Bombina

Even though my Ph.D. explores wider areas of conservation biology, I was born and remain a batrachologist (a herpetologist who only likes amphibians). I have studied various species in Italy and Australia and remain open to any research topic, but my deepest passion still lies with the Apennine yellow-bellied toad, Bombina pachypus. This species is endemic to peninsular Italy and has undergone a severe (>50%) decline over the last thirty years which was enough to warrant a listing as “Endangered” in the IUCN Red List – but we still aren’t sure why that’s happening!

A toad showing its colors to deter predators, signalling the toxicity of its skin (unkenreflex)

Some have claimed chytrid was the cause, but in a recent thorough analysis of populations in northern Italy I have found no sign of infection (paper coming soon!). Climate change might be a culprit, but no evidence yet – stay tuned for more though. The most likely cause is probably habitat loss, however, as for the majority of endangered species worldwide. While planitial amphibians are hit by agricultural and urban development, however, it might well be that the Apennine toad suffers from quite the opposite. Since the 1960s, a broad population shift has occurred throughout Europe, with hilly and mountainous areas, previously cultivated, being increasingly abandoned. In peninsular Italy, this has meant a large-scale return to forests, with the disappearance of that mosaic of terraces, small fields, hedgerows which had shaped the landscape for centuries (you can catch a glimpse of it in the blog’s header).

In a recent paper, we have suggested that agricultural ponds might have been the key for the spread of the yellow-bellied toad, as they provided good habitat for tadpoles. Farmers cleaned their ponds thoroughly and thus removed plants, good for predators (dragonflies like tadpoles) and shade (tadpoles like sunlight). In fact, at those sites where these conditions exist naturally, by flooding or regular desiccation, decent populations still persist. To gain a better understanding of the dynamics, we should really have a look at the genetics of the species and the link to land use change. If you are interested in a collaboration, or even better wish to fund the genetic analyses, please do get in touch!

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