KANSAS CITY - The Kansas City Zoo has become a breeding ground for 19 endangered Wyoming toads.
The survival of the critically endangered species depends on the zoo's ability to breed the toads, which arrived at the zoo last week, while in captivity.
They're living in plastic cages in a sealed quarantine room, which is inside a locked building that is off-limits to the public. The Kansas City Zoo spent about $10,000 setting up its Wyoming toad quarantine room with high-tech air and water treatments. The 3-month-old toads in each cage came from the same egg mass.
The living conditions are nothing like the toads' native home in Wyoming.
Amphibians are in decline worldwide because of habitat loss and environmental degradation. The Wyoming toad is among the amphibian species endangered because of chytrid fungus.
"To me, it's not just about the Wyoming toad," said Sean Putney, the zoo's animal curator. "Amphibians are part of the food chain. They get eaten and they also eat insects as predators. Who knows which species might be a critical part of the food chain, and if you remove them, the whole food chain collapses."
The Wyoming toad became extinct in the wild in 1994, Putney said. Since then, more than 94,000 young toads and tadpoles have been released into four lakes in the Laramie Basin.
But the species still isn't safe.
Putney and a large group of scientists searched in Wyoming during the summer for toads that had been released back into the wild. He found two.
"It was the most exhilarating, depressing moment of my life," he said. "I had a creature in my hand, an endangered species, one that I was proud to be helping to save. But at the same time, we only counted 16 of them around this lake where there once was a very large population."
The Wyoming toads are one of several species in amphibian ark programs.
Hellbenders, a salamander from the southern Missouri Ozarks, are in a similar program at the St. Louis Zoo.
More species could follow if amphibians continue their general decline, Putney said.