Phil Bishop wears many hats. He is the Chief Scientist of the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA), a role he has had since the Alliance started back in 2011. He is also co-Chair of the IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group (ASG). The job he gets paid to do is Professor of Zoology and Director of Ecology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. We spoke to Phil about his many decades of conservation work with amphibians, why amphibians matter and what the ASA and others are doing to conserve these amazing species and help more people understand their value and place in Earth’s incredible web of life.
How did you first become interested in amphibians? Was there one particular experience you remember?
I’ve been interested in amphibians since I was a child and I’ve always kept amphibians. One of my first experiences was coming across a British toad (Bufo bufo) when I was 4 or 5 years old. As a young kid, I always loved turning things over, looking under rocks and one time I caught a lovely, female British toad up on Dartmoor. She was a big female toad, a kind of red brick, sandy colour. When we met, she was very calm and she sat in my hand – she was almost bigger than my hand in fact, she was like my teddy bear! I just had such a fantastic interaction with her that I was hooked from that day on.
When did you first become aware of the urgent need to conserve amphibians?
I’ve had a passion for amphibians for over 55 years, and I studied amphibians through university, eventually doing my PhD in the social behaviour of amphibians. But it was the First World Congress of Herpetology in 1989 that really switched me on to amphibian conservation. I attended the Congress in my capacity as a behavioural ecologist, studying amphibian behaviour and how they use the environment, and that was when I realised that amphibians were in trouble. With the passion and love for amphibians that I’d had for many years before that, I started to get more and more involved in conservation. I realised I would be heartbroken if I thought that my children and their children were never going to see amphibians in the wild.
Amphibians are often cited as the most threatened class of vertebrates on the planet. What is it that makes them so threatened?
This is always a good question to think about. I think you can put it down to two main factors. The first is the fact that they have a semipermeable skin. Their skin is an exquisite organ which allows gas to pass through it, so amphibians can actually breathe through their skin! It needs to be kept moist at all times, otherwise they die. This means that anything that is moist in the environment, or anything that dissolves in water, will just pass right through their skin, making them extremely vulnerable to any pollutant in the atmosphere: whether it’s in the soil, in the air, a fluid or liquid, they will be incredibly susceptible to it. In fact, this is what makes them such good indicators of the health of their environment.
Secondly, amphibians, as their name suggests, have a kind of dual life: most of them have one form that lives on land and relies on a clean terrestrial environment and another form that is usually associated with water. So, you’ve got these two different lifeforms – it’s almost like being a fish and a mammal at the same time and therefore depending on both healthy terrestrial and aquatic environments. This is further complicated by the fact that in many cases the water that amphibians breed in is not exactly where they live, so many of them will cross kilometres of habitat to get to an aquatic environment to breed, then they’ll cross kilometres to go back to where they live. So, if we build roads or houses or anything like that, we’re creating barriers that will break that cycle of breeding and disrupt the whole ecosystem flow that you would find in these amphibians’ daily lives. Those are two of the main reasons why amphibians are so threatened.
There is also the simple fact that amphibians are not particularly well studied compared to, say, birds or mammals. That’s probably down to our anthropomorphism – people tend to like fluffy, furry, cuddly things like birds and mammals and they’re concerned about them, whereas they see frogs as cold, slimy and warty and don’t like them so much. And that goes for scientists as well! If you look at birds, there are very few species in the world that haven’t been studied, whereas for amphibians, at least 25 per cent of all the species that we know of have never been studied so we just don’t know how well they’re doing – it’s likely that most of them are highly endangered as well, but we just don’t know.
If someone has no particular love for amphibians, why should they care about them?
I get asked this question a lot! Of course, there are some people who love frogs and are already converted, people who are interested in their specific roles in the ecosystem and so on, but that’s far removed from most people’s preoccupations. “Ecosystem? What’s that? Why should I be worried about an ecosystem?”
I think what often hits home most for the public is the role amphibians have had in medical research. They’ve already given us a range of amazing medicines: the first antibiotics were discovered from antimicrobial peptides that are found in frog skin, and there has been a lot of research into frog skin secretions: researchers have found painkillers that are 200 times more powerful than morphine in the skin of a frog; they have identified frog skin secretions which can help with Alzheimer’s and are a potential treatment for Type 2 diabetes; they’ve found a potent anti-viral that stops the transmission of HIV; with the antibiotic resistant bacteria that you find in hospitals now, they’re finding that a lot of frog skin secretions are active against those bacteria as well. Then there’s the spinal cord injury research being done on tadpoles: tadpole tails are made of muscle, nerve and fibre – just like a human spinal cord – and when it is removed the tadpole can regrow it.
In fact, around 10 per cent of all Nobel prizes for medicine have resulted from studies on frogs. For the public, that can be a real eye-opener: amphibians are a treasure trove of huge medical potential for the future. If you can bring it back to people and tell them it might save their life in the future, then they connect with that, it makes them think.
In terms of your own career, what are some of the challenges and hurdles you have faced?
The biggest challenge has simply been trying to get people to understand the significance of amphibians in running the ecosystem, to realise the importance of the roles that amphibians play and to take them seriously. I think Kermit did a huge disservice to frogs in general! He has made frogs appear very comical, so people generally don’t take them seriously, and this makes my job more difficult. If you tell somebody you work on frogs, their immediate reaction is to laugh or to question you. Now if you say you’re an ornithologist and you study birds or a primatologist studying great apes, people think you are amazing. But if you study frogs, you’ve got to be a bit of a joker!
But isn’t that humour also something you can use in your favour?
