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Science & Technology
Environment: Warning song of the Frog

 

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Environment: Warning song
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By Diana J. Choyce
Oct 25 - 31, 1999

For the last ten years scientists have been researching frog deformities that have reached almost epidemic proportions. Frogs have survived on our planet for millions of years. But in the last decade whole species have been slowly disappearing. For reasons ranging from pesticide use to ozone depletion, we have been losing a vital part of our environment. Why should we be so concerned about this comly amphibian? Scientists have come to believe that the decline of frog species and the increase in their deformities are a type of "bio-indicator" of our overall environmental health. And quite frankly, we are not looking too healthy according to the ongoing research on our frog friends. Given that October is the official International Frog Month, it would seem a proper time to give a listen to their plight.

Frogs are like sponges that soak up whatever toxins may be present in the water and soil where they live. Their eggs and embryos lack protective shells and are therefore susceptible to chemicals, ultraviolet rays, and many other factors during gestation. The permeable skin of a frog makes it very vulnerable to attacks of fungus, infection, parasites, and other damaging substances. The importance of the frog to our environment manifests itself in many ways. Their diet of mostly insects, helps keep those populations manageable and allows us to live in balance with the insect kingdom. Many frogs are used for their medicinal qualities and thereby affect our overall health. But most importantly, our frogs are warning us that something is terribly wrong and its time to sit up and take notice.

The sad fact is that man, for the most part, is entirely responsible for the frogs decline. Over the last 200 years, we have lost over 50% of the almost 200 million acres of wetlands in the United States alone. Grading, mosquito control, housing development, pollution, scouring, adding fish, and loss of surrounding forests are just a few of the reasons for these losses. Our sluggish attempts to control rampant pollution has pushed ozone depletion to the breaking point. Acid rain and ultra violet rays have attacked the very existence of our frogs with a vengeance. And lastly, our ignorance in recognizing the need to research these problems, may hamper our attempt to remedy the situation. Ignoring the frogs plight may well be the same as ignoring the future of man's very existence on the earth.

Fortunately someone is finally listening and many research projects have begun in earnest. These studies are being carried out all over the world, covering a variety of the problems affecting the frog population. In Panama, Costa Rica, and Australia scientists believe an infectious pathogen(disease) may be responsible for almost totally decimating frogs in various areas. If the streams in these areas have substantial amounts of pesticides or herbicides present, they may have weakened the immune systems of the frogs and allowed the disease to take root. Another possible cause could be the introduction of stocked fish who could have brought the pathogens with them. It would be similar to a human carrying a disease to another country who has never experienced the disease, and therefore has no immune resistance to it.

Studies in Minnesota and Vermont are looking into the relationship of chemically contaminated water and deformed frogs. Scientists there have reported that toxins such as pesticides appear to be the major cause of the malformations. They feel that the toxins may be inhibiting thyroid production. The thyroid dictates much of the development of frog eggs and embryos. They have even found, through xray examinations, that specific deformities are caused by specific factors. This has opened another tool for scientist to narrow down the difference in affects made by ultra violet rays, parasites, and toxins.

A large portion of these research projects have been focusing on the agricultural angle. Most countries are involved in crop growing activities either for export or for feeding their own populations. And most of these countries use chemical pesticides to increase their crop output. The obvious problem here is the indiscriminate use of these chemicals without regard to their effect on the surrounding environment. Even with very careful applications, there can be no way to avoid their contamination of the surrounding areas.

Martin Ouellet, a Canadian veterinarian, has collected and examined nearly 30,000 frogs. His research in the St. Lawrence Valley has produced some very disturbing results. Among other things his examinations have revealed altered DNA in the affected frogs. And he firmly believes pesticides to be the dominant reason for the deformations. This presents some very real fears in that the waters produce food, and irrigate crops that are eaten by humans. If these chemicals can alter frog DNA, what kind of damage can they be doing to the human population? Another support to the findings, is that in land not sprayed for decades, only one deformed frog out of one hundred was found. On working agricultural farms that number increased to twelve out of hundred.

So far most research has only prompted more questions instead of solid, definitive answers. And again researchers are in constant disagreement as to their findings, which only serves to aggravate the problem. But in all honesty, is this research and money really necessary to give us the answer that we already know? Or is it just a means of explaining away the guilt we should be feeling over our corruption of the only place we have to live? If man would learn to live in harmony and use that harmony to co-exist with the planet, this article would have no reason to exist. But if man wants to continue existing, it's time he started listening to the warning song of the frog.