frog staring

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."

small frog on leaf

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.

And for some species of frogs, listening can be more accurate than looking, as one recent scientific discovery showed. A new species of leopard frog in Staten Island was discovered because a researcher heard an unfamiliar call. Although the frog sounded different, it was so similar in appearance to other species in the area that DNA testing was needed to confirm that it was a distinct species.

From Wetlands to Your Backyard

That discovery also shows there are frogs to be found even in the biggest city, and there are several sites in New York City that are monitored by FrogWatch volunteers. Frog habitat is not always pristine wilderness. "It doesn't always have to be this natural, beautiful wetland," says Gauza. "In many cases, stormwater ponds are the only available amphibian habitat there is. If that's what they have, that's what they'll use. It could be right in your backyard or a neighborhood park or at the end of your cul-de-sac where the stormwater collects."

leopard frog on leaf

Frogs also breed in spots where most of the year you don't even see water. Places where water collects only in the spring, called vernal pools, are actually excellent frog habitat, since fish can't survive to compete with the tadpoles.

Nalini Mohan of the Bronx Zoo trains some of the volunteers in New York, and says that FrogWatch is a great way to expose kids to nature and science. "Children are really good at distinguishing the frog calls, sometimes even better than adults," she says.

The data is collected with measurements that are very specific and simple, she says, and there's training for all of it, both frog calls and the weather data that volunteers record. "They do a lot of activities to learn the calls," she says, "and we bring a fan and show them the different windspeeds." Because the data is collected at night, it's a great activity for families and scout troops.

You can find training sessions at the FrogWatch website. If you're not sure about participating, Gauza says, "we encourage people who are just interested in learning about frogs and toads to go."

"It really opens people's eyes to what is around," says Mohan. "Frogs are really good ambassadors for wildlife."

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