Archive for Sunday, October 11, 1998

KANSAS HOPS INTO FRAY OF FINDING DEFORMED FROGS

October 11, 1998

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Deja vu all over again. Just like in Minnesota, Kansas middle school students find deformed frogs.

On Aug. 8, 1995, a class of Minnesota middle school students on a field trip found a bunch of freak frogs. The local newspaper wrote about it. A few days later a Minnesota TV news crew showed up. By Aug. 25, the story had gone national courtesy of the Associated Press.

Since then, the reporting and study of amphibian abnormalities have become a minor American pastime. Biologist-certified incidences of deformed frogs, toads and salamanders have poured in to North American Reporting Center for Amphibian Abnormalities (NARCAM) from more than 40 U.S. states and Canadian provinces.

There is variety in the defects reported. Some beasts have missing limbs or eyes. Some have split or stunted legs. Others have webbed knees or oversized jaws.

``Since 1995, reports have become increasingly common,'' according to NARCAM literature, ``and a number of scientists -- herpetologists, developmental biologists, aquatic toxicologists, and parasitologists -- are looking for the causes.''

Since 1995, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has spent at least $600,000 studying the phenomenon of weird frogs and toads. And in December 1997, scientists gathered at Research Triangle Park, N.C., for a national conference on the subject.

But for the last three years, Kansas largely was left out of the fun.

That was before Linda Geiger's eighth-grade science class from Mayetta's Royal Valley Middle School took to the field on Sept. 17 and 18 to do some stream testing on nearby South Cedar Creek, which drains into Perry Lake.

``There were just hundreds of frogs jumping around,'' Geiger said in a recent interview. ``But they weren't our focus that day.''

Instead the class was collecting water samples and specimens of macro invertebrates. In layman's terms that's spineless critters such as leeches and dragonfly larvae, small but large enough to be seen with the naked eye.

Geiger said the quantity and condition of macro invertebrates found in a stream are an indicator of the waterway's health.

``We gathered our macro invertebrates and did our water testing and in our investigation we found all kinds of frogs hopping around,'' she said. ``In catching them we found some that looked different. It was like: Oh, look this one only has three legs. Then we found one that had like little club feet.''

The class found three deformed frogs, actually two Woodhouse's toads and a bullfrog. One toad had a ``club foot'' the other specimens were missing limbs and resembled little frog amputees.

``We'd heard about the Minnesota frogs,'' Geiger said. ``I called around and got Eric Rundquist's number.''

Rundquist is an animal health technician at Kansas University and editor of the Kansas Herpetological Society newsletter.

Geiger sent him the animals. The clubfoot, the smallest of the three, died. But the two three-legged ones are being kept by Rundquist in a large plastic container that looks like a pickle jar.

Rundquist said his reaction to the frogs was fascination tinged by alarm. They weren't the first amphibian abnormals to arrive on his doorstep. But it was the first time he received multiple freaks from two species taken at the same spot.

``Statistically that just isn't going to happen,'' he said. ``If this were a natural occurrence, the odds would be astronomical. We have tens of thousands of specimens. To my knowledge we don't have anything like this.''

Last year, Rundquist said, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks sent him a lone frog with a missing limb. Earlier this year he received a frog from Leavenworth County with an extra hind leg. There have been scattered reports of deformed amphibians over the years, he said, but some he's attempted to investigate didn't check out.

Rundquist said he is certain the two toads are deformed and fairly certain the frog is, too. Radiographic examination will confirm whether the frog is deformed or merely lost the leg, perhaps to a feeding heron or other predator.

He estimated the larger specimens are about 3 months old.

There are several theories why the amphibian abnormality rate seems to be on the rise.

Some scientists, including Rundquist, suspect they might result from synergistic reaction to various industrial and agricultural pollutants. Although amphibians have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, they are more sensitive than most species to changes in their environment.

Other scientists link the freaks to trematodes, a naturally occurring amphibian parasite that can alter limb development.

There is no dispute among scientists that many amphibian populations throughout the world are in decline. Habitat destruction is a leading and obvious cause. But some wilderness species also are dwindling and that remains a puzzle.

A mysterious, newly discovered, frog killing fungus was reported in the June 27 issue of the journal New Scientist. The fungus, which is decimating frogs worldwide, is thought to suffocate the animals by coating their undersides and legs. Frogs and toads breathe through their skin.

The very thing that took Geiger's students to South Cedar Creek was their participation in a state sponsored stream checking project called Kansas Student Water Monitors or KSWIM, which enlists schools to help measure pollution levels in Kansas streams.

The program calls for water testing of local streams twice a year.

``From the data that we've taken in the spring and fall the (South Cedar Creek) water is testing very good,'' Geiger said. ``We've tested it for nitrates and dissolved oxygen and ph and that's all good. The water's clear. It's not murky or anything.''

Rundquist said the school program is helpful to grown-up scientists because it sends a veritable army of researchers into the field.

``It's a real boon for us,'' he said, ``because we don't have the money or resources to do this very thoroughly,'' without the students' help.

-- Mike Shields phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is mshields@ljworld.com.

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