Colorado: Frogs, toads worry world scientists
Summit County Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado ” The endangered boreal toad is finally getting its awareness campaign, as zoos, botanical gardens and aquariums around the world have designated 2008 as the Year of the Frog.
As part of the global campaign to draw awareness to the rapid extinction of amphibian species ” including the locally-threatened boreal toad ” a frog mating call can be downloaded for a cell-phone ringtone.
But the chirps, ribits and croaks that have long been such an integral part of the soundscape in ponds and wetlands are quickly going silent in nature. Up to 50 percent of the known 6,000 species of amphibians are threatened with extinction, including Colorado’s boreal toads, once plentiful across the state’s mountains, but now found only in a few isolated spots.
Nobody knows for sure why amphibians are dying off so suddenly. The most recent research suggests a fungus is one of the main factors, but water pollution and habitat loss also play a role. Whatever the cause, scientists are doing all they can to slow the loss, described as the most sudden wave of extinction ever seen.
Summit County was once considered a stronghold for boreal toads. But the latest surveys have been discouraging. As biologists scour local ponds and wetlands, they have been finding fewer signs of toad reproduction.
As part of the conservation effort, the worldwide coalition of biologists is developing an amphibian ark project, maintaining select species in captivity until they can be secured in the wild.
The sudden die-off is all the more surprising given that amphibians watched dinosaurs come and go. Frogs and toads are voracious predators when it comes insects and larvae, devouring adults and juveniles to help keep populations of disease-carrying bugs in check. In turn, amphibians are a food source for other animals like birds.
Some scientists also consider amphibians to be an aquatic version of the proverbial canary-in-the-coal-mine. With super-sensitive skin, they may be predictors of subtle environmental changes that could affect human health in the long-term.
Even before the year of the frog, Colorado has been a leader in amphibian conservation. Several years ago, the Colorado Division of Wildlife started breeding boreal toads in an aquatic laboratory near Alamosa and releasing them into the wild.
Summit County could one day be part of that effort, as the Colorado Division of Wildlife eyes the Cucumber Gulch wetlands near Breckenridge as a potential release site. The biologically rich complex of beaver ponds near the base of Breckenridge Ski Area once had a thriving population of boreal toads, but recent surveys turned up only a couple of adults, with no signs of breeding activity.
Though Summit County’s toads seem to be dwindling, there are some pockets of toad populations that are still healthy.
“We definitely have some areas that are holding their own,” said Tina Jackson, herptile coordinator for the state wildlife agency. “Overall, we are holding steady.”
But there is plenty of reason for concern. Even though scientists have found several previously undiscovered populations of boreal toads in the state recently, others have blinked out.
“We’d like to see the numbers go up,” Jackson said.
It’s not clear why some toad populations have survived the chytrid fungus, but Jackson said ongoing genetic research should help unravel the mystery. Some of Colorado’s toads may have a built-in resistance to the fungus. Those animals could help rebuild populations across the state.
Meanwhile, Jackson said the Year of the Frog is going a long way toward helping raise public awareness of the threat.
“I’m getting a lot more questions from the public. People want to know what they can do in their own backyard,” Jackson said.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife has released lab-bred toads in several sites, including the Grand Mesa, near Grand Junction.
The toads released at Grand Mesa should start breeding soon, Jackson said.