Into the Arc
About three years ago, I started volunteering at a Zoo in North Yorkshire. On my very first morning of service, I walked into the staff meeting room, ready to start a year looking after species from around the world. Welcomed by all the keepers, I sat down and listened to the various exploits from the previous day. Reports ranged from a leaking tap in the chimpanzee house, to aggressive behaviour from one of the zoo’s male white rhinos. All stories were very interesting, and I was eager to get stuck in. Finally the education officer gave a talk about the zoo’s in-situ conservation project in Tanzania. From that report, I learned about the rarely talked about arc mountains of eastern Africa. From that point, my fascination with the mountains began.
The eastern arc mountains are a captivating place. A chain of mountains running through the countries of Tanzania and Kenya, they rise to almost 2,635m above sea level, and are part of one of Earth’s most biodiverse regions, containing 93 species of endemic vertebrate. My particular interest lay in the amphibians of the mountains, being a key region of amphibian endemism. Of the 97 amphibian species, 57 are endemic. The first question I asked myself was, why there was such a remarkable species richness and high level of endemism in the region? The age of the mountains is the secret to their success. Almost 30 million years ago, the mountain chain developed, and consequently, their archipelago-like arrangement and proximity to the warm Indian Ocean, has kept them wetter, than the surrounding plains, during past climactic fluctuations. At present, the mountains display a variety of habitats, with wet rainforest on the eastern slopes, giving way to dry semi-deciduous forest on western slopes.
As I furthered my research, it occurred to me the importance of the regions unique amphibian fauna. Recent molecular analysis has shown that a number of amphibian species and genera are genetically ancient. Among these are some of the regions caecilians, who’s evolution dates back to before the break-up of gondwanland. The presence of these ancient lineages suggests that there has been a continued climactic stability in the region, most likely due to the presence of the mountains, as well as local speciation and low extinction rates. The bufonids of the area are equally fascinating, including a number of endemic species, who genetic history have revealed linkages to distant African-Asian taxa, previously thought to be completely unrelated.
It shocked me to find out how small the ranges of some of these endemic amphibians were. Some species are restricted to single valleys, or even parts of valleys. The reason being is their specificity towards certain resources within a habitat. This clearly demonstrated to me the importance of conservation in the forest, and more importantly, deploying conservation strategies that maintain the complex web of habitats and resources that exists in these isolated forests.
I am now lucky enough to keep one species of amphibian which is found in the arc mountains, and is featured in the picture in this blog. The Peacock Tree Frog (Leptopelis vermiculatus) is an endemic species to several mountains of the Eastern African chain, and is classified by the IUCN as vulnerable B1ab (iii). Luckily, it is breed in captivity regularly, and is now only available in the pet trade as captive bred individuals. Unfortunately, back in Tanzania, it is affected by habitat loss, as a result of the expanding human presence in the area. I hope to breed this species, a practise which will be required more in the future, if amphibian numbers continue to decline the way they are. 32% of the 6000 species of amphibians are faced with extinction, and we are now entering one of the greatest conservation challenges in human history.
EAMCEF - http://www.easternarc.or.tz
Amphibian arc (Information on the amphibian extinction crisis) - http://www.amphibianark.org
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