They’re not cute, but as a bellwether for the environment, conservationists say it’s vital to save them
Published: Friday, February 29, 2008
A member of one of the most endangered species in Canada, a bulgy-eyed speckled frog, sits perfectly still on a man-made float watching a cricket drift closer.
Then, with one sweep of its sticky tongue, the sit-and-wait predator gulps down its prey.
It’s an act that, if repeated enough times, may help the Oregon spotted frog leap back from the brink of extinction.
Saving the species is a local part of a worldwide fight to protect amphibian populations.
Today, leap day, kicks off the international year of the frog, aimed at drawing attention to what could be the “largest extinction since the dinosaurs.”
The numbers are alarming.
Up to half of the world’s known frog species are threatened, including B.C.’s Oregon spotted frog.
There is no time to waste in the battle to save them, says Dennis Thoney, a volunteer member of the Oregon spotted frog recovery team who works at the Vancouver Aquarium.
“We’re facing the largest extinction since the dinosaurs,” Thoney says, adding that more than 120 species have gone extinct since the 1980s. “The amphibian crises is real.”
A number of things are killing frogs, from global warming to introduced predators and habitat loss. A parasitic fungus called amphibian chytrid is considered a major contributor to the decline of amphibian populations worldwide. It has been found in B.C.
Like any species, frogs are an important part of the food chain, providing food for animals. They also eat insects.
Referred to by scientists as the ecological “canary in the coal mine,” frogs are among the first species to be affected by environmental stresses, including pollution.
If they decline in the wild, people should take note, says Thoney, adding these issues will be covered in the aquarium’s Frogs Forever? exhibit, opening today. It features 26 types of frogs, including the Oregon spotted.
The exhibit is one of many to be launched globally during the year of the frog in response to a World Conservation Union plea to zoos and aquariums to help frogs.
They’ve been encouraged to use leap year to raise awareness and advised to consider implementing “captive survival” programs.
The idea is that at least of few of each frog species will be kept alive — an amphibian ark of sorts — even if the species can’t survive in the wild.
Thoney says this is important since populations like the Oregon spotted frog are so fragile: “They could all disappear just like that. They could be gone.”
DOWN IN THE VALLEY
Oregon spotted frogs are slimy-looking and small. They don’t grow much larger than two toonies side by side.
They’re secretive, shy and particular about where they live; like most frogs the wetter, the better.
In B.C., the remaining population of Oregon spotted frog, one of about 17 amphibian species in the province, can still be found in three areas of the bustling Fraser Valley.
For Fraser Valley frogs, like humans, finding a space to live has become harder and harder. As the Valley becomes more developed, they have less space to live. Waterways and ponds needed for breeding are disappearing.
B.C. Frogwatch, part of the Environment Ministry’s environmental stewardship division, notes that Oregon spotted frogs are even picky about water temperature.
They “prefer ponds that are exposed to sunlight, so that the water can be warmed,” says the Frogwatch website. Unlike other types of frog, they rarely leave the water.
“This makes the frogs especially vulnerable to fragmentation of their habitat.”
So far, helping these frogs has been an uphill battle. Since 1999 — when the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada noted their decline — a recovery team of experts has been trying to find effective tactics.
Representatives of the Vancouver Aquarium, the Greater Vancouver Zoo, the Seabird Island Indian Band, the University of B.C. and various provincial and federal agencies have spent countless hours at it.
But so far they are losing the battle. There are fewer than 300 of the frogs in B.C. — about 150 male and 150 female.
“They are just steadily declining,” says Keena McNeil, a member of the Seabird Island Band. “I’m really worried this year because there wasn’t much last year.”
McNeil, 20, sends out monthly conservation-focused newsletters with reminders about the endangered population of frogs living in the band’s territory — one of only three breeding grounds in the area.
“It’s really important to us. It’s a creature of the land and we’re trying to help it not to die off.”
She tells people to stop their cars if they see a frog on the road. Every frog counts, she says.
EASILY WIPED OUT
It’s all about increasing the numbers.
