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N.C. amphibians gain visibility, thanks to student

By Meg Lowman
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More than 40 percent of the world’s 6,300 known amphibian species are classified as threatened.

One of the major causes is the emergence of a fungal pathogen, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd. The pathogen has historically thrived in cool, moist locations but has expanded at alarming rates over the past two decades with the recent warming of many mountainous regions.

Thanks to the U.S. Forest Service, a mapping system now monitors the expansion of the Bd infection; its continuing spread suggests the disease has not yet achieved global equilibrium.

Although documenting the expansion of a global infection is important for science, it represents a tool but not a solution. Real action is urgently needed to reverse the epidemic, and educating the public is important to save local reptiles and amphibians.

Many Americans are not aware that amphibians are under siege by this disease and other factors (including habitat loss, pollution, pesticides and over-harvesting) that have caused more than 200 species to become extinct in our lifetime.

But North Carolinians are different, thanks in part to one tireless Raleigh schoolgirl who has made frogs her passion.

Rachel Hopkins, a self-described “frog lover,” recently stood with Gov. Pat McCrory while he signed legislation for an official state frog and salamander. These iconic critters help educate the public about the natural wonders of our state – and about the global threats to all reptiles and amphibians.

The pine barrens tree frog and the gorgeous marbled salamander celebrate the rich diversity of amphibians in North Carolina.

Rachel, no stranger to the amphibian world, served as a junior curator at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, and last year she successfully championed a state Save the Frogs Day (the last Saturday in April).

She explained, “I have loved amphibians, frogs in particular, since I was a small child. … It was love at first sight. I had a teacher in sixth grade who first introduced me to the amphibian mass extinction, and ever since then I’ve made it my mission to raise awareness.”

Rachel is not only passionate about herpetology, but says, “If we have amphibians as state symbols, our children will learn more about our government and state symbols at a young age, and they will be introduced to the notion that amphibians are important.”

Even if you don’t adore them as Rachel does, reptiles and amphibians are critical components of our ecosystems, and we all benefit from their role in our state’s natural heritage.

Meg Lowman, Ph.D., a forest canopy expert, is senior scientist at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and research professor at N.C. State University.

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