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A Litmus Test for Your Environment

Happy Frogs Tell an Encouraging Story

Individuals who care for their local environment are the foundation for real change, so happily croaking frogs tell an encouraging story for those concerned about their local ecology. A neighborhood walk on a pleasant spring or early summer evening is often accompanied by pockets of frogs trying to outdo each other with amphibian love songs. Good gardeners will tell you that healthy, thriving frogs are the sign of a healthy environment.

Equating healthy frogs with a clean environment is more than just a boastful saying from zealous gardeners — science also supports the claim. Frogs, it seems, are indicator species, or species that are particularly sensitive to their local environments. Like the canary in the coal mine, indicator species will die off early, leaving the rest of us with a warning.

Frogs and other amphibians are biologically predisposed towards responding to environmental changes. This sensitivity has to do with their life cycle and their skin. Frog eggs, and later the tadpoles, live below water where the tadpoles breathe through gills. Their low tolerance for change became apparent to me last spring when I made the mistake of partially refilling one of our ponds with city water. The entire tadpole population died off.

As frogs mature, they develop lungs and can live out of the water, but they still need to keep their skin damp. Their skin is remarkable, and because it is extremely porous, absorbing both gases and liquids, the frogs partially depend on their skin to breathe. While our skin forms a protective barrier against much that may harm us, the frogs are open to invasion as toxins pass from the environment into their internal organs. Keep your environment clean, and the frogs will come.

Frogs and other amphibians

An estimated 168 amphibian species have gone out of existence in the past several decades, and at least 2,469 species (43% of the known amphibian species) have populations in decline. When considering ecosystems, change is often not as significant as the rate of change.

Geologic history is replete with examples of species that went extinct. History tells us there is a natural background rate of species extinction. When that rate is grossly exceeded, we refer to it as a “mass extinction.” Amphibians don’t preserve particularly well in the fossil record, so their background extinction rate is fuzzy. Nevertheless, studies using what data is available indicate the current amphibian extinction rate is currently as high as 200 times the background rate.

Frogs, toads, and other amphibians are in crisis on a worldwide scale, providing each of us an opportunity to do our part by maintaining a friendly environment in our gardens and ponds. Gardeners naturally want their creations to be beautiful, but beauty can be accomplished in ways that preserve a clean environment. Yes, this effort will sometimes require extra work. Applying toxic pesticides and herbicides is often a quick way to sort out our problems, but these substances create problems for frogs as the toxins pass through their skins. Environmentalism needs to start at home in our own yards and gardens.

Beware of your lawn

Our cities and suburbs are awash with white picket fences surrounding lush green lawns, all pursuing the American Dream. Lawns historically appeared as a display of status and wealth, and they still serve that purpose today, to one degree or another. We work to make our lawns beautiful and lush, like jewels of green decorating the areas around our home.

But there is an environmental downside to this decorative hobby. If irrigation is required, then the lawn becomes a water waster. Also, keeping weeds and disease out of the lawn requires using herbicides and pesticides. But these chemicals leak into ponds and the ground, contaminating water above and below the surface.

Keeping your lawn green comes at a price. Applying fertilizers to encourage growth and keep the grass healthy and green is difficult for most individuals to manage properly. The ideal process applies an amount of fertilizer precisely matching the nutrient needs of the grass. Since this is a complicated calculation, the average homeowner tends to over-fertilize. Heavy summer rain or irrigation runoff absorbs this excess fertilizer as raw nutrients and washes it into ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers. These excess nutrients lead to unwelcome algae blooms.

Algae blooms have two main detrimental effects. The first is toxic excrements that poison other life in the local ecosystem, including frogs. The second is, large algae blooms deplete the water of oxygen and kill aquatic wildlife.

If you want to help the environment, start at home. Think about what goes on your lawn and garden, and listen for frogs croaking those happy amphibian love songs in the spring.

Related Articles:

Lawns, Gardens, and Environmental Protection, Does my Lawn Matter? (by WM House; Medium) 

Return of the Mindo Harlequin Toad — Escape from the brink of extinction (by WM House; Medium)

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Amphibian Decline or Extinction? Current Declines Dwarf Background Extinction Rate, MALCOLM L. MCCALLUM, Journal of Herpetology, Vol. 41, №3, pp. 483–491, 2007Copyright 2007 Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.