Curator Darrel Frost Recognized for Amphibian Database main content.

Curator Darrel Frost Recognized for Amphibian Database

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Late last year, Curator Darrel Frost received the 2013 Sabin Award for Amphibian Conservation in recognition of his decades-long work in developing and managing the Amphibian Species of the World, a comprehensive online database and classification system that has become an important resource for biologists, including conservation biologists, and wildlife regulators worldwide. 

Dr. Frost is featured today in a story in The New York Times that highlights his career and his work on the amphibian catalog. (He also explains why his two giant tortoises, Hermes and Mud, who for years have lived in a special enclosure next to his office at the Museum, can have a calming effect.)  

The Amphibian Species of the World database, which was cited with the Sabin Award as perhaps “the most significant single work in the history of amphibian biology,” currently lists all scientific and English names, and their synonyms (more than 50 in some cases), for more than 7,000 amphibian species, of which 6,200 are frogs. It also includes links to the papers in which each name was introduced and to literature that has allowed scientists to construct the amphibian tree of life, and receives more than 3,000 page views daily. 

“Darrel has succeeded in his ambitious goal to knit together the world’s scientific community and put together the most meticulous catalog of amphibians, winning the utmost respect of the amphibian conservation community,” said Andrew Sabin of the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation, who presented Dr. Frost with the award at a ceremony in Manhattan last November. 

Dr. Frost was first tapped to compile and edit an amphibian database in late 1980, when he was a doctoral student at the University of Kansas. The database was initiated to help implement the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement between participating governments to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. At the time, the most recent catalog of amphibians had been published in 1882 and included 800 species of frogs; more than 2,500 frog species had been discovered in the century since its completion.

Starting in earnest in June 1981, Frost worked with a team of 55 international experts, under the direction of a steering committee of the World Congress of Herpetology, to publish the first edition of Amphibian Species of the World in 1985. Two years later, the catalog was adopted by CITES as the official classification used in regulation of amphibian species. After becoming a curator at the Museum in 1990, Frost took on full stewardship of the catalog, eventually making it widely accessible by creating an online database.

“Reliable taxonomic information is essential for amphibian conservation, and for three decades Amphibian Species of the World has been the primary reference for amphibian taxonomy,” the award citation notes. “By providing a centralized source of taxonomic and geographic information that is otherwise scattered across a vast literature, ASW facilitates and enables research in systematics and provides easy access to this information for workers in fields like conservation biology and ecology…a remarkable contribution from a truly remarkable individual.”

The need for such a resource is more important than ever. While numbers are complicated by the fact that newly discovered species are being named all the time, the current best estimate by conservation scientists is that more than 30 percent of known amphibian species that have been assessed for extinction risk are threatened. According to July 2013 figures from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List Index, that assessment includes 519 species that are critically endangered, some of them possibly extinct, 773 that are endangered, and 656, vulnerable.

“It’s personal to me,” says Frost, “Frogs I grew up with along the Arizona-Mexico border are gone, so I know that feeling of loss. I have done my best over the last 30 years to help people out who are in the field of amphibian conservation. It’s good to have friends and to be appreciated.”

The Sabin Award for Conservation is jointly conferred by the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation, Global Wildlife Conservation, and the Amphibian Conservation Alliance and was presented to Dr. Frost on November 13 at a ceremony in Manhattan.