David Green, then a postdoctoral fellow, to a site in the nearby Sierra Nevada that Wake knew to be abundant in Rana muscosa, a mottled yellow and brown frog Green was studying because of its unusually broken distribution patterns. But when Green reached the designated location, he couldn’t find a single specimen.
Puzzled by Green’s account, Wake decided to accompany him to the site, assuming he had simply missed it the first time. But when they arrived, Wake, too, was surprised to find that all the adults had disappeared and only a couple of tadpoles remained.
Wake and his other students soon began to notice similar disappearances at other popular frog localities in central and northern California. Wake wondered if he had stumbled upon a bigger puzzle: Was this decline in amphibian populations occurring only in California, or was it part of some larger pattern?
By coincidence, the First World Congress of Herpetology was scheduled to take place later that year in Canterbury, England. So Wake seized the opportunity to discuss his disturbing observations with other herpetologists. What he discovered, to his dismay, was that many of the attendees had witnessed the same phenomenon in scattered areas around the globe.
Wake took their reports and his own to the next meeting of the National Academy of Sciences Board of Biology, to which he belonged, and convinced its members to assemble a group of leading international amphibian experts to evaluate the evidence. The group, which convened in February 1990 in Irvine, Calif., quickly concluded that although most of the evidence for amphibian declines was anecdotal, the sheer number of widely dispersed informal reports indicated that the situation could be an environmental emergency, and that an international working group should conduct a full scientific investigation.
By the end of the year, after approaching several potential sponsors, Wake created the Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force (DAPTF) under the aegis of the Species Survival Commission of the World Conservation Union, an international organization comprising more than 500 environmental groups including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. National Park Service. Based at the Open University in Milton Keynes, England, the task force recruited more than 1,200 scientists to determine whether declining amphibian populations will simply rebound as part of some normal cycle or whether they truly are disappearing from the face of the earth.