Wild America: It’s Not Easy Being An Amphibian

During the Wild America Nature Festival at Panama Rocks Scenic Park on July 29-30, Dr. Twan Leenders will give a talk entitled “Where Have All the Froggies Gone?”

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories in advance of the Wild America Nature Festival to be held July 29-30 at Panama Rocks. As the world’s most famous frog once sang, “its not easy being green.” Kermit might day dream about being “red, or yellow, or gold, or something much more colorful,” but regardless of color it’s not easy being an amphibian!

Like almost all animals, amphibians (frogs and salamanders) have to look out for predators. They are food for birds, mammals, fish, and other animals. Remember that “Never Give Up” poster with a heron trying to swallow a frog who is choking the bird in turn? In addition to the challenge of staying away from predators, amphibians are very sensitive to environmental problems. In fact, they are in-depth indicators of local environmental health. Their permeable skin makes them highly susceptible to all kinds of pollutants, and the fact that they spend a significant portion of their life in the water as well as on land makes them excellent bellwethers of water and air quality. If amphibian populations decline unexpectedly in a given area, it is smart to start investigating potential contamination or other environmental impacts!

Amphibian populations worldwide have been declining precipitously, and amphibians are currently the most endangered group of any vertebrate animal. Unfortunately, lack of baseline data (the knowledge of what healthy amphibian populations are supposed to look like) often causes us to underestimate the scale of these declines. However, it is perfectly clear that since the late 1980’s many species of frogs and salamanders have disappeared throughout the Americas. Some have since been rediscovered in dangerously low numbers, while others have not been seen in decades and are feared extinct. An infectious fungal disease has spread globally, and it is, at least in part, responsible for the declines and extinctions we are seeing.

In our region, Hellbender salamanders are a poster child for the struggle of amphibians. Hellbenders are a species of aquatic giant salamander that can grow up to 16 inches long. With loose skin and small eyes, these adorably ugly animals are known by many other names including “snot otter,” “devil dog,” “mud-devil,” “grampus,” “Allegheny alligator,” “mud dog,” “water dog,” and “leverian water newt.” They need almost perfect water conditions with high oxygen levels, swift running water, flat rocks to hide under, and no pollution to survive. Unfortunately pollution and habitat destruction have caused a dramatic decline in Hellbender populations.

Whether it’s a green frog or a bright orange newt, it’s not easy being an amphibian! Fortunately, there are people who are working to help protect them. Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History (RTPI) President Dr. Twan Leenders, a conservation biologist by training, is the author of three field guides on the wildlife of Costa Rica and his latest book on the Amphibians of Costa Rica was just released in 2016.

He is also an accomplished photographer, and his images adorn the pages of his books and numerous other books and magazines, including National Geographic, New Scientist, Discover, Ranger Rick, and many more. Twan works with some of the last remaining survivors of several critically endangered species in Central America, while also studying the response of less-endangered (but still declining) species there and in Western New York to changes in their environment. Learning what environmental challenges are jeopardizing the health of our most sensitive species will hopefully allow us to respond more effectively to future threats. RTPI is also engaged in collaborative Hellbender research and conservation efforts — you can meet two of the giant salamanders at RTPI!

During the Wild America Nature Festival at Panama Rocks Scenic Park on July 29-30, Twan will give a talk entitled “Where Have All the Froggies Gone?” on his work with endangered frogs. Festival visitors will be able to meet live frogs and other amphibians.

The Wild America Nature Festival will also feature guest speakers Dr. Douglas Tallamy, a nationally renowned expert on native plants and biodiversity and author of “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Biodiversity with Native Plants;” Michael Phillips, the nation’s leading scholar advancing “organic’s final frontier” and uncovering how to effectively grow good fruit without harmful chemicals, whose books include “The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist (1998),” “The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way (2012),” and “Mycorrhizal Planet: How Fungi and Plants Work Together (just released in 2017);” 40 juried artists will participate in the festival’s Nature Fine Art & Craft Show; The White Carrot, Labyrinth Press Company, Reverie Creamery, Green Heron Growers, and Superfresh! Organic Cafe will serve locally-sourced food in the festival’s Local Food Cook-Off; Jamestown Audubon, Wild Spirit Education, American Hawkeye, and the Erie Zoo will present live animals along with RTPI; Steel Rails and Davis and Eng will play original and traditional folk music; and there will be many more fun activities for all ages. Detailed information is available online at www.wildamericafest.com.