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How to help save frogs and toads

Green tree frog on a catalpa leaf.
Kim Willis

It used to be common to find toads wandering around the yard, even in cities. On a spring night in the country the noise of frogs singing could be deafening. After a rain the wet pavement would attract hundreds of frogs and toads, often to their untimely death. But without much notice frogs and toads have been rapidly disappearing from our environment, in the county and the city.

This year the US Geological survey reported that amphibians are declining in the US at the rate of 3.7 percent each year. That’s an average, some species are declining much faster and in some areas the decline of all species of frogs, toads and salamanders is much more than that. Almost unnoticed frogs and toads are slipping away. At the rate of decline we have now frogs and toads will be extremely rare in 20 years.

What does that mean in the larger scheme of things? Frogs and toads have a valuable place in nature, they eat harmful insects and they also provide food for other species of animals, even man. Amphibians are considered to be indicator species also, when they go it’s a sign that there is something seriously wrong in the environment. And for many people the songs and sights of frogs and toads are a peaceful and rightful part of their lives.

What’s happening

The reason frogs and toads are declining is complicated. Habitat loss is one factor, but even in protected and pretty pristine environments the numbers of frogs and toads are slipping. Water contamination is another factor, some studies have indicated that it’s not only pesticides that wash off lawns and farm fields into the water shed but contamination of water by medications humans use and secrete in their urine, such as hormones and antibiotics that affect frogs. Frogs and toads spend the early part of their lives as tadpoles in water and need access to water throughout their lives.

Climate change is another factor. There have been droughts in many areas and when there is no water in the spring frogs and toads can’t reproduce. They die for lack of water later in the season also. Warm winter spells induce frogs and toads to lay eggs only to have cold snaps freeze the tadpoles, or even kill them before they can adjust back into hibernation mode. The seasonal cycles of insects have changed and that also affects the animals who consume them.

One other critical part of the decline is a nasty fungal infection caused by Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis fungi, which causes a disease called chytridiomycosis. The disease has been around a long time in some remote areas but in the late 1970’s the more rapid decline of amphibian species around the world began coming to the attention of scientists. In 1998 the fungus was identified and named. It has now been found in 287 species of amphibians from 36 countries and has been responsible for about 100 extinctions of amphibian species. The disease is very much present in the US.

While frogs infected with the fungus can be cured relatively simply in a captive setting there is no way to help frogs in the wild. Getting the fungus and having it cured does not prevent it from reoccurring if a frog has contact with the virus again. It can’t be killed in the natural environment and it’s very contagious. It is thought that there have been mutations of the virus that may have made it more deadly or contagious. The fungus was probably introduced to the US in several ways, by the pet trade in amphibians, by the importation of frog legs for human consumption and by stow away frogs and toads.

What you can do

Frogs and toads need all the help they can get if they are to remain in our natural environment. Here are some general things everyone can do to slow the loss of frogs and toads and help populations to recover.

  • Support legislation to protect wetlands, curb water pollution and conserve more land in its natural state.
  • Do not buy amphibians for pets unless they are certified captive bred in this country and disease free. Do not catch and keep wild toads and frogs as pets and never release pet frogs and toads into the wild.
  • Support efforts to ban the imports of frogs for their legs. Don’t consume frog legs. Many farmed frogs from Asian and South American countries are infected with chytridiomycosis. Even dumping the water in which such frogs are kept can spread the disease.
  • Dispose of unused medications so that they go to landfills, do not flush them. Don’t consume unnecessary antibiotics and buy antibiotic free, naturally raised meat.

Additionally if you own land here are some things you can do to help frogs and toads find a home on your property.

  • Don’t destroy wetlands. Even small wet areas can help frogs and toads.
  • Build wetlands, ponds, and frog baths. Even small shallow ornamental ponds or dishpans, saucers, and other water filled things will attract frogs and toads. You can dump them frequently to reduce mosquito breeding, but don’t chemically treat them. Larger earth bottom ponds will allow frogs and toads to breed and hibernate through the winter. Rain gardens mimic natural wetlands and are helpful to frogs and toads. Water in shady areas is best.
  • Allow some longer grass, weeds and brush to grow in areas of your property to shelter frogs and toads, especially near water.
  • Build toad houses. A half buried clay pot, small piles of loose rock, even plastic margarine tubs half buried in loose soil or leaf litter can provide a home for a toad. Toad homes are beneficial in gardens where the toads will gobble harmful insects. Kids love to construct toad houses.
  • Avoid pesticide use on your property, especially on lawns. Frogs and toads not only eat insects dying from pesticides and accumulate toxins, but they absorb chemicals through their skin when they contact them.
  • Be very careful with fertilizers and manure applications so there is no run off that goes into storm drains or natural water areas. These cause water pollution harmful to most creatures.
  • Cover chlorinated pools when not in use so frogs and toads don’t die in them.
  • After a rain drive slowly on wet pavement in rural areas, especially after dark. This may not only save your life but may save the lives of frogs and toads, which are often attracted to wet, shiny pavement.

If you remember the songs of frogs drifting in your bedroom window, chasing a friend with a toad to give them “warts”, watching a spring peeper puff out his throat or catching pollywogs in the pond please help keep these creatures alive and well for another generation.

Here are some additional articles you may want to read.

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