“If you get down to only one frog — they’re dead,” says recovery team member John Richardson, a University of B.C. forestry professor who has worked with the team since the effort began in 1999.
Richardson said B.C.’s population of the frogs is so fragile that it could easily be completely wiped out.
Habitat loss due to development in the Fraser Valley has been a major factor, he says. Agricultural pesticides and introduced predators such as the American bullfrog have contributed significantly to the decline.
Despite almost a decade working to monitor breeding, study habitat and release frogs into the wild, the numbers have not seemed to improve.
“So far we haven’t seen a lot of them coming back to breed,” says Richardson, adding that it is hard to pinpoint exactly what is killing the frogs or preventing adults from reproducing: “Part of the problem is, we don’t know why.”
They have a number of strikes against them, Richardson says. They are difficult to track.
Although thousands of baby frogs from breeding programs have been released into the wild, they don’t reproduce until they are fully grown at about three years.
“They fit nicely into the mouths of snakes, bullfrogs, weasels and crows,” he adds.
Right now the main tactic in the battle to save the frog focuses on what the team calls the “head start” approach.
In late March or early April, team members collect eggs — most of which wouldn’t survive in the wild thanks to predators — and distribute them to the Mountain View Conservation Society in Langley and to the Greater Vancouver Zoo in Aldergrove.
Last year 8,500 eggs were collected from the Seabird Island area. More than half were released back into the area as young frogs. But it’s difficult to know how many survive.
“It’s better than nothing,” Robertson says. “You have to try.”
Both the zoo and the conservation society pay staff to oversee the programs. They care for the eggs as they hatch into tadpoles, then metamorphose into baby frogs and finally mature to the point where they can be released.
THE BIGGER, THE BETTER
Hands full of frog cuisine, Cindy Hulst carefully distributes the squirming crickets over a tub holding about 300 baby frogs.
Hulst waits silently as one by one, the frogs hop up onto floats in the tub in a heated room at the zoo.
Hulst smiles as the one by one, the frogs eat. “The bigger the frog, the better its chance of surviving,” says Hulst, the zoo’s primary frog minder. She has cared for these frogs since they were eggs and says she feels good about working to save a species from extinction.
One particularly chubby frog manages to eat two crickets nearly simultaneously.
He was born at an outdoor tub in the zoo last spring and fed organic kale as a tadpole. He is one of more than 500 spending the winter in two indoor tubs at the zoo because they were too small to be released last fall.
“It’s an endangered species and it’s fun to do the conservation work,” Hulst says, adding that young frogs need a lot of attention. “When they’re frogs they’re not so bad. But in the summer when they’re tadpoles, it’s a lot of work.”
Just preparing the food takes about 15 hours a week. She boils organic kale, purees it, squeezes and dries it. The tubs need to be cleaned, water temperatures monitored and so on.
She is careful not to disturb the fragile inhabitants: “Frogs are very sensitive.”
And they don’t get enough attention.
They’re not particularly cute. They’re not furry or majestic. They don’t inspire public support the way other endangered animals do, says Jamie Dorgan, who oversees the zoo’s program.
“We have trouble raising money because, you know, who cares about a frog?” Dorgan says.
“It’s always a challenge for a species like this.”
But people should care, Dorgan says: “When frogs are getting wiped out, then something is wrong with the ecosystem. We need frogs.”
And frogs need to breed.
Gordon Blankstein, who runs Mountain View Conservation’s frog recovery program, says a new approach is needed to save B.C.’s population of Oregon spotted frogs.
This year, he says, the non-profit organization plans to build a marsh on its 300-acre (120-hectare) property just to help the frogs.
That way, he says, they’ll be able to keep some of the frogs longer, until they are old enough to breed. In the meantime, they’ll be protected from predators.
“This is a battle and they’re a really important species,” Blankstein says, adding that he feels strongly about the frog recovery program, even if it is expensive.
“You’re doing it because you believe it’s the right thing to do.”
The Vancouver Sun DIGITAL