In 1970, a group of experts on frogs, toads, salamanders, and caecilians noticed that populations of the Yosemite Park Toad in California had suddenly crashed. The habitat was suitable, there seemed to be nothing wrong but their numbers had crashed to very low levels. People scratched their heads and thought of it as just one of those random things that happens in the world; sometimes species disappear and sometimes there is no explanation for it.
A few years later, in the late 1970s the same thing happened in Australia, the gastric brooding frog, actually not only did the population crash, the species disappeared almost overnight (two species, in fact) and were never found again.
Then in the mid-1980s in Costa Rica, the beautiful golden toad disappeared and has never been found again despite extensive efforts in searching over the past 30 years.
The amazing thing is that at the time that these isolated events took place none of the experts were talking to each other. It was before all of the amphibian experts had been organized into the IUCN Amphibian Species Survival Commission and it was before amphibians were assessed for The IUCN Red List.
In 1989, in Canterbury in the UK, IUCN organized a meeting of the world’s amphibian experts and they were amazed to discover that these were not isolated instances but there was a global problem. It took nineteen years after the Yosemite Park Toad populations crashed and another eight years after that to determine that the chytrid fungus was decimating amphibian populations throughout the world, but most notably in the species-rich rainforests of Central America. This realization has been one of the most publicized species extinction events in history and without the IUCN Red List there is little doubt that many of these extinctions might continue today. For those keeping track, that is 27 years of unmonitored and unchecked amphibian extinction, a process that may be occurring in other unassessed species groups.
In 2015, the avenues for communication between experts are far more extensive than in 1989, and the number of species experts in the IUCN network now exceeds 10,000 in over 130 species specialist groups, task forces, and Red List authorities. Amphibians still face the same increasing threats to biodiversity but now have a global network of conservationists, enthusiasts, and scientists working through organizations like the Amphibian Survival Alliance to halt the loss of amphibians. However, the taxonomic coverage of species that have been assessed is still far below what would provide a more comprehensive assessment of the status of global biodiversity and the threats and solutions for appropriate and effective biodiversity conservation.
Over the coming weeks, stay tuned for some of the current and future priorities for IUCN Red List assessments as we seek to build the IUCN Red List into a more comprehensive Barometer of Life.
Craig R. Beatty and Simon Stuart