How You Can Help Protect Endangered Frogs

Photo by Rachel Gauza
In addition to its unusual appearance, the easter spadefoot will remain underground for most of the year, until very heavy, soaking rains prompt it to emerge and breed.

Frogs are in trouble. Scientists say that about a third of the amphibian species in the world are currently in danger of extinction.

But wait: This isn't one of those depressing stories about an endangered animal where there's nothing you can do about it. Join FrogWatch USA and you can help scientists collect data about frog species and their numbers. You can do it even if you live in a big city, and kids can participate too.

What's happening to frogs and why are average people helping out? "In about the eighties or so, we started finding that species that used to be observed in areas that seemed like pristine habitats were just disappearing," says Rachel Gauza, FrogWatch USA national coordinator at the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

The decline seemed to be linked to an emerging disease called chytrid fungus or BD (an abbreviation for its species name), as well as other factors. "In the U.S. we're probably seeing a multitude of different things — changes in habitat, changes in water quality," says Gauza. "Amphibians being both aquatic and terrestrial, they're getting hit from all angles."

The problem was so widespread that researchers realized they'd need a lot of data to understand its scope — and that there weren't enough scientists to go around. That's why the FrogWatch program was started. "It was recognized that having lots of different people out there collecting data... would really make a difference," Gauza says.

What Does a Frog Watcher Do?

FrogWatch USA volunteers commit to monitoring a frog breeding site for three-minute sessions throughout the breeding season, from February through August. Despite the program's name, volunteers aren't watching, they're listening. They're trained to identify different species by the sound of their calls and record the intensity of calling to give an idea of the numbers of frogs.

Why not count actual frogs? One reason is that it's often a lot easier to hear them than to see them.

"Some of our smallest species can put out some really impressive calls," says Gauza. "One of the most highly reported species on the East Coast is the spring peeper. They're so little they could sit on a quarter, but they put out this really high-pitched loud peep and they're in these large aggregations — it can be deafening."

Photo by Rachel Gauza
Adult spring peepers can comfortably sit on a quarter, while metamorphs are no larger than a housefly. Photos from Maryland.

These tiny frogs are usually tucked down into vegetation, and there are a lot of them. "If you were going to count all of those, you'd have a tough time of it," she says. "It's not like a songbird on a branch."

Another reason is that when you listen, you don't have to actually enter the habitat, says Gauza: "It's nice because it's not invasive. You can collect the data without disturbing things." There's no risk of interfering in the breeding process or spreading disease, which is especially important because one of the strains of the chytrid disease is thought to have originally been introduced by humans from frogs in the pet trade and medical industry.

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