At dusk in central Massachusetts, the spring air is filled with a vibrant chorus. The croking of wood frogs gives way to the American toad's delicate, elongated trill. Spring peepers are so abundant that their chorus sounds like jingling bells. Yet this beautiful springtime treat could become a thing of the past. Frogs and toads are rapidly disappearing around the world because of a deadly combination of habitat destruction, pollution, the effects of climate change and the lethal chytrid fungus, which is spreading rapidly through frog populations.
Like the canary once was used to test for toxic gas in a mineshaft, frogs are considered reliable bioindicators. Scientists use them to assess the health of an ecosystem. Frogs breathe through their lungs as we do, but they also have semipermeable skin, which draws air directly into their bodies, bypassing the protective barriers a nose, mouth, and lungs provide. In this way, frogs are directly exposed to everything in their immediate environment, both natural and manmade products like pesticides, hormones, and fertilizer. This makes them particularly sensitive to changes in their environment.
Over the last 15 years, scientists have been monitoring a massive decline in amphibian populations, as well as phenomena like hormone disruption and genetic mutations. As an indicator of greater ecosystem health, these widespread problems are deeply troubling.
The more data scientists have about frog populations worldwide, however, the better equipped they are to act quickly when a problem presents itself. To this effect, the Internet can act as a bridge between the scientific community and the general public. We can directly support the effort to save frogs and toads and be the vanguard to any threat to our own environment. Frogwatch USA first launched a monitoring project in 2005 to encourage people to send their observations to a national database, and it is still going strong. Anyone with 15 minutes to spare twice a week can register a site where there is an amphibian population, even their own garden, and enter their findings at http://www.nwf.org/frogwatchUSA.
The protocol for frogwatching is simple and is clearly explained on the Web site, along with tips for success. It's a great way to give children hands-on experience of collecting scientific data, as well as empowering them to take action. You can access photographs of the varieties of frogs and toads that you can expect to find, and each picture is accompanied by an audio file of their calls. There are also suggestions for further reading and links to other helpful Web sites. It's important to maintain a consistent presence; therefore, Frogwatch recommends brief visits, several days apart, to avoid observer burnout, something that can happen very quickly with children.
"Save the Frogs" is another child-friendly site that helps to inspire stewardship. It was created by a worldwide group of herpetologists and is filled with information about frog and toad species.
The scientists tour the USA, giving presentations and encouraging the public to take action by reducing pesticide use, refraining from collecting frogspawn and tadpoles from the wild, and driving carefully on wet nights to avoid crushing amphibians that are also using the roads. To promote awareness of the crisis, Save the Frogs has launched art and poetry contests that run until the end of July. The winner will receive a cash prize as well as frog-related paraphernalia. Entries should be submitted directly to www.savethefrogs.com.
These sites provide a fun opportunity for everyone to try out being a field researcher, an artist and a poet. Better still, the information you provide may be the key to preserving that springtime serenade for future generations to enjoy.