Reptiles aren't as cuddly as their herpetological cousins, the amphibians. Kermit, after all, is no Komodo dragon. But reptiles are in as much if not more danger of disappearing from the planet, an article in the August 11 issue of the journal BioScience reports. Indeed, although a great deal of public attention has focused on dwindling populations and deformities in amphibians in recent years, this new paper warns that reptiles probably warrant even more concern.
The problem, lead author Whit Gibbons of the University of Georgia says, is multifaceted, but perhaps the most serious threat of extinction comes from habitat loss and degradation. For instance, often only part of a habitat falls under local conservation laws: whereas wetlands may be protected, the surrounding terrestrial regions, which semiaquatic reptiles rely on just as much, are frequently left open for destruction. Additional factors include the introduction of invasive species, evironmental pollution, climate change, disease and humans.
According to Gibbons and his colleagues, people are in fact endangering reptiles on many fronts. Cars run over the animals; human food wastes lure predators into fragile ecosystems; and commercial uses of reptiles are often not sustainable practices. The animals are frequently harvested for pets, food and use in folk medicines in such great numbers that the populations from which they come cannot recover. This is a particularly serious issue for those species that take many years to reach maturity.
It is difficult for herpetologists to evaluate just how dire the situation is at the moment because many reptile populations haven't been monitored rigorously--or at all--for long periods of time. Further complicating matters, reptiles often cover large amounts of territory and are by nature fairly clandestine creatures, so even drastic declines can be hard to notice. But it is definitely happening. "Current evidence suggests that these declines constitute a worldwide crises," Gibbons declares, and the best stance for conservation efforts is to "assume the worst" while scientists gather more data.