TODAY   |  May 28, 2012

'Noah's Ark' built to save frogs in peril

As a deadly disease wreaks havoc on wild frog populations across the world, scientists are doing everything they can to ensure the amphibians keep their very important place in the global ecosystem, including creating a modern day "Noah's Ark." NBC’s Tom Costello reports.

Share This:

This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> 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.