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Mystery of the frogs

Scientists are puzzled by their absence; here's how you can help

Jeepers, creepers, listen to all those peepers!

Have you ever heard so many frogs singing so loud it almost hurt your ears?

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I did recently when I went out with several dozen people on a "frog hike" at the Kortright Centre for Conservation in Vaughn, Ontario. It's just north of Toronto in Canada.

Most of the frogs we heard were spring peepers. Their song is a simple "peep ... peep ... peep." But when there are about a gazillion of them, it adds up to quite a racket.

They're just little guys - about the size of the last knuckle of my thumb. But they're pretty hardy. They come out and start breeding almost as soon as winter is over. The male peepers "sing" to attract mates and claim territory.

All over the world, scientists are realizing something that kids playing in ponds and out in the woods have known for years: Frogs and toads are pretty interesting - and pretty important.

If you want to help researchers understand more about these critters, you can become a volunteer monitor, visiting ponds and wetlands in your area to listen for the songs of frogs and toads. You'll learn about your environment, and you'll be making a real contribution to scientific knowledge.

Scientists call frogs and toads "sentinel species." That doesn't mean that they stand guard, though. It means that if there are problems in an area - polluted water, for instance - frogs and toads are among the first to know.

And when they start to disappear from an area, that may be a sign of trouble.

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About nine years ago, researchers around the world started noticing that there were fewer and fewer amphibians. ("Amphibian" is a scientist's word for frogs, toads, and salamanders. It's from an old Greek word meaning "having a double life," which refers to their spending time both in the water and on land.)

Scientists compared notes and found that they pretty much all had the same problem: They would study a certain amphibian in a certain spot one year. But when they went back the next year, there were none, or almost none, left.

Where had they all gone?

The scientists knew this wasn't a good sign. When they thought about it, though, they realized they weren't always sure how many animals had been there in the first place. ("We need more baseline data," is what the scientists say among themselves.) So they are setting up monitoring programs. They need volunteers to go regularly to one or more sites - ponds or wetlands - to listen for different species and note what they hear.

This is where you and your family or class or Scout group can get involved.

You'll need to learn something about the critters you'll be listening for, and you'll want to identify a site (or maybe several) in your area to monitor. There aren't generally that many species to keep track of, and the calls are pretty distinctive. (Check out the illustrations at the bottom of these two pages.) You might be surprised to learn that what you thought were birds or maybe crickets are really frogs!

The best time to go out listening is about half an hour after sunset. Relatively warmer, humid nights are better. Just after a rain is best of all. It takes just five to 10 minutes at a pond to hear what there is to hear. Remember to bring a flashlight, and binoculars if you have them. Wear shoes that it's OK to get yucky in the mud.

Some monitoring programs are for high-school students and older, because they need particular kinds of data. But there are opportunities for younger people, too.

If you live in Ontario, you can join the 100 or so observers (individuals and groups) in Frogwatch-Ontario as a registered monitor. You can do this completely online if you wish - no paper required.

If you live in the United States, there's Frogwatch USA, modeled on Frogwatch-Ontario.

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