With the Bush neocon gang pushing ahead for war in Iraq, and talking about going nuclear, it might seem an odd time to be thinking about frogs, but hey, it’s spring.
And by the way, where are the frogs?
Here in the burbs just north of Philadelphia, there used to be a lot of frogs–bull frogs, leopard frogs, spring peepers–and also toads of assorted sizes. Just down the road from me there is a small pocket park with a vernal pond/swamp in one corner. When we moved here in 1997, I walked by in early spring and it was so full of spring peepers, those little inch-long tree frogs that make a single loud peep over and over in search of a mate, that you could hardly distinguish one from the next.
A year later, I went back and just heard sporadic peeps.
In years since, there have been no sounds from that location. The peepers are gone.
Further off, at a larger park where there are two streams and a few acres of swampland, there used to be similar multitudes of several types of frogs, all croaking and peeping in springtime, and still water areas abounding with blobs of jelly-like frog and toad eggs.
This year, I went back there with my 12-year-old son to help him with a science project that would survey the local amphibian population.
After crawling through brush and slogging through swamp and moving quietly along creekbanks, we found a grand total of five frogs, all large and a couple years old. We also heard one lonely peeper, sadly peeping out its call for a non-existent mate.
I can’t prove it scientifically, but I suspect that there are no frog or toad eggs in the waters of Horsham Park this year, and if there are, I suspect that none of them will be hatching.
Why that is so is harder to say. Researchers looking into the precipitous decline of amphibian populations–a world-wide phenomenon–say it could be acid rain, since successful amphibian reproduction requires vernal ponds that dry out periodically, thus preventing the survival of fish, which would eat the eggs and larvae. Vernal ponds and swamps, because they are on the surface of the ground away from such things as limestone seams, don’t have anything in them that might neutralize some of the acid, which is then killing the eggs.
Another theory is that increased ultraviolet radiation, caused by a decrease in the planet’s ozone layer, is sterilizing the eggs, which after all have not shell. Pollution runoff from Lawn-Doctored lawns is also suggested, though I have my doubts on this one given that frogs are in decline even in deep forests well away from manicured lawns.
Another theory is that general environmental stress, caused by pollution and by global warming changes in micro and macro climates is proving particularly stressful on amphibians because of their mucous-coated and highly permeable skins, their vulnerability in several different environments, and their particularly vulnerable egg stage.
Finally there is one theory (one I doubt because of the global nature across many climates of the declines), that fungal agents are killing amphibians. If this is happening in some areas, it may well be the result of other above-mentioned problems that are causing a vulnerability to fungi.
What is clear, I think, is that the undeniable vanishing of frogs, toads, salamanders and other amphibians–something that anyone who spends any time in natural areas, even in the ‘burbs, can attest to–is a disaster on many levels. Who, first of all, would want to live in a world where one entire phylum no longer existed? And what about spring without frogs? Then too, given their important ecological role as catchers of pests like mesquitoes and as food for other critters, their demise will have a snowball effect. Finally, given that all the likely causes being posited are related to human activities and human-caused pollution, this die-off is a warning to all humanity of even greater disasters that surely lie ahead.
The suddenness of the amphibian decline should have us really worried.
It could well be that the end to life on earth will not come gradually over a century or over several centuries, but more the way it happens in a goldfish bowl: one day your fish is swimming happily around in clear water. The next, you find it floating belly-up in a cloudy, stinking pool.
We should be listening to the peepers … if we can find any.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled "This Can’t be Happening!" is published by Common Courage Press. Lindorff’s new book, "The Case for Impeachment",
co-authored by Barbara Olshansky, is due out May 1.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org