December 6, 2009

New Book on Global Amphibian Declines

Jim Collins and Martha Crump recently published a new book entitled, "Extinction in Our Times: Global Amphibian Decline". This is a complex subject and by all accounts the authors do a great job of synthesizing this material for the scientifically-inclined as well as for more general audiences. Joe Mendelson, a scientist at the Atlanta Zoo and one of the key players in the Amphibian Ark project, posted this review on book's Amazon web page

The authors have accomplished something spectacular here. They have taken a very disturbing and complex story---that has its share of intertwined controversies, to be sure---and assembled a remarkably objective and even-handed summary. The book doesn't foolishly proclaim to have solved all the mysteries, nor offer a silver-bullet panacea for the amphibian crisis. Rather it presents a fully readable retrospective and current review of the crisis of amphibian declines and extinctions and an interesting perspective on how science as a process, and the scientists as people, responded to an unprecedented set of circumstances. The authors do an especially good job at maintaining full objectivity in the face of ongoing controversies and disagreements among scientists. Similarly, to treat fairly the scientists and hypotheses that time has shown to have been "wrong"---or, better said, the ideas and conclusions that are not supported by all of the accumulated data. The nice style adopted by the authors throughout the book is to simply point out which hypotheses are the best supported by the data. There are no "winners" or "losers" among the people and ideas presented in this book, as the authors imply that all contributions to the amphibian crisis have been important.

We have a long way to go in understanding and confronting the ecological catastrophe of global amphibian declines and extinctions. But this book is a complete summary of where we've been and where we are positioned today in this phenomenon. Importantly, the authors also pay especial attention to how we got to our current position of knowledge and conservation action. This aspect of the book makes for a fascinating study of how a completely unorganized cohort of scientists responded when the found themselves suddenly in the face of an overwhelming conservation challenge. In retrospect, the scientists responded quite slowly. But after reading this book, you will realize that no other response was possible.

I hope this book is read carefully by scientists, conservationists, and policymakers working on other aspects of the global environmental crisis. This case study of the amphibian crisis offers many lessons applicable to other biodiversity crises, be it fungal infections in bats or die-offs of coral reefs. The book also offers a complete overview of the phenomenon of amphibian extinctions. I wish all reporters and science writers covering the subject would give this a careful read before beginning their stories! Kudos to the authors for a remarkable and easily absorbable synthesis of a very complex story.

So, if you want to learn the latest about one of the most profound extinction events in recorded history, this book should fit the bill.

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