Imagine if found that a chemical in our food weakened our resistance to malaria and, when it entered the sewers after we washed it off our dishes, it actually caused mosquitoes to double their egg laying.  We’d call it a perfect storm.

That’s essentially the same situation facing amphibians because of atrazine, as reported in a Scientific American story about Northern Leopard Frogs. According to the story, “the culprit appears to be the common herbicide acting as a double-edged sword: It suppresses the frogs’ immune systems while boosting the population of snails that play host to parasitic worm larvae, the latter of which infect the weakened leopard frogs.”

Another way to explain it, according to the Christian Science Monitor, it this:

Atrazine reduced phytoplankton in the water, making more food and light available for algae. It also appears to speed snail reproduction. The snails, often carrying larvae of parasites harmful to frogs, feed on the increased amounts of algae. Then frogs feast on the snails. In addition, the atrazine deadens the frogs’ immune systems, leaving them less capable of countering the parasites.

Nice to see Joe Mendelson of Zoo Atlanta quoted in the coverage.



The effects of herbicide and fertilizer runoff on amphibians in rural areas has been reported before. We’re talking about frogs that develop extra limbs and other deformities. And of course, we’re talking about frogs dying. But a University of Pittsburgh study, funded by the National Science Foundation, shows that the active ingredient in popular pesticides like some Scotts Ortho products — it’s called malathion — is preventing tadpoles from maturing because it wreaks havoc with the food chain they need to grow. Here’s excerpt from Science Centric Web site which pulls its information from the Oct. 1 issue of Ecological Applications:

Gradual amounts of malathion that were too small to directly kill developing leopard frog tadpoles instead sparked a biological chain of events that deprived them of their primary food source. As a result, nearly half the tadpoles in the experiment did not reach maturity and would have died in nature.

“The chain of events caused by malathion deprived a large fraction of the leopard frog tadpoles of the nutrients they needed to metamorphose into adult frogs,’ said study author Rick Relyea, an associate professor of biological sciences in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences. “Repeated applications sustained that disruption of the tadpoles’ food supply. So, even concentrations that cannot directly kill tadpoles can indirectly kill them in large numbers.”

Here’s a thoughtful article on the issue from 2005: read here.


Add a ravenous little fish to the “gang” that is wiping out amphibian populations. The other members of the gang are chytrd fungus, habitat loss, pollution, and global warming. Read about the tadpole gulping mosquitofish in this story from San Mateo County Times. Excerpt:

The scrappy little mosquitofish, the pit bull of ichthyology and the region’s leading defense against West Nile virus, is a savior to insect-infested waters.

Unless you’re a frog.

Yes, the fish dines on larval mosquitoes, as intended. But scientists have learned it also has an appetite for the tadpoles of frogs, toads and other amphibians — including the threatened red-legged frog and the endangered Santa Cruz long-toed salamander.

I came across a very long, very detailed and well written blog post from a Canadian (blogger name is gullyfourmyle) who contends amphibians are declining in large measure because of airborne toxins from our use of oil — and that, like a canary in a coal mine, they are warning humans to stop polluting. I’ve pasted the part about the frogs below, but the whole post can be found here.  


Frogs and people have a lot in common. Our mitochondria, the stuff that binds our cells together, is exactly the same. In fact every living thing on the planet has the same mitochondria. What that means to the average guy on the street without going into a long list of building blocks we share with our frog relatives, is that what affects frogs also affects us in much the same way. Essentially if something in the environment is killing them, you can rest assured we are at exactly the same risk, it may just take longer:

The world’s frogs, newts and toads are dying. They are being over-harvested for food, their homes are being destroyed, and most worryingly, entire species are disappearing for no apparent reason. That is the conclusion of more than 500 herpetologists around the world, reported in Science today. Stuart S., et al. Science, published online 10.1126/science.1103538 (2004).

“Time and again, scientists have visited woods filled with frog song just 3 or 4 years earlier, only to find them frogless. Now, researchers have finally caught a killer in the act–a new fungus that has turned up in 120 frogs and toads of 12 species in Australia and seven species in Panama during mass die-offs in relatively pristine areas. Fourteen scientists from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada will describe the fungus–from the phylum Chytridiomycota” – in the 21 July Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Fungus May Drive Frog Genocide, Jocelyn Kaiser, WILDLIFE BIOLOGY, 3 July 1998

“There is the canary in the coalmine argument,” says Stuart. “Because of their sensitivity, amphibians are the first species we would expect to show adverse reactions to climate change and new emerging diseases.” Amphibians face a bleak future, Emma Marris,, October, 14, 2004

In 1993, a then unknown biologist by the name of Karen Lips who became internationally famous when her research into new species of amphibians found in Panama was made public. Her research was in a hitherto unexplored mountainous region of Panama where she was discovering new species of amphibians virtually one after the other. It was like finding her own Galapagos Islands. It was a different story when she returned to continue her research in 1997:
…imagine Karen’s shock when she returned to her research site in western Panama and discovered dead and dying frogs everywhere: “I’d been going to Fortuna, Panama, since 1993. In 1997, I returned to find all these dead frogs. They looked fine, like they went to sleep and didn’t wake up.” Frogs are food to so many snakes and birds, a herpetologist could spend many seasons in some places without seeing a dead frog lying on the ground.” Kim Y. Masibay, Science World, March 11, 2002

What ties these events together is air. Nothing associated with planet earth permeates our environment as completely as air and air is a vehicle for the transportation of material that can mix or float along and become one with what we consider our atmosphere. Airplanes take great advantage of the density of air, lift and speed to fly. The waste products of the energy consumed to make this happen are exhaust emissions. If you remove the passenger and cargo component of the aviation experience and equate what an airplane does as a cordless paint-gun, you have in our aviation system, a most complete mechanism for spraying a life dissolving chemical wash over the entire globe.

