. Further, remedies for these problems are not simple. For class II hypotheses, global change (including UV radiation and global climate change), contaminants and emerging infectious diseases we have a poor, but improving understanding of how each might cause declines. Class II factors involve complex and subtle mechanistic underpinnings, with probable interactions among multiple ecological and evolutionary variables. They may also interact with class I hypotheses. Suspected mechanisms associated with class II hypotheses are relatively recent, dating from at least the middle of the 20th century. Did these causes act independently or in concert with pre-existing negative forces of class I hypotheses to increase the rate of amphibian declines to a level that drew global attention? We need more studies that connect the suspected mechanisms underlying both classes of hypotheses with quantitative changes in amphibian population sizes and species numbers. An important step forward in this task is clarifying the hypotheses and conditions under which the various causes operate alone or together.
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Keywords: Amphibian declines; complexity; sorting hypotheses; time scale

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: School of Biological Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164–4236, U.S.A.

Publication date: 01 March 2003

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