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Threat to frogs may be sign of worse to come, some Kansas scientists say

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, May 25, 2014, at 9:52 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, May 25, 2014, at 9:52 p.m.

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Rafe Brown on Monday will head from Lawrence, where he teaches herpetology and other subjects at the University of Kansas. He’ll go to islands in the Philippines, where, among other things, he’ll catch frogs.

With other scientists, he’ll tramp through jungles and climb volcanic island mountains looking for frogs, toads and other creatures of nature.

For scientists like him, studying frogs is not some sort of offbeat hobby. It’s not just cute critters with little staring eyes.

It’s partly about understanding nature. And it’s also about how millions of frogs and other amphibians are dying worldwide from a species of fungus, Chytrid.

“What we’ve seen is a couple hundred species gone extinct in the last 30 years,” he said.

He’s worried. So are many other scientists. Has habitat destruction and temperature changes associated with climate change given the fungus a boost? He thinks so, and many scientists believe likewise.

No one has to believe in global warming if they don’t want to, he said the other day.

No one has to believe that leopard frogs or tree frogs or cricket frogs are vital to the survival of the human species.

But it would probably make sense to believe the planet is a web of natural things that work together to make our air, water and food, he said.

Those massive die-offs can’t be good for anybody.

Fungus in Kansas

About a year ago, students and researchers at Wichita State University announced bad news.

Led by faculty scientist Mary Liz Jameson, they’d tramped through several streams near Wichita, including Chisholm Creek, near 32nd and Oliver. Some of the frogs they caught and tested had the Chytrid fungus.

It was the first time anyone had confirmed the fungus in Kansas. One of Jameson’s students, Timothy Eberl, wrote in the statement released by WSU that this might have implications beyond frogs.

“We are speaking of possible keystone species within the aquatic environments of this state, and the potential trickle-down effect may have a longer reach than even we realize,” he said.

Part of the reason he said that is because science has proven many times that frogs and other amphibians are part of the planet’s web of life; when one web strand suffers, so, eventually, do all other strands.

So far, frogs and other amphibians in Kansas seem to be fine, said Travis Taggart. He’s curator of herpetology at the Sternberg Museum in Hays and spends much of the year on foot or on the road, studying the state’s amphibians and reptiles.

“All the species we have in Kansas are doing well, and nothing I am seeing would make me concerned,” he said. The Blanchard cricket frog appears to have disappeared in some parts of the state “but appears to be holding its own in other places.”

Maybe that’s because we’re so dry here now, Jameson said. There is evidence that amphibians in warmer, drier climates deal better with Chytrid. She’s glad the frogs here seem to be OK for now. But in much of the rest of the world, whole segments of what nature created in the amphibian world are no more.

‘Cascade of extinctions’

Rafe Brown is a 45-year-old KU associate professor who got fascinated with frogs as a boy in Ohio. In the Philippines for the next three weeks, he will tramp mountains and study frogs side by side with other expedition scientists studying birds and other wildlife. The National Science Foundation provides grant money for him and the other scientists to help with research.

He understands how hard it might be to imagine how this is worthwhile or how frogs are the subject of so much scientific worry these days.

“But when you see entire groupings of species blink out and disappear, as we are, you worry that we’re about to see a cascade of extinctions,” he said.

All those creatures are tied together in nature’s webs of food, predators, fresh water – the same water we survive on, he said.

Climb into a jungle in one of those volcanic Philippine islands, and you find one grouping of frog species, he said. Climb a few yards higher, up one of the volcanic mountainsides, and you find a whole different grouping of frogs. Climb even higher – still more species. The point is that these creatures are temperature sensitive, he said, as is the fungus that’s killing so many of them.

Is climate change putting the planet’s plant and animal kingdom out of whack? He says most scientists think so now, though he knows some people differ.

Also worrisome, he said, is that humans are now chopping down forests. It’s not just that scientists see average temperatures going up, and it’s not just that any grandparent can tell you the snows in their winters used to be deeper. It’s that water supplies are becoming toxic, polluted.

They are not just frogs, those creatures he’s about to hunt in the island archipelagos of the Philippines.

They are one of nature’s early warning systems.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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