Frogs have three areas of their bodies that can aid in gas exchange: skin, lungs, and the thin membranes lining the mouth and pharynx. Frogs can breathe through their skin while they are in wet places. They can also exchange gases between their blood vessels and with the outer environment. Unlike us they have mucus glands in their external skin tissue, they keep the skin moist. We have those same mucous glands but they line our nose and respiratory tract rather than our outer skin. Sweat glands are evolved mucous glands for land-lubbers. Frog skin absorbs a lot of dissolved oxygen from the ambient atmosphere.

The second respiratory surface is the thin membranes lining the mouth and pharynx. Our membranes exchange gases too, but not to the degree that those of frogs do.

The lungs are third respiratory surface, thin, elastic and lightweight, they are organs that inflate and deflate rhythmically, while the frog is at rest. Adult frogs have poorly developed lungs, due to their mostly motionless existence as they wait patiently for the next unsuspecting bug.

Now just imagine adding crude oil-derived solvents to the air the frogs must breathe. Solvents that turn their protective mucous to an acidic solution which then evaporates more quickly than pure water. You have a cooling and immobilizing effect that would tend to freeze the frog in place and strip it of its immune system (the mucous) at the same time. Since frogs live in environments that are thick with fungal spores, it is no stretch of the imagination to figure out what happens next is it?

From London Daily Mail:

On the toad to ruin: Thousands of tiny amphibians dice with death to flee polluted river

Residents in China’s Jiangsu Province were hopping mad when thousands of little toads took to the streets. 

So for Earth Day, how can our amphibian friends help teachers and home school parents instill the right lessons in our children? Here are some good resources:

National Geographic offers a “Frog Alert! Frog Alert!” lesson plan online. It’s designed for kindergarten through second grade, and it focuses on the effects of water pollution.

Go to a nearby stream and clean up a small section by removing garbage. (But be safe.) Here’s a thought providing activity that the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. did this weekend. As you do the cleanup, you can explain what pollution in our waterways does to amphibians.

Here’s a slew of kid-friendly PowerPoint presentations, courtesy of

There’s a kid-friendly lesson on how to draw a frog here.

And, even a lesson plan on tadpole-to-frog developmental stages using clay and Crayola markers.

Finally, spend some time on the Amphibian Ark Web site to explain the dangers facing amphibians, and have the child sign the online petition.

And, come back later this month for more ideas on how your child can help save the frog. Something big is being planned.

“Death is not an acceptable exit strategy.”  

I overheard this on a US Airways flight from Charlotte to St. Louis tonight:

The line was uttered by one insurance executive to another, in the row right behind me. The more knowledgeable of the two was explaining that when a “client” (that’s you or me) takes out a loan on his life insurance, he must pay off the loan within seven years. This particular insurance company won’t allow the loan term to be stretched any longer; otherwise, the odds increase that the person will die before the debt is fully paid. That would mean that the balance of the loan would have to be paid from the life insurance policy’s death benefit. And this insurance company doesn’t want that to happen. Hence, the “exit strategy” of paying the debt after one dies is “unacceptable.”

Well, thank you, insurance executive. You inspired an Earth Day post for the frogs. 

If death is not an acceptable exit strategy in the world of life insurance loans, then extinction is an unacceptable exit strategy for the 2,000-plus species of frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, and caecilians that are projected to disappear in our lifetime. If unchecked, this will be the most significant loss of animal life since the disappearance of the dinosaurs.

It would be easy to follow the example of the actuarians and simply present these frogs with a contract stipulating that they have to fix their problem in seven years. But frogs wouldn’t understand all the legal jargon. And, anyway, they really can’t be expected to get themselves out of the pickle jar we’ve put them in.

The truth is, we’re the ones who have taken out a massive loan. By living the way we live, we’ve been borrowing against the future sustainability of the planet and the creatures that live on it. And as frogs are regarded as the canaries in the coal mine for our planet’s health, their looming mass exodus has given us our clearest warning yet that we have to pay down our loan, and quickly.

So, on this Earth Day, think about signing a seven-year contract with yourself — and for the frogs — to fix all that you can.

A huge part of the debt to amphibians could be paid off in that timeframe. There is a no-nonsense plan, called Amphibian Ark, that will place the 500 most threatened species into the “protective custody” of zoos and other conservation organizations. Species are disappearing as you are reading this.

The Amphibian Ark plan will put these species into protective “arks” — i.e., biosecure containers that will:

  1. protect endangered species from environmental threats that include the frog-killing chytrid fungus, pollution, loss of habitat, and global warming

  2. help these “last frogs standing” to breed for their eventual return to the wild

  3. allow scientists to find a cure for chytrid through research conducted in the containers

  4. buy time for other conservation efforts to restore amphibian habitat around the world — so there’s a home to return to

You can sign the contract, in a way, by signing this online petition to protect amphibians. Then, stay tuned, because right after Earth Day we’re going to come back to you with a list of things you can do to save the frogs. If everybody would pick just one thing to do, it would add up to a lot. It would be like paying extra against the principal on the loan we’ve taken out.

Say it over and over to yourself: Extinction is not an acceptable exit strategy. Thanks to amphibians, we have a real opportunity to start paying off our debt. Let’s hop to it.

And, if those insurance executives are reading this, I hope I haven’t offended you. I meant no harm. In fact, we could use your talents to raise the $50-$60 million needed to complete the Amphibian Ark physical plan. Maybe you could come up with a seven-year strategy for that. 🙂