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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Leaping Towards a Solution

Air Date: Week of

Hyloscirtus colymba, currently housed at the El Valle Conservation Center in Panama. (Photo: Bill Konstant, Houston Zoo)

What better way to celebrate leap year than by highlighting the plight of our amphibian friends? A third of the world’s frog populations face extinction. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Shelly Grow, of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, about their efforts to highlight the problem with a series of exhibits and events.


CURWOOD: 2008 isn’t just any year. It’s a leap year: the quadrennial event when the calendar plays catch-up with things celestial, and February has 29 days. To mark the leap, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is turning to the quintessential leaper: the frog.

At some 90 zoos and aquaria across the country you’ll be able to compete in croaking contests and amphibian scavenger hunts, and of course, leap frog. But it won’t all be fun and games, says Shelly Grow of the Association. She says by making this leap year the Year of the Frog, the organization hopes to highlight the fight for survival for amphibians around the world. A third of the six thousand or so amphibian species face extinction from an unusual pathogen. Shelly Grow is on the line – so Shelly, tell me about this disease.

Gastrotheca cornuta, currently housed at the El Valle Conservation Center in Panama. (Photo: Bill Konstant, Houston Zoo)

GROW: The disease is called chytridiomycosis and it is a fungus that is spreading around the globe. It is now found on every continent where amphibians are found and this fungus affects the proteins in the skins of the amphibians and seems to affect their ability to breathe, to thermoregulate, to act normally. There also seems to be some neurological effects, all sorts of problems associated with it.

CURWOOD: Where did this fungus come from and why is it so devastating?

GROW: The current hypothesis is that it has come from Africa and probably was shipped in the African clod frog, which in the ’thirties and ’forties was shipped around the world for use in pregnancy tests.

CURWOOD: Frogs in a pregnancy test?

GROW: Yes, this was…Actually it was a very popular pregnancy test and the idea was that if you injected some of a woman’s urine into an amphibian, if the amphibian were to lay eggs, then that would be a sign that the woman was pregnant. And what was great about this is that results – the amphibian would lay eggs within eight to 12 hours, so these were really quick results for a pregnancy test. Much quicker than previous tests had been. And this remained very common up until the ’sixties when other methods of detecting the hormone in women that were pregnant were discovered.

CURWOOD: Now, fungus is one really stressor on frogs, what are the other major factors that are threatening amphibians at this point?

Hyloscirtus colymba, currently housed at the El Valle Conservation Center in Panama. (Photo: Bill Konstant, Houston Zoo)

GROW: The other major threats would be habitat loss, fragmentation, pollution, invasive species, some of the culprits that affect a lot of things. Why we’re really focused on the fungus right now is because while those other factors are long-term effects and cause gradual declines, this fungus, when it hits a place, it can wipe out 50 percent of the species in any given area within six months. You really can’t address this threat in the wild before it will have an impact on local amphibians. And so the World Conservation Union has called on zoos and aquariums to actually remove these amphibians from the wild and protect them for however long is needed until we can work with our partners in the field to figure out a way to bring these amphibians back into their range countries.

CURWOOD: So let me understand this, the zoos and aquaria are calling for the removal of frogs from their habitat in the face of this disease?

Shelly Grow, Conservation Biologist, Association of Zoos and Aquariums. (Photo: R. Andrew Odum Toledo Zoo)

GROW: Actually the World Conservation Union is calling for this. Zoos and aquariums have decades worth of husbandry experience and care for amphibians, and they’re bringing them in to biosecure facilities so that they would be protected from this fungus. The idea is that this is a stopgap measure and other people are looking, studying all aspects of this fungus to try and understand how would we be able to either select for more resistant amphibians to release them back into the wild, or somehow perhaps release someday something into the environment that might affect the fungus.

CURWOOD: So, I have a pond in my backyard. Should I get out there with my net and capture some of these leapers and bring them in for the next couple years.

GROW: Absolutely not. The idea is that still the leading threat for amphibians is habitat loss and destruction, so if you have a pond in your backyard, the best thing is to make sure that it is healthy habitat for your local amphibians. So that there’s not lawn chemicals running off into it. Or that you’re not draining it to put in a basketball court or things like that. But the idea is that we really want to have habitat available for these amphibians.

Anotheca spinosa, currently housed at the El Valle Conservation Center in Panama. (Photo: Bill Konstant, Houston Zoo)

CURWOOD: So, besides the pregnancy test and of course food, I mean, there’s certain places where frogs legs are a delicacy. What else do we do with amphibians?

GROW: We’ve used them for anti-tumor properties, or we found anti-tumor properties, anti-inflamatories. There’s been some research saying there may be some compounds in some amphibians that may help against HIV, so that’s again, going back to the medical purposes. But then we also use them for – we benefit greatly from the insect control that they play for us. People are concerned about what would happen if there’s a huge die-off in amphibians, what would happen to insect-born diseases like yellow fever, or malaria? What would happen in agricultural fields if the amphibians are gone and not helping with pest control? And then there are the roles that they play in the wider ecosystem, a food web, what would happen to birds and snakes and spiders if their food source were to disappear in great numbers.

Hypsiboas rosenbergi, currently housed at the El Valle Conservation Center in Panama. (Photo: Bill Konstant, Houston Zoo)

CURWOOD: Shelly, have you got a favorite amphibian?

GROW: You know, I actually don’t have a favorite amphibian. I can get so excited by just some of the names of some of these amphibians, like the hell bender, and that is also known as the snot otter, and all sorts of great salamanders, but then there’s some really just gorgeous, downright beautiful frogs out there as well, so… I don’t know. And then I’m pretty grateful for those that are eating the mosquitoes in my own backyard, so I don’t think I have a favorite.

CURWOOD: I guess I have to confess that my favorite probably is Kermit, even though he’s not a real frog, but a puppet.

GROW: He is awfully lovable and he has been a great celebrity on behalf of all amphibians out there.

CURWOOD: Shelly Grow is a conservation biologist with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Thanks so much, Shelly.

GROW: Thank you so much for having me.

CURWOOD: To learn more about The AZA’s Year of the Frog activities, leap on over to our web site: L-O-E dot O-R-G.

[MUSIC: “It’s Not Easy Being Green” (You Tube video from Sesame Street)]



Association of Zoos and Aquariums' page on Leap Day


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