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?
Phil with a Bornean Horned frog (Megophrys nasuta)
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