Canaries in the ecological coal mine

There are six remaining species of amphibian wildlife in Israel and all are imperiled to some degree.

salamander 88 (photo credit: )
salamander 88
(photo credit: )
The most pressing environmental problem we face is not global warming; it is biodiversity loss." So says Dr. Sarig Gafny, a limnologist (limnos means "lake" in Greek) from the School of Marine Sciences at the Ruppin Academic Center and a lecturer at Tel Aviv University. Gafny is putting his beliefs into practice, as evidenced in early April by his rescue of salamander tadpoles in the Upper Galilee from certain death. During a routine survey of lakes and ponds in the area, Gafny and Talia Oron, an ecologist with the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, came across Jamiliya pond, a winter pond located four kilometers north-east of Ma'alot near the Christian Arab village of Fassuta. The pond was teeming with salamander tadpoles, but due to agricultural work in the area, what was once a pond is now little more than a puddle, only two centimeters deep. "If the pool dries out, it's a death sentence for all these tadpoles," Gafny told Metro. Thinking fast, Oron and Gafny decided to transfer the tadpoles from the remains of Jamiliya pond to another pond nearby - one that was still functional and already nurtured its own population of salamander tadpoles. Oron enlisted Fassuta villagers for the rescue mission. Collecting as many tadpoles and egg mass as they could, they quickly moved them to their new home. "With the help of Fassuta citizens we managed to collect more than a thousand tadpoles and move them to the nearby pool," Gafny recounted. "There they had a much better chance to finish their aquatic phase and go through metamorphosis." As tadpoles, salamanders depend on water for sustenance. Once they have undergone metamorphosis, they can leave the pond and spend most of their lives underground. Oron elaborated: "We explained the problem [to the villagers] - it's a long tradition that there are salamanders in these ponds. We don't want to lose this unique population of fauna and flora. They were very involved and they helped [with the transfer]." For Gafny, who is heavily involved in the preservation of amphibian wildlife in Israel, the Jamiliya incident signifies far more than the destruction of one pond. Amphibians are especially vulnerable in comparison to other wildlife, because they need very specific conditions in order to survive. Gafny maintains that because of their fragility, amphibians are "the canary in the coal mine in terms of the effects of human society on the environment. We focus on amphibians because there is a decline in the population of amphibians throughout the world." (Coal miners in the early 20th century used canaries, which are highly sensitive to the effects of toxic fumes, to act as warning signals: If a canary started to lose its color and die, the miners would evacuate immediately.) If amphibians are indicators of how our environment is doing, then according to Gafny, Israel's ecology is in trouble. Of the seven species of amphibians in Israel, one is extinct and the remaining six are all imperiled to some degree. The reason for this endangerment is that the wetlands where amphibians make their homes have almost vanished from the face of Israel. "Winter pools used to be very typical to our area," Gafny explained, "but since the establishment of the state, this habitat underwent major destruction due to development. We now have less than one percent of the winter pools that we had before the establishment of the state [in 1948]." Israel's extinct species of amphibian, the painted frog, was unique to Israel and thrived in the Hula swamp. According to Dr. Yossi Leshem, former Executive Director of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and now a researcher at Tel Aviv University, the draining of the 60,000-dunam (some 13,000 acres) swamp was directly responsible for the painted frogs' demise. "Now it's gone from the entire world," he concluded grimly. On a much smaller scale, a similar event was responsible for the degradation of Jamiliya pond: The JNF planted trees in the area around the pond, which interfered with its ability to hold water and ultimately led to its drying up. "The JNF thought it would be nice to have trees around the pond, but preparing the area damaged the very vulnerable area of the pool. Now the pond is not holding any water ever since this work was done," Oron noted. Rescuing these creatures is a complex task. Transferring amphibians to the wrong pool could result in a genetic catastrophe years down the line, Gafny explained, as over time the amphibians could lose the characteristics they need in order to survive their environment. "The animals have evolved according to their environmental conditions. If, for example, you take tadpoles from the Golan Heights and move them to the coastal area of Tel Aviv, you may alter or impair their genetic viability. If you mix [different populations], you get something in-between that can't survive its environmental conditions." In order to prevent genetic mixing, Gafny and his colleagues - Professor Adam Friedmann and Dr. Yaron Tikochinski - carry out DNA tests on amphibians to ensure that the same genetic populations are bred together. They are particularly concentrating on the Syrian spadefoot toad, an even more endangered species than the salamander. If a pond or pool is doomed because of development plans, Gafny and his colleagues rescue as many tadpoles and egg mass as possible, and transfer them to a new pool - being careful to first analyze the DNA of the toads in both locations. "We use the same test that was used for Anna Nicole Smith," said Gafny with a glimmer of humor. He is aware that for most people, toads and salamanders are hardly a high priority. Unlike fluffy and beautiful birds - a hot topic in Israel's environmental landscape - amphibians can be unattractive, slimy, living in the dark and damp. And studying amphibians requires dedication, which becomes apparent when Gafny describes the process of his research. "You have to go out in rainy nights to see [the spadefoot toad] in action. It's cold and wet, and sometimes you have to wait five hours for a toad to move 10 meters." But Gafny insists that despite all these difficulties, amphibians are worth saving. When the subject of their importance is raised, he is adamant, the humor falling away to reveal an abiding passion for his work. "Amphibians are an important part of the ecosystem, and I think we need them for the sake of humanity - not just because they have a right to exist but also for us. Imagine if in 10 years someone discovers that medication for cancer can be produced from spadefoot toads - and that we don't have any. That would be a great pity."