In Atlanta, an expanded botanical mission
The Atlanta Botanical Garden is among the public gardens working to ensure the survival of threatened and endangered plants.
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Other plants will stay at the garden as part of a living collection, ensuring that, for example, certain species of pitcher plants will always exist even if insects or condos overwhelm them in the wild.Skip to next paragraph
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“We’re seeing the case that even plants we might consider relatively common today may be tomorrow faced with a new, introduced insect or disease that moves in, or climate change that poses a threat that we wouldn’t necessarily have been prepared for,” said Pamela Allenstein, the manager of the North American Plant Collections Consortium at the American Public Gardens Association.
About three dozen botanical gardens and arboretums across the county have joined the program to catalog their living plant collections and share responsibility for ensuring the existence of individual species into an uncertain future.
In Atlanta, Cruse-Sanders’s fieldwork with the torreya and Matthews’s work with the dancing lady orchid are now considered as crucial to the garden’s mission as maintaining its public conservatory.
“Life, we’re finding, is all connected,” Ms. Allenstein says of the need to save individual plants. “The web is inextricably woven, and once we start pulling at individual threads, then they start becoming unraveled, and we’re discovering that it’s connected to more things than we’ve really imagined there might be.”
Breeding endangered frogs among the plants
At the Atlanta Botanical Garden, conservation work extends beyond plants to amphibians, although most visitors never see the garden’s collection of marsupial frogs, glass frogs, monkey frogs with opposable thumbs, and rare frogs from Chile and Panama.
About 15 endangered species are breeding in captivity in a biosecure “pod,” a repurposed shipping container located on a back lot of the garden’s grounds.
The frogs are facing many of the same threats as the rare plants the garden is trying to save, including habitat destruction and new diseases. But the world’s amphibians are dying off at a particularly alarmingly rate.
“There were over 6,000 living or extant species of amphibians, and we could well lose half of those in the next 30 years if we’re not careful,” says Danté Fenolio, the garden’s amphibian conservation scientist.
The garden originally installed a display of charismatic poison dart frogs to lure visitors into taking a greater interest in their natural surroundings. But amphibians have since become a major – although often unknown to the public – element of the conservation work here. Dr. Fenolio believes that Atlanta is the only botanical garden in the world with such an amphibian focus.
Ironically, frogs today are dying because of the very evolutionary feature that once allowed them to move onto land as amphibious fish. Amphibians both breathe and take in water through their skin – but that also means their versatile, moist skin is particularly susceptible to the bacteria and fungi that are now invading their natural habitats.
“Most folks don’t know that amphibians are in trouble, and I know that a lot of people wouldn’t outwardly tend to care,” Fenolio says. “But there are reasons that everybody should care.”
Most notably, the chemicals frogs secrete through their skin to combat such bacteria have offered leads in developing antibiotics for humans.
“We’re losing a huge, huge pharmaceutical storehouse for humanity,” Fenolio says. “Although I would propose that there are other reasons far more important for keeping amphibians around.”