Amphibians as indicators of environmental health

Amphibians as indicators of environmental health

Amphibians as indicators of environmental health

Amphibians as indicators of environmental health and its contribution to humanity

Amphibians as indicators of environmental health

Amphibians greatly improve our lives and our world in many ways. They provide vital biological medicines, including compounds that are being refined to produce painkillers, antibiotics, heart attack victims and treatments for a variety of diseases including depression, stroke, epilepsy, Alzheimer's and cancer. The Australian red-eyed tree frog (Litoria chloris) and its relatives offer us a compound capable of preventing HIV infection, the cause of AIDS.

The fine skins of amphibians help us to drink and breathe, but also make them susceptible to environmental contaminants, especially agricultural, industrial and chemical contaminants in the pharmaceutical industry. For example, atrazine is the most commonly used herbicide in the US, and it is estimated that 61-73 million pounds per year were used during the 1990s. Scientific studies have proven that atrazine can cause various types of cancer and act as an endocrine disrupter, mimicking the female hormone, estrogen, and damaging the reproductive and hormonal system of humans and animals. Atrazine is normally applied in the spring and may accumulate in the breeding masses of amphibians. Laboratory studies have shown that atrazine can chemically sterilize tadpoles at levels well below the maximum level allowed by EPA for drinking water. Although there have been lawsuits filed against the EPA by the Natural Resources Defense Council since 1999, EPA announced on October 31, 2003 that it had negotiated an agreement with the industry that would not require any new restrictions on the use of atrazine.

Amphibians have been compared to canaries in coal mines: just as miners have used sensitive canaries to prevent them from toxic gases in mines, so amphibians may also be alerting us to dangerous environmental conditions that may occur a serious impact on our health. Can we be equally affected by these widely disseminated endocrine disrupters, or are we already being affected? Atrazine, for example, has been detected in the drinking water of more than 1 million Americans at higher levels than EPA standards for drinking water. Some human studies suggest that the mean adult sperm count in certain populations was significantly reduced to less than 50% than it was two generations ago. Are we also suffering from the effeminating effects of agricultural chemicals, industrial wastes, and other estrogen mimics that affect amphibians so drastically? Amphibians are also vital components of their ecosystems. In the 1970s, it was discovered that the northern red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus) may have been the most abundant vertebrate in the eastern US forests, surpassing the biomass of all birds or of mammal species combined. Amphibians feed mainly on insects and other invertebrates. It is estimated that a single population of ~ 1 000 frogs (Acris crepitans) can consume almost five million invertebrates per year. It is thus clear that they are important predators of small invertebrates, as well as abundant prey for larger predators, being a vital link in the food chain between the two. In areas of the world where amphibians have declined, there has been an increase in invertebrate pests that damage crops and carry human diseases.

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