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Natural History Museum Spotlights Plight Facing Utah Frogs

29 November 2012 Written by  Katie Basham
Natural History Museum Spotlights Plight Facing Utah Frogs USFWS

"Come on in, we're talking frogs here!" says state biologist Paula Trater. The most dressed up you'll ever see her, she is wearing dark green rubber waders, khaki hiking pants, and a colorful frog patterned shirt. Trater's most distinctive feature, however, is that she is passionate about frogs.

Trater shared her love of frogs at the 77th Scientist in the Spotlight at the Natural History Museum of Utah. This bimonthly series features scientists from around the state in an open house format, creating a "unique opportunity to get face-to-face with a scientist," says gallery programs coordinator Paul Michael Maxfield.

Trater taught visitors how to sneak up on, catch, weigh, measure, and track frogs over multiple years. Besides getting their hands dirty, the work challenged visitors to think about how amphibians in Utah fit into the global picture.

By current estimates, more than 30% of amphibian species worldwide are threatened with extinction. With semipermeable skin that makes them highly sensitive to pollution, radiation, and diseases, they are among the first species in an ecosystem to react to climate change. Their demise doesn't bode well for everything else.

In some ways, the state of amphibians in Utah is a microcosm of their global plight. At one time or another, local frogs and toads also faced extinction. How these species are doing today signals how well humans are managing the changes that are happening to the natural world.

In the early 1990s, the state hired Trater to monitor the quickly declining Columbia spotted frog populations. Counting frogs by the number of egg masses, she tallied just a few hundred annually back then. Although each egg mass can contain up to 1,000 embryos, only about 5% of them make it to adulthood.

The primary contributor to the species' downfall was habitat destruction due to land development and use. Two major water projects, construction of the Jordanelle Dam and straightening of the Provo River, within the past 60 years had eliminated many of the marshy areas where the frogs lay their eggs. In 1997, the spotted frog was listed as a Utah Sensitive Species.

To restore wildlife habitats, the Provo River Restoration Project, initiated in 1999, re-created wetland areas by re-establishing the natural curves of the river. "If there was an established colony nearby, they [new frogs] would move right in," Trater says. The spotted frog population recovered, and Trater now counts upwards of a 1,000 egg masses annually.

But just as spotted frogs were gaining ground, a new threat came online. The Chytrid fungus, which had already devastated amphibian populations worldwide, was detected in Utah spotted frogs in 2001. Trater recalls that when she heard the news, "it was like hearing your whole family was going to die."

To her surprise, the dramatic decline she had been bracing for never came about. Trater suspects that spotted frogs are resistant to the disease. "We know the disease is there, but the frogs aren't dying," she explains. "Our frogs are rugged."

Unlike Columbia spotted frogs, boreal toads haven't been so lucky. Once prevalent in the Wasatch, they are now so scarce that Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) biologists rely on hikers to relay sighting information. Mark Grover with the DWR believes that Chytrid is the culprit, but says the fungus is "not the global boogyman that's responsible for everything."

Environmental stresses, some triggered by pollution or varying water years, may be increasing the susceptibility of boreal toads to the disease. Once scientists determine the root cause, Grover hopes they can design a recovery plan to stabilize the population. With each amphibian species as an environmental indicator, one can't help but wonder what the toads are telling us.

This realization struck a chord with Scientist in the Spotlight participant, Eugenia Richins of Salt Lake City. She says she has fond memories of catching frogs as a kid, but doesn't see many these days. With a new appreciation for the issues facing amphibians today, Richins views these populations as a "barometer of the climate of our world with pollution and global warming." Now motivated, she vows to volunteer to help save them.

Scientist in the Spotlight, featuring geneticists to paleontologists, is scheduled for the first and third Fridays at 2:00pm at the Natural History Museum of Utah, 301 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City. At the next event on December 7th, a zooarcheologist will demonstrate what animal remains reveal about climate change.

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