By Sophie Tessier | 31 July 2012| Costa Rica
1146 - I - Photo credit
1149 - I - Photo credit
1148 - I - Photo credit
1147 - I - Photo credit
1145 - I - Photo credit
1144 - I - Photo credit

Put yourself in a scientist’s shoes. You’re a herpetologist. You’re working in the field to protect and save amphibians. You have two species of frog, and only 50 individuals of each remain in the wild. An array of factors (grants, volunteers, available equipment, etc.) mean you can only save one species. What do you do? What criteria do you base your decision on?

Save. Here in Panama, and elsewhere, herpetologists are currently confronted by this very dilemma. It’s a question of ethics. The deadly chytrid fungus is spreading so rapidly that many species of frog are added to the already crowded IUCN Red List every year.

Choose. When dealing with living things, making choices becomes problematic. Because in the end, aren’t choices intrinsically based on some system of personal or societal values? Even a so-called “objective” scientist is influenced by the values of a scientific community or a school of thought. What criteria, and even what rights, can—or must—such a choice be based on?

Some would focus on a species’ USEFULNESS. Saving a species of frog that prefers to feed on mosquitoes rather than another that feeds on worms? This is indeed practical…

Some would focus on a species’ ADAPTABILITY. Saving a species of frog that tolerates captivity well rather than another that does not do well in captivity? This is indeed logical…

Some would focus on a species’ BEAUTY. Saving a colourful frog rather than a warty frog? This is indeed tempting…

Clearly, a species’ rareness serves as a barometer for making some choices when the time and resources for conserving everything are lacking. But the problem with amphibians is that some species captured with the goal of protecting them are still poorly understood and their biology little known. Sometimes, species are discovered through the very process of saving them. In such cases, how can you rely on a species’ rarity or abundance when its original population size and range are unknown?

So, back to the original question. If you had to choose a species to save, what criteria would you base your decision on?

*The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, created in 1963, is the most comprehensive list of the overall state of conservation of the world’s plant and animal species.

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