Listening to the Frogs

Volunteers tune in to frog talk through the Frogwatch USA program

08-01-2003 // Rene Ebersole

JUST AFTER SUNSET on San Francisco Bay, a steady stream of cars is whizzing down Paradise Drive as two pony-tailed girls, 10-year-old Malla Keefe and 13-year-old Nicole Gong, creep along the edge of the road in the dark. Every few seconds they--and the group of adults who accompany them--pause to listen for the distinct call of the animals that live here in a roadside ditch. When they finally hear the call, even the adults smile and giggle. It is the loud, deep RiBBit of a Pacific treefrog, followed quickly by another, slightly higher RiBbit. "I hear two," whispers wide-eyed Malla, making a peace sign with her fingers.

This is Malla's first "frogwatch." From December through June, when male frogs advertise for mates in this part of the country, members of her Girl Scout troop regularly visit the foot of Ring Mountain, the only place on the planet where Tiburon Mariposa lilies bloom, to participate in a nationwide program called Frogwatch USA™.

Frogwatch USA is a frog and toad monitoring program coordinated by the National Wildlife Federation and the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Modeled after the 37-year-old North American breeding bird survey and a similar frog and toad count--simply called Frogwatch--in Canada, Frogwatch USA currently has an estimated 1,800 citizen volunteers patrolling more than 2,200 registered wetland sites.

Lorri Gong, Nicole's mom and the leader of Girl Scout Troop 751, read about Frogwatch USA in a magazine two years ago and thought it would be a good project for her troop, as well as a great way to stay abreast of an important environmental issue. "I know a lot of frogs are getting deformities, and I wonder if the frogs in our area are healthy or deformed," says the 41-year old mother of two, adding that she is worried about what that could mean for the rest of us. Because of their porous skin and dependence on clean water, "the frogs and other amphibians feel the effects of what we do to our environment first."

Gong is right in line with the thinking of those who spawned the idea for Frogwatch USA five years ago. At the time, says one of the program's creators Sam Droege, a USGS biologist and avid frogwatcher, "there was a lot of concern about declining frog populations, driven in part by a disturbing discovery in 1995."

That year, eight middle school children collecting leopard frogs from a pond in Henderson, Minnesota, for a study on wetland ecology caught nearly a dozen frogs with gruesome deformities. Many had extra hind limbs twisted in strange contortions. Others had a limb sprouting from their stomach. Some lacked an eyeball.

Since then, deformities have been reported in more than 60 amphibian species in 46 states and on four continents. Though several possible culprits--ultraviolet radiation, pollution, parasites--have emerged, the root of the deformities is still largely an unsolved mystery because, until recently, long-term frog and toad population data have never been collected from large geographic regions.

Now, from sea to shining sea, troops of Frogwatch USA volunteers regularly venture out into the darkness of their backyards, parks and public spaces to listen with fine-tuned ears for the croaks, peeps and grunts of their amphibian neighbors. "It's really easy," says Lorri Gong, perched along the roadside, her shoulder-length silvery hair blowing in the cool evening air. "Once a week, I bring the girls here to listen for the frogs and fill out the data sheets. Then I enter the data on the [Frogwatch USA] web site."

The program was created so that almost anyone can get involved, explains NWF Frogwatch USA Coordinator Amy Goodstine, who has organized and promoted the program since USGS partnered with NWF last year. "You don't have to be a frog expert," she adds. "You only need to learn the calls of the frogs and toads that live in your area." In most regions, that means a volunteer might need to become acquainted with fewer than a dozen calls that can be memorized by listening to tapes, CDs or sound files downloaded from the Internet.

So far, says Droege, the program has yielded insights into how to best manage the data pouring in from all over the country, and the data are beginning to establish a baseline for frog and toad populations. "That means forevermore we can look at what frogs were on these sites and if they still exist. After ten years or so, we'll be able to look at changes and patterns of changes all across North America."

The program has other, less scientific benefits as well. It "engages people directly in nature," Droege explains, and as a result, "many frogwatchers get very attached to their sites, becoming advocates and activists for protecting them."

Best of all, it opens people's eyes to their local environment. "I never knew frogs lived around here," says 12-year-old Girl Scout Vanessa Martini during an afternoon hike on Ring Mountain. "I thought they lived where there aren't as many cars."

That common misconception, combined with the human health and environmental consequences of deteriorating wetlands, is the reason Lorri Gong feels so strongly about keeping her troop involved with the program--and recruiting others to join in. "We need to get the word out about frogwatch," she says. "This is a measure of the health of our country."

Associate Editor Rene Ebersole plans to start a frogwatch site of her own near her home on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. For more information about Frogwatch USA, visit www.nwf.org/keepthewildalive/frogwatch.

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