- Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler explains how his love for frogs spurred his interest in tropical rainforests, eventually leading him to start the web site.
- Here he explains why frogs are important and what’s happening to them worldwide.
- This post is insider content, which is available to paying subscribers.
Frogs are incredible creatures. Usually born in water, most live the first stages of their life essentially as a fish, before undergoing a radical metamorphosis that transforms them into an air-breathing animal that can find its way hundreds of feet up a tree or miles away from standing water. Some species are even capable of “flight,” — well, technically gliding. And of course there are the amazing exceptions. Young gastric brooding frogs emerge fully formed out of their mother’s belly. The Suriname toad births fully developed toads directly out of its back.
I have always loved frogs for their strangeness. Some of my earliest memories include visiting a local creek where I would search for toads among the rocks and green tree frogs in the overhanging vegetation. Sometimes I would catch and keep them for a few days, diligently feeding them insects, before releasing them where I found them.
So why are frogs important to this story? Put simply, frogs are the reason I embarked on my journey to becoming an environmental journalist.
As petty as it sounds, when I traveled with my family, my favorite places were often those with the most interesting frogs. Armed with a headlamp and clad in often uncomfortably hot attire for the tropics, I cherished night walks in the forest for the chance to spot frogs. All of them interested me: the stunning tree frogs with big, glowing eyes; the cryptic ones barely distinguishable from leaves; and even the dull, brown specimens that sat on the edges of rivers.
So my love affair with rainforests really began with frogs. But like rainforests, frogs are also in trouble, but in a much worse way.
Frogs around the world are dying at scales never before seen. More than one-third of the world’s more than 6,500 amphibian species are threatened, and at least 200 have gone extinct in the past 30 years — a rate perhaps 1 million times the biological norm. Salamanders, those slimy, lizard-like creatures, are even worse off.
As frogs die, we are losing more than a boy’s childhood companions and inspiration. Frogs, and amphibians more generally, have important ecological roles. When they disappear, nature is thrown out of whack. Algae blooms in creeks, making life difficult for fish, while populations of some insects explode. This matters to us humans far more than a boom in mosquitoes.
Their need to protect themselves from predators has turned some frogs into chemical factories, creating unique toxic compounds that have applications beyond being a deterrent to frog-eaters. Some of these toxins are derived from their prey, others are from origins unknown. Either way, frog-derived compounds are paying dividends for mankind in the form of medicines. For example, in the early 1990s, Abbott Labs began working with a frog toxin-derived compound for the treatment of pain. Abbott eventually created ABT-594, a non-toxic, non-addictive painkiller potentially effective for treating several types of pain. But the creation of ABT-594 almost didn’t happen. The area of Ecuadoran rainforest from which the frog was originally collected in 1974 was cleared shortly thereafter for banana plantations. Luckily, a second site still housed the frogs, and scientists were able to collect a sample of the poison, which would later serve as the template for the painkiller.
This near-miss with ABT-594 illustrates the importance of conserving biodiversity, especially in the tropics. Frog conservation is of particular concern given the recent worldwide decline in amphibian species.
The plight of frogs extends to other species as well. In fact, their aquatic nature makes them in a sense “canaries” in a coal mine. They are the first to feel the effects of climate change and chemicals in their habitat. But other species are following in the footprints. Already we have lost the Javan and Bali tigers in Indonesia, the passenger pigeon in America, the dodo of Mauritius, and the unfathomably large elephant birds of Madagascar. What’s next?
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