Yes, I think it is. I’ve got a Twitter feed and I find that when I tweet about frogs, and say something humorous about them, I get a huge response. I’ve had people come up to me and say they don’t think frogs are uncharismatic, they’re incredibly charismatic, they love them, they’re so funny and so on – so I guess a lot of people do find them amusing!
The Amphibian Survival Alliance, a global partnership for amphibian conservation of over one hundred organisations, institutions and groups, is a key component of the global response to amphibian declines. How would you describe the importance of this collaboration for amphibian conservation?
Learning to collaborate well has been incredibly important, and it has helped us pool resources because, as I’ve already pointed out, there really are very few resources out there for amphibians. If we don’t collaborate, we’ll just have lots of small players trying to compete for limited resources. Collaboration means we can bring more resources in and have a more coordinated approach to amphibian conservation, addressing the most pressing issues first.
A collaborative approach is also vital because there are so many species of amphibians – over 7,800 that we know of. The challenge is that most of those species are in developing countries, so while a lot of conservation might be happening in developed countries, we need the communication within the ASA to understand where the greatest problems are, globally, so we can then look at taking collective action. I think that’s where the collaboration has been particularly strong.
What have been some of the challenges of collaboration?
We need to go back to the beginning to answer this. When we first discovered the seriousness of the issues facing amphibians, we produced a global amphibian conservation action plan. The problem was that it was so big, with everybody in little fragmented groups, that nobody really knew what they were doing. Because the task was so daunting and you felt so insignificant, it was tempting to give up before you had even started!
I’ve been involved for 7 years and I came into it fairly green and naive, thinking that everyone wanted collaboration and coordination, but they didn’t. It was all about politics and finances. There were so many little groups that didn’t want to be associated with a larger group because they were doing OK on their own, other groups were struggling but did not want to share anything. So, for me that was the biggest challenge: trying to work out who were the good groups and who were the cowboys, and then trying to get all the good groups working together collaboratively, respecting each other and working in the same direction. It has only really started working well in the last couple of years.
What do you think has changed in the last couple of years to lead to that collaboration working better?
I think one thing is simply time. When you form a new organisation, it takes time to get established. At the beginning, you are just another amphibian conservation group which people think will disappear in a year or two. When you don’t, people start to take you more seriously and want to find out what you’re doing. For the first couple of years, we were really just building relationships.
Synchronicity Earth has been involved with the ASA right from the word go. The whole project just fits in with their ethos and it’s been fantastic that they’ve supported the formation of ASA, both logistically and with funding, and they have understood why amphibians are important. With their help, the ASA appointed Helen Meredith as their Director – and with Simon Stuart coming on board – all of a sudden everything gelled: we had people in salaried positions, working for amphibians.
One of Helen’s big achievements has been to create the Strategic and Operational plans, which gave the Alliance some important direction and kudos and it has now become a well-rounded and respected organisation. People have really got on board with what we are trying to do, particularly the IUCN Secretariat and the other groups that have been involved. They can see that the ASA is open and transparent and it is moving ahead in a positive direction.
What are some of its successes the ASA has had?
One of the big successes has been with the Leapfrog Fund, where the ASA has paired up with Rainforest Trust, the World Bank and others to purchase land that is important for amphibians: that has made a big difference and a lot of projects have come out of that.
Another important collaboration between the groups that has had a major impact is dealing with the invasive toad issue in Madagascar. There is a toad that was introduced to Madagascar and the Malagasys were happy just to pretend that it hadn’t happened, but it has the potential to cause worse effects than the invasive cane toad that was introduced into Australia. So, through the ASA leveraging the IUCN Amphibian Specialist Group in Madagascar and talking to some ASA partners, we have managed to put a lot of money into trying to control that toad in Madagascar.
So, these are some examples of on the ground, ‘get the hands dirty’ conservation. But there is also a lot of ‘white collar’ work that gets done, for example lobbying governments to make sure that legislation gets passed. The most important example that ASA has contributed to in recent years has been to lobby for legislation to protect salamanders from a disease called Bsal, a type of chytrid fungus found in salamanders. The northeast United States is one of the hotspots for salamanders in the world, but they are being threatened by people wanting to import exotic salamanders from Europe and Asia into the country and this is bringing in Bsal. The ASA, along with a couple of American organisations, managed to successfully lobby the government and the import of salamanders was subsequently banned under the Lacey Act to stop them coming into the country. That was significant and I know that in the EU they have just passed legislation about the movement of their salamanders as well. I’m sure that had a knock-on effect from seeing it banned in the United States.
Where would you like to see the Amphibian Survival Alliance and amphibian conservation in 10 years’ time?
I think we’re moving in the right direction. I think the only way we are going to progress is to see salaried jobs for people to coordinate and support amphibian conservation. So much of conservation around the world, not just amphibian conservation, depends on people doing it in their spare time, out of the goodness of their hearts. This is not a good business model! We need people who are paid to support and provide funding for amphibian conservation. If they don’t meet their targets – or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or whatever we decide to call them – then they should be replaced and the next person comes on board. So, I see it as more like running a sustainable business, where we’re actually able to go out and generate funds for amphibian conservation and be able to make a big difference. I do feel that we’re moving in that direction.
So you feel optimistic when you think about amphibian conservation in the next 10 years?
I do, but by the same token, we mustn’t get complacent. I think it is through people like Simon Stuart and the late George Rabb, who have been pushing all the way to get these sorts of things in the mainstream, that we’ll make progress. I think – and hope – that people will eventually realise how important amphibians are in their lives.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
If you’d like to find out more about the Amphibian Survival Alliance and how Synchronicity Earth supports their work, or if you are interested in contributing to this vital work, take a look at our Amphibian Programme and Amphibian Fund.