Frogs: A Love Story

  • A Wyoming toadlet at the Detroit Zoo. (Photo by Danna Schock, National Amphibian Conservation Center)

There are thousands of kinds of frogs and toads that could go extinct
in our lifetime. Rebecca Williams reports zoos are trying to save the
most endangered frogs by playing matchmaker:


There are thousands of kinds of frogs and toads that could go extinct
in our lifetime. Rebecca Williams reports zoos are trying to save the
most endangered frogs by playing matchmaker:

“Okay, so we’re in our Panamanian golden frog room.”

This is the frog bachelor pad.

(slow music)

The lights are low. One of the girls
is sitting naked under the waterfall. And in a dark corner of an
aquarium, there’s some action.

“Well, the male has clasped onto the female around the back…”

Danna Schock is like Dr. Ruth for frogs. She’s the curator of frogs
and toads at the Detroit Zoo. Right now she’s trying to get these
little yellow and black frogs in the mood.

“They were just put together a couple days ago, we’re not sure
they’re feeling it yet. I don’t know if we need Barry White music in
here or what.”

(Barry White song)

Getting the mood right matters because frogs are sensitive. The
temperature has to be just right. Sometimes what the male wants is
just not what the female wants.

Danna Schock wants these guys to have lots of babies. That’s because
frogs are in big trouble in the wild. They’re disappearing really,
really fast.

“The extinction going on is really of the scale that happened
at the end of the Cretaceous when the dinosaurs went. But that
extinction happened over a million years. We’re seeing some of this go
down in my lifetime. This is unprecedented.”

As much as half of all amphibian species on Earth could go extinct in
our lifetime. Here’s why. Frogs and toads breathe and drink through
their skin. Those thin skins make them very sensitive to pollution
from farms and industry and whatever we put down the drain. Also, the
places frogs live are being paved over for parking lots and

Then there’s another really big problem. There’s a disease
sweeping through frogs around the world. It’s called chytrid fungus.
It can kill frogs in just a few weeks.

Kevin Zippel is the program director for Amphibian Ark. It’s kind of
like Noah’s Ark for frogs. It’s a group working with zoos to save the
frogs and toads that are most at risk. Especially the ones dying from
chytrid fungus.

“The only solution for those species that are susceptible is to bring
them into captivity as a stop-gap measure until the day when we do have
a cure for it.”

Zippel says chytrid fungus was first found in the 1930s in the African
clawed frog. That frog was exported around the world for medical
research. And scientists think the disease was spread with it.

Kevin Zippel says they’re scrambling to bring frogs into zoos before
they’re wiped out. He says it’s always much better for frogs to live
in the wild. But he says, for hundreds of frog species, taking them
into zoos is the only way to keep them alive.

The Wyoming toad is one species that’s been saved by zoos. For all
practical purposes, it’s considered extinct in the wild. Zoos around
the country have taken in the toads and gotten them to mate.

(Sound of tanks bubbling)

At the Detroit Zoo there’s a special quarantine room. It’s under lock
and key. We have to disinfect our shoes so we don’t track in bacteria
or other diseases.

Then Danna Schock lets us peek in on her
babies. These Wyoming toadlets are about the size of gumballs.

“These guys are fabulous little creatures. These are not divas.
They’re just such a pleasure to work with, they’re fun, they eat well.
There are just little Buddha bellies on ’em.”

These little Wyoming toads have big lives ahead of them. A lot of sex.
And their babies might get released back to the same place where they
got their name – Wyoming.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has been releasing toad eggs and
tadpoles in a few protected areas there.

Brian Kelly is with the Service. Last summer, for the first time in 10
years, his team found new Wyoming toad eggs in the wild.

“It’s incredibly encouraging because that’s why we’re doing this, we
want to establish populations that maintain themselves and remain
viable over time.”

Kelly says the toads are still in trouble. Their habitat has to be
protected. And the fatal chytrid fungus is still a major threat. So
zoos will have to fill the gap for a while.

It’s not ideal. It costs a lot to keep frogs at the zoo. There isn’t
enough room in zoos to save every type of frog. And, as Danna Schock at
the Detroit Zoo will tell you, it’s tough to figure out exactly what
the frogs want. But she says she’s not going to give up.

“I’d rather go down flailing in flames. At least we can say we tried.
And there are reasons to be optimistic. We have had successes – and
they’re scattered, and they’re patchy, and we learn from our mistakes all
the time.”

Schock says it would be much better to solve the frogs’ problems in the
first place. She says that means not paving over all the wetlands. It
means not polluting ponds and creeks. And hopefully, finding a cure
for chytrid fungus.

For The Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

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