Farewell to Frogs

by Michael Hofferber . Copyright © 1994. All rights reserved.

Most visitors to Yellowstone National Park expect to see elk grazing in its meadows, moose sauntering through its marshes, and buffalo crossing its high plateaus. Some even hope to catch a glimpse of the famous grizzly bear or an endangered grey wolf.

When Dr.Chuck Peterson of Idaho State University visits the park he goes looking for the Western Toad. Together with the graduate students employed to help him, Peterson also searches for Chorus Frogs, Spotted Frogs and Tiger Salamanders.

Since 1991, Peterson has been monitoring amphibians in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks as part of a world-wide effort to determine why so many species of frogs and toads and salamanders are in decline. Of the four species he studies, three appear to have steady populations, but the range and numbers of Western Toads is in serious decline.

"We have eight monitoring sites in the Yellowstone area. The toad used to be found in or near five of these sites, but is now found in only one," Peterson explained. "Forty years ago, the toad was very widespread. Other studies have shown similar declines occurring in Colorado and Eastern Wyoming where the toad is gone from more than 85 percent of its historic range."

Reports of crashing amphibian species are being heard from all over the world. The Golden Toad has disappeared in Costa Rica. The Goliath Frog is endangered in Cameroon.

The Mountain Yellow-Legged Frogs are in steep decline in the Sierra Nevadas. Australia has lost the Southern Day Frog and the Platypus Frog. Florida may soon lose its Flatwoods Salamander. And the Common Toad is no longer so common in many areas of England and Switzerland.

To find out why these crashes are occurring more than a thousand researchers in 40 regions of the world have been collaborating for the past four years on the Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force of the World Conservation Union. Herpetologists studying these declines, like Peterson in Yellowstone, have been sharing their results with each other through the task force in the hopes of finding answers.

Amphibians are especially sensitive to environmental contaminants. Their early development usually occurs in standing water where pollutants often collect and they respire through their moist skins, allowing toxins easy access to vital organs. In areas where the use of pesticides and herbicides is widespread it is not surprising to find amphibians in decline.

But if toads cannot survive in the wilderness of Yellowstone, where the air is virtually unpolluted and the water naturally pure, then they and many other species are truly in deep trouble.

Peterson's research on Western Toads in Yellowstone has already produced two important findings. First, these animals are poorly understood and an 80 percent population decline over the past 40 years could be part of their normal cycle. Secondly, human activities like the rerouting of a highway through the toad's habitat have had a significant impact on the population.

"The more we look at parks and other wild areas the more we begin to realize that they are not as pristine as they look," Peterson pointed out.

Wilderness boundaries are no protection against large-scale climate changes or atmospheric disturbances like the deterioration of the ozone layer.

Since amphibians' skins are highly susceptible to damaging ultraviolet light, a thinning of the Earth's protective ozone layer could lead to skin damage and breathing difficulties. Amphibians living at high elevations, or closest to the sun, would likely be the first to be affected and, indeed, many of the mountain species from Queensland to the Ukraine and the Sierra Nevadas are in decline.

No connection between the declines and the ozone depletion has been proven, but Peterson and others have hypothesized a connection. "I believe that it's true that montane populations are being affected by the rising UV levels," Peterson said.

The Declining Amphibian Populations Task Force has found many probable causes for the die-offs and a few smoking guns. Habitat destruction is the mass murderer of amphibian species, most of it man-made. Other culprits include environmental contaminants, the introduction of non-native predatory fish and mammals, and weather-related natural disasters.

"There is evidence of declines in all parts of the world," said Jim Vial, the former international coordinator of the task force. "But the declines are not uniform with any species in all locations."

A status report recently released by the task force found that at least 720 of the world's 4,500 known amphibian species are in some form of serious population decline. Some species are showing population dips that may prove to be part of the species' natural ecology while others are nearing almost certain extinction. In Ecuador, for example, eight amphibian species inhabiting the cloud forests and paramos of the high Andes are in serious decline -- four appear to be recently extinct and four more are faltering.

In Romania, only five of 20 amphibian species are not considered threatened by extinction and even they are declining. In Canada, a third of the 42 recognized amphibian species are declining. And in Kenya, amphibians are missing from Lake Mbaratumu, possibly because of heavy use by livestock and periodic draining.

In New England, more than half of the frogs, toads, salamanders and anurans are at risk. Four species have disappeared from the Parque Nacional Cusuco region of Honduras. Seven salamanders and one frog face extinction in Mexico.

Because no uniform method of identifying and classifying amphibian populations exists as yet, the task force's findings are unavoidably tentative. But a sense of urgency and concern is widespread among the researchers.

"Immediate measures need to be taken to conserve biodiversity in ecosystems," reads the status report. "If world-wide pollution and habitat destruction continue at present rates it will not be long before amphibian declines are the least of our concerns."

The report calls for ecological studies on global environmental factors such as shifts in acidification, climate, and UV radiation. It also recommends an initiative focused on the lethal and sub-lethal effects of herbicides and insecticides on amphibians.

"It's going to take some long-term study to accomplish all of this," said Vial, the former coordinator of the task force who is now pursuing ecological research in southern Arizona..