TODAY | May 28, 2012
>>> the worldwide emergency you may have never heard of, because it involves frogs . nbc's tom costello is at the smithsonian national zoo in washington with more. tom, good morning.
>> hi, savannah, good morning. you know, we often think of frogs as being rear creepy and yucky but they have a very important place in the global ecosystem. they're a medical benefit to humans. and now scientists are involved in an all-out raise to save frogs from extinction. he may not know it, but frog number 9 is one very lucky frog. but to understand why, you have to journey here. to the jungles of panama. for brian 's lifelong love affair with frogs has turned into a life-saving mission. these spectacularly colored creatures are dying in record numbers, victims of a fungus that's spreading unchecked across the globe. brian is leading the smithsonian national zoo 's effort to save them.
>> this is the place where a frog is must vulnerable to the infection.
>> reporter: already the disease has taken a huge toll.
>> so you just saw it sitting there?
>> reporter: on the ground in panama, too many dead frogs to count. and the panamanian golden frog , panama's national animal , is now extinct in the wild . so to save these little creatures , brian and his team have built 21st century noah 's arks.
>> this is a noah 's ark for the pain mainian golden frog .
>> reporter: fungus free containers in the jungles of panama.
>> this is from frogs matter.
>> reporter: and research centers in the u.s., free of the disease, while scientists search for a cure. just since 1980 , 125 species of amphibians have gone extinct. but experts think the real number could be far higher. and 40% of known frog populations are already in danger.
>> think of the fungal disease like athlete's foot. except that it could kill whales, and rats, and cats, and dogs and you coulds.
>> reporter: frogs matter, he says, because they occupy the middle of the food chain . and we're only just beginning to learn of the benefits to humans. like the chemicals they produce that can help with high blood pressure , diabetic ulcers, even blocking hiv transmission.
>> i'm not going to hurt you.
>> reporter: now researchers are coating the frogs with bacteria that seem to shield them from the fungus. the question, could it save the world 's frogs from cytrich?
>> so far what we've been doing is swabbing them every two weeks to see if the bacteria persists on the skin.
>> reporter: the clock is ticking. the frogs are dying in record numbers worldwide. but if this works, scientists hope to eventually release them back into the wild .
>> we're really taking a page out of the biblical story of noah , and we are building very literal arks to protect these species. from extinction.
>> that fungus is already spreading very quickly among the frogs here in north america . but there is no sign so far that the fungus is jumping to other animals or to humans. but, savannah, they are keeping a very close eye for any signs of that. back to you.
>> all right, tom costello in washington. thanks.