Scientific Conference On Amphibian Decline Taking Place On Internet

December 13, 1996

AIKEN, S.C. -- In what organizers believe is the first of its kind, researchers studying amphibian declines are interacting in a three-month-long scientific conference being held exclusively on the World Wide Web.

Two researchers at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory are taking part in this worldwide conference. Dr. Philip Dixon, an ecostatistician, and Dr. Joseph Pechmann, a population ecologist, have submitted their paper titled "Testing for No Trend" to the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program Third Annual Meeting, which is being held in cyberspace.

In the wake of widespread reports that many amphibian populations across North America are declining, scientists from the United States and Canada have submitted 40 scientific papers, grouped in eight conference rooms, each with a common theme.

The conference is sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey Biological Resources Division at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. Sam Droege is directing the conference, which to his knowledge is the first scientific conference to be held totally on the World Wide Web, he said.

Scientific papers have been published on the Internet before and chat rooms on scientific subjects -- including amphibians -- are common, but Mr. Droege believes researchers have never held a symposium of this magnitude in cyberspace before, he said.

"It is going great," Mr. Droege said starting into the third week of the three-month long experiment.

A traveler to the conference will find the home page, complete with a photo of a brown and green salamander, at From there, the visitor can get basic meeting information, find out what is new, register as a participant, join a meeting in progress and look at some bulletin boards. Visitors can also read any of the 50 papers and, if they become registered guests, they can write comments on a paper. Organizers will forward those comments to the papers' authors.

The conference even has a virtual parody on field trips and local entertainment found at most conferences. There are pages on: tips on frog fishing, amphibian poetry, frog music and exotic dancers, which consist of animated green tree frogs jumping off the page.

The conference format has several advantages, Mr. Droege said. Because the conference costs nothing to attend and because of its wide accessibility, it is expected to be the largest scientific meeting on amphibians in the history of the world, he said. It is especially popular with federal government researchers because travel budgets have been severely limited in recent years, he said.

Ecology Lab researchers are fairly pleased with the arrangement so far, they said.

"In cyberspace, attendees can scan through the papers they are interested in," Dr. Pechmann said. "In a conventional convention, it is rude to get up and leave during the middle of a person's speech, and you can't always talk to them after their presentation. But you can do both at this conference."

Dr. Dixon said: "I would still rather meet with people in person. But perhaps this will evolve as an intermediate level between publishing in a journal with its time lags and the expense and inconvenience of attending a conference. The one great advantage is that there are a lot of people without much travel money who could not come to such a meeting otherwise."

Drs. Dixon and Pechmann present new statistical methods to evaluate whether population sizes are relatively constant. Accepted methods work well to prove that populations are increasing or declining, but they are inconclusive to prove there is no change. The researchers' paper develops the quantitative techniques to distinguish between populations with relatively constant population sizes and populations that fluctuate too much to give a reliable estimate of trend, Dr. Dixon said.

In their studies, Drs. Dixon and Pechmann examined data on tiger salamanders and mole salamanders at Rainbow Bay on the U.S. Department of Energy's 310-square-mile Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C., and seal salamanders and mountain dusky salamanders at the Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory in North Carolina. Using their system of analysis, the researchers were able to show that one population was increasing over the past two decades, while another was decreasing. More importantly, they can prove the much more difficult hypotheses that a third species' population is holding at steady levels, while the data on the fourth species is insufficient.

"To be able to know that the data you have is insufficient to make conclusions is very important," Dr. Dixon said.

How serious, how permanent and what is causing a worldwide amphibian decline are all unanswered questions, Dr. Pechmann said. "Recent reports of widespread declines and disappearances of amphibian populations are difficult to evaluate and interpret. There is no doubt that human activities, especially habitat destruction, have reduced or eliminated countless amphibian populations around the world.

"There have, however, been puzzling reports of declines and disappearances during the last quarter century that cannot be explained by human impacts in any obvious way," the researchers write in their paper.
# 258

To conduct interviews, you may contact one of the public information contacts listed above, or contact the researchers directly.
1. Dr. Philip Dixon, Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, 803-725-7265, or email:
2. Dr. Joe Pechmann, Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, 803-725-5631, or email:
3. Mr. Sam Droege, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., 301-497-5840, or email:

DOE/Savannah River Ecology Laboratory

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